Monday, June 2, 2014

Morality Play: The Emergence of Ethics in Video Games

Dialogue choice, from Bethesda’s Fallout

Video games, perhaps more than any art form, have the ability to engage their audience personally. This makes them an ideal forum for grappling with the difficult questions art has always sought to identify and answer. Games are not a passive experience; you have a direct effect on the outcome, so you are involved personally in how you arrive there. Nobody would question your willingness to tap a button and zap the alien aggressors in a Space Invaders arcade cabinet – but the more “realistic” that video games become, the more pertinent these questions become. If the invading aliens were depicted with a unique culture or societal structure, distinct from our own, with a religious system that drives them to invade, or a fanatical government which forces them to subjugate us – if, in other words, you came to understand them as beings, and not just pixels on a screen – would you hesitate before pushing that button? As we have been able to render fictional settings with greater and greater detail and verisimilitude in games, the question changed from “What can the player do in our game?” to “How should the player feel about what they can do in our game?” Morality and ethics are a part of the postmodern video gaming experience, whether it’s recognizable or not, and their effect can be drastic and potent.

“Morality systems” have existed since the earliest days of organized gaming, going back to the 1970s with the advent of the alignment system from Dungeons & Dragons, by which your character’s personality could be defined on an ethical scale from “Lawful Good” to “Chaotic Evil”. But playing as a Chaotic Evil wizard, for example, is not exactly conducive to the teamwork that glows at the core of the D&D experience – who would want to go dungeon-delving with a character who wears the title “Lord of Destruction” unironically? – so players rarely stray into personalities any darker than an “antihero” when creating a D&D character (a dark elf, let’s say, who might not play by the rules, but who could still cooperate within a team). But in more recent examples of role-playing games that focus on a single-player experience, players are often encouraged to create whatever kind of character they want, without ethical restrictions. Bioware’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic cleaved to the Taoist philosophy established in the Star Wars films, allowing a player to take actions and make dialogue choices that would lead them on a path to either the Light Side or Dark Side of the Force, and making no judgment on either choice (that is, the player is not punished for becoming a Sith, nor rewarded for being a Jedi). Bethesda’s Fallout series utilizes a similar “karmic” system (whereby you gain karma for acts of kindness and lose karma for acts of greed or evil), which does not impact gameplay except in rare circumstances, where certain non-player characters (NPCs) might react differently to you depending on your karma rating. But morality systems like these, while outwardly providing an illusion of ethical thinking, really just function as shrewd character creation tools; an RPG is by definition a role-playing experience, meaning that many players (myself included) would often choose to guide their characters down incredibly unethical paths as a way to feel a sense of agency in crafting a unique character. As Chuck Klosterman notes in his essay collection I Wear The Black Hat, it’s often far more interesting and revealing to play as the bad guy, something that the black-and-white infancy of gaming could hardly predict. Then, you played as Super Mario, rescuing the princess from Bowser’s evil clutches. Now, you can be Bowser instead of Mario. Now you, a noble lizard king, must protect the woman you love from an implacable Italian kidnapper. From this perspective, is it still fair to call Bowser “evil”? What does the availability of that choice say about games? Or about us, as players? In this ethical gray area, we’re experiencing a total reconstruction of how games are “supposed” to work.

