How Real-World Morals And Video Game Choices Fit Together — Or Don’t

How Real-World Morals And Video Game Choices Fit Together — Or Don’t

It’s a deceptively simple question, and yet one that manages to have no good answer: “do real world morals have a place in video games?”

That’s what Erik Kain at Forbes has asked. Kain asks the question in terms of violence. We can do violence in games, he points out, without feeling the need to do violence in reality: “I don’t go from killing three dozen soldiers in Spec Ops: The Line to raving-shooter in real life because I don’t think of those soldiers as real people — and neither do the millions of other gamers out there who play violent video games. I think of those soldiers as digital obstacles, whether or not they’re realistic or cartoony.”

Kain does acknowledge, however, that games, as a medium that exist in the real world and not only inside their own invented universes, have an obligation to be aware of what messages they send, and why. “Unless we want to dismiss games altogether, acknowledging that the ideas and images presented in video games matter, for good or ill, is necessary,” he confirms. He concludes, “I think the game’s creators are complicit, and responsible even, not just for the quality of a game but for what it tries to tell us about the world. Like any good fiction, a game is a reflection of reality. … Real world logic and morality are essential to video games, even if we simultaneously accept that in order to solve these puzzles and overcome these obstacles, we have to play by different rules.”

I will always agree that video games matter in the larger cultural picture, and that what we say with them matters. Stepping back to look at high-level patterns, interesting trends emerge.

But the question “should games be judged externally by our everyday moral system” is not the question Kain asked. And the question, “do real world morals have a place in video games?” is perhaps a more interesting one.

Morality is about more than violence. In the real world I have never killed anyone, and the vast majority of the physical harm I have caused to others has been unintentional and accidental. In digital worlds, I have racked up an impressive body count. And yet, almost every instance of pixellated murder I have committed was in the name of what I felt to be the greater good.

My real-world morality made me want to bring down Caesar’s Legion in Fallout: New Vegas. Real-world morality makes me try hard to seek diplomatic, beneficial solutions to as many problems as possible in Mass Effect. And real-world morality makes me approach nearly every character I inhabit with a weird, innate need to seek approval without compromising that real-world morality in order to achieve it.

And yet in a game, I can shoot Caesar in the face and feel gleeful about it. That real-world morality seems to support using games as a playground, a what-if space that doesn’t harm any real people. And well it should.

Games, like any other art and entertainment medium, can send messages not only about their characters, but also about their creators. And yet the ability for a player to choose how to participate, and to what degree, lets — or forces — us to take some responsibility as well. So how do morality, ethics, and the way we play games fit together? That’s one we’ll be arguing out for decades yet to come.

Do Real World Morals Have A Place In Video Games? [Forbes]

Photo: Shutterstock


  • It’s a little hard to be concerned with ‘real-world morals’ in a game when the story perhaps places you in an alien-infested base from which you must escape. It really is story dependant in my opinion.

    Look at Day Z. Human morality perhaps plays the biggest part in what makes Day Z so compelling. The great thing about games is that they allow you to explore those moral boundaries. To place the same importance on maintaining a moral high ground in games as in real life, however, is as irresponsible as blaming video games for gun violence. They aren’t ‘real’ interactions, therefore the same rules need not apply.

  • I’ve always seen the question on morality in games as weird.

    In my mind video games exist in a middle ground between sports and traditional narrative media like books or movies. In video games there’s competition, rules and basically a match (even if against simulated opponents) just like in sports. You win or lose, just like sports. Then there’s the narrative side, and we all hope someday it will drive most games. But today game play does. And it’s remarkably sports like.

    I was posed the question once, “What moral do video games teach? Why is violence always the answer to conflict?” And although I know is poor form to answer a question with a question, I asked this back: “What morals do sports teach?” There’s a conflict between two sides and the only solution to it is to beat the opponent within the rules. Take a look at a big sports match (take your pick) and its pretty much a facsimile of tribal war. Take the dressing out, and video games are more similar that you would think.

    I bring thins points to illustrate how wrong the perception of games is in my view. Sports are always seen as a 100% positive thing. Yet, video games are not.

  • It’s completely unlike reality. You don’t apply your real world morals when watching an action movie or reading a spy novel or something. Games are not much different, they’re works of fiction, they’re games, they are worlds with amazingly simplified rules and environments meant to show the player exactly what the author intends. Don’t ever get away from that, this is entertainment media.
    Games that pretend to blur the lines because they’re more user directed and sandboxy are still only entertainment media. Not the real world.

    • You might not, doesn’t mean everyone doesn’t, where exactly do you think ‘all works of fiction’ stem from?
      “meant to show the player exactly what the author intends”
      Most halfway decent authors will tell you there’s no right or wrong way to interpret their work, what they intend, is to tell a story, what you take from that story is an entirely individual experience and interpretation. There’s no right or wrong way to read/watch/experience/play fiction, and I find the idea that you can’t apply real world morals to works that almost universally revolve around humanity utterly laughable. You might bend them, let them slide sometimes, work to understand why certain morals are viewed in certain ways from another fictional culture, but practically every work of fiction that involves sentient life involves moral predicaments encountered by people in reality.

      I love digging into an RPG that lets me, as much as is possible, apply my own thought processes to situations I would never encounter in reality. I love New Vegas not because you can choose to murder everybody you meet, but because you can choose not to. I love it and others like it because causes me to ask ‘what would I actually do in this situation?’ Conversely most of my friends do play by killing anyone who gets in their way, and it doesn’t horrify me just because I play differently. And of course it’s limited to the rules of the system, but that doesn’t make what you can get out of said system somehow worthless.

      But frankly it’s going to be hard to find middle ground with anyone who thinks we can’t take anything meaningful from entertainment media just because it’s entertainment media, despite the utter lack of logic in such a line of thought. It’s the same line of thought that dictates all conclusions of theoretical physics are entirely false just because you can’t apply them practically right now. *tears hair out*

    • When you watch action movies, or read spy novels, do you decide who the good guys and bad guys are? That’s applying real world morals to fiction.

  • One could get incredibly philosophical when asked a question like that. For instance, which real world morals are we talking about having a place in games? Yours? Mine? The Government’s? African tribes that allow cannibalism? Chinese society which allows pretty much slave labour? People who think polygamy is acceptable? People who think homosexuality should not be allowed? Morals are a very broad, but also personal thing and barring the most open of sandboxes, you will always find some influence from the morality of the person, if not the laws and moral guidelines of the society in which the game was written.

    It would be really interesting to play a game that was a fully open sandbox with no concept of any kind of morality or limitations based on what censors or publishers, or developers feel comfortable about implementing. You decide who is good, who is bad. You decide whether killing is right or wrong. What sexuality is wrong or right. Whether slavery and oppression are acceptable or illegal. Basically, you define the moralistic structure of the game world and play accordingly.

    Personally, I think real world morals have a place in games (in moderation and according to the society of the game’s development) because it adds another set of rules to the game to provide challenge, such as the father who allowed his son to play COD on the agreement he followed the Geneva Convention. It also expands your view and allows you to experience new ways of thinking about the morals of both your society and others.

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