How games can teach moral lessons

Moral choices have appeared in video games since Mortal Kombat—even if it was simply the choice of brutally murdering someone or Friendshipping your way to victory.

And as time and technology has progressed, games with moral choices have become more and more complex—to the point where we can now use them to teach moral lessons.

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

Video games as an educational tool: not exactly a new concept. But games with moral lessons might be. Here’s how you can use popular games to discuss a variety of common moral/ethical questions in a safe environment, that both kids and adults have been asking for decades.

Legality versus morality


Featured games:

  • Fallout 3
  • Fallout: New Vegas
  • Tyranny
  • Mass Effect

Featured questions:

  • Is the law ever wrong?
  • What would it take for someone to break the law morally?
  • What’s the difference between legality and morality?
  • Should the law apply to everyone equally, regardless of their previous behaviour?
  • When does justice become revenge?

Talking points

What’s the difference between legality and morality? In Mass Effectthere are a group of aliens who include a ‘slave caste’ as part of their hierarchy. This is, according to them, a very important part of their culture and legal system. Owning slaves is legal in this alien society. Is it therefore moral as well, just because it is legal? What is the point of a law? What is the point of a moral?

Is the law ever wrong? In Tyranny, you have the option to either work with the tyrant Kyros, work with the rebels, or work for yourself. The last two options would be illegal in this world. Is breaking the law in this oppressive world immoral?

Read more: The worst moral lessons that video games have taught us

What would it take for someone to break the law morally? Take the same Tyranny example. If you said that breaking the law in such an oppressive world would be moral, is it just as moral to break the law to work with the rebels as it is to work for yourself? Is pure self-interest enough for illegal activity to be moral in an oppressive environment, or do you have to do it on behalf of others?

Should the law apply to everyone equally, regardless of their previous behaviour? In Fallout 3, you have the opportunity to murder the owner of Tenpenny Tower. Is this a moral action? What if you found out, accurately, that he wanted to destroy an entire town of innocent people? Is murdering him now moral? You get positive karma in the game by killing him; should that happen? Should you now be hunted down by bounty hunters for murder, despite you killing an ‘evil’ person? Does the law not apply in this circumstance?

When does justice become revenge? In Fallout: New Vegas, you are shot in the head by a character named Benny. As part of your journey in this world, you can find and kill Benny in a variety of scenarios. One such scenario is finding him on his home turf, and killing him there. Would this be justice, or revenge? Another scenario is delivering him to Caesar, one of the rulers of a faction and ultimate judge in many matters, and having him crucified after a trial. Would this be justice or revenge? Discuss the difference between a legal system and a moral system: does going through the legal system make it more justice and less revenge?

Doing a bad thing for a good reason


Featured games

  • Fable III
  • Grand Theft Auto V

Featured questions

  • Is it right to do a morally bad thing to do a moral good later on?
  • When do the ends justify the means?
  • Who gets to make those kinds of decisions, and why?

Talking points

Is it right to do a morally bad thing to do a moral good later on? In Fable III, you learn that there is a great threat to the safety of your kingdom. To combat this menace, you will need an enormous amount of money. After ascending the throne, you are faced with a series of decisions that either add to your treasury, but hurt your people, or draw from your treasury, but help your people. Is it morally correct to make a decision that, for example, throws people out of their home, if ultimately it will lower their chances of being killed later down the line?

When do the ends justify the means? GTA V dealt with controversy after it was revealed that there was a torture “minigame” at one point in the story. This section requires the player to torture someone for information. They do so and use the resulting intel to assassinate a terrorist, but at the end, one of the protagonists says:

The media and the government would have us believe that torture is some necessary thing. We need it to get information, to assert ourselves. Did we get any information out of you? Exactly. Torture’s for the torturer…or for the guy giving orders to the torturer. You torture for the good times – we should all admit that. It’s useless as a means of getting information.”

The tortured individual would have “told them everything” without the torture, and Trevor (the torturer) agrees, saying that it is pointless and people only do it because they enjoy it. Do you agree? Are there any circumstances when something as brutal as torture is justified? When it saves people’s lives in the long run? When do the ends justify the means?

Who gets to make these kinds of decisions, and why? In both the games talked about above, the decisions are left up to people in power. The regent in one, and the equivalent of the FBI in the other. Both parties choose who suffers and who is saved. Why is this the case? Because of their birth, as in Fable III, or by dint of their authority, as in GTA V? Is this right? Who should get to make these kinds of decisions?

The good of the many versus the rights of the few


Featured questions

  • Is it right to violate the rights of some to help the majority?
  • Are certain rights more inviolable than others?

Featured games

  • Fallout 3
  • Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Talking points

Is it right to violate the rights of some to help the majority? In The Pitt, a DLC for Fallout 3, you encounter a group of Pitt Raiders who use slave labour. The leader of these Raiders, Ashur, doesn’t seem to actually approve of this, but he does it in order to give him the resources to work on finding a cure for radiation poisoning. This cure would help thousands of people—including the slaves themselves. Is this violation of rights worth the contribution to the greater good?

Read more: 3 times video games stole classic moral dilemmas

Are certain rights more inviolable than others? In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the player has a choice: reveal the truth about augmentation, lie about it for power, or destroy yourself and everyone around you to take this choice out of your hands. Revealing the truth would put a halt to augmentation research, removing the threat of another violent incident, but would also remove the opportunity for mankind to progress. Lying would allow for further research that could save lives, but would place augmented humans in a dangerous position in the future. Which is the more important: the opportunity for progression, or knowledge of the truth?

Legality, morals, rights and tyranny—and these are just a few of the themes that video games can help you discuss. What game would you use to teach moral lessons? Let me know in the comments below!

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