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Morality, Rewards, and Repercussions in Video Games

Most arguments regarding the strengths of video games come down to motor skills, creative thinking, and logic solving. I’ve made some of these arguments myself in my day as a gamer, but as we move forward into these faux worlds that are becoming more and more immersive, I wonder: what more can we take away from it and how deep does it go?

Morality is one of the topics often contended with in the video game community. “It’s pretend.” “I’m only playing a character.” And that’s absolutely true, but what about the choices you have to make as that character? How can that impact your perception of the everyday “in real life” world?

In the Mass Effect trilogy from BioWare, you play a character that is faced with tough choices impacting your morality and as a result, the individuals around you. This same approach was reflected in their preceding titles, like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and similarly in Lionhead Studios’ Fable series and more emotionally, within the award-winning The Walking Dead series from Telltale. While these worlds are vastly different, with different rewards and different consequences, one thing remains constant.

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“Fable: The Lost Chapters” by Lionhead Studios

In each of these titles, the “evil” actions you take often have some immediate rewards but long-term repercussions while the “good” paths take you along a much more difficult route without the same grandiose rewards.

Some argue that the Fable series is notorious for teaching the appeal for being evil, as being a hero often doesn’t have rewards and still makes the heroic ending underwhelming. In Star Wars: KOTOR, you were often showered with credits by your negative attitude and on the Light side, you were showered with …good feeling? However, options to redeem the character also become more limited as the game progresses. In the massive-multiplayer roleplaying game, Star Wars: The Old Republic, other players can have an influence and force difficult decisions on your character that you may have not wanted to make raising awareness about the company you keep.

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“Mass Effect” from Bioware Studio

However, within the Mass Effect universe, you were rewarded by your heroics by companionship, with friends and loyalty that were required to successfully save the universe. It has the power to teach the true value of alliances and reputation extending outside of personal morality and into the realm of general ethics. Sometimes the reward is maintaining status quo, but is that enough to inspire heroes in our world? These titles and the choices they allow the player to make have the availability to teach us about sacrifice, selfishness, and how our choices impact those around us.

So, which side do you fall on?

Scarlett Dowdy
Community Manager

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Talk Back

Nils Sturman
Posted on March 24, 2014

A very interesting subject indeed. As has often been the case in the past with regards to literature or cinema, video games may allow its participants to experiment with moral choices in a safe and isolated environment. Where else might I have the freedom to make such decisions other than in the playground of virtual reality, an arena which unlike our imagination does provide sensorial feedback?

Developers have usually played the role of the ultimate judge, jury and executioner by weighing in for one side or the other. Fans of “Spec Ops – The Line” (by Yager) are required to make difficult moral decisions and are generally rewarded with moral failure after moral failure due to the extreme nature of the environment of the player character. In the process, we learnt that moral decisions do not only have consequences but also unforeseen and unforeseeable ones.

Other games also reinforce the notion that morality is a relative concept dependent upon the situation and the society in which the player character acts. Whilst Garrett (Thief, by Square Enix) may indeed choose to refrain from murdering or even stunning guards or citizens in the city depending on the player’s own private morality or desires to experiment with morality, he does nevertheless still spend a great deal of time stealing artefacts from unknown owners throughout the game.

Video games are certainly excellent ways of training motor skills and of encouraging logical thought and creative thinking, but perhaps above all they allow us to realize how difficult it is to be a moral animal in an ever-changing society.

Geneva Hopwood
Posted on March 21, 2014

I can definitely see that in GW2, Ellen. I’d never really thought about my choices that way. Maybe it’s time for me to re-play some of those plots!

Ellen Brenner
Posted on March 21, 2014

I especially love this blog post because the MMO I am currently deeply into, Guild Wars 2, also walks the player through a number of moral dilemmas and consequences in the course of playing the game. In addition to being teaching moments, these moral ponderings turn the game into a richer, more weighty experience, underlining the fact that at their best, these games are really an art form.

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