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.
Singleplayer gaming evokes a sense of isolation or insulation from judgement by others and that freedom encourages experimentation. I recently read “The Lucifer Effect” written by Dr Phillip Zimbardo, architect of the Stanford Prison Experiment. There were interesting parallels with the creation and enacting of characters in roleplaying games. In the Stanford Prison Experiment the participants in the study (particularly those randomly assigned to be ‘guards’) created ‘characters’ for themselves embodying what they perceived to be the characteristics of a prison guard. This was by necessity as all the participants were vetted to ensure that no truly sociopathic individuals were recruited. It followed logically that these ‘characters’ were highly disparate from the personalities and modes of interaction that these young men engaged in through their day to day existence. RPG’s offer similar opportunities albeit with lessened immediacy and in the case of single player, no human on the other side to affect.
Observing my own behaviour and that of my friends through years of playing RPGs as well as discussing our choices has been an interesting experience. Many of my friends cite computer games as an opportunity to explore things you would never contemplate in reality, to be someone you wouldn’t or couldn’t be. This means that they’re perfectly content with acting in any fashion that the game permits simply because they can and there are no real-world consequences. For me though, all that I often find in that freedom is a sense of cognitive dissonance.
Once I commit to a game and get into character, unless I consciously work all the time to adhere to my character’s stance, I revert to my personal default very quickly (I’m a fairly ethically driven person so this results in a pretty ‘boy scout’ worthy performance most of the time). Secondly I find that the further I progress in a game and the greater the consequence of the decisions, the more uncomfortable I get with maintaining the separation between the cognition I have for my character in the game world and the cognition I embody in real life. There are huge flaws in this in an absolute sense because I have perfectly happily shot thousands of people in computer games where I would be highly uncomfortable with shooting just one in real life (even if it WAS someone I intensely disagreed with).
Mass Effect as a series is to be commended for the breadth of its ethical choices and the variety in scale. They run from the ethics of personal interaction and the exploitation of vulnerability in relationships through to debate on the ethics of manipulating or committing genocide on entire species and the right to exist of non-biological lifeforms. This generates an emotionally charged and authentic milieu in which the narrative exists and runs it’s course. Mass Effect is also the only (to my knowledge) RPG which actually manages to induce a serious sense of anticipation of the results of your actions. A consequence of this is that even more so than other games I have defaulted to playing the digital hero.
[SPOILER ALERT for the 2 people out there who haven’t played the Mass Effect series through] For what would be my last Mass Effect full playthrough I decided I was going to try something different. I was going renegade, for once in a game I would be truly badass. I decided I was going to engage with this character. I couldn’t quite countenance being the kind of guy who would taser baby otters and laugh but a hard man with the proverbial heart of gold seemed easier to stomach (my choice of the name ‘Takeshi Shepherd’ is a dead giveaway for anyone who’s read Richard Morgan’s ‘Altered Carbon‘ series). The interesting thing was that, the further I played, the more I realised I could be comfortable being a bad guy to a certain extent but I could only push it so far. I could let a couple of innocent workers die to catch a man who’d killed thousands or push a guard out a window to keep an approach quiet but nothing more than that. I know it’s not real. I know these people aren’t real. Those phrases became my mantra. But when it came time to make the big calls, I found my decisions coming down again and again in the same way.
On Feros I saved the Rachni queen after hearing her plea for clemency not to see her race go silently into the night of extinction. I saw the suffering that the female Krogan on Tukchanka were willing to undergo to see their children survive, what could I do but save the genophage cure in the desperate hope that I could reverse that injustice? It always felt like the impending implosion of the Krogan species was a dark cloud that loomed over the series like an ethnic cleansing elephant in the galactic room. In the face of this, Mordin’s evolution from utilitarian argument about the greater good in the beginning of Mass Effect 2 to his ultimate act of self sacrifice and redemption (with the aid of your persuasion) in Mass Effect 3 felt like one of the most compelling examples of growth and character I’ve witnessed enacted in a game. It brought tears to my eyes. The realisation over the course of the series that the Geth were not villainous automata but a species born and almost extinguished in the same instant by the fear and prejudice of their Quarian creators further demonstrated the series’ ethical depth. In the face of all this suffering, real or imagined, I felt as if the only thing I could do to live with myself and my character was to try to help, to reconcile.
There’s no real right or wrong here, I haven’t saved anyone and none of this affects the world I’ll go to sleep and wake up in. But for those few moments in the immediacy of the game I’ve felt bound to act in keeping with my real self. This might just demonstrate that games aren’t yet real enough to create an environment in which a powerful group dynamic can alter a player’s mode of thinking to one which they would or could not otherwise countenance. Certainly some of my friends and I’m sure a huge chunk of the gaming population don’t experience this compulsion to be the digital hero. So how do you play? Hero or villain? And how do you live with your choices? Me? I think about steak, Liara…