By Neil Merrett
To what extent can morality truly exist in games?
As with all art, individual responses to media can vary wildly in terms of their cultural ability to inspire, enrage, challenge and even shift our views of reality and our place in it.
But games carry an additional complexity around how they impact morality, due largely to the fact that their very reason to exist is interactivity, to give a choice, and then in some form provide a virtual consequence to that. Eat a mushroom, grow twice in size.
But if a player acts abominably in a fictional digital world, especially one where all other digital denizens are ultimately just a piece of code, does it really matter?
Surely part of the appeal of the medium is to live out all number of empathetic responses, life threatening fantasies, or outright criminal activity without real world consequences.
Just as with any form of virtual heroism or sacrifice, in-game actions surely carry no weight, significance and therefore any value outside that digital world they create. At least, this is how it used to be.
In the past, a game such as 1997’s Dungeon Keeper, which was developed by Bullfrog Productions, allowed the player to assume the role of a kind of ethereal dungeon manager in charge of defending different hellish dwellings from “heroic” treasure hunters.
Yet the notion of punishing valiant heroes for trespassing in your dungeon was only a physical appearance of evil – it was a design rather then moral choice. Underneath, the player was simply playing a game where they managed resources and tried to outwit computer opponents.
The Fable series of games that followed in the 2000s meanwhile were built and sold to the public on having a living breathing world. Here the moral choices made by a player left indelible impacts on the game world during their playthrough. This in turn would impact the way non-playable characters should interact with you.
On its release in 2004, the critic Levi Buchanan noted the first game in the series did have consequences for the player for bad behaviour – albeit it limited ones. Particularly in the first title, the moral structure of the game seemed to really switch between a player being a village slaying monstrosity, or an almost angelic warrior of incorruptible moral integrity. Nuance and moral ambiguity can be something of a challenge to convey, especially on older generations of hardware.
This is often not helped by the disconnect of a player bringing their own morality into a game and their handling of a character, even if they are just being slightly less manic and more circumspect in how they use violence.
Series such as the Witcher or Frostpunk have since attempted to develop more interesting ways to try and make a player feel the consequences of their actions.
Writing for Squareblind earlier this year, JJ Robinson noted how Frostpunk made the usual choices of strategy in a game one of conflicting moral quandaries to the extent that any victory may feel hollow or even a failure of morals against pragmatism.
He said at the time, “The game offers a choice of two paths to help you sideline the suffering of your citizenry: order and faith. The first starts out relatively benign: town meetings, a neighbourhood watch. Before long, your critics are imprisoned and burly men are tasked with ensuring your proletariat mine more ‘efficiently’.”
“As for faith – what harm a prayer against the cold? Warm meals for workers? A small shrine to inspire harder endeavour? A faith-militant to flagellate the idle? Perhaps a little overzealous. No matter – use the bodies as fertiliser in the hothouse, and keep that meals-on-wheels program running another day.”
But these choices, even with their complexities, still do not have real world ramifications. At least not directly. They are intended to reflect on how your own morality would play out in horrific or outlandish situations.
But with the emergence of open world games and their simulated levels of enhanced player choice, as well as the changing cultural and financial value of gaming as a way of making a living simply by playing them in a specific ways to garner viewers, we are now in our brave new world.
At its simplistic best, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a game about cowboys. Yet the modern hardware power of the Playstation 4 and Xbox One has allowed developer Rockstar Games to create a sometimes buggy, yet richly detailed American frontier in which to be good, bad or literally ugly in.
It is a game world designed to allow a player to help people, seek vengeance, maim, murder, rob, assist, burn and hunt down living creatures for sustenance. Once you have bought the game, you have a relative free run of the world Rockstar has built.
It is possible for gamers to build content around going on gastro tours of the game world, if one is so inclined, hunting rabbits, bear meat and exotic creatures for some high concept stew.
The flexible approach to gameplay also extends to the morality of a gamer’s actions. Simulated hate crimes are as a viable choice for a player, much in the same way as opting to become a champion of the poor and destitute.
While this has led to the internet producing handy videos on the etiquette and importance of good bathing and grooming rituals in the game, others have been able to make content hunting down and torturing suffragette characters in this virtual world.
Influential Guardian gaming journalist Kezza Mcdonald was highly critical of sites such as Youtube for profiteering out of content out of players creating comedy videos of footage from the game where a player beats up and murders these digital representations of suffragettes.
This from @vanbadham elucidates the dangers of over-simplifying game violence. The question of whether devs are responsible for what players do in games is open. I do think in this case that it’s YouTube’s responsibility to discourage simulated hate crime.https://t.co/iHiBMpdNQq
— Keza MacDonald (@kezamacdonald) November 8, 2018
In the current febrile political environment that exists both online in the realms of social media and reality, where a very emboldened far right culture war is becoming part of daily political discussions, just what is the right approach to tackling simulated hate crime in a game?
