Morality in the Video Games We Play: The Power of Choice

How does morality feature in the games we play? The ability to have choice and deliberation in our video games is as important now than it ever was before.

November 9, 2018

As free-thinking humans we enjoy, for the most part, being able to make our own choices, especially in a world where so many choices have been taken away from us. The medium of video games usually allows us that ability, or at least it has become a lot more widespread for developers to implement this feature in recent times. With films, a script is written and we sit and enjoy the ride (or sometimes not) without having any kind of say what the outcome is. Although, sometimes we will try our best by mindlessly shouting at the screen telling the young woman not to run down the dark alleyway while a serial killer is after her; I mean, come on!

Video games are different from films due to the way that they usually allow us the freedom to be either a goodie-two-shoes or a complete evil asshole. The choice is essentially ours; there’s no script we need to follow as such in choice-driven games when it comes to morality. We can even become both of these elements throughout our gameplay, trying out the yin as well as the yang to understand what outcomes both will create in terms of consequences.

Gamers don’t enjoy grey areas: we leave that to movies starring Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson.

In many games, decision-making is the core principle where developers must consider the choices they offer the player. Take morality, for instance, where you distinguish between “right” and “wrong” behavior, and how it influences player choice. Good moral decisions often require self-sacrifice or loyalty to achieve a greater good and bad moral choices, even though you may be feared by some NPCs, gives you power or a sense of “control” within the game.

Both of these decisions can have positive effects as well as negatives, but as a player, this is the kind of freedom we want to have while gaming. We want to push the boundaries, test the waters, and decide what kind of person we want to become – because we can in the video gaming world.

To highlight this point, these are just a few of the games I feel that exemplify the kinds of moral decision-making that games allow us to consider. The following list of games does contain spoilers for those who haven’t played them yet.

Red Dead Redemption 2

I’ve been playing Red Dead Redemption 2 since release and I’m absolutely loving it. It’s everything I could want from a game – I love its beautifully lush open world, the interesting characters you meet on your travels, and the vast array of wildlife, but what strikes me most are the choices the game allows you to make throughout your travels.

One of the choices that stuck out to me was when I was going hunting and at the side of the road was a man crying out for help. He got bit by a snake and was in need of urgent help. Now, I had two choices here: I could either keep on moving and let the man die (what did he really matter to me anyway?) or I could stop and help. I opted to stop and help. My options were to either suck the venom out or offer him some medicine. Believing the medicine wouldn’t work in time, I put my big boy pants on, got on my knees and sucked on this stranger’s leg, hence saving his life.

While recovering from my non-macho activity, I wandered into town, later on, to be greeted by the fellow I saved. For my mouth-to-leg-sucking skills, he offered me anything I wanted at the gunsmith store on his tab as a way to say thank you. If I hadn’t stopped to help this poor soul out, I wouldn’t have the most amazing sniper rifle that has killed some of the best long-distance game I’ve gotten so far. It gave me the opportunity to hone my hunting skills, thus allowing me to fend for myself and to bring back meat for the camp. The choice I made paid off for the greater good.

In saying that, later on, I was on a bounty run and had to fight a man after the main target wouldn’t pay up. Someone witnessed it and went to call the sheriff, with the result in that being I would have a bounty on my head for assault, even though I was just doing my job. Well, let’s just say that guy paid for being a snitch by being hogtied and thrown into the hedge. Even though I had no choice in partaking in some fisticuffs to receive the bounty money, this was essentially a “good choice” that still went bad. You can’t win them all!

The Walking Dead: Season One

Telltale Games were renowned for their choice-driven narratives and that’s what made them so appealing to players over the years. We could shape the outcome according to what we wanted and what our moral standing is or how we envision it being played out. With all the choices you are faced with, from the scene with Kenny and his son Duck when he got bitten, to when Lee has the dilemma of choosing between Carly or Doug to save from a zombie attack, there isn’t a scene more heart-wrenching than the final scene between Lee and Clementine and the decision you have to make.

The player faces not only a morality issue from a gameplay stance, but also a real-life personal one as you just can’t help but feel a real pain that’s detached from your character. The choices in this particular part in The Walking Dead‘s fifth episode, “No Time Left,” are either to kill Lee yourself before he turns after he has been bitten, or to walk off and not face the fact your father figure for so long is gone, but to allow him to remain as a zombie.

The Walking Dead is a disturbing, yet thought-provoking game, where it really pushed and scrutinized my priorities at every corner of its decision-making. I was almost too nervous to tell my friends who I knew had also played it about what my choices were throughout the game and what they would think about me, personally, as a result. I chose to play the game with “good” and also “bad” elements where, in a section, I’d rob someone so that I had enough supplies. I pondered what my friends would think about me as a result of those actions.

