Monday, February 15, 2010

The problem of morality in video games Part III: The progression of video game moral themes

In my previous post I briefly explained how the video game industry has evolved around the same pace as the technology (computers) have. Because of this rapidly evolving industry, there are outdated ideas of video games and in a lot of cases a lack of respect or thought toward the ideas and moral ideas that games convey today. In this post we will look at early video game morality (such as it existed), and then compare to more modern games.

Early video games more or less did either fell into two categories with regard to morality: the simplistic adventure where the objective was to survive hordes of enemies to get from point A to point B. Most games were linear, objective oriented, and story and world creation served merely as backdrop to the adventure and objectives. Early games didn't encourage much moral thought about the morality of stomping on a Goomba's head, saving the princess, or killing Dracula.

Even in such primitive origins however there were exceptions. Golgo XIII, a Nintendo game based off of the popular manga series, dealt with themes that one could find in a James Bond film, complete with easily seduced informants. Even with dealing with mature themes however much was implied, not shown. Very little in the way of bloodly violence or sexuality/nudity were present (at least in the U.S.). While such games were often outside the mainstream, they were the same simplistic linear scheme, often leaving a player to simply play out a role rather than influence the moral narrative.

As gaming grew up during the '90s so did the themes. While still limited in scope, moral dimensions began to develop in games as story elements and game worlds became more immersing. However, even this development was constrained to more adventure/role playing games, where the moral path was set and players simply played out the role they were assigned. Still, the moral themes dealt with in such games (war, death, loss, life) showed a trend toward more developed story narratives.

In today's world of video games we have come even further in the development of narrative and the ability to give players choices in how the moral narrative plays out. The development of story telling has grown in leaps and bounds, creating fleshed out story lines and development of characters. Another development is the expansive worlds which allow for a diversity of moral choices that affect how the story is formed. To list but a few:

Assassin's Creed series: A sci-fi series detailing the life of Desmond Miles and how he lives the lives of his ancestors through a machine. Deals with conspiracies, religion (in a negative sense) and the lives of fictional assassins.

Fallout 3: A post apocalyptic Washington D.C. where you play a wanderer searching for his lost father. A variety of moral choices, ranging from giving water to a beggar to saving or blowing up a town with an atomic bomb.

Dragon Age: Origins: A fantasy role-playing game where you play as a Grey Warden, a character whose destiny is to save the world from darkspawn, a race of monsters bent on destroying the world. Involves religion (specific to the game world), situational ethics, sexuality and violence.

Infamous: The semi-futuristic world of Liberty City is bombed using a package delivered by your character, giving you electricity based abilities. Choose to be a hero seeking salvation for the city, or a villain and seek revenge. Deals with life and death, survival scenarios, and choosing good or evil actions/missions.

It is in the context of these games (and others) that we will examine the current state of morality in video games. From these examples and others we can get see how morality is expressed in the medium as well as the limitations that video games currently suffer from.

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