A glimpse into Papers, Please
But games can pose ethical quandaries extending far beyond a binary morality system. An extraordinarily unique specimen in gaming, Papers, Please exists almost solely to challenge a player’s sense of ethics. The actual gameplay – in which you function as a border guard for the fictional Communist republic of Arstotska, checking people’s documents for discrepancies as they cross into the country – is minimal at best, and tedious at worst. Pushing documents around a desk, checking and double-checking information, calling “Next,” and stamping passport after passport perfectly emulates the kind of crushing, soul-aching boredom that real border guards must endure on a daily basis. You’ll repeat this routine over and over again, until you begin to wonder why you even bother. Your mind will wander, and suddenly you’ll see the tiny figure of the woman you just let through the border open her coat, and ignite in a fiery blast that scatters the crowd and kills three armed guards. You’ve learned the cost of letting your focus slip, even for a second. And then the day ends, you are granted your pitiful day’s salary, and you must choose how best to divide it amongst the food, heat, and medicine your starving family sorely needs. Then the day resets, and you begin the routine all over again. But beyond the potential risk of letting the wrong person through your checkpoint, you begin to fear the things your government is demanding of you. A man will pass through your station, his documents in proper order, and ask that you treat his wife – who is directly behind him in line – with kindness. She steps up, and expresses her profound relief that she and her husband will finally escape the misery of their life in their home country. But, oh no – her entry permit expired two days ago. You highlight the discrepancy, and she begs you to admit her anyway, that the government will kill her if she returns. Hands tied, you deny her entry, and she tearfully curses you as she leaves. Later, the game installs a search function for your booth so that you may catch weapons and contraband before they enter Arstotska. I may never forget the shame I felt upon telling a person whose passport said “Male” (but who looked extremely feminine) that they “had been selected for a random search”, ordering them to face the camera and remove their clothes, and then seeing the utterly conclusive results of the nude photograph. No novel or film could forcibly inject such potent doses of guilt, shame, fear, and paranoia, and the reason is that you, as the player, are made entirely complicit. Papers, Please makes it clear through its very structure that you don’t have to play if you don’t want to, but in choosing to do so, you choose to make judgments that will cause you to question not just your actions within the game, but the decisions you make in real life.

Living as Aiden Pearce, in WATCH_DOGS
Ubisoft Montreal’s WATCH_DOGS asks some hard questions too. It places you in the skin of Aiden Pearce, a vigilante who uses his hacking skills to infiltrate the central operating system which controls the infrastructure of the game’s fictional near-future Chicago. Aiden’s smartphone is a portal into the digital world, wherein you can gain control of the environment and use it to frighten or incapacitate your enemies (causing a fusebox to blow up, for example, or hacking into a security camera to identify foes from afar). But, perhaps as a commentary on our own superconnected reality, this means that everyone with a phone is vulnerable to Aiden’s (and therefore your) prying eyes. You can walk down a rainy Chicago sidewalk and gather incredibly personal information about the pedestrians passing you by: this man lost thousands in insider trading, this woman recently took a trip to Cuba. This one is an undercover policeman; that one is a child pornographer. You can learn people’s backgrounds, incomes, social security information – and you can use this information however you see fit. Some you can rob directly from their phones, hacking into their bank accounts and retrieving the cash at an ATM. Some you can save from a potential crime, by listening in on a threatening conversation and isolating the GPS coordinates of the person on the other line. But in a world of Facebook and Twitter, in which the boundaries of privacy are far more nebulous, perhaps any clever person could lift the same info that Aiden acquires through a quick Google search. Perhaps he’s not really “hacking” at all – just quickly compartmentalizing the wealth of data that we all allow ourselves to share with the world when we post something online. And in this sense, the voyeuristic thrill that pulses through the game – the ability to actually learn everything you want to know about the person sitting next to you on the subway – isn’t wrong or unethical at all. In the world of WATCH_DOGS, we have relinquished our privacy, and the people like Aiden who use this to their advantage are simply quicker and cleverer than the rest of us. But this doesn’t stem the tide of guilt I feel when I play it.

The ethics of something like Grand Theft Auto are transparent: it’s deeply immoral, but eminently entertaining, in the same way that we can simultaneously despise and be transfixed by Henry Hill in Goodfellas. These are linear stories about bad people in which you are at the wheel, and don’t tell us much at all about ourselves. The more penetrating ethical questions come from games that ask you to craft your own reality, rather than live out someone else’s. Then, the game is a mirror – and what you see there can be as frightening and as beautiful as the contents of your own heart.

Let’s see a painting do that.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently working as a Development Tester at Ubisoft Toronto.

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