In the last two generations of gaming systems, the inclusion of a moral system which affects plot and character has become a prominent feature in many games.  The simple version of this gameplay feature offers the player different endings depending on whether or not they were “good” or bad.” More complex games (Fable, Mass Effect, Fallout 3) take a more nuanced approach to morality or “karma,” assigning the player various good points or bad points depending on how they act in the world: who they kill or save, how they treat other characters, and what choices they make in the plot. The player is then given various bonus, perks, or abilities that are unique to his or her “karma” level. In a Star Wars game, an evil character might get Force Lighting. In Mass Effect, a good character might get the ability to charm someone into helping them.

However the player benefits or is hurt by his or her choices, most games present fairly simple moral choices. You can either chose to rob the poor family stuck on a deserted planet, or give them a lift off the rock. You can either call your companions idiots for letting the villian escape, or you can assure them that it was not their fault. A few offer the player a third choice, essentially a “neutral” moral response, but no matter how many ways they divide the choices, it is nearly always clear to the player how their choice will affect them. In other words, using morality as a gameplay feature only works insofar as the player understands the game’s system of morality. Once the player’s understanding of right and wrong diverge from the game’s, the player will end up making choices which do not produce the results they expect.

I became acutely aware of this in a conversation with a friend about Fallout 3. We both enjoyed the game and were discussing how it surprised us in various ways when we got around to discussing a particular quest called, Tranquility Lane. If you wish to avoid spoilers, I would suggest skipping the next two paragraphs. In this quest, you get trapped in a virtual world controlled by a masochistic scientist. The other characters in this world, like you, are real people who are asleep in a pod; however, unlike you they have been sleeping and living in this virtual world for years. The scientist, Dr. Braun, who controls this world and lives in it, enjoys torturing the other characters and even “killing” them.  After he “kills” these characters and is finished with his fun, he starts up a new environment, wipes their memory, and starts over again. When you enter his virtual world, he gives you various tasks to do before he will let you leave: make a little boy cry, break up a marriage, kill a woman in a creative way, and then kill everyone in the town. Obviously, if you do his tasks your character loses “karma” points. But the game gives you another option.

If you find Dr. Braun’s hidden computer, you can release a simulation called, “Chinese Invasion” which sends Chinese soldiers into the town to kill all the inhabitants and allows you to escape. What is interesting is that unlike the murders that Dr. Braun has been committing which leave the person in the real world unharmed (although mentally scarred), the “Chinese Invasion” is a fail safe which kills the characters both in the virtual world and the real world, thus freeing them from the endless torrment of Dr. Braun. This option gives you good karma in the game. Both my friend and I remarked that it seemed odd to receive “karma” for killing these characters, even if it was, presumably, an act of mercy. In the game’s moral system, it is morally better to kill people than to allow them to be tortured in a virtual world, despite the fact that the characters themselves have no way of communicating to you their preference. You are, in effect, rewarded for judging the worth of someone’s life and then killing them based on that judgement.

This quest presents players with a fairly complex moral dilemma, which I think is good for mature games to do, but the complexity of this situation is reduced by the moral system of the game by offering the player a moral binary. To torture and kill in a virtual world is evil, but to save those people by killing them in the real world is good. The game is presenting me not only with a moral situation, a fact that needlessly preoccupies much of the “moral” discussion of video games, but a moral system by which to act in that situation. In general, these moral systems appeal to fairly universal ethics: murder, theft, and lying are wrong; sacrifice, benevolence, and honesty are good. But in Fallout 3, I was confronted with a morality that was much more complex and yet the judgment of that situation was disturbingly simple and challenged my beliefs.

Certainly video games are not the only medium which presents both moral situations and systems. Books, films, television and most stories involve some judgment on the actions of the characters, and this judgment constitutes a moral system, even if it is limited. But video games are unique in that they invite the player to engage and act out the plot in a way that differs from other storytelling mediums. I might identify with a character in a book or movie, but I am not making his choices. I will always be distant from them because I have no agency in their world (unless you include “Choose Your Own Adventure” books…). In a video game, particularly role playing games, I am given some, albeit limited, agency. Which leads me to the question, how should Christians respond to video games which call what is evil, good?*

It could be argued by some that games like this can and will redefine our morality in an unbiblical and dangerous way by rewarding us when we act according to the game’s morality, not the Truth. There are several assumptions in this argument that make it untenable. It assumes that the player is oblivious to the morality expressed by the games and that actions in a game can have profound and penetrating affects on our most basic beliefs. The validity of both assumptions depends entirely on the context of the situation and the maturity of the player, and so this response seems to be less than satisfactory.

