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Videogames and wanton tyranny

Videogames and wanton tyranny

“A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.”

That’s a quote from Joseph Stalin, in case you didn’t know. A slightly ironic statement given the man’s bloodied history. Honestly, it’s a surprise he ever considered even a single death to be a tragic occurrence.

Still. As I sit at my desk, like the fearsome Georgian dictator must have many years ago, I can’t help but feel as though my actions are worryingly akin to his. A bit of sneaky murder here, mass prisoner slaughter there, a huge, seemingly unending war.

Of course, the key difference is that while Stalin sat at his desk organising and ruling the largest nation on Earth, I’m sitting at my desk playing Total War. Or Crusader Kings. Or Company of Heroes. The game doesn’t really matter, the point is: I’m causing millions of virtual deaths, and I don’t think Stalin’s quote has ever been more relevant.

War strategy games (which probably account for 90% of all strategy games) certainly have a tendency to give the player a lot of power over very many people. We take that power and, because they’re all little virtual people that don’t really exist, we barely consider whether we should or shouldn’t use them and their strengths like resources to be farmed.

stalin at his deskLook, he actually sat behind a desk.

Well, obviously. It would be a little weird to lose a game of Company of Heroes because you’re worried about sending your war-torn infantrymen into combat once again. “Don’t worry boys, you won’t be fighting Jerry tonight. Go back now, into the ones and zeroes that make up my PC.” No, instead we simply click, and click and click again until either the enemy or your own troops are all dead. Whatever the case, there’ll be more of both.

It’s certainly rare that I’ll play a Paradox grand strategy game and actually think about all the men I’m sending into battle over a diplomatic insult. The thousands of dead people really are nothing but a statistic - sometimes good, sometimes bad. If I send 100,000 of my men against 10,000 enemies, then that’s good - more of my boys get home! But then, I don’t really care about my little digital men reuniting with their families, I just need to keep them alive so I can mercilessly sling them at the enemy once again.

So with this mentality certainly ingrained into my gaming psyche, I’m getting a little worried. OK, maybe worried isn’t the correct word, I just find it to be a point of interest. All of a sudden, through the simple assistance of a videogame, I find myself thinking more than a little like a crazed dictator. From my high tower I give the orders to little people that do my bidding. I send them to die, and I don’t give a shit. Something like Command & Conquer or Company of Heroes are certainly good examples of this, purely because the troops have no hope of questioning my omniscient orders.

0A0ru3WJust another day in the office.

Yet what happens to that illusion of dictatorial control in a game like the aforementioned Total War, when bad management can indeed lead to a French Revolution-esque uprising? Indeed, it’s only when your little minions start making angry noises that you really start to listen to them. Or execute them all. That sometimes works. Through these signs of discontent the links between myself and Mr Stalin resurface - suddenly his horrific purges start to make a lot of sense. So yes, in short, many deaths do feel like a statistic. Even when I zoom into the battlefield in Total War and scan over the piles of dead bodies, it’s tricky not to think of them as nothing more than a lost or gained strategic position.

What’s even more interesting though, is how videogames fit into the first part of the quote. You might argue that the reason I see those little Roman/Shogunate/WW2/etc soldiers as a statistic is because that’s what they physically are. Just numbers represented in digital visual form. But then, the same applies for John Marston in Red Dead Redemption, The Boss in MGS3 or Joel’s daughter in The Last of Us (that one still stings). Really, it’s nothing but a perfect demonstration of just how good that quote is. These are characters we care about, have become invested in - or, well, sometimes it’s just dramatic enough to cause a little tear.

So no, it’s not just because it’s a videogame, it’s because large scale war has a dark tendency to rip the humanity out of a situation. It’s easy enough for me to sit on my high throne/office chair and order about my digital armies, but when you think of just how similar that act is to the real life generals and dictators - it suddenly all becomes a little too real.

Would I be capable of such an act in real life?

I hope not, but I can’t help but feel as though videogames have prepared me for it, and that can’t be good.

Ryan Davies

Ryan Davies

Junior Editor

Budding, growing and morphing games journalist from the South. Known nowhere around the world as infamous wrestler Ryan "The Lion" Davies.

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