Moral Gaming: The Importance of Decent Games

Master Chief, one of the most iconic video game heroes.
Master Chief, one of the most iconic video game heroes.

As any gamer ought to know, video games posses a remarkable trait that makes them unique among every other storytelling medium, and that is the ability to let their audience fully interact with their story, characters, and setting. Films and TV shows sometimes break the fourth wall, and there are some books that are marketed as “choose your own adventure” stories, but none of these media are built on the idea of giving the audience complete control over how the story unfolds. In essence, games are designed precisely for the purpose of having the player be the one who tells the story. Only by stepping into the shoes of Master Chief or Commander Shepard are we able to see their respective stories play out. This is a truly novel power that video games possess, and while it is undoubtedly a feature that should be praised and put to good use, it is also one that is at times abused by game developers to the point where one has to wonder if their moral sensibilities are being degraded.

Most modern games tend to function on a linear path of storytelling; while we are invited into the world of the game, most of the big events are already planned out for us. Role-Playing Games usually offer the player moral challenges that can make the game’s story branch off into different directions, but for the purposes of this article I’ll focus mostly on linear storytelling (Kevin Wong’s article on Morality in RPGs is a great look at how morality systems function). Though there is a certain constriction that occurs when playing a game in which all the events are preordained, we are always given control of a character that acts as our avatar in the game world. Moreover, the character is usually proactive and up for any task that is placed before them. The problem arises when the character, the task, or sometimes both are out of alignment with what we consider to be right and wrong.

It goes without saying that most people are good people, or are people trying to do good. But video games are a rather delightful temptation to step into the world of bad people and see how things look from their perspective. Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series is, like all games, a fantasy in the sense that it provides the player with the ability to do things that they’d never be able to do in real life, or at least things they couldn’t do without repercussions. This inherent impunity is something that attracts a number of gamers, and rightfully so. Games function by offering us an escape into other worlds that aren’t available to us so why shouldn’t we have some fun when we visit one. In principle, it sounds like a hoot, and more often than not it’s also a hoot in practice. But it seems to be a peculiar desire to want to step into a fantasy world like Grand Theft Auto where murder, mayhem, and crimes of all sorts are praised, and moreover, are the only way to advance the story.

Grand Theft Auto V is a marvel of game technology; the map is gargantuan, the AI is remarkably responsive, and the story itself has its fun moments. But this is also a very ugly game that asks the player to perform egregious acts in order to ensure progression of the story. The most infamous mission in the game -perhaps the most infamous in the entire Grand Theft Auto series- is the one entitled “By the Book”, in which the player is asked to torture a character until he divulges information about an assassination target. The only choice that the player has to make during this mission is the choice of torture method.

One of the most appalling missions in the entire Grand Theft Auto series requires gamers to torture a man.
One of the most appalling missions in the entire Grand Theft Auto series requires gamers to torture a man.

It should be noted that while the developers provide the player with a rather repulsive assortment of items with which they can torment the helpless man, they do not provide the player with the choice of refusing to go through with the torture. Had they done so, this mission could be defended as being an integral part of the story where Trevor (the character performing the torture) experiences an honest moral dilemma. Instead, Trevor (and therefore the player) goes through with the torture no matter what, and then afterwards muses about the disgusting nature of torture, right in front of the victim no less! This false tug of the heart strings is the cheapest of ploys that serves the dual purposes of absolving the character and the player of all wrong doing. Of course torture is bad, the player will think, I just went through with it because the game made me, but I didn’t really like it, honest. This sounds eerily similar to the “Nuremberg defense”, which amounts to little more than, “I was just following orders.” Plus, there is the added stigma of growing attached and sympathetic towards these villainous characters. Sure, from an outsiders point of view the protagonists of Grand Theft Auto V may be a reprehensible lot, but once you start to play with them and experience their lives, there is the temptation to be okay with these characters. Characters, who by the way, have no qualms about torturing people, as well as murdering and assaulting any number of innocent bystanders.

