3 times video games stole classic moral dilemmas

Video games with morality systems are pretty much the norm for most in the industry, but did you know that many of the toughest decisions we’ve been faced with have been around for decades, if not longer?

Here are just three of the moral dilemmas that video games have stolen.

Read more: What is the best video game morality system?

Warning! Spoilers throughout!


1) The Trolley Problem in Prey

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The Trolley Problem, made famous by Phillipa Foot in 1967, is one of the most famous moral ‘thought experiments’ in the world. It goes like this:

You see a runaway trolley (or train) speeding towards a set of five people tied to the tracks. The trolley is headed straight for them, and without intervention will surely run them over and kill them.

You are standing by a lever that will switch the trolley over to another set of tracks. This set of tracks, however, has a single person tied down to them. If you switch the lever, the trolley will run them down instead and kill them.

You have two choices. Pull the lever and kill the single person, or do nothing and allow the trolley to run down five. Which is the most ethical choice?

The arguments for pulling the lever are simple and utilitarian. By pulling the lever, you are saving five lives at the cost of one, so you should do it. It’s simple mathematics.

However, other viewpoints would argue that in such a situation, doing nothing is the truly ethical choice. You had nothing to do with setting these people up on those tracks, and by participating in a ‘morally wrong’ scenario i.e. pulling the lever, you are complicit in the outcome: either of which result in at least one death.

You see the same kind of problem presented in Prey

In fact, you see a variation of the Trolley Problem during the psychometric testing of the protagonist at the start of the game. Rather than a lever, you are asked if you would push a fat man in front of the trolley to stop it from running over the five tied-down victims. You would still kill someone to save many, but it’s more directly your fault than if you were to just pull a lever.

However, the game puts this conundrum into practice closer to the end of the game, with the side mission titled Shuttle Advent.

Rather than a runaway trolley, you are presented with a runaway shuttle. There are people on board, heading towards Earth, but it’s unknown whether they left before or after the Typhon incursion. If the shuttle lands, it may release Typhons onto Earth, killing millions of people.

You have the choice of either letting the shuttle go, or detonating the scuttling charges and killing everyone on board, alongside any potential Typhon threat.

This dilemma follows the same line of thinking as the original Trolley Problem. Do you kill a few dozen people to potentially save millions, or do you do nothing and allow the shuttle to continue? Which is the more moral choice?

The only change is the idea of chance: in the original, death is a certainty. In Prey, there’s only a chance that the shuttle has Typhon on board.

Does that affect your decision?


2) The Prisoner’s Dilemma of Rust

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The Prisoner’s Dilemma requires a bit of set up to explain. Consider the following:

You are arrested for a crime there is no question that you committed. You are brought into an interrogation room and given an ultimatum: either you betray your colleague for a lesser sentence, or you will go to prison for several years.

Your lawyer steps in and quietly explains to you that they also have your accomplice under similar circumstances. She says that if you betray your accomplice, and the accomplice stays silent, you’ll get to go free and your accomplice will serve 3 years in prison.

But, she warns, if you stay silent and your accomplice betrays you instead, you’ll be the one in prison.

You know from your experience that if both of you keep your mouths shut, you’ll both still end up in prison, but without evidence, the sentence will probably be only 1 year. Of course, if both of you betray each other, you’ll both end up in prison, but only on 2 years because of the plea deal.

Is it more ethical to betray your colleague, or keep your mouth shut?

To put this more simply, here’s a table:

Accomplice stays silent Accomplice betrays
You stay silent Both get 1 year You get 3 years, accomplice goes free
You betray You go free, accomplice get 3 years Both get 2 years

If you betray your colleague, you get a chance to go free, or at least get a shorter sentence. You have no idea that your accomplice will do, so it’s always better to betray—assuming you are a rational actor.

Whether it’s moral or not is a different question, and you’ll actually tend to find that people are more likely to co-operate (“stay silent”) than you think, even under similar circumstances. This is because of a wide range of additional factors that come as part and parcel of real life moral dilemmas, as well as a few irrational ‘human’ factors that are so often forgotten. One such irrational factor is the way we decide what is the ‘right’ thing to do, rather than just the ‘best’ thing to do.

