Mens Rea: Video Games and Our Evil Intentions

Mens Rea or “guilty mind” is defined as “the evil intent, criminal purpose, a knowledge of the wrongfulness of conduct.  It is also used to indicate the mental state required by the crime charged, whether that be specific intent to commit the crime, recklessness, guilty knowledge, malice, or criminal negligence.”[i]

Well, what does all this fancy lawyer speak mean?  This is a major principle of criminal law that was asserted long ago known as “actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea“, or “an act does not make a person guilty unless the mind is guilty.”[ii] It is a principle that is still held true today in most developed criminal justice systems, and helps us to separate a real crime from an unfortunate accident.  This is a simplification to be sure, as the concept is expanded upon much more in the facets of law that employ it, but the root message is still there.  A person is not guilty of a crime if they had no actual intention to commit the crime.  It may not be evident, but this concept’s relation to the video game industry is very intriguing.

There has been no lack of studies in the academic world seeking to link violence to video games.  It is not my intent within this article to make any such distinction that violence in the real world is incited by way of the virtual one; I’ll leave that to the scholars in their ivory towers.  However, I am curious as to whether or not we as gamers commit crime with an “evil intent” in the interactive medium, and if this is a compelling motivation in our purchase and play of such games.  Do we buy certain games with a favorable disposition knowing that we get to rob a bank, purchase an evening with a woman of ill repute, or kill a person?  Is the ability to commit crime without repercussion the reason we play a game?

I chose, in my collegiate career to study the inner workings of the criminal justice community.  Essentially, I wanted to be Sherlock Holmes, or as Jeffery Anderson so eloquently put it, I was studying to be Batman.[iii] As such I’ve managed to develop a unique knowledge of the criminal justice world that one, with ample time and patience, could obtain by watching enough CSI or Law and Order.  Well, I’m being a bit harsh on myself as I do believe that the apprehension of law I’ve gained is a bit more actualized than the example I just provided, but the concept of intent should still be fairly easy to grasp by any well reasoning adult regardless of their experience with the criminal world.  Thus it is “evil intent” that we shall focus upon throughout this look at the video game industry.  The aspect of crime in games, and our ability to commit it, has been present for some time in the medium.  During the course of this article we will focus on multiple games/series, be they good or bad, that have the ability to lead the player toward the commission of crime, and as the title of this article suggests mens rea as a possible motivational factor for playing them.

Hitman: Codename 47 was released on November 19, 2000 by Eidos Interactive [iv], and while many like to exclude this entry when they discuss the series, the game birthed three popular sequels with a fourth on the way, and a feature film to boot.  In the series you play as Agent 47, the world’s most proficient assassin.  It is the job of the player to use the tools and skills at their disposal to eliminate intended targets.  The main focus of the game is the act of assassination, and while the protagonist is set up as a hero of sorts you can’t deny the fact that he is a killer.  It is the player’s means to kill regardless of the intended end.  The Hitman series is one that people play because it allows us to assassinate, and to do so in a manner that is both exciting and fun.

The next series is from the evil and twisted mind of Peter Molyneux.  With its beautiful settings and great game play Fable has become a fan favorite despite the disappointment it has managed to generate in those who hang on the claims made by Molyneux.  One of the major draws of the series is the ability to progress through the story in the manner befitting the player.  You can either choose to be a beacon of hope for those you cross paths with in the game, or you can steal, destroy, and kill everything in sight.  There is even a certain temple in both games, where if you lead unsuspecting villagers to it, you can sacrifice the innocent for your own gains.  It is certainly a pleasure to act out your super villain fantasies as the tale progresses, and Fable is able to perform well above par when letting us know sometimes it’s just plain fun to play the role of the bad guy.

