Monday, 4 March 2013

Morality in Games

Say what you will about Mass Effect or Infamous (and people will) but while the moral choice systems they introduced were integral to the plot, they were also somewhat lacklustre; with the most difficult choices sometimes being the metaphorical equivalent of 'Kick an adorable puppy' or 'Don't'.

Is this the games fault? No, not really, moral choice systems in Games almost always suck and have done for years. Of course, this shouldn't be suprising. After all, morality is one of the most challenging concepts the human race has created and it's one that major figures still struggle with today. The stark black and white choices in most games are simply an extension of this wider societal debate...and often the safest way to keep your game free of controversy.

This should be a button on Xbox Live.Source
Ironically, by trying to present things in as simple a form as possible Game Developers have actually managed to present the main camps of this complex debate in a handy bitesize format. So, like a Viking at a buffet, I'm here to gobble up the moral quandry and spit it back out into a diatribe of knowledge.

While you take in the imagery of that last sentence, I'll begin.

Viewpoint 1) Absolutism
Mass Effect 2

When you see people debating morality today, whether on the news or in a seedy internet forum, they will almost always fall into two camps. Since Absolutism has been around alot longer, it gets to go first.

Absolutism is, very basically, the belief in Truth with a capital 'T'. That is, the existance of a single, clear-cut standard of what is right and what is wrong. This is the version of morality that is most often linked to organised religion and,. in fairness, most games that present you with a moral choice system.

Mass Effect, and in particular Mass Effect 2, presented this in the simplest possible terms with quick time events that shifted you towards either 'Paragon' (Good Guy) or 'Renegade' (Bad Guy). The thing is, despite some pretty clear design choices (You glow when a Paragon, get Red Smoke and bitchin' scars as a Renegade) they decided to introduce a few of these events that were less clear cut.

Not only are you evil, but you're a damned Commie to boot!         Source
For example, during one mission you have to infiltrate a PMC (*sigh*) in order to reach 'ArchAngel' (He's a Paragon by the way) and stop said PMC from murdering him. On the way you can sabotage several systems they were attempting to use in order to make the fight more even. Finally, when you are nearly there you can head down an alley and find a mechanic working on a attack gunship.

Now, said mechanic starts merrily chatting away about how the gunship can really 'do some damage' a renegade flag pops up. What do you do oh evil one? Shoot him in the back? Knife him repeatedly and dance a merry jig in his organs?

No, you pick up a electric cable and shock him with it, knocking him out and helping to sabotage the gunship.

Now this is certainly not heroic, indeed it could be seen as kind of wussy, but by doing this you could be helping to save several lives. Certainly some people, who we'll get to later, would argue this was a just act.

Not Mass Effect.

Renegade! Bad, bad man!

This is the thing with Absolutism, by definition there is no Grey Area. You are either Right or you are Wrong. The problem with that should be self evident, but incase it's not then just imagine this. If you can be one of two things, will you always be the one you should be, even when it's hard, or will you be tempted to change the rules so that what you are is always matter what?

History suggests an answer.

2) Viewpoint 2: Relativism

In one of his defining moments of Pope-ness the former Pontiff warned about the 'Creeping Relativism' in Western Europe. Essentially, he claimed that the 'Truth' (noone should be shocked the Pope is an Absolutist) was being watered down by a society that consistently saw shades of grey (Not those Shades of Grey!).

Again, very basically, that's what Relativism is. The concept that truth along with concepts of right and wrong all depend upon where you're standing. To us Bin Laden was a mass-murderer, to a select few he was a heroic martyr. Based on this belief, it is impossible for us to declare an absolute right and wrong and can only act on what society can agree at the time.

To me, no Game better sums this up then GTA IV.

Niko Bellic: Shotgun Philosopher.Source
In GTA IV you play as Niko Bellic. Immigrant from a war torn Eastern European country who's hunting for the men who betrayed his unit and his (presumably ethnically cleansed) village. In the game you murder, deal drugs, help pimps and prostitutes and rob a bank with a group of Irish Mobsters who don't include Ben Affleck.

Yet while you do all of these things, you are still the hero. You don't question the things that happen in the missions because you know what Niko's goal is and you empathise with his character. Like Liam Neeson in Taken, he's been wronged and someone has to pay.

Again, the problem with this viewpoint should be self-evident. Niko cares so little for right and wrong that he leaves a body trail at least as long as the men who killed his village. In fact, even the game achknowledges how far he's come.

See, at one point you think that 'Florian', a man from your village living in Liberty City, may have been the traitor so you hunt him down and kick in his door.

Only to find that Florian had become...well, this:

Das Vadanya, SailorSource

Bertie Crane, happy and openly homosexual man. When Niko explains why he's there Bertie says something along the lines of:

'I'm sorry Niko, but it wasn't me. When the war ended I was upset, I came here and came out. I got over it'

Sort of seems like the healthier option really, but not, in GTAs world, the abjectively 'Right' one.

So, which of these systems is right? Well, neither. There's a reason I said all game morality systems suck, and it's the same one as why I think these predominant beliefs (in their most commonly spouted forms) also suck.

Human beings are incredibly complex creatures, and never more so then on issues of the soul, morality and sentience. The truth is that while there may not always be a 'Right' in every situation there may well be a 'Wrong' in that same situation.

The 'Truth' may not exist but the truth does, and sometimes is ignored when it should be spoken.

Or to put it more simply: If you find yourself in a situation where you are shooting a child, or detonating a explosive vest in a crowded public square...Then you're being a dick and should cut it out.

If you are preaching with all the fire of a Crusader against religion because it doesn't see your point of view, chances are you're also being a dick and should cut it out.

Alternatively, you could say  Skål! and drink your fill.

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