[Caveat: I am not sure I agree with my own argument in this post. I wrote it rather rapidly during my lunch break, and, reading back over it, I think there is a possibility that it is wrong and/or unfair. I put it on the blog unedited in the spirit of starting a debate, and nothing more than that.]
I came across two blog posts on Ethics in Strategy Gaming (here and here). The summary: one can experience moral qualms about playing games like Panzer General and Colonization, which cast the player in the role of a willing participant in acts of genocide, enslavement, crimes against humanity and the like. Which, in other words, make being a real-world baddy fun. No clear solution is presented to that predicament. (And it is a predicament. My rule in Colonization was always to avoid war with the natives, precisely becasuse I always felt squeamish about it.) But, and this is the key line:
Although the “just a game” defense may seem a tempting get-out-of-jail-free card in the context of a Panzer General or a Colonization, one should think long and hard before one plays it. For to do so is to infantilize the entire medium — to place it into some other, fundamentally different category from books and movies and other forms of media that are allowed a place at the table where serious cultural dialog takes place.
In other words, quoting somebody called Gilbert L. Brahms: 'If a computer game should truly aspire to become a work of art, it must fulfill both the recreative and the didactive functions inherent in all serious aesthetic productions: it must present horrible conflicts with all of their nasty details.' Games like Colonization and Panzer General, that is, are doing computer games a disservice, because they whitewash horrible crimes in the name of entertainment.
Let's set aside the idea that art should have a didactive function (spoiler alert for that debate: didactic art is almost always bad art). Let's also set aside the claim that one can't learn skills from playing a computer game (problem solving, mental dexterity, etc.), thus fulfilling a 'didactive function' of a kind. Let's instead focus on the, to my eye, tendentious implicit claim that there is something bad about games being in a different category to books and movies and other forms of media that are 'allowed a place at the table where serious cultural dialog takes place'.
When people make statements like that, I always think it reveals a deep sense of insecurity about one's own likes and dislikes. I read books. I watch films. I play games. I also go to art galleries and watch and play sport. I like doing these things for different reasons; they scratch different itches. Why does it matter that some of them are 'allowed a place at the table where serious cultural dialog takes place', and some are not? Why does it matter that Colonization is not a topic for conversation at an upper-middle-class dinner party, but the latest novel by Zadie Smith is?
Perhaps this is a judgmental and doctrinaire thing to say, but in my view, games by definition are first and foremost about having fun testing oneself, either against a human or an artificial opponent. If you want more than that, you should be reading a book or watching a film instead. Beating up on Colonization or Panzer General for failing to 'aspire to become a work of art' is to commit a category error, just as would be complaining that a game of Sunday league football at the local playing fields doesn't aspire to having 'didactive functions'. (Although try running around in the mud and rain at 11am with a hangover for 90 minutes while dodging two-footed challenges from overweight men in knock-off Liverpool kits that are two sizes too small and tell me that it doesn't have its didactic qualities.) Art is one thing. Games are something else. If you want a game to do more than that, maybe you shouldn't be playing it. Maybe you should read something difficult or listen to some Shostakovich.
This will sound harsh, probably elitist, probably arrogant. But maybe the problem isn't the infantilisation of the medium. There is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying the infantile pleasures of playing a game for nothing more than the fun of it. Maybe the problem is just that you're not doing enough grown-up things to leaven the bread in your life and provide a counterbalance.