Culture Bytes: Morality in Video Games

On the face of it video games can look like a bit of a moral wasteland. The whole point of a first-person-shooter is to kill people which, I believe, is generally frowned upon in everyday society. In the Grand Theft Auto series, you play as a criminal whose stock-in-trade is murder, theft and sexual violence. You have to admit, on the face of it the medium doesn't exactly look like a haven for the benevolent heart. But is this passing glance a fair assessment of morality in video games?  
At this point I think it's important to say that everyone has different morals. Right and wrong, good and evil, are abstract concepts and the definition of them belongs to their owners. Many things influence these definitions, from religion and philosophical school of thought to personal experience, political views and our ability to empathise. For instance, some religions believe that it's wrong to drink alcohol, whereas others have ceremonies in which it's a vital component. So for the sake of judgement in this article we are going to approach morality from the perspective that it is wrong to instigate harm (physical, emotional or otherwise) against another. I say 'instigate' because there will be times we are acting in self defense or protecting others which, for the sake of this article, would be difficult to condemn as morally wrong.

Older mediums such as film and literature tend to focus on the hero - a good person doing good things, always in the moral right. However, there are more than a few examples of morally ambiguous heroes. The Man With No Name in Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy often does the "right" thing, but only for personal gain. In fact, it's arguable that we can only class him as the good guy in these films because the people he's working against are even worse than he is. Many of the characters in the films of Martin Scorsese are violent criminals, sometimes brought down by their own misdeeds, though more often than not they face no repercussions. Again, the audience tends only to side with these characters because their enemies are even more reprehensible. This proves that there was a precedent for less-than-moral characters and themes in fiction long before video games came along.

It could be argued that most video games focus of the morally right also. The Final Fantasy series features title after title of good battling evil. The protagonists of the game are usually honourable, trustworthy, heroic and, above all, triumphant. Although characters such as Squall and Cloud were very cold to start off with, they always did the right thing - protecting those who needed to be protected and battling only those who were doing wrong. In Final Fantasy IX we play as Zidane - a thief, someone who breaks the law regularly - though he only steals from those who can afford to be stolen from, making him a Robin Hood-esque figure. Furthermore, Zidane goes on to attempt to prevent an all-out-war; peace being about as moral as you can get. This is a series that promotes honour, integrity and heroism, expecting you to play conducting the characters in such a way to be seen as the moral right. In fact, the storyline forces you too, never giving you the chance to stray from the path of good. This is reminiscent of classic literature, the same morality seen in the work of Alexandre Dumas or J.R.R Tolkien. Final Fantasy is a series that gives its audience a chance to do the right thing on a level they would never get to in real life - an opportunity to be a hero; the stuff of legend.

The truth is that most games follow this formula. Kingdom Hearts, Ico, Sonic the Hedgehog and countless others never let you stray from the path of good. Though, there are games the whole concept of which is morally ambiguous. In the Hitman series you play as a hired killer who is paid for murdering specific people. To put it mildly, that's not particularly nice. But, much in the way of the films of Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, the game gets around this by making Agent 47's targets even less reputable than him. His marks are mafia bosses, war criminals and corrupt politicians giving the audience the feeling that they are doing some good - exacting some form of righteous justice for the world. It's a morality of sorts - a personified karmic retribution that tells the audience there is some kind of order to the world; that bad people get their comeuppance. Or, at the very least, in the abstract world of the video game that this is the only justice these people could face. A further argument would be that the gameplay of Hitman is not about assassination, but problem solving. Firstly the game awards you for harming as few people as possible, the real aim of the game is to find the best way to avoid detection and find your mark. Though the character's line of work is morally ambiguous at best, the game encourages lateral thinking as opposed to extreme violence. Arguably this is no more immoral than the Farseer books by Robin Hobb, all of which focus on the life of an assassin for a royal house.

More recently games have allowed their audience to decide their own morality through multiple choice options that also decide the outcome of the game. In Dragon Age: Origins the player takes control of the Grey Warden - an esteemed warrior who is tasked with building an army to do battle with the evil Archdemon. However, the game lets you do this multiple ways, clearly definable on most moral compasses as good or evil. In most situations there is an option of non-violence using persuasion to convince your enemies to resolve things peacefully, or the player can attack immediately. In certain points there will be other moral choices, such as deciding whether or not to rescue people or using Blood Magic (it even sounds evil!) to strengthen your party. These decisions make the experience more immersive and let the player define the character they have created for themselves.

Another such game would be Tell Tale's The Walking Dead in which the audience takes control of a survivor in a zombie outbreak. The decisions the player is forced with are more than just good or evil; they are life and death. In many instances someone is likely to die - but who? Who is more useful to the group? Who can you trust? Who is more likely to help you if the tables were turned? Taking this food may keep your group alive for months, but taking it could sentence another group to death. Again, this envelops the player in the world, we ourselves are survivors of this outbreak and our decisions are shaping the world around us (and the world around us is shaping our decisions). Arguably it is difficult to be evil in The Walking Dead and maybe that makes it more realistic. You may not be able to be outright evil, but you can be selfish or have a distinct lack of compassion. This is the game's major strength; how will you survive? What kind of person will you become?

But why are these moral choices so extreme? Well, video games offer an opportunity to experience things the average person wouldn't get a chance to in everyday life, just like most fiction. In terms of morality, they give us the chance to be a hero in a way we would never be able to - in the way of storybook legends. In terms of immorality, they give us the chance to do bad things with no consequences - not those of the law, but to be able to do bad things without actually hurting a real person. (Many of the things one can do in certain games like Grand Theft Auto are still very problematic, but that will have to be a debate for another article. Suffice to say for now that wanting to experience something as abhorrent as sexual violence goes far beyond any level of escapism. There is a vast difference between using underhand tactics to triumph over those more powerful than you and preying on those who cannot fight back in so heartless a way.)

In conclusion, video games on the whole encourage the audience to walk the path of the hero. However, there are certain titles that are slightly more morally ambiguous or offer a glimpse into the path of evil. That said, this is no different from a host of books or films that focus on similar themes. The truth is that there is immorality in real life, thusly there is immorality in fiction.

Sam Leeves is the author of the novels 'Endless Tides' and 'In the Footsteps of the Behemoth', he is also a member of The Fawcett Society. Find him on twitter, @CptSkyheart.

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