The year was 2077. I was hastily driving my Quadra Turbo-R V-Tech through the city to arrive at the location of another gig. Nothing major, just a routine job. Get in, get the data shard, get out. Of course, they would not hand over their assets willingly, so resistance was expected. But there is a reason why I got the job, not to mention that my ripperdoc, Vik, provided me with the best cyberware one could get. Anyway, I arrived at the district, parked my car at a safe distance, then continued on foot. As I was getting closer I spotted a bunch of kids playing in front of the target building. Kids weren’t in the mission briefing so they better hit the road before the sitch turns ugly, I thought to myself. Pulled out my metal and shouted at them to scare the annoying buggers off and I’m telling you, at that moment something really strange happened. As I wanted to point my heat at the kids my hand was frozen in place as it was shackled to my chest by an unseen power. At first, I thought that the target caught wind of me coming and a runner was already hacking me, but after a quick self-scan, I found no intruder. I could get anything into my crosshair, but not the children. I’ve seen runners being melted into their chairs, viruses killing corpos in seconds but this is something else, this is beyond mere netrunning.
It took me tens of hours of playing Cyberpunk 2077 to realize that children are granted invulnerability in Night City. As it can be read from the perspective of my playable figure above, every child is protected from all kinds of harm that the player can inflict on other NPCs. In the following paragraphs, I’m going to take a look at how Cyberpunk 2077 (CD Projekt, 2020) protects children from violence. Even though this area of dark play is under-researched, Sjöblom (2015) has previously taken a look at how designers manage violence against children in open-world games and what players think about harming or killing children in them.
Sjöblom identifies three main approaches in three different titles. The first one is the exclusion of children from society which happens in the Grand Theft Auto series. If the player is roaming the city there is no way that they would stumble into an underage NPC because they are nonexistent in the game. The second approach is segregation, which happened gradually in the Fallout series. As Sjöblom points out, the earliest Fallout games, Fallout (Interplay Entertainment, 1997) and Fallout 2 (Black Isle Studios, 1998) let players be as cruel to children as they want to be. They are even awarded the title of ‘child-killer’ for it. This feature could be present since the early Fallout games are isometric and are visually limited. As Bethesda released the third installment, Fallout 3 (Bethesda Softworks, 2008), they moved the game into a fully 3D world which led to more realism and let the players observe events from a more intimate perspective. From this point on, children were granted invulnerability therefore the player could no longer harm them. The third and final approach is called adaptation. In Bully (Rockstar Games, 2006) the player is given the affordance to harm other children as one of their peers in a school environment. Even though violence is present it is differentiated from the power dynamics of violence perpetrated by an adult. Instead, it settles on child-on-child violence. While the game doesn’t let fatal outcomes happen, children can be incapacitated, but later on, they respawn in another part of the world.
Cyberpunk 2077, just like the video games examined by Sjöblom, is an open-world game. Interestingly however it does not settle on one solution but mixes two, segregation and exclusion. As it was previously described, the player is unable to point their firearms at child NPCs, the game would automatically point them away in a somewhat neutral position as can be seen in Figure 1.
In this state, the gun cannot be fired either. Melee weapons such as the mantis blades or the monowire don’t have such neutral states, nevertheless, the player cannot initiate any attacks if those are pointed at children. The game however features area attacks as well, for example in the form of grenades. If children are within the radius of the explosion they simply start fleeing without suffering any damage as is visible in Figure 2. Several children are running away while still being in the area of damage and could have been affected if they were regular NPCs.
Plot armor is a term that signifies a similarly invisible phenomenon of protection. Prominent characters of a series or movie are unable to die or miraculously survive sticky situations due to them being the main driving force of the narrative. In similar fashion children in CP77 are wearing an invisible armor, that I would call the ‘armoral’. Even though they are not prominent from the perspective of the narrative of CP77, they are protected because that is the morally ‘good’ or ‘right’ thing to do. This way, the player’s agency is restricted, but on the other hand, there are no bodies of dead children lying around in Night City. In this light the concept of ‘armoral’ makes no sense because its constitutive elements cannot coexist. If the player is not given the affordance to harm children as they can do to the rest of the NPC population then no moral choice can be made as it requires free will. Therefore there is no morality but there is armor. On the other hand, if the player is given the affordance to harm the children no armor would protect them. The possibility of a morally right choice is present, but the armor is not. Now that I have discussed why this is an inadequate name for this phenomenon, I move on to the second approach, exclusion.
Upon experimenting with weapons the thought of driving occurred to me. I did not have any recollection of ever running over any underage NPCs and it was not due to my phenomenal driving skills. The suspicion rose when I got into the car and suddenly was unable to find any children among the pedestrians. To find out what is happening behind the scenes I placed a car in front of a pedestrian crossing and waited until a child would cross the road in front of me. Figures 3 and 4 document the dynamic nature of protecting children, and the switching from segregation to exclusion. Unfortunately, two pictures have limited capability of conveying this phenomenon. It is hard to catch this really simple switch even during play because it happens quite seamlessly and the player’s inability to control the camera movement while the avatar gets into the car does not help either. What happens simply is that once the player gets into a car the child NPCs disappear from the gameworld. This compromise may have been necessary so that as long as the player roams the city on foot they have the experience that every stratum of the population is truly represented, while there is no need to worry that the invulnerable child NPCs will grind the cars to a complete halt upon collision.
Even though there was no new approach identified we can conclude that mixed approaches are also feasible and viable. The relationship between digital children and violence in video games could be further investigated away from the domain of open world games for example in the shooter, Call of Duty Modern Warfare (Activision, 2019) where players are penalized for perpetrating violence against infants and are put in the shoes of children against whom violence is perpetrated.
Sjöblom, B. (2015). Killing Digital Children Design, Discourse and Player Agency. In T. E. Mortensen , J. Linderoth & A. M. Brown (Eds.), The Dark Side of Game Play Controversial Issues in Playful Environments (pp.68-81). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315738680
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