Moral choice: does allowing immoral choices in games impact real world behavior?

Determining right and wrong is something we are taught from a very young age. Barring cultural relativism, it is an instinct that we are trained to follow in order to be part of a functioning and peaceful society.

Share don’t steal, protect others and do no harm, be honest and don’t lie, etc. When an opportunity comes our way to make a moral choice we calculate many factors; our likelihood of getting caught, its impact on others, and the consequence of not doing the right thing. To complicate matters further we may sometimes do the right thing for selfish reasons; if I do the right thing publicly I will be praised and I can boast, if I do the right thing now I won’t feel bad about doing something wrong later. It can be difficult to always do the right thing, we often justify our more benign offenses by karmically balancing our right and wrong deeds.

Video game franchises such as The Witcher, Mass Effect, and Fallout provide us with a virtual space where we can experiment with moral decisions. Being a good character or a bad character without real world implications is a freeing experience. It allows players to explore what it means to be truly good or evil and the impact it has on them emotionally. Playing as a good character rewards the player with reputation and deference, but requires discipline and sacrifice. Playing as a bad character allows for indulgence and collateral damage, but comes with the guilt of harming others even if with nothing more than words.

The infamous franchise Grand Theft Auto allows the player to both shoot pedestrians and return stolen wallets, to run over people and give rides to hitchhikers, to rob people of their money and tip street performers. It is choice that determines the experience.

When a player decides to follow a dark urge a game can provide them with consequence, guilt, and even shame at times by remembering and reacting to their morally wrong choices. It reinforces the ideals of society by mimicking them, and in that sense allows the player to enact evil, to feel the emotional reaction to bad behavior, and internalize it.

This learning experience for a normal person makes them healthier in the real world because they have an outlet, instead of seeking real world violence they can release their intentions in a game of war where they must fight an enemy.  However, if a person enacts morally wrong behavior in a game and follows through with similar behavior in the real world, that person, uniquely chose to commit to a morally wrong lifestyle. Instead of the games they play impacting them as an individual it must be understood that their playstyle and lifestyle were always a reflection of themselves as individuals.

The truth is that human nature exists in all of us; to falter and to do the wrong thing from time to time. If we are to learn from our errors in judgement and the true value of being a good person is it not preferable that we have a chance to do so in a virtual space? It is important to understand what a game reinforces in terms of a player’s goals and the game’s rewards. Games that include adult themes and allow players to dive into immoral behavior should be scrutinized for audience as with any art form. However, we must not be so quick to dismiss games which allow players to confront the darker side of humanity. The exercise of seeing the opportunity to do wrong and choosing to do right is not only a powerful gameplay experience but also one that promotes morality through the conflict of choice.


Andrew Mantilla is a ludologist and video game journalist for Play Professor.  You can check out more of his content on FacebookTwitterInstagramand Youtube.

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