Here is a full confession, and you can judge as you see fit: I can’t be bad. I just can’t. I’ve thought about it at length, I’ve changed my lifestyle to accommodate, I’ve even spoken to my therapist about it. But no matter how hard I try, I simply can’t help but be the good guy every single time.
Given the environment where I’m writing, you would be correct in assuming I’m not just talking about my everyday life out on the streets (though to be fair, I try to be a nice guy out there too—most of the time, anyway). No, what I’m actually referring to is my ability—or lack thereof—to make those so-called “moral choices” in video games in such a way that will make my character evil as a result.
You know what I’m talking about, right? You’ve played the games I’m referring to, and if you haven’t, you’ve certainly heard of them. From Fallout, to inFAMOUS, to Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age, and pretty much anything else by Bioware, we are used to encountering the morality systems that not only offer us up choices on how to behave within game-based scenarios, but also gauge the “goodness” or “badness” of our decisions and modifies our character’s traits and experiences accordingly. And to be clear, I’m putting aside for the moment the “choose your own adventure” style games that, while forcing the player to make decisions in order to branch the storyline tree or satisfy a prisoner’s dilemma, don’t really take into account whether your decision was right or wrong from a moral standpoint (think Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward or the Telltale games for this sort of “get me to the ‘good end’” decision-making).
So now that we have the context set, let’s get back to my personal deficiency. I’ve played my fair share of games that employ the morality system, and I have genuinely wanted to see what would happen if pushed the old karma bar in a counterclockwise direction. I really have. Because to be honest, I’m kind of tired of ending up like the second coming of Luke Skywalker or Tiger Woods circa 2005. I mean, I respect what the Gandhi’s of the world have done and everything—in video game land as well as the real world—but why should I have to keep on drinking my own urine to make it through the next boss battle? It just doesn’t seem fair. Somehow, though, my guilt complex always pushes me into boy scout territory. Oh well.
I am aware that there are others out there not like me, those who are able to move past the social and psychological conventions of “doing good,” and instead become one with the dark side (Sith or otherwise). In fact, this should be obvious, or developers wouldn’t have a reason to continue making games with these moral compass choices included. But two questions still remain. First, what does it say about a gamer who chooses one way or the other the majority of the time? Should something like that concern us? Secondly, what does it say about developers that they continue to play into this knowledge, and design games where players are both allowed and often encouraged to “behave” in immoral ways?
Consider, for example, a game like inFAMOUS. Regardless of the version you’re playing, one of the main components of each iteration is the capacity of the main character to use his newly acquired powers for the sake of “good” (assisting others, taking down bad guys, etc.) or “bad” (civilian casualties, blowing up non-bad guy cars, etc.). In fact, there is a dial on the screen letting the player know exactly where she stands on the moral compass scale of the game. But unlike other games, where performing bad actions could, for instance, increase the likelihood of being recognized by law authority, inFAMOUS actually distinguishes its super-ability portfolio based on the side of the dial you have chosen. A consequence of this is that there are certain superpowers designated for “good” main characters, certain ones for “bad” main characters, and the occasional neutral one.
What does it say about the person who decides that the rewards of villainy are worth making Cole or Delsin an out an out scumbag? And further, what should we think about a company like Sucker Punch for even offering up the opportunity for such scumbagedness?
I obviously have asked the last question somewhat in jest, but it is worth considering the ethical ramifications of creating a system that not only engages players in truly moral decision-making throughout the game, but also rewards them regardless of what they choose in the end? And ok, ok, I’m sure there will be those who will make the usual “You have to be a certain age to play” argument along with “It’s just a game,” and “At least they’re open about everything off the bat.” And to a certain extent I would agree—I’m a gaming fan, after all—but I do nonetheless find it interesting that morality systems are often renamed with more ambiguous terms as “luck”, “karma”, and “destiny.” Is that really the language we want to use to describe a cause and effect relationship between behavior and consequence, or is it left as cryptic as it is in order to distract players from what they are actually doing? I’ll let you decide.
At the end of the day, this isn’t meant as a flushed out sociological experiment about, say, the correlation between cyber villains and real ones (though I would imagine it takes more than putting a copy of GTA V in front of an innocent teenager to set him off on a killing spree), but rather a test of our intuitions concerning the choices people make. And while it might be a tad extreme to alert the NSA about the fact that Tommy keeps mugging people in Fallout 3 and rooting for the bad guys in every movie he watches, it doesn’t strike me as crazy to at least question whether this is the behavior of a person with whom I want to develop or maintain a close friendship. And therein lies an odd but real tie between gaming and reality that, until now, I had never really considered. Have you?