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What’s Your Moral Code?

November 7th, 2013 by

evil-o-meterWhat I love about games is the interactivity of them.  Story is key for me and being able to help shape that, to take on the role of the character and be a part of it, is a wonderful feeling.


Most of the time.


Sometimes it’s not so wonderful, especially when you make the wrong decision and accidentally kill the person you’ve pledged to save (Dragon Age, you evil game, you!).  Choices are appearing more frequently in games where the player has more control over the outcome and perhaps the reason we lap up these games so eagerly is the lack of moral decision making in our own lives.  We don’t generally need to choose whether or not to kill someone; the most important decision I make on a daily basis is what to have for dinner.  And even that’s not easy.

Morality has been on the back of my mind a lot lately, mostly due to watching Breaking Bad and playing The Walking Dead.  Breaking Bad is a show where the characters are constantly struggling with moral choices and it can be painful to watch them making the wrong ones.  Much discussion has been had in our house over which course of action is best and sometimes there are even disagreements (but then my boyfriend concedes that I’m right).  It’s a credit to the show’s writers that the answer is not easy and that it provokes such debate.  But the situation is still out of our hands.  We have no control over what the characters will do.

Not so with games.

Sometimes I wish I hadn’t started The Walking Dead.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love it – the story is compelling, the characters have real depth and I like the style and atmosphere.  It’s the decision making that I struggle with.  Often you don’t have a lot of time to make a crucial decision and on top of that there’s a young girl, Clementine, who is looking up to your character, Lee.  Her presence definitely makes me think twice about what I’m doing.

The Walking Dead Episode Two Starved For Help 1

Now I have to confess that I’m not very bad-ass when it comes to choosing my moral path in games.  I tend to pick the options that I would choose in real life, or that I think I would choose.  I know people who deliberately pick the “bad” path and try to be as evil as they possibly can be.  I wish I was one of those people.  Sometimes I just want to be a bitch because I can’t bring myself to be one in real life (at least not intentionally).  That’s not to say that I always pick the “right” way but with increasing grey areas in games where before everything was black and white, it’s harder to know what the best option is.  For me personally, that’s better as it’s much more realistic.  Life is all grey areas.

And does it really matter?  As long as we enjoy ourselves surely that’s all that counts, I hear you say.  Well firstly don’t call me Shirley; and secondly maybe it has more impact on our lives than we realise.

Games have become so important in our culture that studies have actually been carried out to determine how morality in games affects us in real life.  Dr Andrew J Weaver’s research paper, Mirrored Morality: An Exploration of Moral Choice in Videogames analysed the results of players during Fallout 3 and discovered that the majority tried to choose paths that were non-violent.  Even those that were playing just to be bad were doing it mainly for some reward, e.g. achievements, loot, etc.

That’s nice then.  People are generally good.  There are very few truly evil people in the world.  This we know.  It’s interesting to see that this carries over into the gaming realm though where many have the opportunity to try out a life that they would never pursue in the real world.  And for those that do follow the dark path and become crazed killers of innocent bystanders and tramplers of flowers, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Warning!  Philosophy and culture coming up!  Aristotle believed that through art we learn valuable moral lessons and that the best way to become a rounded moral individual was through practice.  He would have loved The Walking Dead.  Art gives people the chance to experience emotions in a controlled setting and, even better, games give us the chance to think about morality.  If you choose to murder someone because they stole something from you in a game, nothing will happen to you in real life; but you get the opportunity to experience the consequences. Therefore you are learning. I hate to break it to you but games are educational.

Another study, The Effect of Videogames on Moral Decision Making by Livia Teernstra, showed that people who played games were quicker to save others regardless of the outcome and this was especially true of players of multi-player games who showed a clear line of moral judgement in situations, compared to non-players who remained mostly neutral.

So if you want to be a better person, play World of Warcraft.

Actually that’s not advice I’m quick to follow but you get the idea.


It’s true that the moral rules in games are different from those in the real world and should be treated as such.  No matter how realistic the game, it’s still fiction, and we as human beings know the difference.  Just because I ran someone over in GTA and got away with it doesn’t mean I’m going to do it in real life.  But in games where we have more control over the outcome, I believe we follow our own moral rules.  Everybody is different.  Someone might start the game with the intention of being the biggest nasty since Hitler but still have rules they must follow.  Maybe they won’t harm children or hit a woman (that one makes me chuckle; being a woman myself I have the moral right to smack those bitches up!).  Perhaps someone decides that they will try to play like Batman and not kill anyone but pretty much anything else goes.  Or maybe you’re like me and just coast along trying not to die and do the right thing when an option comes up.

Whatever the reasons behind it all, flexing our moral muscles in games seems to give us clearer judgement and when the apocalypse finally comes, we’ll be able to make decisions quickly and morally.  And hopefully survive.


Mirrored Morality: An Exploration of Moral Choice in Videogames, Weaver, AJ, PhD, Lewis, N, MA, November 2012

The Impact of Videogames in Moral Decision Making, Teernstra, L, June 2013





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7 Responses to “What’s Your Moral Code?”
  1. avatar Derek "Digi" McRoberts says:

    Fabulous work Sarah. Really set a benchmark for articles that has scared some of the other staff silly.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. avatar mechamonkey says:

    Great Article!

    I often start these kind of moral alignment choices along the lines of ‘this time, THIS TIME, I’m not going to be Mr Nice Guy”.

    It never happens, I always end up choosing the nice options and ending up whiter than white. I just can’t do it, I can’t play evil characters. I HAVE to save that kitten.

    Of course the one exception was in Prototype, I really enjoyed being a crowd devouring parasite. Must have gone mad with power.

  3. Great bit of work!
    I had the same issue with Dragon Age Origins…. I did a quick load tho, wasn’t having that :)

  4. avatar sarahf says:

    Thanks! I’m excited to be part of the team :)

  5. avatar Adamski UK says:

    Wonderful piece, great research.
    Same as Mechamonkey; I have all the intention of being a right b*****d, just can’t help staying moralistic! Maybe that makes it all the more enjoyable when we do something out of character?

    I’m off now to go and shoot people in the face…ah, hang on, maybe it’s not that I’m shit at gaming, maybe I subconsciously miss blowing their heads off due to my internal moral compass!?

  6. avatar Black73Cat says:

    I always try to play nice! My renegade score in Mass Effect is almost zero and I very nearly did a reload in Skyrim the other day, when I accidentally stole a tankard or something. I only wanted to speak to the bloke behind the bar and ended up stealing from him!!

    Great article..:-)

  7. avatar Greg Giddens says:

    Terrific article, Sarah. For the most part I play games to my real life moral code, or at least the theoretical best me I could be. Sometimes it goes wrong, or I lash out in-game due to circumstance, but I like how it mirrors my actual morals and action. I find it difficult to choice “evil” options in a game unless I have some reason behind it that I can claim justifies it.

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