The Average Gamer

Tumbling Through An Ethical Maelstrom: Gaming While Vegetarian

Videogames are about killing.

That’s an intentionally provocative statement, but its one that the proponents of the “games are art” movement tend to skip over. They’ll suggest a large number of beautiful games; Shadow Of The Colossus often comes up here, despite being a game whose core gameplay revolves around exploring a landscape in order to find and kill beautiful, mysterious creatures. The creatures may be wonderfully designed, beautiful puzzles, but our interaction is to scale and then kill them.

Bioshock may well be my favourite game this generation. Its rich world, in my opinion, makes it the greatest adventure game that never was. Sadly our interaction with Rapture is chiefly composed of killing things with shotguns and on one occasion, a golf club. Of course there are artistic games without combat, but we’re now talking about a subset of a subset.

Shadow Of The Colossus does a great job of making us regret our actions, but from a game design perspective, there is nothing better to make the player feel powerful than destroying an enemy. Spoiling SoTC further would be a crime, but if you want more information on SoTC and how it handles regret, then this article is a good place to start.

While we may hope for games to evolve, and become more avant-garde, mainstream games are going to be about killing things. To appease parents’ groups and nut-jobs, these things are often going to be animals or animal-like. This of course, poses some problems for a vegetarian.

I became a vegetarian 2 years ago, it had a lot to do with an unlikely alliance between indie-pop deity, Morrissey, and celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

I have always loved animals, and always felt vaguely guilty about eating meat. I managed to live with this guilt, up until about 2 years ago, when I discovered The Smiths. They very quickly became my favourite band. People who know The Smiths, will know they have a song called “Meat Is Murder”. I avoided it initially, but eventually did listen. Repeated throughout the song is the line; “This beautiful creature must die”. This really connected with me, because it is the sheer beauty of animals that make it impossible for me to ever envision causing them harm.

Maybe a year before this, I had watched Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall shoot a deer with a rifle. It is difficult to describe, but to me there is a magic about the movement and freedom of a wild animal. It is just full of life and energy. I’m an atheist, but to stop and still that movement seemed to me to be the definition of a sin. A crime that damaged the perpetrator more than the victim.

My vegetarianism does give me quite a few hang-ups in my game playing. I’m going to talk about them here, point out their absurdities and hopefully exorcise a few of them. I’m not out to convert anyone, I don’t think I’m better than anyone. I do feel that being vegetarian gives me a different perspective on gaming.

I don’t buy horses in Bethesda games for a few reasons, some gameplay, some vegetarian.
The gameplay reasons are as follows:

  • No mounted combat: It is irritating to keep hopping off a horse to deal with piddling, though persistent, threats while travelling.
  • Cost: Collecting gold is one of my favourite things to do in TES games, stealing things, robbing dudes, crafting pimp jewelry, mixing potions to knock the socks off the NPCs, all of it. I. Love. Gold. When I first played Morrowind, I was a little too young to fully appreciate it, but one of my favourite things to do, was to steal a Dark Elf’s entire dinner service, and sell it to the pawnbroker. I would then scuttle back to my safe-house, bring up the inventory, select my newly acquired wealth…and dump it on my bed!

I loved this pile of gold coins, a very tangible sign of my decaying moral fibre. One of the things that disappointed me most when I replayed Morrowind, was that the pile of coins was a fixed size. My childhood enthusiasm for larceny had inflated this rather small pile of coins, into something resembling Smaug’s hoard. So gold is important to me, and I don’t drop 1,000 coins without some serious thought.

Now for the vegetarian reason, which I like to call Horse-Death Related Anxiety (HDRA).

Even for carnivores, the possibility of horse death is obviously a major con, when you are thinking of diversifying your portfolio of investments, moving gold from propping up the Wood Elf economy (damn those archery trainers), and into horseflesh. As for me, I am enough of a wet blanket, that the possibility of losing my horse to a moment’s stupidity on a cliff edge, or to stupid, meanie, ice wolves is enough for me to avoid them entirely.