The capability that The Walking Dead can pull out so much emotion due to the choices that you make is what choice-driven games should always inspire to be, and to constantly make you question your own beliefs.

Final Fantasy VII

And now, we will be going from games that give the player a more choice-based system, to a game where the player had no choice at all over the outcome, but wish they could. In Final Fantasy VII, Aerith, (or when the game was translated to English, it became Aeris) who was a flower girl, went to a Cetra temple to pray for the power to stop Sephiroth who was destroying the planet. Cloud and company arrive at the temple too, where Sephiroth tries to manipulate Cloud into killing Aerith. When Cloud won’t follow Sephiroth’s orders, Sephiroth takes it upon himself to kill her with what follows to be a truly heartbreaking scene.

Many players were devastated at the loss of such an innocent and soulful character, who made flowers, plants, etc. grow in a dead world. With myself included, fans of the series spent hours reloading the previous save point trying to find a way to spare her life, but no matter what you did, the outcome remained the same.

While some players find this a pivotal moment in the game that gives you the final push to complete your mission in taking down Sephiroth, I feel we were already on that path anyway, so not having the choice to save her didn’t give the player a feeling of deliberation. The decision was already made, when really, a basic choice-driven narrative would’ve worked well for this scene by the developers.

We knew by the end of Final Fantasy VII that it was either take Sephiroth out or watch the world and everything we cared for die around us. If given the choice in Aerith living or dying, I personally would have wanted the choice to let her live, or maybe sacrifice someone else instead (Red XIII maybe?). In my mind, I imagine us all chasing down and defeating both Jenova and Sephiroth, then watching Aerith heal the planet with Holy and turning back to me with the sun behind her and smiling. Roll credits.

The Moral Study

Morality in video games has been studied for some time and to great lengths. In one study reference, Daniel M. Shafer, Ph.D. at Baylor University, Texas discussed the moral choices of games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Ultima IV, while also peering into the topic of our own personal moral code. Daniel said in his Media Psychology review that:

“The moral choices we make in the real world depend, at least in part, on our personal moral code or sense. The pertinent question in a study such as this, however, is how real-world moral judgment and choice translate to the fictional game world. There is evidence that gamers have real emotional responses to videogame characters, treating them as social beings. Because players of violent video games are required to kill other social beings, it is understandable that playing violent video games may cause very real emotional and moral problems for those gamers. However, gamers report greater enjoyment when playing violent games, and do not feel that committing game violence is wrong. It stands to reason that gamers’ reactions to moral situations in video games would be tied to their own personal sense of morality, as well as other individual attitudes. An individual’s sense of morality can vary greatly, but there are both normative and descriptive approaches to an individual’s moral standards…”

Marcus Schulzke, a Ph.D. student in political science at the State University of New York at Albany, has also studied how moral choice can be incorporated into video games, particularly Fallout 3, while including the works of Aristotle in his morality debate:

“The engagement of players in fantasy worlds allows video games to serve the cathartic purpose that Aristotle had in mind, but it also gives them an educative function that he did not anticipate. Interactivity makes games an arena in which players can experiment with different ways of resolving moral problems. This essay shows that the Fallout series (Bethesda, 2008; Interplay, 1997, 1998; Universal, 2001), and Fallout 3 in particular, provide a promising look at how video games can serve as tools of moral education. The Fallout series is among the video games best suited for ethical instruction because it is set in an open world that grants the player freedom of action – including the freedom to be moral or immoral…”

“…Games like Fallout cultivate what Aristotle called “phronesis” – the practical wisdom of knowing how to act morally in particular situations. According to Aristotelian virtue ethics, morality is not a matter of learning universal laws. It is learning how to be good by strengthening one’s practical wisdom to the point that it is capable of resolving moral dilemmas as they arise. Practical wisdom is essential even for those who believe in a moral code as it is the skill that allows one to recognize when to apply a particular rule…

By situating players in a virtual world in which they can test their phronesis and improve it without suffering from the adverse consequences actions real world, video games serve as an invaluable educational tool. When players choose to act morally they get practice in making sound decisions, and even when they choose to act immorally they gain experience in evaluating moral problems and experience the consequences of their actions. Simply being presented with opportunities to act morally and immorally can, from the Aristotelian perspective, make players wiser and more sensitive to real-world moral dilemmas.”

With all of that said and done, I believe that there is still room for more work to be done within the gaming industry on how developers can give the player more choices and more room to push “the morality meter” even further, along with the potential for ethical reasoning and reflection that games can help provide.

In my perfect world every game, no matter if it’s a sports game, fighting game, or a straightforward platforming game, should to a degree incorporate fundamental qualities that create meaningful experiences through the medium of choice and deliberation. If there was ever an ideal test experiment for helping people learn about ethics, reasoning, hard moral decisions, and the emotional repercussions that surround dilemmas, video games would be it.


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