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Morality, For The Modern Player

Posted on Friday, May 7 @ 14:53:34 Eastern by
Video games are reaching maturity as an artform, and morality is at its crux. Notably in recent years, players have been responding to the ability to explore what a game's particular world deems as right or wrong, and in turn, the ability to imprint onto that world what they deem is right and wrong as well. And the industry is taking notice: Bioshock, Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Knights of the Old Republic, Fable – all of these franchises are both financially and critically successful in part because of their interpretation on moral choices. Not only are these franchises creating sequels that boast even more sophisticated morality systems, but new intellectual properties like Heavy Rain also mark morality as the new frontier for modern gaming.

Morality systems are nothing new, especially since they can be viewed as just an instance of non-linear storytelling. Having multiple dialogue options shouldn’t shock anyone and simply coloring those options with various shades of morality shouldn’t either. Yet there’s something personal when choosing among moral, immoral, and neutral choices. Ethics go straight to the core of the player, so even if the choices feel artificial or cliché in their portrayal of good and evil, they have private impact.





Moral Judgment

By letting the player choose their moral alignment, most of these games relinquish their favor for either “good” or “evil”. As opposed to other artforms like film and literature, they do no attempt to instill a specific viewpoint in its audience (a good marketing decision too), instead providing a simulation of what occurs in its world when a player follows one such viewpoint. They don’t teach players to follow “good” morals, as much as they teach them what they are conceptually. Even if players choose a “bad” action – murdering an innocent in cold blood, for instance – they do so understanding what is perceived as good and bad in the first place.

In other words, players are not completely deciding what is moral or immoral. The designers have already made a part of that judgment by declaring certain actions as good or bad, through different endings, the reactions by other non-player characters, and often quantified points on a morality scale (more on that later). For the most part, games clearly categorize what is "good" and "evil" (or "nice" and "aggressive"): Bioshock asks players to either “rescue” or “harvest” Little Sisters, and Mass Effect even goes as far as coloring paragon options as blue and renegade options as red. Players are merely deciding whether they agree with the game’s definition of what is moral and immoral, and then acting on their assessment.

Some critics might see this neutral attitude on morality as a weakness, declaring games with these systems as being deficient in artistic voice as well as having a lack of moral fiber. Especially since most games have linear stories that are about the importance of life, freedom, and truth. They make it sound like games that allow players to perform heinous acts would lead them down the road of depravity. Participation in virtual murder for these critics is equivalent to actual murder.

On further inspection, though, moral choice engines can give the oft-criticized violence in games a moral compass, challenging sadism to circumstance. The media outrage against Modern Warfare 2’s controversial scenario, where the player can kill citizens in a Russian airport, but only as an undercover agent disguised as a terrorist, succumbs to the fallacy of attributing the player’s ability to do something with the game’s promotion of doing something. Then again, aggression and virtual murder without much justification is the most popular form of escapism and catharsis for players in video games with violence. Indeed, developers don’t need to give context to violence to be successful, but they must do so if they truly wish to be “mature”.


Phronesis

This impartial approach of morality systems also allows players to cultivate a skill Aristotle would call phronesis , defined generally as the ability to know how to achieve an end, and how to reflect upon and determine that end. In other words, it is the aptitude of being able to adapt to new situations quickly and to make decisions, given the context and the facts presented at that time, that fall in line with what the player desires to achieve. Normally, that context is survival, with the avatar’s life (or another character’s life) put in danger to heighten the effect and difference between selecting a good or evil action. In video games, players can explore the extremes of morality without repercussion in the real world.

Just as in real life, no one is forced to obey a particular moral code, though society can provide a guiding hand, presenting various incentives to those who are compassionate (or aggressive) and selfless (or selfish) out of principle, a personality trait, or as simply a card that needs to be played in different situations as a matter of personal benefit.

Learning what morals are enforced, or not enforced, in a game becomes as integral as learning the game's rules and controls. It asks players to judge when to apply a rule and when to improvise, when to uphold the law and when to let things slide. In turn, they become wiser and more sensitive to real-world situations, learning how to navigate through and survive in a world rife with almost endless opposing ideals and beliefs. Participation without creed develops and scrutinizes the process of judgment – a readily practical skill that video games can impart on its players.
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