As readers pointed out, almost any living creature in the game can be hunted down and murdered in Red Dead Redemption 2, yet all these characters will return to life during their next playthrough.
Is it the sharing of this footage where there is a clear political and misogynistic bent that is the problem, or the very act that an individual is free to make these sort of choices?
Writing for the Guardian on her love of Red Dead Redemption 2 and how calls to ban violence against women in the game were too simplistic, journalist Van Badham noted how restricting choice undermined one of the vitals freedoms offered in games, even to do grotesque things.
“Gamers have exploited the moral freedom granted to the player’s free-roaming character, the outlaw Arthur Morgan, to shoot and beat these female characters, to throw them down mineshafts and feed them to alligators. Something of a competition has emerged on YouTube, with some videos uploaded to the theme of “kill annoying feminist” ratcheting up millions of hits,” she added.
“The criticism revisits controversy attached to Red Dead’s studio developers, Rockstar Games, whose breakout hit was the notorious Grand Theft Auto. Again, the moral freedom afforded to the player-character was the capacity to kill any of the other characters. In the game’s most recent iteration, GTA V, gamers indulged a particularly visceral misogyny when uploading videos of female sex-worker characters; after the purchase of their services, the women were beaten and murdered, and their corpses looted too.”
Amidst a broader political movement to try and tackle and expose predatory and intimidating sexual behaviour, as well as a subsequent backlash against this movement, even specific gameplay footage can now be used to stir up resentment and make political points masquerading as jokes.
As Ms Badham said, ”Researching the suffragette-bashing videos for this article, the next video suggested by YouTube was one of the far-right’s favourite anti-feminists, the thoroughly creepy Jordan Peterson.”
“The context here, too, is a post-MeToo sensibility, in which cultural awareness is finally catching on to the causal relationship between the seemingly neutral objectification of women in our cultural products, to the dangerous objectification of us in real life.”
There are obviously limits, not least in commercial terms, to promoting racist and sexist abuse online. Yet trying to curb toxic behaviour in how gamers interact with strangers from all around the world, or the game itself, is an ongoing challenge.
But as we seek more and more lifelike and immersive worlds in the years to come, a human interest in greater in-game freedoms will only serve to throw up the menace of inappropriate or offensive behaviours, as well as how we express our actions.
Whether out of boredom, a sense to gain lucrative online views or something more malevolent and unpleasant, games will look to live out all manner of behaviours that are problematic in the real world.
Ms Badham suggests that video sharing sites will have to step up much more to prevent such content.
She said, “Like life, the game doesn’t oblige you to perform acts of immoral violence, even when it provides you the opportunity to do so.”
“We can’t stop people from committing violent immoral acts in real life merely by announcing the institution of the law; we do so through that law’s intersection with punishment and reward systems, and social values – how heartening to learn that one of the YouTube video’s creators has been punished with a ban for feeding the suffragette to the alligators.”
But there is a fine line here, and not always an obvious answer to the real world political machination that may be behind such videos.
With the game worlds that follow Red Dead Redemption 2’s likely to be equally, if not more detailed in recreating the vital facets and contradictions of human nature, games will become an increasingly elaborate tool to make all sorts of statements.
These will not just be videos and footage of individual moments of spectacular skill, major fails, or broader artistic expression, but also provocative and political acts designed to send a message as well as entertain.
Ms Badham argues that punishment and reward should therefore be more explicit in games and go further.
She said, “Isolated, angry teenage boys (and the vaster numbers of their more dangerous adult counterparts) could certainly use a play-centric environment to enfranchise them in notions and skills of talking to women as people, not objects – and the rewards of pleasure and de-isolation therein.”
Games such as Grand Theft Auto have always had an escalating police presence in their games to try and counteract an increasingly criminal and violent player.
For some people, a major appeal of the game is living out a violent fantasy of how much chaos a player can perform before being brought down by federal force, as well as watching others online struggle with the morality of such a pitched battle.
However, in all of these games, the police force serves as an antagonist to rein in the player, rather than enforce a realistic, or even artificial moral code beyond the classic, “Though shalt not kill”.
To create such a system to police morality in games is not just a nigh impossible technical challenge with current hardware, but a political one with very real world parallels.
How do we ensure that gamers are able to personally indulge and express themselves in a game world? Are their limits to what a player should be able to do? If there are, what does that mean for the idea of a so-called open world?
How do we rein in assholes trying to use in-game freedoms to shock and harass, while creating complicated gaming narratives and open worlds that can challenge and educate around moral behaviour, if it is even a videogame’s place to do so.
If we want games to be art, what place can there be for censorship in games and how then can we address bigotry at the hands of a player’s actions?
In our increasingly connected online world, these topics are as pertinent in real life as they are in the sophisticated virtual playground of Vice City.