HDRA was one of the reasons, along with a deep dislike of GTA 4, that I gave Red Dead Redemption a miss. My enjoyment of RDR’s reportedly outstanding gunfights would have been significantly diminished by banditos turning my four-legged friend into a pulpy mess. I chose not to have this experience. Crazy? Probably.

Now you may ask, how can you care about a stupid collection of pixels masquerading as a dumb animal, but at the same time make fun of Lydia every time you enter Breezehome? The reason is that I always like animals but humans have to earn it.

A horse only has to look vaguely horse-shaped, follow you around, and be fuzzy. Given these basics, humans will attach higher behaviours and motives to animals. You’ve got to love your horse when it takes on a dragon for you.

Getting an audience to feel emotionally attached to a human is so much harder. It requires wonderful writing, wonderful character modelling, wonderful animation and most importantly of all wonderful voice acting. Very few game characters have all of these, and due to the scale of these games, none or very few of the NPCs do.

Another problem I have, is where games require the player to kill animals to acquire quest items, or crafting materials. I’ll take my example from Bethesda games again.

In Morrowind, the predecessor to Oblivion and Skyrim, one of the best ways to make money in the early game is Alchemy, as there is an exploit to make excellent potions very quickly. The exploit is as follows; Intelligence is the attribute governing Alchemy, so make potions that fortify this attribute, drink them, and the bonuses stack. This leads to you having a very high intelligence stat, allowing you to make far better potions than you should be able to at the beginning of the game.

The catch? One of the ingredients is most readily obtainable by slaughtering these.

Bull Netch

Betty Netch

Netches float peacefully around Morrowind’s landmass; Vvardenfell. Netches add considerable weirdness and charm to a landscape which already includes massive mushrooms. These weird gas giants will not attack unless you attack them. They also collapse into a kind of deflated ball when you kill them, just to emphasise your cruelty.

Unable to live with the shame, I now buy my Netch leather from Nalcarya the Fine Alchemist in Balmora. Of course, this is still participating in the senseless slaughter of Netches, but being too much of a coward to actually do the killing. At this stage, Bethesda should release a game just for me, and call it “The Elder Scrolls: Shame Spiral”.

Medieval RPGs pose the most problems for a vegetarian gamer, because of the lack of alternative materials. It doesn’t matter how high you raise your Smithing skill, Skyrim’s forges are not going to allow you to craft leatherette armour. It is probably for the best, as it would likely come out looking like bondage gear. Smithing in Skyrim then, required a small bit of sophistry. I would not hunt animals, but if animals wanted to use my face as a chew toy, then after their inevitable demise, I would strip them of their skin.

Forum users when confronted with vegetarian critiques of games, or game mechanics, usually respond with the following “I’m shocked that you’re fine with killing humans by the shed-load, but get upset about killing animals”. Its a good one, and for a while I found it near impossible to defend against. The best I can do, is assert that animals are always innocent (except predatory ones, damned ice wolves!) whereas human characters can be evil; they can be Nazis, they can be henchmen. My moral compass is sufficiently bent to allow me to happily kill the above, as well as aggressive animals such as iIce wolves, while avoiding peaceful animals, and even doing my best not to aggro aggressive animals. My previous point about “uncanny valley” humans is another factor. It’ss difficult to feel upset about the deaths of Heinz-filled showroom dummies.

I have to admit that when hard pressed by a dragon, I have stuffed everything with a health buff into my face. Yes, including mammoth stew that I may have found lying around the place. The aftermath of a 1000 degree blast from a dragon is not a place for a philosophical debate. “The Elder Scrolls: Shame Spiral Part 2”

There is one area of the animal kingdom that I revile, and remain deeply terrified of. It is of course, spiders. I do not like them, at all. There is a dungeon in Skyrim’s main quest, where a huge spider will descend almost on top of your head. Girlish. were the screams that erupted from my mouth. A shaky, panicky few minutes ensued, where I slashed half blindly at the monstrosity while backtracking, and waiting for my magicka to regen. Eventually I had enough to summon a Flame Atronach to distract the spider long enough for me to heroically run away and set a fire rune in front of me. A pattern of these and respawning the Atronach eventually won the day. I didn’t stop shaking for a couple of minutes.

