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.