Video Games and Morality: The Question of Choice
There is an important question with regards to morality in video-games: how does a game developer successfully implement the complex and dynamic idea of morality in a video-game? Further, how does this implementation affect the player? Is the morality imbued into the narrative, the mechanical gameplay, inside the player’s own mind, or a combination of all three? This issue is both complex and nuanced; I can only offer a basic summation of what I have experienced in the following video-games. Hopefully, many readers will continue the discussion in the future.
Beyond Good and Evil
The classical mechanic of displaying morality in a video-game is through a single axis in which good sits at the top and evil sits at the bottom.
The player’s choices move their slider up or down the axis to show their overall moral being throughout the game. Early 2000’s Bioware games feature this mechanic, such as Jade Empire (2005) and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003).
Having this mechanic begs the question: is morality so simple? Reality is more complex than simply a split between good or evil. Every potential choice you make in life has both positive and negative effects, for you and for everyone the decision affects. It is your decision and responsibility which choice to ultimately make. This being said, most would agree to a rough idea of what is good and evil. There are choices that most would label as good, with other choices labelled evil.
Modern video-games have attempted to show this more complex and nuanced view. Games such as Bioware’s Mass Effect series, Telltale Games’s The Walking Dead (2012), and Lionhead’s Fable series (2004-2010) have done more with their morality mechanics than just keeping with the classical good vs. bad spectrum. Moral choices are instead left to the player to deal with, as they result in changes to the gameplay and narrative.
Despite these effects, it is important to understand that moral choices do not occur fully within the game, but within the player. Thus: “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago). The game may present choices to the player, but it is the player herself who presses the button, who makes the choice.
Why Players Make Decisions
There is a level of ambiguity here: how can we know what the player’s motivations are for a specific choice? It would be easy if every moral decision a player made in a game was the result of her moral convictions. However, this is not always the case, since a player could feel no level of immersion or attachment to the game and its world. She recognizes the games artificiality and realizes her choices do not matter. As a result she may experiment with in-game choices out of curiosity rather than moral conviction. This result is universally undesirable for developers who wish to have the player think over her choices in a meaningful way.
Instead, developers will emphasize immersing players in the secondary world of the game, becoming an active participant. The player becomes emotionally invested in what is happening onscreen; she may hesitate to make certain decisions, or feel remorse or satisfaction afterwards. The game feels real to the player because the world exists in that moment of playing. Moral choices thus carry a weight similar to real world choices, despite affecting a secondary world.
The Balance Between Order and Chaos
Bioware’s Mass Effect 2 (2010) introduced a simple yet incredibly effective game mechanic with regards to morality. The game’s predecessor had two meters, paragon and renegade, which would independently fill up depending on choices made by the player. Bioware was smart to avoid the use of the words good and evil, and to keep both meters independent of each other; they very clearly indicated that you character was not simply good or evil, and didn’t simply make good or evil decisions. The sequel added a new mechanic: during cutscenes, a paragon or renegade symbol would flash on the screen (akin to a quick-time event) prompting the player to take action. These usually served to interrupt a non-player character’s dialogue or actions, requiring knee-jerk responses from the player.
What is notable about these quick-time reactions was that they were not always reflective of a good versus evil dynamic. Instead they often reflected a decision between order and chaos. The paragon decisions usually coincided with the character acting reserved, controlled, and fair. Conversely, the renegade decisions coincided with acts of impulse, frustration, and a “shoot first, ask questions later,” type attitude. These are decisions that people face almost every day, and are reflective of a more ambiguous interpretation of morality.
It is neither effective to live fully in order or chaos. To live under order is to deny oneself the liberty of making choices, they are already decided for you. Totalitarianism expresses this idea. However, to live in chaos is to forgo any measure of safety, resulting in a harsh and unforgiving world. The consequence of these extreme world views is a loss of individual liberty.
It is the balance of order and chaos where living is made whole; the mediating of both sides. Here lies the beauty of the paragon and renegade system being exclusive of one another; they are not wholly an issue of good versus evil, but of order versus chaos.
Show, Don’t Tell
2k Games’s BioShock (2007) creates this sense of order and chaos within the mind of the player herself. At many points in the game, the player is given the choice to cure the “Little Sister” characters or to harvest them. By curing them, the “Little Sisters” revert to a state of normalcy; they become freed of the parasite which grows inside of them. By harvesting them, the player kills the “Little Sister” in order to receive more in-game resources. There is no meter in the game to show the player whether they have made a good or bad decision. The full effect on the narrative is only shown during the last cutscene of the game.
