You put ethics in my game?

The place of ethics in computer gaming is a topic I’ve been keen to cover for some time. While ‘moral panic’ has been a frequent occurrence in various attacks on the gaming industry and some high profile games in particular (Mass Effect sex scenes anyone?) ethics in gaming seem to have escaped much focus. This could be because morals invoke the religious right and FOX News while ethics require slightly more frontal lobe to process or engage with, but it feels like the time is ripe to examine gaming and the ethical experimentation it encourages. Computer games provide a fantastic psychological sandbox because unlike almost all other forms of entertainment media they are both participative and interactive. This allows and encourages some interesting psychological processes to be explored through them.

Some games provide a deeper ethical sandbox than others. In most first person shooters the player is forced along a path where they have little impact except to continue the story and you are simply killing or being killed. Roleplaying games (RPG’s) present a broader opportunity to observe human ethics unfettered by societal constraint, sanction or judgement. RPG’s have always offered the most obvious demonstration of ethics in gaming but only since they started embodying consequence has this gained much depth or interest. When your chaotic evil monk in Neverwinter Nights got the same ending as your lawful good paladin, choice in dealing with non player characters felt irrelevant except insofar as how you perceived your character. More recent games (Mass Effect leading the charge) have implemented lasting consequence making ethics in gaming deeper and more impactful. For the purposes of this article I’m focusing around the expression of ethics in single player gaming though multiplayer provides an interesting counterpart to be explored at a later date. Continue reading