We now come to the series everyone has been thinking of since they began reading this article.  Grand Theft Auto has been the target of the main stream media, and political ire since its release into the video game market.  With controversies such as “Hot Coffee” and the ability to drink and drive in the fourth iteration it is no surprise that the series garners a great deal of attention from those who don’t regularly participate in the medium.[v] The series is also the guiding light of the sandbox genre and has achieved over 70 million in sales earning it a spot on the top ten list of bestselling video game franchises.[vi] The crime capable of being committed in the games ranges from carjacking to murder.  Players could simply spend hours just killing people and not feel as though they have wasted a moment of their time.  It is a series that has perked our evil interests while managing to keep us coming back with great game play and massive worlds to explore.

Looking at these three games, one who isn’t deeply involved in the video game community could assume that crime sells.  Well, wait a minute.  The games that have been thus far presented in this article represent the upper Escalon of the gaming community, and if not they are certainly near it.  What about the games that don’t do so well in the market?  What about the titles that fans and developers alike would have vanish from our plane of existence?

This leads us to games such as Narc which was updated in 2005 from the original arcade game released in 1988.  The major controversy concerning Narc is the ability of the player to use and sell drugs that are confiscated from criminals during the course of play.  The game provides the player with a number of narcotics including speed, acid, and crack.  Narc received unfavorable reviews due to repetitive game play and a number of bugs.[vii] Overall the game just wasn’t worth playing, and despite the drug use that it allows players to partake in, it has been passed over by the gaming community.

Following in that same vein is Crime Life: Gang Wars, and if you haven’t played it count yourself among a lucky majority that has never suffered from the figurative bullet that the game fires through your temple.  Excluding my issues with the game, Crime Life puts the player in the position of a gang member tasked with regaining the former glory of his crew, and taking out rival street gangs.  The game offers a number of crimes to commit such as robberies and murders.[viii] Just like Narc, even though the game offers a number of ways to be bad it is regarded as not being worth the time it takes to put the disk in the tray.

Finally we come to the last game we shall discuss in this article.  Some of us have played it, and some of us haven’t, and if you haven’t maybe that’s a good thing for more than a few reasons.  Super Columbine Massacre RPG is not without controversy, and I’m ashamed to say that when I first read about it I thought that’s horrible, I have to check it out.  Regardless of the social message that the developers of the game were trying to convey, does a game like this draw us in because of the desire to play as two real life killers?  I have played the game, though not to fruition, and I have no trouble in saying that I wasn’t impressed by any aspect of my experience with it.  However, even though many didn’t like Super Columbine Massacre RPG was the initial draw to the game the ability to relive the Columbine High School tragedy from the point of view of those perpetrated the offense?  This is a question that each person who has played the game has to answer for themselves.

Our “guilty mind” is a factor.  It is present when we make our way to the local video game peddler to purchase our latest pixilated distraction, but just how much of a factor is it?  It would seem that while so-called “evil intent” is there with us when we play a game such as Grand Theft Auto or Fable, it is not the chief reason behind our love for them, it is a secondary motive at best.  Despite all of the horrible things that we are capable of with our virtual avatars it’s not why we hand over our hard won tenure to developers.  We do it because they make great games.  I don’t care if my motivation in a game is to slaughter innocent civilians or save the world, if the graphics are bad, the camera is horrible, and the controls are atrocious, I’m not going to play.  Yea, you can kill cops and rob prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto, so what?  There are many clones of the series in which you can do the same thing. Why don’t we play them?  It’s simple, they’re bad games.  Being bad is a lot of fun, playing a good game is better.   Mens rea for most of us is not as important as the grounded concept of a good game.

Nicholas J. Abbate

I urge everyone to comment, contribute, and disagree.  If you think I’m wrong let me know, if you think I’m right let me know why, and if your thinking of something completely different I want to know about that too. I am interested in your opinions and in hearing what you have to say.

[i] Anderson, Gardner, Criminal Law

[ii] Anderson, Gardner, Criminal Law

[iii] Clerks 2

[iv] Gamespot

[v] Wikipedia

[vi] Wikipedia

[vii] Gamespot

[viii] Gamespot