One may say that this is an extreme view of video games and that the mission shouldn’t be taken too seriously. After all, the characters don’t really exist so why should we get our undies in a knot when one random NPC is tortured. And it is true that since this occurred in a fictional world, then no actual crime was committed so there is no need to treat it like one. But the argument that we shouldn’t care about it because it isn’t real falls apart when compared to other mediums; we care about our favorite characters in film, TV, and literature, so why shouldn’t we care about our favorite characters in games? In fact, it may be more important that we care about the characters in games precisely because of their interactive nature. In movies, we are nothing more than observers, but video games require us to take an active role in their universes. It would be sad to see Jon Snow abandon his honor and torture someone, but in the end he’s the one doing the torturing, not us. In the case of Grand Theft Auto V, however, Trevor is controlled by the player, so they are just as culpable in the action as Trevor is.

And above all, it just isn’t imaginative. Every day, we hear stories about meaningless acts of cruelty perpetrated against our neighbors. Why should we be reminded of those sort of things by partaking in a simulation of them? The word escapism means more than just being allowed to do things you can’t; it means entering a realm that can only be accessed through our imaginations and creativity. In that sense, not only does Grand Theft Auto V suffer from faulty moral mechanics, it’s also a fairly shallow form of escapism. Given the choice between staying on earth and being allowed to murder people at random or being able to travel through the stars to defeat an evil alien force known as the Covenant, it seems that a lot of gamers would actually prefer to do the former. To each his own, but in the end there’s little argument as to which game series functions more on creativity.

Now, it isn’t just a matter of violence. Grand Theft Auto V is by no means the first game that revolves around gunplay or action set-pieces, and there is no doubt that it’ll be the last. The difference is how those shootouts are grounded in the story. On the opposite end of the moral spectrum from Grand Theft Auto are games like Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series. Nathan Drake, the heroic star of Uncharted is mischievous, cocky, and a bit violent, but he also possess that which the characters in Grand Theft Auto V don’t: a moral compass. There’s lot of car chases and gun-play for sure, but they are all performed by a guy who we’re actively rooting for and want to see succeed. If Nathan has to gun down someone, it’s because they were threatening him or someone he cares for, which is hardly a charge that we can hold against someone. Is this a romantic set up that borders on being morally simplistic; absolutely. But sometimes a good guy fighting for good things is needed to give players a measure of escapism while ensuring that that escape isn’t to some crime ridden city where all they do is add to the crime.

Kratos is a man who has lost himself and all he loves to his endless pursuit for vengeance.
Kratos is a man who has lost himself and all he loves to his endless pursuit for vengeance and power.

If Uncharted is too black and white for you, there are still a myriad of games out there that offer you the opportunity to be a complex hero that’s more gray in terms of morality. The Metal Gear Solid series, BioShock series, and even Rockstar’s own Red Dead Redemption are games that center around anti-heroes trying to better themselves and do what’s right. Even Santa Monica’s God of War franchise manages to find a measure of gravitas in its story that ensures us that we aren’t playing a game that rewards evil acts. Kratos is a bad guy who basically destroys the earth and humanity along with it in order to achieve vengeance against the gods of Olympus. But God of War was always meant to be an action packed adventure that fused itself with elements of classical Greek tragedy. Kratos isn’t rewarded for the bad things he does, and in the end every person he murders only serves to cast him further into madness and depression, and only by the end of the saga does he commit an unselfish act in order to redeem himself. In this sense, God of War is a cautionary tale about the corrosive nature of pride and greed that teaches players to lean away from such temptations.

Take a moment to realize just how special video games are. It bears repeating that no other art form has ever been able to offer the level of interactivity as video games do. The closest thing that we could ever get to being Luke Skywalker or Indiana Jones is by playing make-believe with our buddies. In respect to video games, you don’t have to pretend that you’re the protagonist; you are the protagonist. That’s the defining feature of video games, and it’s always a bummer to see some developers use that power to present us with games that just aren’t good, not in terms of quality but in terms of content. If we wouldn’t do the things that Trevor and his cohorts do in real life, then I simply can’t understand why anyone would be fine with doing it in a video game, which basically acts as a direct link to our imaginations. If your idea of fun is to prance around murdering digital projections, then you’re free to do so. More than that you’re free to do that without having to worry about people labeling you a psycho, because you’re probably a decent person overall. But why cast yourself as a villain when you have so many opportunities to be the hero?

