THE BULLSEYE OF MORALITY: How We Project Our Morals on to Games

The final entry in a series of guest posts by Hali Sofala and Eric Jones on the connections between gaming (video and otherwise) and the literary.

Filed under: Blog |


It is important, in considering the role of videogames in modern literature, to note the different types of games that we play as well as which player model we are adopting when we play them. The recent explosion of smaller puzzle games to a more vast audience, through the medium of such portable devices as tablets and phones, are clearly marketed to a Rational Player Model. The rise of Angry Birds and the resurgence of 2D platformers such as Braid and Limbo, appeal to our sense of practical strategy, rather than our moral pathos. Still, triple-A titles like the recent releases of Skyrim and Mass Effect 3 seem to balance the scales of those two corollaries, providing an expanding new medium which allows for participants to push themselves into intense moral situations that provide a safe format for experimentation. This is not always a good thing.

Mass Effect 3’s recent outcry from players at the game’s ambiguous ending has led the development company, BioWare, to backtrack, promising a new “Extended Cut” which will supposedly appease players. This, one may argue, is an inevitable outcome for a medium that allows its audience an implicit ‘say’ in how stories transpire on the screen. Similarly, Skyrim has faced criticism for not being story-driven enough by players who allow themselves to be engorged by the freedom that the game allows. The natural question this invokes is ‘how much freedom should players be allowed?’ and the answer lies both within the player and within the game developer. The tango between the two is an amiable struggle to take the lead, and when morality is thrown into the mix, then the whole thing gets messy. In this blog series, we have laid out an outline for how we might approach games as moral literature by identifying key aspects of both the game and the player necessary to create an emotional catharsis. We have argued that without these particular elements games cannot be considered moral literature.

   Games with closed moral structures, like the ever-popular Call of Duty, must be accompanied with a strong narrative frame that adequately reflects its gameplay. Call of Duty opts for a cinematic action clich├ęd narrative that posits “good guys” against “bad guys” in increasingly spectacular set pieces designed to make the player feel powerful. This is a fine formula except for when the narrative diverts from its glossy eye-candy structure, such as in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, in which a section of the narrative forces the player to gun down hundreds of civilians in an airport in the hopes of gaining the trust of a Russian terrorist. This portion of the game was notably panned for its outrageous use of violence, and without harping on the absurd argument about whether or not video games kill more people than guns, we agree that this scene should have been cut. The problem, however, did not lay in the intrinsic simulation of violence on civilians (ala GTA), but in the context of that simulated act. The narrative frame allowed for no player catharsis, particularly because as part of the frame, the player’s projected identity was killed right afterward and the player forced to adopt a new role who did not participate in the airport shooting. The level was a failed attempt at inserting a moral point into an otherwise amoral game. The Call of Duty franchise resembles more of a sports game, with its basis in strategic on-line gameplay. The player accepts the limitations of its narrative based on this, and later games wisely do not attempt to foray into greater emotional depths, to do so successfully would be to re-classify the game altogether.

   While we have been careful not to stray into arguments of whether or not socially volatile games like Manhunt or Grand Theft Auto are examples of positive moral literature, it is important for each player to answer this for themselves. Miguel Sicart calls the discerning player the “virtuous player.” A player that has already developed a civilized value system will find these games challenging and rewarding in both a Rational and Active sense. It also stands to reason that games like Super Columbine Massacre RPG, which presents a closed moral game design that forces players to re-enact the Columbine High School shootings as one of the morally ruptured shooters, confronts Active Players with a gamespace that forces them to contemplate the real-life shooters’ motivations. It also serves as a poststructuralist art piece that points out the grotesque ineptitudes of a society that places the blame for such atrocities wholly on game developers, musicians, and irresponsible “Hollywood-types”.

There are no easy answers to our societal woes, but we might applaud those few videogames that have the nerve to address them in innovative and multi-layered ways. Games like The Landlord’s Game cannot be played without forcing the player into an ethical conundrum, and what that situation says about us depends on how we answer. The test carries weight, and stays.