RetroPost: Fallout 3 & The Challenge of a Gaming Morality

RetroPost is a weekly repost of an older Christ and Pop Culture that has some relevance to current pop culture events or releases.

This Week: With today’s release of Fallout: New Vegas, it’s worth considering the nature of moral systems within games and their implications.

In the last two generations of gaming systems, the inclusion of a moral system which affects plot and character has become a prominent feature in many games.  The simple version of this gameplay feature offers the player different endings depending on whether or not they were “good” or bad.” More complex games (Fable, Mass Effect, Fallout 3) take a more nuanced approach to morality or “karma,” assigning the player various good points or bad points depending on how they act in the world: who they kill or save, how they treat other characters, and what choices they make in the plot. The player is then given various bonus, perks, or abilities that are unique to his or her “karma” level. In a Star Wars game, an evil character might get Force Lighting. In Mass Effect, a good character might get the ability to charm someone into helping them.

However the player benefits or is hurt by his or her choices, most games present fairly simple moral choices. You can either chose to rob the poor family stuck on a deserted planet, or give them a lift off the rock. You can either call your companions idiots for letting the villian escape, or you can assure them that it was not their fault. A few offer the player a third choice, essentially a “neutral” moral response, but no matter how many ways they divide the choices, it is nearly always clear to the player how their choice will affect them. In other words, using morality as a gameplay feature only works insofar as the player understands the game’s system of morality. Once the player’s understanding of right and wrong diverge from the game’s, the player will end up making choices which do not produce the results they expect.

I became acutely aware of this in a conversation with a friend about Fallout 3. We both enjoyed the game and were discussing how it surprised us in various ways when we got around to discussing a particular quest called, Tranquility Lane. If you wish to avoid spoilers, I would suggest skipping the next two paragraphs. In this quest, you get trapped in a virtual world controlled by a masochistic scientist. The other characters in this world, like you, are real people who are asleep in a pod; however, unlike you they have been sleeping and living in this virtual world for years. The scientist, Dr. Braun, who controls this world and lives in it, enjoys torturing the other characters and even “killing” them.  After he “kills” these characters and is finished with his fun, he starts up a new environment, wipes their memory, and starts over again. When you enter his virtual world, he gives you various tasks to do before he will let you leave: make a little boy cry, break up a marriage, kill a woman in a creative way, and then kill everyone in the town. Obviously, if you do his tasks your character loses “karma” points. But the game gives you another option.

If you find Dr. Braun’s hidden computer, you can release a simulation called, “Chinese Invasion” which sends Chinese soldiers into the town to kill all the inhabitants and allows you to escape. What is interesting is that unlike the murders that Dr. Braun has been committing which leave the person in the real world unharmed (although mentally scarred), the “Chinese Invasion” is a fail safe which kills the characters both in the virtual world and the real world, thus freeing them from the endless torrment of Dr. Braun. This option gives you good karma in the game. Both my friend and I remarked that it seemed odd to receive “karma” for killing these characters, even if it was, presumably, an act of mercy. In the game’s moral system, it is morally better to kill people than to allow them to be tortured in a virtual world, despite the fact that the characters themselves have no way of communicating to you their preference. You are, in effect, rewarded for judging the worth of someone’s life and then killing them based on that judgement.

This quest presents players with a fairly complex moral dilemma, which I think is good for mature games to do, but the complexity of this situation is reduced by the moral system of the game by offering the player a moral binary. To torture and kill in a virtual world is evil, but to save those people by killing them in the real world is good. The game is presenting me not only with a moral situation, a fact that needlessly preoccupies much of the “moral” discussion of video games, but a moral system by which to act in that situation. In general, these moral systems appeal to fairly universal ethics: murder, theft, and lying are wrong; sacrifice, benevolence, and honesty are good. But in Fallout 3, I was confronted with a morality that was much more complex and yet the judgment of that situation was disturbingly simple and challenged my beliefs.

Certainly video games are not the only medium which presents both moral situations and systems. Books, films, television and most stories involve some judgment on the actions of the characters, and this judgment constitutes a moral system, even if it is limited. But video games are unique in that they invite the player to engage and act out the plot in a way that differs from other storytelling mediums. I might identify with a character in a book or movie, but I am not making his choices. I will always be distant from them because I have no agency in their world (unless you include “Choose Your Own Adventure” books…). In a video game, particularly role playing games, I am given some, albeit limited, agency. Which leads me to the question, how should Christians respond to video games which call what is evil, good?*

It could be argued by some that games like this can and will redefine our morality in an unbiblical and dangerous way by rewarding us when we act according to the game’s morality, not the Truth. There are several assumptions in this argument that make it untenable. It assumes that the player is oblivious to the morality expressed by the games and that actions in a game can have profound and penetrating affects on our most basic beliefs. The validity of both assumptions depends entirely on the context of the situation and the maturity of the player, and so this response seems to be less than satisfactory.

Another response is to note that games are only likely to become more emersive and involve more complex moral systems. As games allow players to enter into more realistic and emersive worlds and offer them more varied actions and moral choices in that world, the moral systems that judge the player’s actions will have to engage increasingly complex situations. In this sense, it seems important for us to begin considering how to respond to the way video games portray morality now so that we are prepared to deal with this issue as it becomes more prominent.

For now, I believe the most important action we can take in response to the presentation of morality in video games is to make an effort to identify how a game treats morality and how that differs from God’s Truth. The reality is that all man-made moral systems (including ones we impose upon ourselves in moments or periods of legalism) are corruptions of the truth; they inevitably are unjust and confuse what is evil for what is good. Our calling is not to merely condemn and flee from these systems, but to honestly and graciously understand them, identifying what is a corruption and labeling it as such and agreeing with what is right.  I chose to unleash the Chinese Invasion upon the residents of Tranquility Lane, believing that it was the better of the two options the game gave me. Although I do not agree with the games assessment of my character’s action as “good,” I am thankful that it challenged me to consider how video games are capable of presenting a moral system.

*My point here is not that that particular quest in Fallout 3 confuses evil for good, but that the fact that the moral situation is so complex suggests that if players don’t disagree with this game’s morality, they will find conflict with the morality of future games.

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  • Brad Williams

    I’ll go ahead and lay my nerd cards on the table here.

    One of the things that I found so compelling about Dragon Age: Origins was that you could not always see what the best choice for the moment was. Like earlier Star Wars games, your interaction with the NPC’s could make them friendlier or less friendly, and if they became friendly they got bonuses while in your party. Sometimes, it was easy to make a friend. Sometimes, it was difficult, particularly with the character from the foreign culture, Sten. He didn’t respond well to the normal morality because he wasn’t from around those parts.

    Also, a few of the quests would lead you to believe that “X” was the proper choice that would lead to reward. Later on, you may find out that you had been duped, or that your choices had not been so advantageous after all. It was a good game, and I found it far more morally complex than Fallout 3.

    I will note that I found righteous indignation much easier in Fallout 3. When I met slavers, I just smoked them with my Lincoln Repeater. I’m not sure what that says about me as a person, but I enjoyed that part immensely.