(Disclaimer: I came of age at a time when Pac-man and Space Invaders were still cool. I played Pong with my brother on our basement TV before it was “retro.” Today I couldn’t operate a Playstation controller to save my life, and my only contact with X-Box is when I accidentally trip over the one the kids leave in the middle of the living room floor. Having said all that, I’d love to hear from gamers out there but please resist the temptation to just respond with “Duh!” OK?!?)

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Video games mostly get a bad rap in the mainstream press. Every time there’s a high school shooting, it has become standard practice for journalists and investigators to want to know if the perpetrators played violent video games. Frankly, I tend to lean toward the view (in regular arguments with my teenage son) that first person shooter games desensitize players to violence (along with TV, movies, music, blah blah blah). What kind  of role they play in prompting someone to take action, who knows?

 About the only positive stories that circulate (again, in the mainstream press) make the argument that video games teach eye-hand coordination or other motor skills. But after reading about the game “Bioshock” in the latest issue of Wired, and then following my son’s progress over the course of a week as he freed little orphan girls, hacked robots’ programming to get them to help him fight, raided corpses and collected objects and followed the bidding of “Atlas” in Bioshock’s creepy, Art Deco underwater world, I became convinced that Bioshock is a virtual ethics lesson.

Modeled somewhat on the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, Bioshock presents players with many opportunities to choose between helping oneself (survive, get stronger, evolve) or helping others. There’s no real clue along the way as to how these choices may help a player “win” or “succeed.” But that’s not to say that they don’t matter.  The choices have consequences.  

According to my son, several video game designers have gone well beyond the notion that personal power at the expense of ethics and morals will triumph in the virtual world. Characters evolve. The options are almost infinite, it would seem.

An interesting aside – my son also said that Japanese video games tend to have more character evolution and less of a “life or death” theme. His rationale — that death is not as feared in Japanese culture, so in video games, players aren’t as motivated to do anything just to survive.

For more on Bioshock, read Kieron Gillon’s review in Wired and click thru the screenshots from the game to get a feel for it. (Note: Bioshock is rated “M” for Mature.)

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