Professor explores evil and morality in video games

Posted on November 16, 2022

A man plays a video game at a computer.
Dr. Gregory Grieve, who studies morality and gaming, plays Call of Duty in the UNCG esports arena.

Religious studies professor Gregory Grieve observes a group of gamers facing a dilemma. They have reached an infamous point in the 2009 video game “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” – the controversial level known as No Russian – where players enter an airport and join a group of gunmen who attack bystanders at a security checkpoint.

Violence is par-for-the-course in Call of Duty. But these players, who are part of an evangelical Christian group, wonder if there’s a way to avoid harming the unarmed civilians. 

“How can they mesh their Christian notions of right and wrong with what’s going on in the game?” Dr. Grieve wonders. 

It’s these types of moral decisions that have piqued Grieve’s interest since 2007 and prompted his research on the concept of evil in video gaming. 

“A lot of times video games are just ignored or they’re dismissed as frivolous entertainment, but a lot of them have deep ethical choices that the players have to make,” says Grieve, who is the director of UNCG’s Network for the Cultural Study of Videogaming and a founding member of the International Academy for the Study of Gaming and Religion. 

He defines evil as actions that most people would consider outside of ethical norms.  “We just can’t understand morally why someone would do it.”

His research interest sparked when a student asked him why villains were more interesting than the good guys. Grieve – who specializes in religion and digital culture and previously published a book on Buddhism in the virtual world of Second Life  – wasn’t sure.

“But once I began to think about the role of evil in gaming, I could not unthink it,” Grieve says. “I began to notice how the concept of evil operates as a keystone, supporting gameplay, game culture, and game communities.”

He calls evil in video games ludic evil – a phrase he developed using the Latin word for play. 

An ethnographer by training, Grieve uses multiple human-centered methods to study how people perceive and respond to ludic evil. 

For example, he will concentrate on one scene from a video game and play it multiple times himself. This methodology, which Grieve calls close play, is a similar approach to how a literature professor may analyze literature through a close read of the text. 

Not only does Grieve see the game through his own eyes, he also watches through the eyes of other players. 

“I’m looking at other people and watching them to see what they do,” he says. ”Their decisions are more interesting to me than what I think is right or wrong.” 

A man sits in front of computers in a arena
Religious studies professor Gregory Grieve studies the concept of evil in video gaming.

The techniques allow Grieve to get inside the minds of gamers, and by doing so, better understand how our society is approaching evil. 

So far Grieve has three books and 37 publications related to video gaming. In 2023, he and UNCG’s Dr. John Borchert will release a Routledge textbook – “Religion and Video Games: An Introduction.” 

“Studying video gaming and the problem of evil fosters media literacy and allows us to make ethical choices in this brave new digital world,” he says. 

Ethical choices such as the one presented to the evangelical Christian group playing Call of Duty. Captivated, Grieve follows the conversation thread as the group debates their options. 

“They decide to turn their backs to all the violence and not engage with it,” he says. 

The players get through the airport and end up in the exact same spot as they would have if they had chosen the violent route. And, Grieve says, they do so with their values intact – at least for this stage of the game. 

Sometimes, Grieve says, his research on evil over the past 15 years has led him to an unexpected place: hope. 

Story by Rachel Damiani

Photography by Sean NoronaUniversity Communications


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