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The Morality Of Video Games

February 1st, 2011 by

Games these days make a big fuss about moral choices.  back in the day, it was simple; the aliens/monsters were the bad guys, you were the good guy.  Nowadays, with added realism and a more mature gaming audience, developers are heading into all sorts of unexplored territory.

But do games really give us meaningful moral choices, or is it just an illusion?  Have games truly moved forward in terms of satisfying deeper emotions and making us look at ourselves in a new light?
Many years ago I had Turbo Esprit by Durell Software for the Spectrum.  Ostensibly a car chase game, you had to chase down drug couriers in an open world city.  However, like most people, I spent most of my time mowing down pedestrians and other road users, trying to get my penalty score as high as possible.

Catch the Drug car or mow down pedestrians? The choice is yours.....

Though I didn’t realise it, the game was giving me moral choices to make, surely one of the first games to do so.  However, with no consequences to your actions, is it really a moral choice?
Skip forward to the current generation.  I am currently playing Red Dead Redemption, which I love.  Its clever fame and honour system was a real draw, as I like playing the good guy, and the prospect of a GTA style game in which i could do this really appeals.  The first third of the game excels at moral choices, do you help the bandits or the stagecoach, do you help the crying woman or just walk away.

Do you assist or rob the stagecoach? Decisions, decisions ...

Once you get to Mexico, this illusion of morality gets suddenly destroyed however.  Faced with two sets of missions, one for the government, one for the rebels, I was drawn to the noble rebels due to my dislike for the government character.  It quickly became clear though, that I not only could play for both sides, but indeed had to in order to progress the story.  Even worse, this doesn’t affect your relationship with either side, indeed it is virtually ignored.
Choices without consequences cannot be considered to be moral at all, and I think Rockstar really missed a trick with this one.
Bioware are the masters of computer roleplaying games, building believable worlds and compelling characters.  They have always included morality in their games, a hang over from the pen and paper RPGs that came before.
But what difference do your choices actually make in Mass Effect 2?  Lines of dialogue, nothing more.  The occasional difference in a cut scene.  The whole game is completable in largely identical ways whichever choices you make, and in fact you are rewarded with making the extreme choices all the time, rather than allowing you to play a flawed hero.   Admittedly there are side missions you cannot play without earning renegade points, but none of these have any effect on the main storyline.
What I would like to see is meaningful moral choices, ones you have to agonise over, or that seriously impact the rest of your game experience.  Even better would be a game that gave you choices, but the consequences wouldn’t be apparent till later in the game, just like in real life.  In this way games would really become an art form, allowing us to explore issues with the safety net of a save point.  only when this happens will games have really grown up.
5 Responses to “The Morality Of Video Games”
  1. avatar Adamski UK says:

    Great piece.

    I’ve never driven round the Nurburgring in a Porsch.
    I’ve never ridden a horse in the American West.
    I’ve never flown a helicopter.
    I’ve never played on stage in a band.
    I’ve never jumped over a barrel to save a princess from a gorilla.
    Not in real life anyway.
    Games give us the opportunity – albeit distanced from the real thing – the opportunity to glimpse what it would be like to experience these things.

    They also give us the opportunity to let our moral compass waiver.
    Experimentation is great and can feed creativity in some games, perhaps with unexpected rewards.

    I opened fire in the Russian Airport.
    I’ve aimed at and shot civilians.
    I’ve rammed cars off the road.
    I’ve been a bastard.
    All in the game world…just to see what would happen.

    I like to think that I am a mature gamer and that I know these things are wrong. Oh so wrong.
    They’re my ‘virtual’ actions. I get to do something that I would never dream of doing in the real world.
    But these are just distractions…not my modus operandi.
    Strange that even given all these choices I still, generally, portray my own persona and ethical barometer in a game.

  2. avatar Lebowski49 says:

    Is there morality to computer games? For 99% of games I don’t think so, not for me anyway so far. Not explicitly. I mean letting your mates 8 year old nephew beat you at street fighter is always a big judgement call

    I have never really played a game and thought my actions would have an impact on the world around me. Shooting a tourist in an airport in COD never made me feel like I would do it in real life. I was always aware I was playing a game. I think its pretty insulting to human beings in general when people jump on such scenarios to criticise games. I mean even as a child I could understand that when I turned into a dragon and bit someones head off in Mortal combat that what i was doing was supposed to be a form of entertainment.

    My favourite game last year Heavy Rain was chock full of “moral choices”. For me it was very immersive and i did feel for the different characters at times. Not everyone will have engaged with the game but I certainly felt there was a degree of success in presenting the moral difficulties faced by the father character.

  3. avatar thechymist says:

    Just as an addendum to this, I am currently playing Fable 3, and in the second half, the decisions about budgets and keeping the promises you made in the first half are very challenging. I am only on the second day and already nearly 1 million in debt! I am agonising over every spending decision, and already have gone against my ethical principles. This is ticking all the boxes I talked about, and is keeping me hooked, even though the combat and missions are quite dull.

  4. avatar Mitchell Norton says:

    Great article!

    Morality by its nature only exists as a social survival mechanism, allowing our own selfish wants and needs to be fulfilled via mutual and beneficial “Good behavior”.
    So games can only really simulate morals and from my experience most games don’t even scratch the surface for the potential a game could have.

    The morality system in most games goes usually like this.

    1. You find a puppy!
    A. Cuddle the puppy and open up a quest….. OR

    Mass effect has probably got the best morality system, What i personally hate thought is when i disagree with the developer’s opinion of what is right or wrong. For example!

    On Red Dead Redemption a women called me over just after i left “My” house.
    She asked for help so i went over…. Some bandits came out killed my horse and almost killed me, so after they where dead it asked do you want to forgive the charming killer COW-BAG!
    I chose to kill her because i thought, well she not only killed a horse but almost killed me (a fellow human) so i thought death was the morally right thing to do.
    only to practically have a developer pop his/her head on my screen and tell me i am morally wrong.

    So in summary developers shouldn’t have right and wrong pop up on your screen but like real life be more bout consequences rather than meters and bars.
    And 100% lay off the Horns and Halos Molenux it not a chuffin hen night

  5. avatar Jurassic Prinny says:

    I don’t see them as moral choices at all – it’s just choosing a path through a story for me.

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