Morality can be a difficult concept to tackle, but the combination of creativity and interactivity in video games make them the ideal medium to explore the subject. But sometimes, implicitly or explicitly, video games really, really mess it up.
Whether it’s gameplay mechanics that encourage selfishness even in “good aligned” characters or moral systems that just outright encourage righteous murder, these are the worst moral lessons that video games have taught us.
Read more: What is the best video game morality system?
NB For maximum enjoyment, read with tongue firmly in cheek.
Nobody else matters but your character
In most video games, everything revolves around the player character. With very few exceptions, nothing happens without the player character taking action to make it happen. As a result, the entire universe revolves around you, and nobody else really matters but your own character.
Just look at Fallout 4. The main quest in this game, at least to begin with, is a post-apocalyptic version of the plotline of Finding Nemo: rescuing your missing son. You’d think that upon bursting out of the vault, you’d be encouraged to immediately start searching for your boy—but you’d think wrong.
There are no snarky questioning about why you spent so long collecting Nuka World memorabilia, or dismembering ghouls, or killing Preston Garvey and teabagging his nagging corpse.
In fact, you can spend literal in-game years doing everything but finding Shaun, and **spoilers** nothing bad ever happens. Even when you do eventually conclude that quest, there are no snarky questioning about why you spent so long collecting Nuka World memorabilia, or dismembering ghouls, or killing Preston Garvey and teabagging his nagging corpse. Nope! It’s all good, because nobody matters but you.
Some games have tried to give some agency to the NPCs, such as Mount & Blade and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (at least originally), but they are the exception, not the rule.
Crime is okay, as long as you are doing it to the bad guys
Some games, like The Witcher 3, expressly don’t have morality systems to make sure the player is able to make mature choices without being rewarded with good boy and bad boy points.
This section is not about those games.
This lesson is firmly taught by titles that have explicit karma systems, such as Fable and particularly Fallout: New Vegas. In these titles, certain actions will make you more “evil”, whereas others will make you more “good”. Sometimes these make sense—eating a baby chicken while it’s still alive, such as you can do in Fable, will unequivocally make you a bastard. The problems arise when it’s not so cut-and-dried.
Let’s take Fallout: New Vegas. Stealing nets you negative karma points, as does killing innocent people. Unless, of course, you are doing it to the people that the game has arbitrarily decided are “evil”.
Killing feral ghouls, for example, gets you positive karma points. Despite these creatures being not all that different from the other monstrosities of the waste (mindless and murderous), the game has decided that putting these radiated humans out of their misery is, somehow, a heroic act. Killing a radscorpion, arguably just as dangerous, is not.
Similarly, stealing from certain “evil” characters doesn’t net you the negative points it would if you stole from someone innocent. You could commit grand larceny against the Arseholes of the Capital Wasteland, and the game doesn’t really seem to give a shit.
In other words, it teaches that murder and theft is totally cool, so long as you are doing it to the people who the game (an authority or a higher power) has decided deserve it. Deus vult, anyone?
The non-lethal option is always the good option
There’s this weird combination in gaming of violence and mercy. Death and destruction is one of the most common ways of interacting with the game world, but there are times when players are given a choice to use non-lethal options instead. These opportunities are nearly always shown as an opportunity to use the more “moral option”.
Most of these are quite black and white. Bioshock, for example, gives you the choice between murdering Little Sisters or freeing them from their role as corpse-blood-guzzlers. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who would argue that murder is more ethical than rescue.
But then you get games like Dishonored.
Dishonored is a game where murder is often one of the easiest options, but you are rewarded when you show mercy. In fact, one of the game’s endings relies on you doing as little actual killing as possible, rewarding you for sneaking past people and using non-lethal methods. If you have a specific target that you need to kill, you can often use a non-lethal option instead that still removes them from the playing field.
There’s an assumption that not killing someone is somehow better than the alternative, regardless of the outcome.
This might mean branding them, resulting in them becoming ostracised from society, or it might mean putting them to work in their own mines. Many non-lethal options are brutal—some include mutilation and slavery—but there’s an assumption that not killing someone is somehow better than the alternative, regardless of the outcome.
That’s an assumption which isn’t always correct, and there’s no better example than the kidnapping of Lady Boyle. This is a non-lethal option for removing said Lady, and requires you to knock the woman out and deliver her to an obsessive stalker who assures you she will never be seen again—with very sexual-assaulty undertones.
By taking this option, you are condemning someone to a lifetime of imprisonment and abuse (and not the only time you can do so), and the game rewards you for by pushing you further towards the “Low Chaos” ending—essentially the equivalent of a high karma.
Whether ending a life or abusing a life is better isn’t a debate we’ll have here. But it is a consistent trope in games that not killing someone, no matter the outcome, is somehow the more moral option.
Frankly, with all of these awful moral lessons being jammed into your grey matter on a daily basis, it’s shocking that us gamers haven’t all turned into murderous killing machines. It’s abundantly clear that games encourage killing, sexual assault and outright racism against irradiated members of society. It’s about time we banned them altogether.
Or, maybe, morality and the human mind is a little more complicated than that.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this delve into the ethics of vidya, and that you’ll think twice before making the “obvious” right choice in your next playthrough. Let me know what moral choice you thought was bullshit in your favourite game in the comments below, and how you would have changed it to make it engaging, sensible, or otherwise ‘better’.
Very interesting insight into the oversimplified ethics we find in many games! Fascinating, great read.
Thanks so much. I’m quite pleased to see games starting to take morality a little more seriously now though, with titles like Witcher 3 (and potentially Cyberpunk 2077 from the same studio) taking it into a more mature direction than just good guy/bad guy.
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