The same dilemma is presented in Rust, but really it’s in every game with mechanics that encourage kill-on-sight.

In Rust, every time you run into another player, you have a dilemma: do you shoot first and get the upper hand, or do you risk co-operation? If you shoot first, you are less likely to die and you might get some good loot.

If you try to co-operate, you are more likely to die, you won’t get some good loot, but you might get the chance to make a friend or do some trading or merely interact with a friendly player.

The problem is the risk/reward mechanic is out of whack there. In a highly competitive, loot-driven game like Rust, stealing from other players and avoiding death is far more valuable than simple interaction.

As a result, nearly every player ‘betrays’ rather than co-operates, resulting in kill-on-sight culture: not because people are dicks, but because the potential payoff is a lot lower if you try to co-operate.

It’s the opposite of what you see in real life. In the real world, people like to co-operate with each other. The difference, then, might be the same difference there is with all online interaction: people are happier to be a dick when they can hide behind a screen.


3) The Overcrowded Lifeboat in Telltale’s The Walking Dead

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Unlike the other two dilemmas in this article, the Overcrowded Lifeboat is loosely based on a real life story.

A ship sinks in the middle of the ocean. The captain and many survivors make it onto the lifeboats in time and, for a short period, are safe from the water.

However, as time goes on, the captain realises that there are too many people on the lifeboat. He explains the situation to the survivors, and says that he is going to throw some people off. The only alternative is to let everybody die as the lifeboat sinks—including the survivors he would have thrown off—so it makes no difference to those removed from the boat one way or the other. They are going to die either way.

Moreover, the people thrown off are going to be the weakest among them. The trip to shore will require a lot of hard rowing, the captain reasons, so it would be stupid to risk throwing away the strongest rowers through random choice or through volunteers.

The weakest passengers are thrown off and drown. The rest of the survivors are rescued, but the captain is quickly arrested and brought to court for multiple acts of murder.

You are on the jury. Is he responsible for those deaths?

This dilemma is similar to the Trolley Problem, in that the arguments boil down to being responsible for murder, or doing nothing.

Had the captain done nothing, and the lifeboat had sunk, it could be argued that he would not have been responsible for the deaths of those on the lifeboat. He did nothing in a situation that offered no morally right actions. He would be dead, as would the passengers, but that isn’t the point: he would not have been a murderer.

On the other hand, the captain’s reasoning is that by doing nothing, he would have been responsible for the deaths of everybody on the boat, so his actions were right. He was the captain after all, and he reasoned that his actions allowed for the survival of many at the expense of the few. He was responsible for the drowning of the weakest survivors so everybody else had a chance.

And you can see a perfect example of this in Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season 1.

During Lee’s adventures, there comes a point when bumbling companion Ben ends up hanging feet first over a steep drop that is almost certain to kill him—and if the drop doesn’t, the zombies at the bottom definitely will.

You, playing as Lee, have the opportunity to either help Ben, let him drop by doing nothing or intentionally making him drop to his death. Over the time you’ve known Ben, he has messed up over and over and over again, eventually resulting in the inadvertent deaths of multiple important characters.

He is the weakest character of the bunch, even more so than the young Clementine. He has dropped you and the group in multiple heaps of trouble, and has proven himself incapable of even the most simple tasks.

As he is hanging over this drop, the game is giving you the same option the ocean gave the captain: kill off the weakest person in your group to improve the chances of survival for the strong, or keep him on and take the risk of him causing everyone else to die instead.

If you, as a player, let him drop, would you be responsible for his death? How about if you made him drop? If you let him live, and he got somebody else killed, would you be responsible for those deaths?

These are all questions that the Overcrowded Lifeboat question, and Ben’s fate, that you are faced with as a player.


Want to learn more about video games with morality systems? Check out our article, What is the best video game morality system?!

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