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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34 Comments

  1. If we’re going to talk about a morality system, then we should also consider the games Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. In NWN, some of your actions actually have an impact on your comrades. An action that improves your influence on one ally would actually be negative to another and that affects the whole storyline such as who betrays you. It also affects your alignment which have implications on what character classes you can get.

    • August Merz

      That’s certainly an interesting mechanic which isn’t found in many games. As good as RPGs like Mass Effect and Jade Empire are, the choices you make usually just effect you. Your party, though they may disagree, will still stick with you. The only RPG I can recall that actually effected your party was KOTOR 2, and that wasn’t a very good game. I’ll be sure to check out Baldur’s Gate and NWN, they sound like they have those mechanics down. Thanks for the comment and recommendation Truman.

    • nakesha
      0

      I truly miss NWN.

  2. I think they should just give us the choices and have no reward system in place, rewards are nice, but it makes you feel like you have to choose one side over the other instead of doing what you would do in that situation. They could maybe have upgrades at unknown predetermined points in the game and whichever side you pick on that specific dilemma gives you one boost or the other. But my biggest problem is what it encourages you to either be a wonderful person or scum of the earth when I would like to do what I would do in that situation, sometimes that means doing the right thing and something it means doing the asshole thing (even if just for fun).

    • August Merz

      That’s an excellent point and one that I think too few developers take advantage of. The only game I can remotely think of that allows you to do that is Mass Effect; in any given situation in that game, you are allowed to perform a Paragon action or a Renegade action. And while they both have a Light Side/Dark Side nature to them, they don’t allow you to have special powers or abilities. A person whose a renegade can still max out their charm skill while not filling out the intimidation skill. As you said, it’s about letting the player interact with the world as they actually would, and they shouldn’t have to worry about losing/gaining certain rewards that are only exclusive to certain kinds of play-throughs. Thanks for the comment 🙂

    • The benefit to having some sort of system to track your in-game morality is that it allows the world to react to you. A good example would be Fallout: New Vegas, which employs a faction system that allows your deeds to affect the world (and NPCs’ reactions to you) in a semi-organic way. The issue really isn’t the morality system itself, but rather that game makers haven’t successfully replicated one that feels real and operates in a believable way. In other terms, morality isn’t black and white, like most games visualize with a good/evil slider. We have to find a way to make that slider three-dimensional.

  3. The world isn’t grey because that’s how actions are it’s because it’s how humans make it. A good example is humane treatment of animals. Humans have a hard time treating other people like humans, let along animals. Yet I know people who would say that shooting a human baby in the face is less of a crime than shooting a dog or cat in the face. Of course when asked if that would apply to their own children the answer was that it was different with their own kid. No matter what excuse you use, there is good and evil. The gray area is just a myth. It’s all about the truth of motives and actions.

    • August Merz

      When I made reference to the moral image of being grey, it wasn’t to say that moral standards do not exist or are only subjective. I thoroughly believe in certain moral absolutes that should never be transgressed. However, you should remember that grey isn’t a color in and of itself, it’s a mix of white and black, which to me is a fairly accurate metaphor for people. A lot of people are excellent, wonderful people, but that doesn’t mean they can’t sometimes be a bit selfish or snide. In essence, the gray image serves to say that no one’s perfect, at least in my opinion that’s what it means. Perhaps a better metaphor could be used.

      So in relation to the article, I meant that some gamers may enjoy a game that allows them to play an imperfect character just so they don’t feel like they are playing as someone they can’t connect with.

      I appreciate your comment Broome.

  4. ArtForce
    0

    A lot of the times, I don’t think that developers have this skewed idea that either you are good or evil. It would simply be too difficult (if not downright impossible) to implement choices into a game that were white, black, and everything in between. There would be far too many variables and it would end up a mess.

    • August Merz

      That’s true, and that’s the sort of thing that should be left to denser games (mainly RPGs). But with any standard video game, I think there ought to be some effort on the developers’ part to ensure that what they ask to player to do isn’t too horrible, and perhaps even too good. As I mentioned in a comment above, if the avatar is an absolute saint without a single moral blemish, then the audience may be incapable of connecting with them because they are simply too good. Just so long as there’s a decent and honest balance between good and bad, then I’m usually fine. Thanks for the comment.

