UTM’s Experiential Education Unit and Office of the Dean have collaborated with Mississauga’s Library System to host lectures meant to display contemporary research occurring at the university. The series, titled “Lecture Me!” is designed to be engaging and entertaining for all, regardless of profession or interest.

Professor Lawrence Switzky, from the department of English and Drama, facilitated the most recent lecture entitled “How Video Games Can Make You A Better Person,” held on March 5th. Switzky’s presentation centered on a matter of ethics and morality—specifically whether video games possess the potential to make one more aware of their own choices and, ultimately more mindful of the dilemmas that they face throughout everyday life.

Prior to the lecture an analogy comparing video games to basic art forms, such as paintings, statues, and works of writing was proposed. Switzky harbours strong sentiments that video games could be regarded as the modern expression of art. “I do believe that like novels, films, plays, and other time-based art forms, that video games can encourage you to ask questions about your motivations, obligations, and intentions.”

While it’s of no doubt that video games possess the potential to greatly move and motivate an individual just as an iconic piece of art may be able to, talk of ethics, or rather the lack thereof in certain video games, has been a topic of hot debate for many years. “Talking about ethics in games in the first place might be a little bit odd or counter-intuitive to some people,” Switzky explains. “There is a quite powerful strand of mainstream culture that says that games might be the least ethical things that exist.” Video games such as God of War and Mortal Kombat often utilize varying levels of physical violence as the main driver and motivator for gameplay.

Upon observation of the elements of violence that appear to be almost omnipresent in video game culture, many people often ask whether the violence committed on screen could translate in any way to certain malicious tendencies in the real world. Indeed Switzky fully acknowledges this concern and its existence. Speaking of an author named Dave Grossman, Switzky states that “He wrote a book called Assassination Generation, concerning the psychology and rationale of killing. He makes quite a broad and difficult argument.”

To paraphrase what Switzky quotes from Grossman verbatim, Grossman argues that video games teach players to kill and commit acts of violence in much the same way that military soldiers would learn to do so during training, such as through conditioning. However, firm discipline distinguishes the two seemingly similar concepts. While those trained in military are made well aware of that their gained proficiencies must only be used against enemies of war, there is no such moral reinforcement when one plays a video game.

Looking past violence, video games and their design, an incredibly complex topic, warrants further exploration. Looking back on the analogy of video games to a thought-provoking piece of art, one game that Switzky highlighted, titled Hush and developed by Jamie Antonisse and Devon Johnson, perfectly encapsulates the ability of video games to move people and stir up feelings beyond the simple satisfaction of linear progression.

Hush is, at its core, a rhythm game where a mother must soothe her crying baby to sleep at the dead of night. Hutu soldiers, raiding the Tutsi village that this mother resides in, actively seek her out and will be alerted to her presence if she fails to calm the infant. Tension and fear come front and center in the game, and by stimulating these feelings, Hush manages to bring to light the horror that was the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 and what those who experienced it firsthand may have felt themselves.

Evidently, video games can raise questions possessing incredible depth that many might respond to in different ways. Switzky draws insight from Roy A. Sorensen and a book of his titled Thought Experiments, wherein Sorensen describes what is called the “wicked problem” —any scenario in which one must make a decision that has the potential to cause harm to oneself or others, with no clearly defined answer as the most morally palatable.

Switzky outlines a classic example of a wicked problem: the Trolley Problem. A train barrels towards a track with five people lying on the track: as a bystander, one may choose to allow the train to continue as is, killing five people, or instead pull a lever that alters the train’s projected path, killing one person instead.

While some may consider the outcome that saves the most people to always be most optimal, the Trolley Problem possesses many variations that could alter responses—what if a train was to kill five people, and the only way to save them was to push a person off a bridge overhead and onto the track? Although the scenario is constructed in the same manner as the original, it’s not hard to see that the degree of involvement could become an issue for many.

Switzky, when not playing video games during his spare time, pilots fascinating upper year courses that pertain to the narrative of video games and their significance.

The final Lecture Me! Event of the year takes place on Tuesday April 2nd.