I’ve been confronted recently with my moral detachment when playing video games. I’ve recently enjoyed playing Fallout 3 and I have tried to explain my reasons to my housemate, who is not a gamer. She was interested enough to watch me play for a minute, but was turned off at the first slow-motion decapitation (which seem to happen pretty often, come to think of it).
To her it was revolting. And with a fresh perspective on the game, it became quite unsettling to me too. Despite all the profound themes exploring American optimism and its loss of innocence, you do tend to spend an awful lot of time killing people. The game even racks up a count. I’ve killed some 300 or so people in the game, along with assorted animals and robots (do Mutants and Feral Ghouls count as people? I’m not sure). And I’m supposed to be playing as a good guy.
It makes me wonder whether you could make a game which brought this moral disconnection home. We are so used to killing in games, without thinking about the meaning of the act. Most games that attempt to have a moral element do so in a very heavy-handed fashion with dubious karma systems that, to my mind, actually eliminate the moral force by turning it into a gameplay decision. Can I afford to steal this item/kill this NPC, or would it cost me too much karma?
The moral situation in a game that has stayed with me longest was probably never intended by the designers. It was in “Getting Up: Contents Under Pressue” — a rather forgettable release by Atari, which achieved notoriety by being banned here in Australia for its (utterly banal) depiction of graffiti.
In essence it was primarily fighting game in the tradition of Double Dragon which allowed you to beat up on people with whatever was handy, baseball bats, paint tins, etc. When you defeated a “bad guy” he fell down and then just disappeared. The impression was usually that you ‘beat’ him and there wasn’t necessarily death involved.
Except in one scene, in which I broke into a subway tunnel in order to vandalise (ahem, I mean ‘decorate’) some train carriages. I encountered two railway workers who were determined that I shouldn’t be there. There is no way to progress until they are defeated, so I proceeded to lay into them. I knocked down fellow, pushing him off the platform and onto the tracks right in front of a passing train. There was no gore, he just faded away like every other defeated enemy, but it left me with a very bad taste in my mouth.
These guys weren’t “evil”. They weren’t even mindless goons of the evil overlord. They were just a couple of ordinary Joes doing their job and trying to keep a young lout from painting his name all over public property. And I had just pushed one of them in front of a train.
In the end I couldn’t live with it. I restored from an earlier save and replayed the scene, defeating them in a less obviously terminal fashion. Even so, it was hard to accept my victories from then on. Where did those people go when they faded away? The disproportionality of the possible deaths I was causing versus the importance of my quest to be accepted as a street artist made my continued play impossible.
I am reminded of Greg Costikyan’s game Violence: The Roleplaying Game of Egregious and Repulsive Bloodshed. It was designed as a satire on games like D&D in which your character wanders through the dungeon breaking down doors, killing ‘monsters’ and taking their ‘treasure’. Except here, as Greg says “instead of taking place in a fantasy “dungeon” it takes place in a modern apartment building, and instead of killing “monsters” you kill other humans beings with hopes and dreams and aspirations. And instead of being a “hero,” you’re an evil sadistic murderer. Which of course raises the question of what those D&D characters are really doing, and why.”
After watching A Beautiful Mind, I got to wondering whether you couldn’t make a game with a similar kind of twist. Present what appears to be a fairly normal first-person RPG/shooter game involved a quest to save the world from an army of evil monsters, only later to reveal that the player character was delusional and paranoid and that the ‘enemies’ weren’t real or were just innocent people. The player could ‘win’ the game, only to witness the action again from the point of view of a sane person. The result could be quite horrific.
It is a game that deserves to be made, but I know damn well that I’m not going to do it.
What games have presented you with the most difficult moral decisions?