  5. S.A. Takacs

    Interesting article! It’s hard to judge the extent to which video games affect our morals. As you point out, some people would say “the game made me do it.” If people refused to buy games that are violent for the sake of violence, then maybe game developers would take that into account. However, it’s unlikely this would happen anytime soon. Most people are decent people, and those who play violent video games hopefully know that it’s not for real and that they’d never do anything like that in real life.

    • August Merz

      Yea, I was very worried that the article may come off as alarmist, and there are certain parts where I’m perhaps a bit too passionate about my stance. But it’s more of an observation of games and their relationship with us rather than an examination of how they effect us in real life. Thanks for the comment takacss1.

  6. Matthew Sims

    I think a question that needs to be asked is if every inserted scene or element needs to be one which advances the plot. Even on linear, closed narrative games, there are controversial and morally challenging things. An example which comes to mind is the airport massacre scene in Modern Warfare which copped a lot of flak. Even though you could choose not to play the mission, it does somewhat advance, but to allow the players to take part in a “terrorist act” seems like a bit far. But murder is such a massive part of video games nowadays that developers are forced further to push the envelope just to create a hype around its controversy, and therefore, make its characters more morally disgusting. Still, great article.

    • August Merz

      But I’d say that Infinity Ward provided a relatively okay means for the player to experience that level without partaking in the terrorist act. As you said, one could skip the scene or shoot at people, but one could also just walk through the level and watch the massacre unfold. It isn’t pretty, but you aren’t taking part in it. Moreover, that level did act as the catalyst for the rest of the MW2 storyline because right after that, they discover the corpse of the CIA operative at the airport and Russia assumes that America has declared war. A bit silly, but okay for an action thriller.

      Sadly though you’re right about how murder and other acts of violence are a relatively normal part of games nowadays. It makes one appreciate classic games like Pac-Man and Tetris for their simple nature.

      Thanks a bunch for your comment and for helping me with editing Matthew 🙂

  7. Candice Evenson

    It isn’t just about morality, though I appreciate what you have to say about it…it’s also the fact that the player may lose the connection with his/her character and therefore lose interest in the game!

    This is a problem that readers face too. If a main character is too cruel/too annoying/or too oblivious then the reader may feel compelled to put the book down. As you say, video games are another way to tell a story. If your character is gullible,or uncooperative then play becomes frustrating. This is how I felt while playing Arc the Lad: Twilight of Spirits…The only relief was switching between playing human and demos.

    I suppose that is why some video game characters stay mostly silent during the entire game. The game with a protagonist you don’t relate to becomes less of you interacting with the game and more of you moving this person from one place to another and witnessing what happens to him/her along the way. That is not fun. I much prefer it when games give you more decisions…and remember their function as interactive stories.

    • August Merz

      Those are other qualities that can certainly bring down a character’s charm. Being incompetent or weird are characteristics that most players probably find unwelcoming. Perhaps, as you said, the easiest way to make a character that the audience can connect with is a silent avatar; that way you feel like yourself completely instead of someone whose trying control a character with a mind of their own.

      With that said though, I still enjoy playing games with characters that I simply guide and don’t speak for. I’ve just started playing The Last of Us, and Joel’s a great character with lots of density to him, and though I don’t control what he says or the events he encounters, I can at least appreciate the opportunity to guide him through the game.

      Thanks for the comment Constellation

  8. I thought Mass Effect did a pretty good job with this by switching Good/Evil to Paragon/Renegade. You didn’t become a bad guy if you made the “bad” choices, but you made reckless and selfish choices.

    • August Merz

      Mass Effect was excellent for the reasons you describe Amparo. As SONA above said, there ought to be more games that allow you to act as you honestly would in certain situations without having to worry about being immediately labeled good or evil, but instead allow for a general progression towards one of the two.

    • Listepp
      0

      Until we get to 2 where you are clearly a dick that can barely claim to be saving the galaxy when renegade. and then there’s 3 where your choices are “Mother Teresa/ Jesus Christ reborn” and “murderous sociopath that betrays all his friends”

  9. Hoskinz
    0

    What about Dishonored? When you killed everybody who were behind the plan and killed the empress and backstabbed you, you got the bad ending. However if you did a non lethal to them, you got the good ending. So it’s bad that I’m an assassin and I kill everybody because that’s what I’m supposed to do instead of not killing? I didn’t understand it, and honestly it made me not want to play it again. It was a good game don’t get me wrong, but the moral choice thing ruined it for me.