Being vegetarian does not prevent me playing games. Hell, it does not prevent me loving Skyrim. It does make me play games differently to most people. Occasionally I have to tell myself little lies, or find ethical shortcuts around some things. Come to think of it, being a vegetarian almost enforces role-playing, and in some ways, makes me engage more with the game world. It also results in behaviour which is sometimes laughable; missing out on RDR is the best example.

I would be fascinated to hear what kind of hang-ups you guys have when playing games, or what rules you make up.

13 Comments

  1. Rob Collins

    2nd Feb, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    If you care so much for animals, why aren’t you vegan? Vegetarianism is a halfway house for people who either have inconsistent beliefs, or who haven’t done enough research. (I’m a meat-eater BTW).

    Secondly, no real harm is done by killing animals in games, so how can you object to it? If we avoided taking part in every activity that was actually harmless, but which seemed a bit like something that was harmful, we’d be missing out watching a huge number of cool films!

    This is an interesting and entertaining article, but I really think you need to work on your critical thinking skills and develop your beliefs a bit further!

  2. Ed Campion

    2nd Feb, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    Hi Rob,
    Thanks for your comments, Im going to try to reply to your points, and hopefully I won’t be too defensive.

    I would absolutely accept the charge of being in a halfway house. I’ve been vegetarian for 2 years, which really isn’t a long time. Some people can make major changes in their lives very quickly(people who skip to vegan immediately, and some people can’t.

    Vegan ism may well lie in my future. As with anything to do with humans, theres a whole spectrum of feeling, thoughts, emotions, and different behaviours amongst non-meat-eaters.

    With regards to your second point, I believe player agency is the key. The anti-games lobby are too often laughed at for the following inconsistency; “Movies feature loads of killing/violence/torture, how can you attack games for doing the same”. Unlike in a film, the player chooses to stab someone in the face, and neck ala Assassin’s Creed. To me, thats a very important difference.

    I certainly don’t want to watch torture porn or knee-cappings in film. Things which upset me must be exceptionally well justified, for me to forgive them, and enjoy the film.

    The killing of animals in a videogame provides images of an animal being killed(which I don’t want to see in any context), reminds me in a very forceful way, that this happens every day, and also the knowledge that its my fault.
    I pointed out, in the article that I do feel silly for missing out on RDR. I do not pretend to be Peter Perfect, The Perfect Person.

    As for the critical thinking comment, I’ll accept that, as really anyone under the age of 60 should. Always be learning!

    • Rob Collins

      3rd Feb, 2012 at 12:18 pm

      Hi Ed. Great comments, certainly you’re making me think carefully about this important issue!

      I’m curious about where you draw the line between fantasy and reality. So, for example, do you ever engage in behaviours in games which you wouldn’t do in real life? What is the defining feature that allows you to do some stuff (like stealing) in games, but which prevents you doing other stuff (harming animals). Is it simply the strength of feeling/guilt that the action generates in you?

      Do you ever fantasise about doing stuff that you would never do in real life?

      What if you were an actor in a film or play (as opposed to a game)? Could you bring yourself to play the part of a hunter? Which crimes are OK to pretend to do (act), and which are not OK?

  3. Ed

    6th Feb, 2012 at 6:11 pm

    I think it comes down to consequences. I described the consequences for me of killing an animal in the previous post.

    Stealing tends to have very little consequence in games , and as far as I know, has never had an emotional consequence in a game.

    If the Dark Elf had to sell his house, and a new NPC moved in, or if when I rip off a merchant he has a new line of dialogue about being unable to feed his family, then I would be less likely to do it.

