Killer Instinct

PSW probes the dark side in all of us...

Why is it the first thing we do when playing a new game is shoot at our team-mates? Doesn't this make us evil?

June 6th, 1944. You're an Allied paratrooper plummeting towards Nazi-occupied France having just been plopped out the rear-end of a British warplane. You land messily, but somehow drag your way to the rendezvous point, where you hook up with your three surviving team-mates. Amid the chaos and the confusion, there's one truth you can cling to like a buoyancy aid: this trio of squad-mates is your one and only hope of returning to Blighty in one piece.


But then it hits you. "Hmm," you think to yourself, "What would happen if I shot all my squad-mates in the face from a distance of, say, five yards with this Thompson sub-machine gun?" Curious, you raise you rifle, squeeze the trigger, and spray each of them with a thick piddle-trickle of bullets. Oddly, they all die. "Ah! So that's what happens."

Had the above scenario happened during the real World War 2, the paratrooper responsible would've been declared insane faster than you can say, "It's time to measure you up for your rubber underpants." Yet when Medal of Honor: Airborne is released on PlayStation 3 next month, the ceremonial shooting of the squad-mates will doubtless be one of the first things you'll do. It's just the way it is.
The truth is, gaming brings out the dark side in all of us. When we're not cold-bloodedly shooting at friendly troopers in Resistance: Fall of Man, we're deliberately driving our rally car into the crowd in Colin McRae DiRT, praying to god that this time they've found a way to render deformable people. And if we're not doing that, you'll find us idling away the hours in Spider-Man 3 by attempting to find the most creative way to torture and brutalise low-level criminals.

Somehow, someway, the act of gaming transforms us from non-violent, peace-loving Bruce Banners into raging, angry, psychotic green monsters capable of unspeakable, extreme acts of random violence. It's enough to make you feel just the tiniest bit pathologically insane. Mwa-haha!

The first question is, why? Why is it that so often the first thing we do when playing a new game is to commit an act of such unspeakable barbarity it'd give Freddie Kreuger a sleepless night? According to the latest research into violence in videogames by top behavioural psychologists, these random acts of brutality can be partially explained by the inherently inquisitive nature of the modern gamer. Contrary to the stereotype, the games-playing animal is actually a bright, curious beast, an intelligent individual with a keen interest in understanding 'how stuff works.' Pointing your AK-47 at friendly units or deliberately ploughing your Subaru Impreza into the watching crowd is just one expression of this; it's you the player testing your boundaries, seeing what you can get away with before the game snaps back and smacks your bottom.


All of which means that just because you like to engage in the occasional videogame-based mass genocide, doesn't make you insane. A paper published jointly by psychologists at the Universities of Michigan and Illinois earlier this year showed that individuals who engage in extreme acts of videogame violence are no more likely to transform their local school playground into gore-speckled crime scenes than those who don't.

That said, the very nature of these actions - driving the wrong way around Silverstone in Formula One Championship Edition, strangling waiters with piano wires in Hitman: Blood Money and beating policemen
to death in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas - does point to one anti-social behaviour that we gamers seem to have in common: rebelliousness. These are all things we know we're not supposed to do, and yet we do them anyway. In every videogame there's an authority figure. Typically, it's the game's developer, an invisible, all-powerful force that sets you rules ("Complete this level in 60 seconds!" OR DIE!) and hurls obstacles in your path to keep you on the straight and narrow. Sometimes it's a literal authority figure, like the prefects in Canis Canem Edit. The point is, we gamers get off on sticking two fingers up to whoever's in charge, rebelling to see what we can get away with.

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