    • August Merz

      Dishonored lacked polish (in terms of the morality system), but the direction they were headed in seemed alright. I agree that it seemed strange that an assassin, who is fighting for good reasons, would be branded a villain for acting like a soldier in a war. Bethesda, however, thought that the deaths of enemy combatants should be treated the same as those of innocent civilians, which really does make the morality system in the game a bit hard to be in accordance with. Perhaps if they had implemented harsh penalties only for killing civilians then it would’ve made more sense. Still, the game seemed on the right track in wanting to get the player to think in novel ways to take down their targets rather than just mindlessly hacking and slashing through the game.

  10. I just remember playing fables 3 and having to make a series of choices about the kingdom at the end, and one of the choices was whether or not to ban alcohol. I just remember thinking “ban alcohol? wtf! that’ll just make people mad. nothing should change if I don’t ban it because it’s currently legal right now anyway!” wrong. apparently in videogame land you can’t expect characters to continue with their self-restraint that was working so well before. After making that choice, whenever my character would be walking around on the streets, tons of people would be swaying around and throwing up on the streets because hey, the queen decided that the status of alcohol shouldn’t change so lets drink ourselfs shitfaced now even though we never did before. The stupidest extreme consequence I’ve ever seen to an in game decision.

    • August Merz

      That’s a great point. Thought I think it’d be funner if developers implemented more consequence systems into their games, there is always the danger of going too far. One example I can think of is from one of my most beloved games, Mass Effect 2. There are several times in that game when two of your squad mates will be arguing and if you lack the requisite number of intimidation/charm points, you end up having to take the side of one over the other. If that happens, the character you stood against will hate you for the rest of the game (unless you have a ridiculous amount of paragon/renegade points). This is a ridiculous punishment that ruins one of the core parts of Mass Effect, which is the ability to establish and, if needed, mend relationships. Thankfully, that was more or less removed in ME3. Thanks for the comment Orphen.

  11. Helen Parshall

    Your article reminds me of Milgram’s Experiment, which if you aren’t familiar with I definitely recommend looking up briefly. Human morality is such an interesting, malleable thing… I’m not much of a gamer myself, but your article has definitely given me a lot to think about!

  12. I always hate moral choice systems, because no games really do it well enough for you to benefit equally from both sides. Take Baldur’s Gate, for example. If you’re good, you get discounts from stores, and a lot of people give you good rewards. If you’re evil, then stores have mark-ups, and you might get maybe ONE item that you wouldn’t normally get in the game. Also, there are only 4 evil party members in BG2, so you couldn’t even make a full evil party if you wanted to. In the original BioShock, harvesting Little Sisters would get you a small amount more Adam right away, but in the long run you would get more total if you were good, AND you’d get other gifts. It barely ever pays off to be evil in games.

    The one example I can think of with a moral choice system that rewards both sides enough to try them is Fallout 3. You can nuke an entire town for a swanky penthouse, steal anything you can see, and enslave random people for money if you’re evil. Being good obviously has its own advantages too, but it’s just too fun to be evil in that game, for me. They changed the system in New Vegas, and it isn’t as cut-and-dry (you can sway individual factions), but I didn’t like it as much because in the end I still had to make a choice of who to side with. I got every faction on my side, and then suddenly a dialog came up on my screen that said “WARNING. If you do _______, faction X will immediately and forever hate you”, forcing me into one group or another depending on the choice I made. Kinda killed it for me.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      This was a huge flaw in BioShock. It was interesting to read all the reviewers raving about the game’s morality system and lack of linearity, but really, the “good/evil” decisions are easily abstracted into “what’s going to get me more stuff.”

      As much as player agency is important to games, I think a stronger game narrative would lack these decisions altogether – why not play a game where you’re just evil, or whatever shade of grey, etc?

