No, seriously. This is a question I've had to wonder of late thanks to Dexter, the hit TV show that follows a serial killer who kills other serial killers. This would make him a "good" serial killer—at least, as good as someone who murders people can be. That may sound ridiculous, but being privy to Dexter's thoughts, insecurities and private life makes it easy to feel empathy for a character who struggles with something he cannot control or wants to do.
Every so often, Dexter meets other people who are deviants—murderers, yes, but also folks who are arsonists, rapists and so on. Dexter tries to connect with these characters, given that they might be the only ones who are capable of understanding him. These characters sometimes get dangerously close to finding out Dexter's secret. Ultimately neither of these situations ends well. The darkness and corruption in other characters tends to be absolute, and being beyond saving means that before long, these characters find themselves killed by Dexter. The latest potential victim? Louis Greene, a character introduced in season six. He's a gamer.
Louis works at a fictionalized version of the Miami police department, like Dexter. What better place to hide than in plain sight, after all? As the show goes on, we find out that the reason Louis interns there is because he's making a game called "Homicidal Tendencies." The premise of Homocidal Tendencies is that you get to play as famous serial killers—Jack the Ripper, Jeffrey Dahmer and The Bay Harbor Butcher—the latter being Dexter himself. As of yet it's unclear if Louis actually knows who Dexter is, but Louis' obsession with Dexter specifically is hard to otherwise justify.
So when Louis shows Dexter his game, as the audience we immediately think that Louis knows more than he lets on. Dexter becomes alarmed and shuts Louis down. He asks Louis why anyone would want to take a life—this is something that, despite Dexter's actions, Dexter broods over regularly. We know that when Dexter asks that, he's not just trying to throw Louis off his track. He genuinely doesn't understand why someone would want to do such a thing, much less in a superfluous, silly thing like a game. Dexter calls the game offensive and tells Louis to do something else.
The audience watching, judging from the public controversy surrounding violent games, is likely to agree with Dexter. Why would anyone want to play as a serial killer? And what does making a ‘tasteless' game like that say about a game developer, other than that their morality is out of whack? Even Dexter, an actual serial killer, sees something wrong with what Louis wants to create—so does that mean Louis is worse than Dexter?
It doesn't help that Louis is characterized as a man with a serious case of arrested development—like many gamers in media are. His apartment is bursting with toy figurines, comic books and gaming gear, like Razer brand products. The show highlights the Razer products, which seems like a weird endorsement to me—what does that say about people who buy Razer products, if not people who identify as gamers?
Most of us wouldn't see anything wrong with what we see in Louis' apartment, but Dexter makes a point to look down on Louis for it. The reason we're shown the apartment at all is because it helps cement the idea that something is terribly wrong with Louis—and by extension, people who play games. Look at how dangerous the gamer lifestyle is, look at how it messes with someone's principles!
This is furthered when we see Louis channel Anonymous. Louis is an absolute whiz when it comes to technology—but in the questionable, malicious way. We see him circumvent the law to track people down, if not hack into people's accounts. He illegally tracks down a stolen piece of evidence from Miami Metro, buys it, and then sends it to Dexter's house—this is but one of the number of things Louis does to mess with Dexter. In the latest episode of Dexter, we find out that the reason Louis does all this is because Dexter shot down his game. He's nothing more than a resentful kid. As a gamer, it's "obvious" that Louis cannot take anything seriously. Would he play or make games otherwise?
Dexter makes no qualms about presenting gamers in a negative light. What's startling to me is that by characterizing Louis the way they do, they're kind of saying that Louis is worse than a serial killer....because he likes games. Gone is any indication of why it would be worthwhile to play a game that lets you experience something you otherwise never could, to see life from new perspectives, to engage in morally dubious actions in a safe space. Maybe it turns out that Louis really is as bad as Dexter thinks he is—but even then, the questions the show raises about video games are still uncomfortable.
For all the ruckus people make about how immature games are, there's little support when games try to break from that and present something nuanced, complex, if not "adult." What, exactly, is gaming supposed to do when that's the case?
More amusing to me, however, is that anything someone might fear about a game that puts you in the shoes of a serial killer would probably be no worse than what a show like Dexter. The show takes a moral grey area and runs with it: and that's exactly why we love it. It's not clear if what we see is "wrong" or "right," and our conflict in trying to decide what we think about Dexter is what makes the show compelling. What's the worst than could happen if we played a game like Homocidal Tendencies—it might be easier for us to feel empathy for the characters and that could have disastrous consequences? You mean it might have the same effect as watching Dexter? Oh no.