Another response is to note that games are only likely to become more emersive and involve more complex moral systems. As games allow players to enter into more realistic and emersive worlds and offer them more varied actions and moral choices in that world, the moral systems that judge the player’s actions will have to engage increasingly complex situations. In this sense, it seems important for us to begin considering how to respond to the way video games portray morality now so that we are prepared to deal with this issue as it becomes more prominent.

For now, I believe the most important action we can take in response to the presentation of morality in video games is to make an effort to identify how a game treats morality and how that differs from God’s Truth. The reality is that all man-made moral systems (including ones we impose upon ourselves in moments or periods of legalism) are corruptions of the truth; they inevitably are unjust and confuse what is evil for what is good. Our calling is not to merely condemn and flee from these systems, but to honestly and graciously understand them, identifying what is a corruption and labeling it as such and agreeing with what is right.  I chose to unleash the Chinese Invasion upon the residents of Tranquility Lane, believing that it was the better of the two options the game gave me. Although I do not agree with the games assessment of my character’s action as “good,” I am thankful that it challenged me to consider how video games are capable of presenting a moral system.

*My point here is not that that particular quest in Fallout 3 confuses evil for good, but that the fact that the moral situation is so complex suggests that if players don’t disagree with this game’s morality, they will find conflict with the morality of future games.


5 Comments

  1. Very interesting post Alan. I think such decision making is what makes games such a unique and potentially powerful medium. I find it interesting that Fallout only gives you those two choices in such a situation, but I agree with your final assessment. Just because a game forces us to chose between two choices, neither of which we are completely comfortable with, doesn’t mean that we should not play the game. If you are mature enough to think about such a decision and evaluate why you were not comfortable with it, then I think that is a good thing in some sense.

    Obviously there are a lot of games out there not worth playing, but at least Fallout challenges players to think and to make difficult decisions–at least then we have something to talk about!

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  2. A game of the style and caliber of Fallout 3 operates well as a window into the moral values of its developers, functioning as something of a pedagogue—not to teach players how to behave in the real world, but how Bethesda Ethical Systems work.

    One thing I really found interesting with Fallout 3‘s karma system was that it was only partially based on NPC witnesses. In other like games, so long as you do something bad yet no one sees or your victim doesn’t have time to cry out, your karma doesn’t take a hit. Yet in Fallout 3, while the result of being caught red-handed can be mild or terrifying, there is an invisible deity (the F3 game system) who tracks and reports on your every infraction.

    So whereas in many other such role-playing experiences, I would find myself playing the stealthy thief character who would commit a multitude of crime but never get caught, in Fallout 3 my style of gameplay changed dramatically. My first time through, I played as a genuine do-gooder and because of the moral system, I was unable to engage in any of my typical subterfuge without getting caught. It was fun and a bit of a challenge and it was a struggle sometimes to not just end certain characters in the most utilitarian fashion. This was the first time that a game’s moral system actively altered my manner of play. (I think The Witcher would have done something at least vageuely similarly had I continued playing—I was experiencing hardware issues at the time).

    The second time through, I played as a lawless Asian woman, punked out and essentially of raider disposition, both in look and attitude. I nuked the good town of Megaton (after killing and looting everyone there). I joined the slavers of Paradise Falls. I turned in the android. I destroyed both the superhero and his masked nemesis. I had people trying to jump me at every turn. In it’s way, it was crazy and wonderful.

    And unlike with Bioshock, there is a huge benefit to being an evil character in Fallout 3. The game was not only easier to complete and interact with if one held no concern for the rules of society, but I was never at a loss for money or guns. I actually kind of prefer it when it’s harder to be quote-unquote good than it is to be bad.

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  3. I am not a Christian (though I have read the New Testament), but I have a difficult time understanding how anyone who is seriously religious could not see a moral compromise in allowing this stuff into his/her head. I intend no offense, but I am personally intellectually amoral, and this game still seems gleefully disrespectful and socially irresponsible to me. Any moral pretense in the game is completely compromised by the overarching attitude of sarcasm and nihilism that permeates the entire game world. And hiring child actors to create profane dialog doesn’t strike me as a particularly healthy thing to do.