      This will ultimately lead to stronger traditional narratives in games (though not untraditional ones…). My friends & I used to joke about making a 120 Days of Sodom game where instead of “good/bad” levels, you had “sadist/masochist” levels…haha ; p

  13. Excellent post!

  14. The idea of “just following orders” struck me. I remember at one point in The Last Story, one of the main characters criticizes the knights for “just following orders” instead of thinking about the moral implications of their actions. I think the best games are ones that allow you to do anything but make you realize the real world implications of your actions.

  15. I actually don’t have much of a critical response for you. Great overview, but I’d love to see you dive into depth a bit more and attempt answers for some of the questions you posed. Love the Nuremburg trials reference, that was brilliant. Would you say your stance on doing bad things in games is caused by us not being able to do them much in real life, and being drawn toward the option that has little reprucussion?

    • August Merz

      It’s hard to say. I honestly think the Nuremburg reference may have been a bit strong seeing as how gamers, no matter how violent the games they play are, are not murderous Nazis. That said, I can’t help but think that our minds need to be nourished by healthy material just as our bodies need to be taken care of.

      A friend of mine once showed me a game called Gary’s Mod, it’s on Steam, and in essence it’s a game where you get to create levels of a game in any way you want. What ended up being the most fun for us (at the time) was spawning rows of rows of characters that we would later shoot in the head/torso until dead. At the time it seemed like mindless fun, but looking back, I shudder a bit because the things we were doing were reminiscent of scenes from The Pianist and Schindler’s List. Again, we didn’t know it and didn’t fancy ourselves Nazis, but how else can you describe a situation where a man with a gun shoots dozens of innocents.

      Similarly, games like Grand Theft Auto V focuses on criminals and the only way to play the game is by committing crimes and getting away with them. It isn’t fair to condemn Rockstar for producing such a violent game, since they also have games that center around flawed, but decent characters (Red Dead Redemption and LA Noire). But I don’t think anyone can deny that playing a game that centers on being a criminal is a bit strange. One could raise the defense that even kids play cops and robbers with the knowledge that someone has to be the thief, but the point is that there’s a balance that is established. In GTA, it’s just bad people doing bad things.

      So, to get to the heart of your question, I do think we play video games because they allow us to do things that we would not be able to do in real life. This is both good an bad seeing as how games like Mass Effect let us imagine what it’d be like to travel the stars and save the galaxy (or destroy it), while games like GTA allow those who want to to step into the shoes of a criminal for a while. Again, I’m no psychologist or neuro-specialist so I’m not endorsing any sort of theory that says playing violent games leads to violent behavior. It just seems like it’d be funner to imagine oneself as a heroic figure, even if they are flawed, than as a sociopath.

      I hope I answered your question acschum, if you have any more please tell me.

  16. I actually don’t have much of a critical response for you. Great overview, but I’d love to see you dive into depth a bit more and attempt answers for some of the questions you posed. Love the Nuremburg trials reference, that was brilliant. Would you say your stance on doing bad things in games is caused by us not being able to do them much in real life, and being drawn toward the option that has little reprucussion on our lives outside the game?

  17. I enjoyed this article, however there is one small part that bugs me. At the beginning you talk about how video game, unlike other methods of story telling, are able to give the player choice. Yet all of the games you have mentioned mostly linear in nature, we do not see uncharted ever give the player moral choices along the same lines as fallout or infamous would (all be it the morality in those games is by no means good). Games allow the player the chance to simulate a story rather than just be shown it. yet when we make a moral choice to stop killing god of war it is treat as a punishment, not as a plot experience limiting that games moral narrative.

    • August Merz

      I’m going to defend myself a bit in saying that at the beginning of the article, I said I was going to focus on linear storytelling in video games. With that said though, you do have a very good point that linear games don’t offer players a direct link in terms of moral choices. Your God of War example is great; if we decided to stop killing everyone for the sake of being good, then we’d never finish the game. I suppose the point I was trying to make was that even games of a linear fashion offer the player control in ways that movies don’t. For example, if a character in a movie is going to do something bad, then we can only hope they don’t; we can’t directly tell them not to do what they’re thinking of doing. In a video game, we direct the character’s actions so even though there are things that are “preordained” in the game, we still have to make the characters do what they need to do. Still, it may have been better (in relation to the articles topic) to focus on RPGs or linear games that offer the player moral choices (Black Ops II). Thanks for the comment.

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