Video games have a certain unfair stigma about them, especially when it comes to video game morality. Video games teach us how to be violent and desensitizes us from the real world – or so some claim. In this article I will attempt to show the moral goodness of video games as an entertainment medium, through example and philosophical imagination. Prepare for, Morality In Video Games.
Video games can be split into three categories: Visual, Gameplay, and Story. It seems that most people who have a problem with video games get stuck on the first two. Gears Of War for example, has scenes of chain sawing with blood all over – in HD. The highly controversial Grand Theft Auto series gives the player the ability to drive under the influence of alcohol, beat up hookers, and general murder of innocent civilians. Looks like I have a challenge on my hands.
“Modern morality is fundamentally a visual morality. Moral paradigms are embedded in the visual images of the mass media, which have supplanted language as the primary context for moral knowledge.” – Richard Stivers, Illinois State University, 2000. I agree with this statement. Morality has become more and more visual with the development of new technology and media.
So how do video games visually define morality? The same way most movies, books, and television shows do; Archetypes. Many games visually alter the players appearance based on the moral choices they make. These visual alterations are based off of the archetypes of good and evil. In Fable, a character starts off neutral, just a normal guy. But the more ‘evil’ deeds the character does, the more unnatural he looks. An unholy dark aura, red eyes, black clothing, and gaunt face are all side products of evil deeds. The player now has a constant visual representation of their morality, and much like a good book, in a good game you are not watching or reading about a character’s journey, you are making it. This is even more true for video games as video games give the player choice, and by extension, power over a character’s actions.
Now that we’ve established a visual view of morality, it’s time to figure out how morality feels in a video game. Many shooting and war games have a simple way of deterring a gamer from immoral acts. A basic example would be that any action that results in the harm of a civilian or team member results in a penalty of some form, and if the action causes death, then you lose. Counter Strike, 007 GoldenEye, and Rainbow 6: Vegas 2 are just a few out of hundreds that implement this system.
Other games are so complex that a character’s morality is based entirely on how the player plays the game. Furthermore, the game’s other characters will interact with the player based on his or her moral goodness. A great example of this is Oblivion. If a player kills someone, attacks a civilian, gets caught stealing or pickpocketing, or even trespasses, then they get chased by the town guards and ultimately put in jail. Jail sucks. It causes your entire inventory to be placed in an ‘evidence’ chest. Even after you serve your sentence and get back your items, your stolen items will remain in the evidence chest. If you commit a crime, then the other characters will like you less, making it harder to gather information. If you become too bad, then some characters will refuse to talk to you, some going as far as attacking you! However, if a player chooses to help the needy, defend the weak, and solve crimes – things completely unrelated and unnecessary to beating the game – then people will love you!
Why does everyone always ignore a video game’s storyline? Throughout the history of mankind, stories in their various forms were used to pass down moral codes. “..and the moral of this story is?” – Every elementary school teacher, ever. For some reason, people seem to forget the important moral issues in the story of a game.
Just think about the defining moral in every great game. Final Fantasy VII is about evil corporations taking from the planet and sucking the ‘lifeforce’ just for money and power. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of time is all about the importance of faith, belief, and having the courage to stand up when no one else can. Pokemon is about how if you treat others with love and respect, then they will do the same for you. Starcraft is about the true meaning of justice, and the need to overthrow a totalitarian regime. You get my point?
However, I think the best story example is Shadow of the Colossus. Wow this game truly puts a spin on morality. The biggest problem with most video games and their morality system is that the choices are too easy. Killing an innocent is obviously the wrong thing to do, there’s no dilemma in the choice. This all changed when I played Shadow of the Colossus.
SPOILER ALERT. The game starts with our hero laying a dead girl down on a stone in a great temple. A booming voice echoes through the temple, the voice of a God. The god says that he will restore the girls life if the hero slays all of the Colossi – huge massive beasts. Sounds like a typical story line so far right? Hero slays beasts to save the girl he loves. However, as you continue the story you start to question the morality of what you are doing. The smallest changes and details in the game invoke strong feelings of moral goodness that no other game has ever succeeded in doing before. As you encounter your first Colossi, you’re breath is taken away as you wonder how you are going to take down this fearsome and evil creature. Eventually you slay the Colossi, collapsing and waking up back at the temple… with a shadow ominously hovering over your body.
You don’t think much of it and continue on to the second Colossi. After beating it you collapse, and wake up in the temple… with two shadows ominously hovering over your body. After every Colossi you slay, you become more and more powerful. But other changes are happening too, changes that are discrete at first. First you notice that your own appearance is slowly changing. The change is so small at first that you wont even notice it if you are not looking for it, but after beating a few Colossi you start to become more grotesque until you are a hollow-eyed wraith. The opposite can be said of the girl you are trying to save, who’s skin gains back a bit of pigment each time, and who’s hair starts to blow in the wind again.
Finally after killing the fifth or sixth Colossi, you notice horns are starting to grow out of your head. And then it hits you. Why are you being asked to slay these “brutal, evil, beasts”? You notice that every time you encounter one, they are just walking around, or swimming, or whatever. In fact, they never even attack you until you attack them first! Is this right? The best part about Shadow of the Colossus is that none of this is ever explicitly said in the game or story. These are all questions and observations the player makes on their own. Brilliant.
Here is part one of the ending to Shadow of the Colossus. If you watch all 3 parts, and still think there’s no morality in in video games, then you are a lost cause. Enjoy!