Does gaming and social media technology help to reveal the darker side of humans?

By Craig Weightman,

During my lectures in Games Programming I have used the game Grand Theft Auto as a wonderful example to get my students thinking about how games can reveal aspects of human psychology. The exchange usually goes as follows:

Q: Who, here, has played Grand Theft Auto?

Most people in the audience put their hands up.

Q: Who has stolen a car?

Most people put their hands up.

Q: …And who has stolen a car in Grand Theft Auto?

Yes, this one always catches them out, with some laughter.

Q: Ok, who has stolen a car, then mounted the pavement in the game and mowed pedestrians down with this vehicle?

Again, quite a few put their hands up.

Q: …And who enjoyed it when they did this?

Perhaps worryingly, most people put their hands up (including myself)

Q: Would you do this in real life?

Usually, audibly, everyone says no (thankfully).

Q: Why wouldn’t you do this?

More often than not, someone pipes up and says: “Because it’s a game, it’s not real.”

Having concluded on this valid point, I then spend a bit of time discussing this.

Why, then, do we do things in games that we wouldn’t do in real life and enjoy them? As the students so rightly conclude, it’s because we feel that we can express ourselves in a consequence free environment.

However, this does imply that the desire to do these things is already within us, and it is the rule of law, social norms, and a sense of conscience that keeps us in check. Indeed, it has been found that, during times when the rule of law isn’t as apparent, during times of conflict, terrible crimes take place that are not even related to the usually understood atrocities of war.

Is there a part of us, then, that secretly wishes to indulge in these activities, which games allow for the safe expression of in their pre-designed, artificial, and consequence free environments?

The psychologist Carl Jung spoke of this phenomenon. He suggested that we all have an archetypal shadowy part of our psychologies that we would need to come to terms with if we are to maintain a healthy mind.

The example he gave was that if you were to come across an injured bird lying on the ground, you couldn’t have the thought of saving it without also having the thought of destroying it occurring at the back of your mind.

One key to keeping a healthy psychology, he suggested, was to admit to ourselves that we do have these thoughts even though we would rather not indulge them.

This idea has important implications when it comes to the old argument of whether playing games increases violence in people. It could be considered that having people commit violent acts in games keeps them from indulging these instincts on the streets. This might also have the effect of helping psychologies become healthier. After all, one has to acknowledge a tendency on some level in order to express it.

The darker impulse within us can also be seen on social media.

We may all have had the experience of seeing a discussion spin out of control and become unpleasant when people disagree. Those involved often resort to quite hurtful or, at the very least, disrespectful comments. This was seen recently during the Brexit issue; a discussion that is still ongoing, with no reduction in volatile discussion in sight.

The question I have to ask, here, is: Would this exchange have happened in this way if it took place with all participants in the same room?

I have even heard reports of comments on YouTube that suggest that a person uploading a video of themselves singing should go and buy “A bottle of Bleach” with a shockingly sinister implication. Again, I wonder if this exchange would take place in a face to face scenario.

This observed behaviour could suggest that the knowledge of the existence of a time and space gap between those throwing the insults and those receiving them is acting as an enabler. That is, social media, by its very nature, could be encouraging the expression of instincts that are present there already.

It would seem, then, that as our environment becomes more and more technological, we are seeing new aspects of humanity being revealed. Acknowledging this is important because, when we do this, we can start to put systems into place that help us come to terms with the darker side ourselves, without necessarily venting them on platforms like social media.

Indeed, within this context, perhaps the study of ethics through computer gaming within the curriculum might help to train the moral codes of, as well as help bolster the psychological health of, future generations.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s article. Next week we will be looking at whether we can make a machine conscious, if we could whether we should, and, if we did, how this might help us to understand our own minds.

By Craig Weightman
Lecturer in Computer Games Programming