The Parable of the Good Gamer

Here’s an interesting thought experiment: can you count morality? Could you tally all of the good and evil actions you’ve ever committed within some grand point system? And hypothetically, if one were to weigh their heart against a feather on judgement day, would God use metric or imperial?

These are questions that sound paradoxical, if a bit silly. It seems ridiculous to be able to ‘measure morality;’ to compare one’s status as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ actor to arbitrary units on some cosmic scale. Nevertheless, they frame a school of thought which remains fundamental to our perceptions on ethics and justice. Take, for example, common law. How does one go about matching a punishment proportionate to a crime? No matter how you slice it, there needs to be some measure of value which guides the judge, whether that be in dollars confiscated or years sentenced.

Stranger still are the ways in which morality is framed by the media. From alarmist newspaper columns to fiery televangelists, all systems of communication eventually cross paths with systems of ethics. With this in mind, one of the more pressing issues we face as contemporary consumers has to do with how new media handle the subject. As with any fictive outlet, video games have been used to both capture and resolve moral debates. In fact, they have in some ways become moral parables for a new generation of readers: a hotbed for novel ways of approaching issues. Nonetheless, there is a danger to the parable of the ‘good’ gamer. After all, how can developers even begin to construct good and evil within their products? What are good and evil anyways?

The big compatibility issue between games and ethics is that they aren’t formatted the same. At its basis, a video game is just that: a game, given life by programming and accessed via an electronic interface. This means that video games, by virtue of being games, are made up of a set of rules or algorithms which dictate their form and content. Since all video games operate on some form of computer system, decisions at a basic level always employ binary code. Consequently, game systems (and by default their contents) operate on a dichotomous mode of thinking, sometimes resulting in mechanics which operate on a binary morality: one with a capital “B” Bad and capital “G” Good. This of course is a stark contrast to the subtle nuances of real life scenarios. As any decent ethics lecturer will tell you, right and wrong ain’t a zebra (it isn’t black and white)!

The Infamous series by Sucker Punch Productions is a good example of this problem. In the first two instalments you play as Cole Macgrath, a super-powered mutant who must develop his super abilities either in the pursuit of Good or via the path of Evil. This concept is developed through a karmic system that relies on a minute categorisation of player actions. Did you kill that civilian? Whoops, that’s +3 evil points! Did you heal an injured person? Great, that’s +1 good. Infamous deals with right and wrong as if they were arithmetic, attempting to painfully count out the player’s deeds. This system is not unique; many games, including Fallout, Fable, and Dishonored, have all dabbled with Karma-based morality. Nonetheless, while karma may function well for judging clear-cut cases, it falters when confronted with actual ethical dilemmas.

Take the trolley problem, a thought experiment devised to test one’s moral leanings. In this scenario, you are a driver on an unstoppable trolley, zooming towards a contingent of five workers who can neither see nor hear your vehicle. As the train operator, you are confronted with the choice of either letting the trolley continue on its natural course to kill the five workers, or intentionally switching tracks, killing one worker on the alternative route.

If we apply Infamous‘ logic, the answer is really quite simple. After all, if one diverts the track they gain five good points for the lives saved and lose only one evil point for the murder, so there is a net gain of four points. Of course, any philosopher worth their salt would be quick to point out that this mode of interpretation is rather simplistic; counting morality can be a dangerously reductive exercise. Instead, they might urge us to consider what non-numeric ethical concerns might affect our perception of right and wrong.

Are the workers all in their 80s? Are they babies? Is the single victim of your track-switch pregnant? From these concerns, questions emerge about one’s own belief system. What do you value most in your decision making process? For example, do you believe that failing to intervene in the natural course of events would make you responsible for the death of the five, or is the intentional murder of one more pressing? In any either, there’s little room to brand one’s decision as either Good or Evil.

In Infamous, Cole finds himself in a similar situation when he discovers that he has time to only do one of two tasks: save the only woman who had loved him through his mutation, Trish, or disarm bombs placed in crowded areas around the city. As expected, if the player chooses Trish, Cole is heavily shunted with negative karma, changing the very trajectory of one’s game. The point is, a binary system heavily tips the scales towards a rational calculus when matters are often much more complicated. It teaches players that, so long as their actions appear selfless or seem beneficial to a greater number of people, periphery concerns can be ignored.

Video games are parables; moral stories with lessons to be learnt. And, as bodies of knowledge which can teach their audiences, they should do better. If Infamous is any indicator, karmic mechanics do not set a good precedent for the ways in which people should respond to the world, even in spite of its fictive form. Ultimately, choices can be double-pronged, but this shouldn’t automatically imply an ethical dichotomy. Maybe it’s time to move on and hang up the karma system. Instead, greater emphasis ought to be placed on titles which explore choice and consequence, moving away from systems which bake morality into the fabric of the game’s code and focusing on the complexities involved in confronting and resolving moral crises within a story. Titles such as Undertale, Until Dawn, and Detroit Become Human are all great examples of this concept, wielding compelling narrative context and interesting new mechanics to propel the player’s response beyond a right/wrong binary.

So, can you count morality? Well, in a short answer, no. Painting the world in blacks and whites instead of shades of grey will never adequately describe life’s little quandaries. Nevertheless, communication and media technologies will still try, developers attempting to force circular pegs into square-shaped holes. It’s up to us then, a new generation of producers and consumers, to take up responsibility for our readings. Let us seriously challenge the current paradigm and continue to pave new paths, and hope that one day, we can finally put to rest the parable of the good gamer.

2 comments

  1. You make a great point here. Games that try too hard to force this sort of morality system always seem to run into the problem that life doesn’t simply consist of a string of straightforward “good deeds” and “bad deeds.” If the games weren’t trying to imitate life in that sense, it would be fine — part of what makes GTA so fun is that you can just ignore all those rules of morality. Or else do something like Undertale that plays with the gameplay mechanic itself in an interesting way, and in a way that actually works and makes sense.

    I love the Shin Megami Tensei games partly because they operate not on a good-evil scale but rather a law-chaos one. They do have a similar problem of trying to figure out what counts as a “lawful” vs. a “chaotic” act, but at least the games don’t treat you like a villain for doing “the wrong thing” when given an ambiguous choice.

    • This is actually a perspective that I didn’t consider, but works very well! All too often games with morality systems construe abiding by laws as fundamentally with morally good actions. Of course this observation spirals off into a larger debate about the ethics of law, but I definitely think that the law/chaos scale works much better than a good/evil one.

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