Sunday, February 21, 2010

The problem of morality in video games Part IV : Situational ethics

This is the fourth in a series pondering morality in video games and the problems that come with this new factor in the entertainment industry. This article contains spoilers for the following games:


If you do not wish to know more about the game in question, please refrain from reading further.


Consider the following situation: You are a superhero with powers such as super agility and the ability to scale walls at a lighting quick rate. You are facing a super-villain who has no ethical limitations. He just detonated a device that has shattered the city you live in and the government has quarantined the city. This super villain has also captured the following:

1. Your girlfriend (as in serious relationship, not like you like you relationship)
2. Five doctors who are needed to help the sick and wounded in the city

You are only able to choose one to save, either the girlfriend or the doctors. Which do you choose?

Such is the moral dilemma posed by the best seller Infamous, a game where you play the role of Cole MacGrath, an ordinary guy who finds himself with super powers relating to electricity. The game's production values are excellent (visuals, gameplay, control, sound, etc.) Yet the world is gritty, people are suffering in the city after a terrible explosion, and everyday is a fight to survive. Therefore several extreme situations and difficult moral choices are common in this game. Related to this is the "morality rating" that dictates the access of powers that you can learn later. Be the hero of the city and you gain access to powers of healing and disabling your foes. Become a villain and receive access to powers of destruction.

The above situation occurs near the end of the game and like many others before it forces your character to make a difficult moral choice. Save the love of your life at the expense of the lives saved by the doctors? Or sacrifice her to save the doctors and in turn help the people of the city? The game rates the saving the doctors as the "good" choice, identifying you as making the "good" choice. Saving the girlfriend (while futile since the villain kills her anyway) is the "evil" choice.

The problem with this view is that it assumes a utilitarian view of humanity. It is for the "greater good" that while the girlfriend is sacrificed, the doctors are saved, and therefore more people can be saved. This however is an erroneous viewpoint. If one believes that every human being is truly unique, then every life is of infinite value, and the lost of that life is an infinite loss. Thus the girlfriend's life is just as important as the doctors' lives or of those they will save. To view people through the lens of contributing to society is to put a relative value on the life of a human being.

Another problem with this situation is the assumption of motivation. It is "selfish" to save the girlfriend because, well, she's your girlfriend, and as such the player is acting out of a selfish desire. Perhaps the player thinks it is possible to save both? Perhaps she is the closest person, and therefore saving her is more of a possibility? The presumption of motivation damages the ability to evaluate the "good" or "evil" of a particular action.

Sadly, games boasting of moral choices that attach a view of "good" or "evil" often have an unstated moral viewpoint. This moral viewpoint, either wittingly or otherwise, is expressed in how the game evaluates "good" and "evil" actions. Sometimes they are clear cut (killing civilians is wrong, saving civilians is good). But other times, such as the above situation, reveal at best an incomplete or at worst an incorrect view of humanity and a consequentialist/utilitarian viewpoint of humanity.

The problem created by the situation reveals a consistent and understated problem with current video games and their inclusion of morality. The correctness and consistency of a moral viewpoint is a very important factor to any story for two reasons. First, the moral ethic is the backdrop for why the hero/villain undertakes the actions and forms the ideas of why the person is a hero/villain. A consistent moral ethic is absolutely essential in order to understand what makes a hero a hero vs. a villain. The second is that people learn about morality through stories. It is why we tell them. It is why we read to our children. One must be cognizant of the moral lessons in the stories that our children are exposed to.

At this current stage of morality in video games I will attempt to argue that far from malice on the part of developers, the inconsistent or simply wrong ideas about morality stem from simply not thinking about a consistent moral ethic in their games. In the next few posts we will look at some games and how their stories show the moral philosophy (or not) that underlines the stories in the games.

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