    If I was an unsuccessful actor, who needed the money (in a medieval film, not modern) then I believe I could stab a load of old gym mats, made up to look like a boar.

    When the game cannot come up with emotional consequences for your actions, then yeah you behave like a madman.

  4. bobjr

    13th Mar, 2012 at 10:07 pm

    sorry no sympathy for vegetarian for sake of animals. My family has several vegans and vegetarians but I respect there reasons for being harsh treatment of animals or just trying to be more healthy. Games are nothing more than games and mean nothing with actions you do in them. Cool your a vegetarian but if this upsets you enough to write a lengthy article like this I think you have priorities wrong.

  5. Tarkona

    14th Mar, 2012 at 8:09 pm

    Having been a vegetarian for 20 years, I find this article to be a little insulting to vegetarians everywhere. You have every right to play a game as you see fit, but if you can’t handle the killing of an avatar in a virtual world, why do you bother playing at all?

    Being a vegetarian does not make me feel guilty about killing something in a game, because I know it’s not real. Sometimes it’s more about a healthy way of living out wish-fulfillment than anything.

    I just don’t get how being a vegetarian can make you feel like a wuss who can’t handle killing things in a virtual setting.

    Sorry if this seems to be a bit harsh, but just because we share a similar lifestyle choice, doesn’t give you the right to speak for me or for that matter, everyone else who chooses the same lifestyle.

    Let the virtual slaughter commence!

  6. Tarkona

    14th Mar, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    And btw… not all video games are about killing. Tetris anyone? How about Mario Kart? Most sports games? Dance/party games?

  7. Ed

    15th Mar, 2012 at 10:59 pm

    @Tarkona @bobjr

    Why should we only talk about things we are certain of, or only share views which everyone will agree with?
    Several times in the piece I point out that even I find the position amusing at times, but it still interests me.

    With the exception of the headline, I don’t think there is any claim to be speaking for all vegetarians in the piece. Just as I do not own vegetarianism, neither do you. References to vegetarianism are quite clearly references to mine. I will hope to be even clearer in future writing.

    Finally, I referred to mainstream games (not all games), in using mainstream I was chiefly referring to the blockbuster “media events” such as Modern Warfare. The games you listed to not generate the same attention, or market share.

    • Tarkona

      15th Mar, 2012 at 11:10 pm

      You made it sound like your view and feelings is indicative of how all vegetarians think and feel. Just so you know… it’s not killing in a video game because these avatars are NOT alive!

      Funny, I thought Mario Kart was a huge franchise, as well as Madden, Just Dance, Tetris, Guitar Hero… I could go on. While it can be argued that some games that were major franchises still are, but I could go on with this list. I think I made my point.

      And BTW, I hold life valuable, whether it’s a person, a horse, a dog or even a fish. To put every species above ours is just down-right idiotic and you need to seek some serious help.

      PEACE OUT!

  8. Tarkona

    15th Mar, 2012 at 11:15 pm

    Medieval RPGs pose the most problems for a vegetarian gamer, because of the lack of alternative materials.

    Sounds like you were speaking on behalf of ALL vegetarians. Jack ass

    • josh

      18th Mar, 2012 at 3:29 am

      dude lay off him

  9. Tarkona

    18th Mar, 2012 at 5:02 pm

    I’ll lay off as long as he sticks to talking about his views without speaking for everyone else.

  10. Kali

    21st May, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    I really liked reading this article, as I’m a vegan (four years now!) and feel very similar to you. I have often been criticized for being unwilling to hurt animals in a game but feeling okay about hurting humans or monsters, but I think it comes down to the fact that, because it’s such an important part of our lives, we often are more sensitive about treating animals humanely. The fact that many people (at least for me) criticize vegetarianism/veganism in general doesn’t exactly help.

    Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for writing this and say that, unlike Tarkona, some vegans do feel the same way as you and there is absolutely nothing wrong with writing about your viewpoints and perspective.