Tommy Vercetti killed thousands to ascend Vice City’s criminal ladder in Vice City. Pokémon “Red” enslaved hundreds of animals (151 to be exact) and forced them into cockfights. Aaron Hernandez is currently a suspect in the murder of Odin Loyd, linebacker for the semi-pro Boston Bandits.
So far as video game protagonists go, Hernandez is fairly low on the “scumbag” chart, yet he is the one who is getting removed from the video game world, and — save for one crucial caveat — that’s just fine.
Hernandez, former tight end for the New England Patriots, was released from his team after facing arrest for first-degree murder early last month and his entire existence within the sport of football has been erased. Never mind that he is an alleged murderer, as opposed to a convicted one — both Hernandez’s team and the NFL want nothing to do with him.
He was let go from the team just hours after his arrest in spite of numerous salary cap ramifications, his stats were removed from the official website, his picture was taken off the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and jerseys bearing his name are now fully refundable. But to really convince the fans just how little the organization wants to associate with him, Hernandez’s likeness was even removed from the already-released NCAA Football 14 through a software update and he will also be unavailable in the upcoming Madden NFL 25.
Personally speaking, I would have never come across Hernandez’s presence in a video game because I don’t care for football. In fact, my only experience with the sport was Eyeshield 21, a brilliant Japanese anime about an abnormally talented running back. I was never going to play either Madden or NCAA and Hernandez would thus not have been my player of choice.
But, even if he was, does that mean anything?
After Hernandez’s fall from grace, gamers have once again started to ponder the increasingly thin line between simulation and reality, and whether the morality in one means anything in the other.
The last time this question was asked was following the release of a promotional film for the 2011 hit Dead Island. In the trailer, players are shown an incredibly disturbing death of a young child at the hands of zombies and fans suddenly became horrified at the thought of killing a child. One writer claimed, “I greatly enjoy murdering enemies in shooting games … But kill a child in a video game? Nope. Never.”
Despite admitting that, “this is a pretend world in which the morality of real life is suspended for the sake of entertainment,” the writer still took what he felt was the “majority view,” stating, “It is wrong to kill pretend children.”
Well, he’s wrong.
I do not want to kill kids. But you know what? I do not want to kill adults. I do not want to kill animals. I do not want to intimidate a juror to get a desirable verdict. I do not want to crack open skulls with a crowbar. All of these things are wrong and I do not want to do any of them. Guess what? I have enacted almost all of these things in various mainstream video games, and I still do not want to do any of them in real life because that would be wrong; game morality does not translate to real life.
But I also don’t want to kill kids in video games. Why? Because I find the image of a dying child disturbing, regardless of the medium and that is all there is to it. There is nothing inherently wrong with someone else feeling otherwise, and if someone wants to play RapeLay, go ahead; I’ll think they’re sick and make sure that all my loved ones stay safe and far away from them but — ideologically speaking — I’ll admit I have no moral high ground to stand on.
Applying that to Hernandez’s case, I might personally be a bit hesitant to play as Hernandez while someone else may not; neither of us deserves a medal or rebuke because of it. To say otherwise would be to say that a player’s choice in game actions is a moral matter; when our most popular games involve shooting heavily accented foreigners, that’s probably not a good way to go.
A similar but decidedly clearer case was that of Chris Benoit, former WWE actor who was a legitimate legend of “sports entertainment” but killed his son, his wife and himself. Originally, the WWE held a tribute for him; following some controversy, they started editing him out from their promotional videos and games, just as the NFL is doing with Hernandez.
But there is a remarkable difference, the “crucial caveat” I mentioned before: Benoit was undeniably guilty while Hernandez’s case is still in court. And this is what makes both the NFL and the Patriots seem a lot less noble.
When the Patriots released Hernandez, they officially stated, “We support their efforts and respect the process. At this time, we believe this transaction is simply the right thing to do.” Yes, a man the courts have not yet convicted is being released because you “respect the process.”
Simply put, it is yet to be proven whether Hernandez is guilty but by erasing his name from their world, his former employers have said they simply don’t care either way, and that is just as much an injustice as if they had said they didn’t care he was a murderer.
It’s somewhat strange that athletes are, simply because of their superior athletic abilities, being placed on higher moral pedestals than the average person. Tiger Woods was taken off the cover of his own game, and his fault wasn’t even as bad as what Hernandez is allegedly guilty of. Also, if hooking a bouncer for six doesn’t make me Sachin Tendulkar (look it up), playing as Tommy Vercetti doesn’t make me a murderous criminal.
So why change that for Hernandez? Just because there happens to be a real-life counterpart to those pixels? Well, the last time I checked, there are real humans out there too, so please ask developers to add a software patch and remove them from all the violent games you play. Go ahead. I'll wait.