Monday, May 23, 2016

Morality in Video Games

There’s something unique about the medium of video games, and that is their active nature. Where this comes to the fore is with storytelling. Games have mostly moved on from the days of travel from point A to point B without dying, watch a story cutscene, rinse and repeat until the preset close of the story. Games have started to come into their own as a storytelling medium and have moved on, for the most part, from merely aping movie storytelling with worse visuals, being longer, and more poorly written storylines.

                                              I feel your pain Link, but you can’t kill him. I’ve tried.

Aside from the fact that video games have grown in artistic legitimacy alongside improvements in graphics and writing as the format matures, games have mostly grown up from immature concepts of over excessive blood and gore and shallow storytelling to more mature games focusing on emotive storytelling. In fact, the market demographic has changed dramatically, so much so that the average gamer is in their 30s and female players are an increasing proportion of all gamers. A new genre called first-person experience (often referred to as walking sims) focusing on story has emerged targeted at this new demographic.

                                         Far Cry 3 gives you the choice to decide your girlfriend’s fate

A side effect, or perhaps even a natural progression from the evolution in storytelling in games is that gamers are increasingly being presented with moral questions. Gone are the days of morality being limited to deciding whether to die on purpose to watch the death animations (although I still do that with Tomb Raider). Moral questions in games range from self-imposed questions of morality in a sandbox games, such as “is it ok to blow up random NPC for fun?”, “Is it ok to shoot an NPC in the head just because they repeat an annoying dialog loop ad-infinitum?” In my humble opinion, yes and yes (presuming that the NPC don’t exist independently from us and don’t feel pain in the way humans and animals do). I predict that in a quest for ever increasing realism, these characters will be able to be interacted with in increasingly realistic ways. The closer games come to reality the greater the moral burden we will feel as gamers toward characters in sandbox games. This kind of moral dilemma is an extension of the sci-fi theme of agency being conferred on AI that is set to be explored in the world of video games in Quantic Dreams’ Detroit. First step robot-rights, second step NPC rights.

                                                                          Where’s the line?

Game-imposed moral questions can lead to truly harrowing situations such as in Spec Ops: The Line where at one point you are asked to drop white phosphorus on enemies, but when you walk through the dropzone it turns out that the supposed enemies are civilians that you have maimed. Many games nowadays have an in-built morality systems. The entry point in this case is the bog-standard karma system in which actions that are designated as being good such as saving/showing mercy to someone are given positive weighting and actions designated bad, such as killing or otherwise harming someone are given negative weighting. In some cases the system makes hardly any difference to the game apart from a few upgrades or side quests, in others it is just a straightforward black and white tally of the good and bad resulting in either watching the good cutscene or the bad one basically following the same story. Although a welcome introduction, these less sophisticated systems can feel tacked on at times (I’m looking at you, Far Cry 4 and inFAMOUS Second Son) and are often hampered by the fact that it is so easy to run a character over and otherwise hurt them due to imprecise controls and this kind of issue really takes the player out of the experience and spoils immersion.

                                                           Just how much do you like this guy?

By far the most engaging morality systems are those where choices and gameplay styles really make a difference and have an appreciable impact on the story allowing for markedly different experiences on each playthrough. Good examples include the Mass Effect series and Fallout 3. In the most ambitious the impacts even carry over into a sequel and it has become common in episodic games for choices to impact on the path that the story takes.

One aspect of modern gaming that causes real moral concern is going for trophies or achievements. In sandbox games a lot of the moral choices are left to you, while there are some objectives in games which make you question your morality. The most troubling to me are times in games which you are compelled to do things that seem inconsistent with the moral tone of the game to get a trophy such as in Sleeping Dogs, although you are an undercover cop you are tasked with killing a certain number of cops. However, the most harrowing instance that sticks in my mind is in Grow Home which is a fun family friendly game with typical trophies for collecting various items where you are coerced to murder three innocent sheep by drowning them. Of course I did it, but it did make me question my humanity and it does show how people can be co-opted into doing some truly terrible things.

                                                    That robot may look nice, but don’t trust him

There seems to be a trend for more immersive morality systems being ever more integral to the game and the storyline. So whether you have to step in to stop some kid being bullied, whether you are compelled to drown a sheep, or whether to save or destroy an entire alien race, as gamers we are all set to face some tough moral choices and in turn hold up a mirror to our own moral psyche.


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