Moral Games

Since at present I’m both replaying and revising a paper on Dragon Age II, when I saw Tom Biggs’s article on morality and gaming at IGN, I was intrigued, and then a bit annoyed. Biggs argues that “real-world morals” have no place in videogaming. On the one hand, his point that games are not reality and the moral choices one makes in a game do not directly correspond to the way one would make those same moral choices in the real world is true. One might play a game as a criminal, as in Grand Theft Auto, or a “renegade” in Mass Effect, or by harvesting the Little Sisters in Bioshock without actually being the type of person who would do those things in the real world (not that we have Little Sisters in the real world…).

However, that doesn’t mean that real-world morals are not applicable to videogames. What it means is that the process by which one applies them is different. Our ethics are our ethics, whether we are playing a game or functioning in the real world. We may be more inclined to choose to go against those ethics when we’re in a simulated or virtual world – like that of a game, whether video or role-playing or otherwise – but that doesn’t mean those morals aren’t a part of the gameplay experience.

For instance, when my students have played through Bioshock and faced the choice of saving or harvesting the first Little Sister, with Atlas and Tennenbaum both exhorting them in different directions, they fell back on their own ethical bent in order to make the decision. Some said, “it’s a child, I can’t kill it.” Some said, “it isn’t human anymore, I can kill it because that’s to my benefit.” Some said, “it’s creepy – make it go away.” Some were influenced by the fact that Atlas had been helping them navigate the world. Some were influenced by the fact that Tennenbaum is female, others by the fact that they knew her background as a scientist who experimented on human beings, or by the fact that she had a German accent and was thereby affiliated with Nazism in their minds.

But no matter what decision they made, their ethics were a part of that decision, even if they chose to go against those ethics, just to see what would happen. And that’s the key to all this. While Biggs suggests that real-world morality and ethics aren’t relevant, what he’s really saying is that those ethics need not limit a player’s decisions in gamespace because the consequences aren’t as fully enacted – they’re virtual, for the most part. The consequences that remain are game-related, but they are also emotional. Some people just can’t bring themselves to harvest a digital little girl with glowing eyes because she’s still a little girl – their real-world ethics win out over their curiosity or their revulsion.

Now the anecdote with which Biggs opens is a prime example of this:

While playing The Godfather back in 2007, my friend’s father walked into the room just in time to see my character ‘Aldo’ throw a random passer-by against a wall and beat him senseless. The old man was outraged by this, lecturing us about the ‘junk’ we were playing. His reaction is not uncommon, I fear, as evidenced by the long and vitriolic history our hobby has with moral outrage.

The father in this story was not able to separate his real-world ethics from what he saw the boys playing. But the boys, as gamers, were able to construct a secondary set of ethical drives. They recognized, as Biggs says, that “every game has its own internal logic – separate from the real world – that governs the play, informs your decisions and dictates what’s acceptable within the system.”

And he’s right. The ethos that governs a game is not the same ethos that governs our real-world lives. But it does overlap, and we are being encouraged to examine the ethics that cause us to make the decisions we make, both in the real world and in gamespace. GTA and Saint’s Row have systems where crime is not only permissible, but encouraged, but that doesn’t mean that our real-world ethics aren’t relevant – it just means that they come into play (pun intended) in a different way. We are meant to consider our own ethics – why we make the ethical decisions that we do – based on our willingness to bend those ethics in a virtual environment. We’re meant to think about whether we would make the same decisions in the real world, and why or why not.

That doesn’t sound like irrelevance to me. It’s a different way of applying ethics and morals, yes, but it’s a way that is every bit as relevant and valid as making a real-world decision. So when Biggs says “What it cannot do is make the internal logical and moral systems of a game have any bearing on the morality of the everyday,” he’s wrong. Gaming – play – does have a very real bearing on the morality of the everyday, just not in the way that the father of his story might have believed.

Games and play help us consider not only what our morals are, but where they come from and how they are shaped. Games and play let us experiment with those ethics, examine their validity in a variety of situations without the stress of real-world consequences. Games and play enable us to reexamine not only our ethos and morality, but the ideological foundations that underpin them – and allow us to consider and reconsider the reasons why be believe in the things we believe in, and to reevaluate when necessary. Not only do real-world ethics have a huge place in videogames, but games and play of all kinds have a huge place in forming those ethics to begin with, from the time we are children through to the games we play as adults.

What we need to be cautious about – and Biggs is as guilty of this as the father in his story – is assuming that we need to behave in games as we would in real life in order to be moral. Children pretend to be people they are not, in situations in which they are not, in order to test out their ethical development. Adult play – video- and other games – does the same thing. It’s actually vital to our continued development as a society that our ethics continue to evolve with changing technology and ideologies, and continued play (whether in virtual or real space) is an essential part of that.