Can Videogames Teach Morals?

Posted by in Blog on Jul 30, 2012

Can Videogames Teach Morals?

By Chris Jaech

I recently mentioned to a friend that I was going to be writing a blog post about using video games to teach good moral lessons. She scoffed, saying something to the effect of “Shouldn’t your thesis be like, the opposite of that? It seems like games are better at teaching bad moral lessons.” Sadly, this seems to be the popular opinion. For years now the media has been all too eager to blame video games for violent crime, particularly any sort of gun violence. When it comes to good morals, video games have a bad rap.

But games, like other media, are made by real people with their own moral compasses. Whether a game has good moral choices built in depends largely on the will of its creators. While your run-of-the-mill FPS (First Person Shooter) is not inherently moral, it is certainly possible to make a FPS with important moral choices. For example, in the recently released Spec Ops: The Line, the player is put into a situation where it might seem like the only way out is to slaughter a crowd of civilians. Actually, it is possible to make the civilians disperse by firing a few rounds into the air rather than into a person, but the player doesn’t know that. To avoid shooting civilians, players must have the mental and moral fortitude to first overcome their reflex to panic and then think logically about the situation.

This is similar to an example used in this paper by Jose Zagal. He argues that games can pose ethical dilemmas in several different ways.  One way is to use a built-in moral framework (e.g., the player is given Evil Points for performing actions that the game’s framework defines as evil, and Good Points for good actions).  Another way is to have the game’s narrative context teach moral lessons to the player by presenting choices which can be defined as good or evil (e.g., the player has a choice between executing a defeated, defenseless enemy or letting them go). The above example from Spec Ops: The Line would fall under the latter category. Zagal’s example from Ultima IV uses both.

In order to succeed at Ultima IV the player must adhere to eight virtues: Compassion, Valor, Honor, Justice, Humility, Sacrifice, Spirituality, and Honesty. It is a true dilemma, then, when during the last sections of the game, after the player has been following a moral code zealously in order to get where they are, they are put in a situation where it seems like the only way forward is to kill a group of children. As Zagal points out, “…the game apparently requires an action that is morally repugnant in the real world.” Not only is the action “morally repugnant in the real world,” but there is nothing in the context of the narrative to suggest that this is for some reason a special case and you should kill the children (for example, let’s say a trusted ally of the player character informs you that they only look like children, but are in fact murderous demons). There is a way to get through the room without harming the children, but the point is that players have to be invested enough in the morals of the game to feel responsible for their actions. This is what makes Ultima IV an “ethically notable game” according to Zagal.

The only problem with Mr. Zagal’s hypothesis is that he’s assuming everyone cares about moral choices within the context of the narrative. For someone who isn’t really a gamer, I guess it would be hard to come to grips with this idea, but unfortunately many gamers don’t read quest text. They just hit the accept button. Many gamers jam buttons to get out of cut scenes as fast as possible. Some gamers perform violent acts because they look cool, or they to acquire as many Evil Points as possible, or because being evil is fun. It’s just a game after all.

While this sounds rather pessimistic, perhaps exploring those apathetic and/or negative feelings by being evil in a safe environment where you aren’t actually hurting anyone can be just as morally useful to some people. A way to blow off steam, if you will. A paper by Cheryl Olson supports the view that videogames, much like fairy tales, can supply a framework for exploring natural feelings of aggression, fear, and guilt, and experiencing the emotional repercussions of moral choices.

While it certainly is possible to use games to teach morals, learning morals and ethics involves some effort and emotional investment on the part of the player too, no matter how well morals have been designed into the game. When considering whether a game has good morals or not, one must remember that the onus is not only on the game designers to create that experience—players also have to participate. For young gamers, parents can encourage moral reasoning by watching kids play or playing with them, then using the game as a launching point for discussion.