The game does not tell the player whether her decision will be right or wrong. Instead, it is the player who must weigh the impact of the decisions and make a moral choice. The outcome of the decision affects the gameplay with regards to resources gained, affecting the player mechanically. Beyond this, the act of saving or killing a girl affects the player morally. This asks the player to question her values: sacrifice morality for in-game advantages or uphold morality at the cost of new potential abilities.
The salient point is that BioShock imparts a deep moral choice on the player using so little; the image of the “Little Sister” with her fate displayed on either side
Telltale Games’s The Walking Dead (2012) also manages to avoid telling the player whether her actions are good or evil. Throughout the game the player must make hundreds of choices, from seemingly insignificant decisions to deciding whether a non-player character is left to die. The consequences of the player’s actions are almost never clear, and when they are the relationships the player has with her allied non-player characters strongly influences what she should do.
The narrative of the world helps add to the ambiguous nature of these decisions. Civilization has collapsed, the world is a dangerous place, and resources are scarce. The player has to make decisions for what is best for their character, while also trying to decide what is best for: non-player characters she cares about, for the group, and for all survivors. This balancing act puts weight on the player, and asks her to question every decision she makes no matter how mundane.
This design approaches a level of realism missing from the classic morality mechanic. Decisions are not grouped as good, evil, or even neutral. They are dependent upon the player’s experiences and relationships, upon reacting to difficult situations where answers are not sudden. This in turn creates a more immersive experience which can stay with the player long after the game is over.
Use Your Illusion
The question of how moral choices affect the ending of a video game became a topic of conversation after the release of Mass Effect 3 (2012). Many fans of the series voiced their disappointment with the level of triviality in the three different endings to the game, or in other words a lack of meaningful difference. If the consequences of a decision feel identical or trivial to a player, then she loses immersion (the necessary element to moral choices having weight).
The ending of Mass Effect 3 became an internet meme as a result of its negative response. Each outcome was dubbed “blue, green, or red,” by fans to jokingly point out the only real difference between any of the endings. What does this emotionally charged reaction say about player immersion and emotional investment? I argue that choices which lack immersive qualities will sever the player’s emotional investment. However, consequences to moral choices which have a significant impact are not necessarily the only way of accomplishing immersion (remember that The Walking Dead‘s approach of ‘quantity of choices’ versus ‘quality of impact’ led to more nuanced and realistic relationships between the player and non-player characters).
May the Force be With You
Obsidian Entertainment’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II The Sith Lords (2004) subverted the very nature of the Force, a common element in the Star Wars mythology. To reiterate, the original game featured a meter that the player would move up and down on depending upon their decisions. At the top was the light side, at the bottom the dark side. While the second game maintains this classic mechanic, it presents a character who subverts its simplicity.
Kreia acts as teacher to the player’s character throughout the game. As the player character makes moral decisions reflecting either the light or dark side of the force, Kreia often provides a commentary on this simple view of morality. She very directly criticizes the duality: “I cannot force you to listen to reason, only hope that you will grow past these infantile delusions of right and wrong.” (Knights of the Old Republic II, 2004)
How interesting that the developers would choose to include the classical morality mechanic in their game, yet also have a character which undermines the nature of it. Further, Kreia’s insights serve to undermine the entirety of the Star Wars mythology with regards to the Force.
The End of all Things
Video-games present a plethora of ways to explore morality. The complexity and nuance of morality presents a challenge to developers everywhere in how to elicit emotion and how to convey a sense of weight to important decisions. Hopefully after having read this article, others would be inspired to investigate the games that they have played and question how morality functions within the game world. Video-games such as the Fable series, Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011), Dishonored (2012), and many others should be examined closely with regards to how developers implement morality, and what effect this has on the game world and player. Perhaps one could look into the history of philosophy on the issue of morality, into the works of James Rachels and Friedrich Nietzsche, to name a couple. Morality is a deep conversation embedded in video-games, a conversation that perhaps has no end.
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isaevich. The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, 1918-1956. Translated by Thomas P. Whitney. New edition edition. New York: HarperCollins Canada / Westview Pr, 1997.
Tolkien, J. R. R. (John Ronald Reuel). The Tolkien Reader. [1st ed. ]–. 1 vols. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966.
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