On moral detachment

 In Ethics, Uncategorized

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).

Fallout 3 screenshot

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.
Getting Up screenshot
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?

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Showing 11 comments
  • Yehuda

    Good subject. I think one basic question is: can video games be fun if the goals aren’t killing or hurting other people/creatures/aliens in the process. The answer is: of course. And all the barking about statistics and civil liberties doesn’t change that.

    People choose to create and choose to play violent games because they are prurient.

    The same games could be just as fun without the gore. In essence, these games are simply variations on collision detection: A connects with B in a matrix, yielding some result. Kicking or shooting fits that narrative, but so does helping, knowing, loving, or many other themes.

    As far as morally questionable, many tabletop games fall into the same category. Lunch Money comes to mind. For many people, any game where you play the side of the Nazis. For others, any war game at all.

    As far as depicting moral consequences, a karma counter is a nice start, but hardly enough. There was some discussion recently about torture in a video game. In the game in question, you simply tortured someone until you got what you want, and then forgot about him. Some argued that simply presenting it made for good moral discussion. But, without any followup on the victim – months or years of psychological trauma and recovery – the question doesn’t really hit home.

    In another video game, the ghosts of everyone you killed show up to fight you in a final scene where you have to cross a lake. If you killed relatively few people over the course of the game, you could get through easily. If you killed many people, the ending was nearly impossible. It’s a small look at moral payback, but still not enough.

    I once had an idea for a game, too: on the right side of the screen, aliens were descending (ala Spac Invaders) and you racked up points killing them, losing points when you didn’t. In the left side of the screen, you could play with a small child in a SIM like environment. The child grew more unhappy the longer you didn’t play with her, and eventually starts crying.

    So you could kill aliens and gain point while your child cries, or you could lose points but enjoy playing with your child. None too subtle, I suppose.


  • Malcolm

    @Yehuda: I’m not actually against violence in video games, at least not in every instance, and I’m not sure that the moral detachment I speak of is always a bad thing, but I am keen to see if we can break through it and make games that affect players more deeply. Not every game needs to be that deep, but it would be good to make more meaningful games if we can.

  • Pete S

    “What games have presented you with the most difficult moral decisions?”

    What was the spy-fps series from Monolith, where you played a female secret agent. No One Lives Forever, perhaps? In that game, I was tasked with entering a building, and in order to do that I had to get past some guards. As I got near them, I heard them talking to each other, and one was griping about his wife having called him and asked him to get bread on the way home, or something along those lines. It was, I guess, intended to be funny, but it humanized these guards to the point where I couldn’t bring myself to kill them, nor could I figure another way around them, so I stopped playing the game.

    More recently, the Bioshock demo… one of the first encounters is with these clearly insane individuals who attack you. One of them is a woman and the only course of action I could find was to bludgeon her to death with a pipe. I looked at her mangled corpse, quit the demo and deleted it. Haven’t been tempted to try Bioshock since.

    Not sure why these particular instances resonated so strongly with me.

    Re: Fallout 3, if I don’t take the Bloody Mess (?) perk will it be less disgusting? I haven’t purchased yet, and probably won’t if I have to go through the game looking at imagery like the stuff in the screenshot above.

  • Malcolm

    @Pete: I’m pretty sure I didn’t take the Bloody Mess perk, as explicit gore is not my thing. There is probably an option to turn off the gore. I know there was in previous Fallouts. I don’t have my copy with me to check right now.

  • Daniel

    I played through Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers recently. It’s quite an excellent adventure game; perhaps one of Sierra’s best.

    Anyway, right at the end you need to defeat a love interest who is posessed by a voodoo spirit. One possible ending involves you betraying and killing her. It was most unsettling; I haven’t been tempted to play the game again since.

  • Malcolm

    Thinking about this further I begin to doubt whether it really is possible to make morally engaging games. The very fact of it being a game takes away the moral force. It just isn’t ‘real’.

    If we are to make meaningful moral choices in games, the ‘game-ness’ off the situation must be suppressed and the social role-play emphasised. Perhaps this is connected to the Social/Market-thinking dichotomy in Dan Ariely’s book. We can either think of a situation as a relationship with other characters or as a system to be optimised. If we choose the latter, then moral engagement goes out the window.

    If this is true, then explicit Karma systems are exactly the wrong way to represent morality in games. By giving you a karma value which goes up and down in a predictable fashion, the designer is encouraging you to regard it with your market mentality, as a score to be optimised, and disengage from the social meaning of your actions.

  • Malcolm

    Great minds… Joe Tortuga has recently described an idea for an FPS game with an unreliable narrator based on Poe’s The Telltale Heart.

  • Josh

    There’s a quest in TES: Oblivion where you kill a whole lot of Orcs/Goblins/Whatever and then it suddenly reverts to normality and you’ve slain an innocent village. Perhaps some of you remember it?

  • A7A

    Yehuda, the game you mention is probably Metal Gear Solid 3, where the only way to “clear the stage” and defeat the boss (since it’s a boss fight) is letting yourself being “killed” and taking the pill that revives you from a fake death.

    One interesting thing to do in games is role playing characters, which in a way also leads to moral detachment if you cannot internalize the character you’re supposedly playing. Or you could play a game and your character as someone specific to perhaps gain better understanding of the philosophy behind their viewpoint. Good luck with playing Kant with not killing as a moral imperative in fallout 3 though. 😛

    For moral detachment, see this article:


    They had something good going, though.

    • Malcolm

      I finished the main Fallout quest ages ago and I’m now playing Broken Steel. Taking the Explorer perk, I’ve been checking out the (many) locations on the map that I missed on the first pass through, but the pointlessness of the killing is really beginning to wear me down. I really can’t see any moral difference between my character and the raiders she is dispatching by the dozen, except that I have better weaponry. The ‘raiders’ in this game don’t seem to do an awful lot of raiding. Mostly they are holed up in their homes, trying to defend themselves from ‘heros’ like me.

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  • […] and that this slippery moral perspective is absent from the karma math. Malcolm Ryan, in his essay “On Moral Detachment” argues that explicit karma systems eliminate moral force by giving every choice a gameplay […]

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