    Then there is the games karma system. Karma is a part of religious system involving multiple lives and the burning away of the individual self. Karma in Fallout 3 is some kind of John Lennon “Instant Karma” nonsense masquerading as complex morality: The avatar kills a character that enslaves ‘children’ and it gets “good karma”. But if the avatar takes the dead character’s belongings, it gets “bad karma”. The avatar get’s “good karma” for killing an amoral elitist, but is not allowed to sleep in the dead man’s bed because it is “owned”. The avatar can’t kill any ‘children’ but it can enslave them. No ‘child’ murders are allowed in the game because that would be crossing some moral line, even though the game makers actually think that killing any other character is amusing as hell, and the bloodier the better. Of course, there is a dissonant sound when the avatar does something ‘bad’ and I suppose that this is considered a negative consequence.

    Again I am not judging you, or even your behavior. I just honestly cannot think of game less related to, or respectful of the teachings of Jesus Christ.

  4. That is a great question and I’m sorry I didn’t see it earlier. The concerns you mention are why a large number of Christians believe that games like Fallout 3 are harmful and that a Christian playing (and worse, enjoying) the game would be a Christian who is living at odds with the teachings of Christ. The question is a sibling of those that express concern with Christians who read (and worse, enjoyed) the Harry Potter series—for what kind of Christian would take pleasure in witchcraft when Scripture plainly teaches that witchcraft is morally wrong.

    The key to understanding how these things might not be at odds with our Christian ethos is by considering game worlds vs the world as it is. There is a divorce between fantasy and reality and most people can distinguish between the two fairly easily. And morals in the fantasy world don’t necessarily have to comport to those in the real world (unless morals in the fantasy world transverse the barrier between the two and end up affecting the person in the real world—such as sins in the mind like anger, lust, blasphemy, etc.).

    Here’s a basic example that doesn’t even take into account a specific faith system. In Super Mario Bros., players take on the role of an overweight plummer who crushes turtles by jumping on them. In the real world, this would be entirely inappropriate, a gross act of animal cruelty. Yet in the game world, we do it easily and without thought to its real-world analogue. The moral component is missing, because we’re very well aware that the gameworld is fantasy.

    As these gameworlds come to mirror the real world to greater degree, those who will find themselves able to divorce the fantasy from the reality will begin to shrink. Which is why you’ll see a number of Christians who cannot imagine how other Christians can play a game like Fallout 3 and still hold to a consistent Chrisitanity. Currently though, even these more realistic games are still pretty obviously fantasy-based.

    In Fallout 3, I can talk to admittedly grotesque transhumans who have been alive for over two hundred years. I run and jump while carrying hundreds of pounds of weaponry without slowing, even if I have the physique of a petite female runner. I can enter a world that’s never known me and with which I have no experience and in a very short time become its most celebrated hero. I can get shot multiple times, break bones, and suffer radiation poisoning and then simply visit a doctor to get better. There are myriad signposts to point the player to the fact that she is engaging in fantasy. And if fantasy, then the normal operative moral rules do not apply. At least not int the same way.

    So then, what is the purpose then of fantasy play? Enterainment is an obvious possibility. But many game-players engage for more than just entertainment. There is the challenge and satisfaction of competetion (whether against others or against a system of rules). There is the exercise of the mind as well. Beyond just the complexity of problem-solving, strategy, and tactics, the narrative systems of games present all kinds of ideas and abstractions to think about. Experiences can cultivate thoughtfulness and experiencing things outside the realm of one’s normal experiences can spark a new path of thinking and allow one to reevaluate prior conclusions. And in experiencing the stories of people who are not like us, we learn empathy. These are some of the great uses of literature as well. In walking a mile in the shoes of another (even if that other is wholly built of fantasy), we learn to better appreciate the human condition.

    Personally, the gratuitous violence of some of these games (e.g. Fallout 3) does little to tittilate me. I’m not fourteen and so I don’t think that killing is cool. I am largely a pacifist and yet in Fallout 3 I killed without remorse because 1) that was the story that I was presented with and 2) I wasn’t actually killing anything (since I’m well-aware that the raiders or townspeople or super-mutants I killed were merely interface mechanisms of the game system, not real people or creatures).

    As far as the karma system goes, it really wasn’t at all related to Hinduism. It was a misnamed attempt at a reputation system—since its only effect in the game is to determine how other people think of you. That said, even if it was a system fully consistent with Hinduism, I wouldn’t have had any problem playing the game despite my Christianity. Again, this stems from the fact that participation in a gameworld doesn’t demand acquiesence to that gameworld’s belief- or moral-structure (if it has one). Just like how I can (and have) read and enjoy a book on the life of the Buddha doesn’t mean I’m participating in Buddhist beliefs any more than your experience with the New Testament makes you a follower of Jesus Christ.

    Again, it’s all a matter of distinguishing between the world that is and the experimental worlds that are not.

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