You Are What You Play… Or Are You? – Experimenting With Morality In Video Games

The lock clicks open and the door opens softly. I withdraw my lock pick and slide inside undetected, one with the shadows. He’s in here somewhere.

It’s past midnight and he should be sleeping. There are no voices, no movements save my own muffled footsteps. I remind myself not to get distracted by the chest near the entrance – if all goes well I can sift through it on my way out. Crouching, I creep up the stairs and peek around the corner. He’s alone, and fast asleep. Perfect.

He barely makes a sound as I slit his throat with my dagger. I quickly scour his room for gold, and pocket some gems that he carelessly placed on his bedside table. A tip. I then plant the letter that will incriminate his estranged brother. A notification pops up on the screen: quest completed.

As I leave the house I feel a pang of guilt. But I suppress it. I’m not going to be the noble hero. Not this time.

Many modern Role Playing Games (RPGs) are based around a similar concept: Some terrible force of evil threatens to overwhelm the world. You find yourself in the unlikeliest of places, and discover through a series of encounters that you are that world’s only hope, and a slim hope at that. You overcome all odds to become the hero of destiny and save the world.

But sometimes it’s more fun to mess around with the world than to save it…

Modern RPGs like The Elder Scrolls series offer a variety of different paths to the player, and not all of them are savory. While you can, of course, get straight to the business of saving the world from impending doom, in open world games with a seemingly endless amount of available side quests, strangely enough impending doom will wait. If you choose to help little old ladies and perform honorable tasks for the citizens of various towns and taverns, or get your hands a little dirty and line your pockets with riches along the way, the world won’t end without you. Video games like these offer a place in which we can experiment with different moralities, different priorities, different destinies.

The joy and – some might say – the danger of RPGs is precisely that: you can choose exactly what kind of character you will become. I say “become” rather than “create” because for me it is more a process of becoming, because of how intensely involved I get in games (or movies or books for that matter. My husband loves taking advantage of my adrenaline-infused mental state after a particularly suspenseful or frightening movie, for his own amusement).

choosing a character name is the hardest part
This is me. Every time.
Source: More Handclaps

The downfall of identifying with my character to the point of “becoming” over “creating” is that I find it exceedingly difficult to deviate from the path of the noble hero. No matter what kind of character I attempt to create, I always end up becoming a character that makes decisions as honorably and morally upright as possible. I have to help everyone that asks, and avoid the tasks that may put me in an ethically questionable position. It’s almost a complex. I’ve begun calling it The Noble Hero Complex, and I wonder if I’m not alone. Even in my latest attempt to create an alternative moral code for my character – a thief/assassin type in Skyrim – I have to justify myself as an honourable thief, and an assassin who does what needs to be done in an unjust world.

This is ridiculous, of course. Why should I have to justify the actions I take in a game? When it gets right down to it, my skills are more suited to a thief/assassin-type of character anyways – I’m a bit of a scaredy cat, and much prefer lurking in the shadows and striking from a distance or from behind to facing an opponent in open combat. There are riches to be had for those who are willing to face the dark things that dwell in the depths, but those kinds of things give me real-life nightmares, so why not just take that shiny emerald necklace instead… it’s just sitting there, and no one’s around…

basket on shopkeeper's head screenshot
Or you can just put a basket on a shopkeeper’s head and clean the place out. If he or she doesn’t actually see you stealing, nobody will know anything’s amiss!

I suspect part of my reluctance is a subconscious response to being told by my culture and by other Christians to be “careful” with video games, to be wary of “opening myself up” to the evil that games – particularly violent games – can invite. While I’m tempted to say that this is all complete bollocks borne of ignorance and fear, that I should be able to play any games I want however I want, because they’re not real life and there are no real life consequences, a tiny almost inaudible voice inside holds me back from jumping into such a completely unrestrained acceptance.

So what to do? Do I swear off of video games with any hint of violence? Or do I gorge myself on violent games so as to numb myself to them?

I think the truth of the matter, as it does with most things, lies not to either extreme, but somewhere in the middle. And for each of us that truth may lie in a slightly different place.

Can some people play any video games unreservedly from any perspective without it negatively impacting them in real life? Maybe. Can all people? No, I don’t think so, but it’s not my place to tell them that (and I don’t believe it’s the government’s place, either, for the record). Can I? No, not always no.

Can Christians?

I’m not going to pretend to have all the answers, because there are countless ways to approach this topic from a Christian perspective, and I am just finding my way along. What I do know is that there’s a huge difference between fear and discretion, and while the former has never proved itself the slightest bit useful to anyone seeking an authentic Christian existence, the latter can be of service. The voice that cautions us against video games because they are “evil,” or “dangerous,” or “harmful,” I believe to be the voice of fear. However, if we actively reflect on the games we play, we can seek the balance between experimentation and restraint that works for us.

Mario drops Yoshi to his doom
Maybe I’m just oversensitive.
Source unknown

Many people probably don’t get as hopelessly immersed in games as I do, and might – like a certain person who I happen to be married to – have no qualms with slaughtering every Solitude guard in sight for the heck of it, then reloading. Some people might be even more sensitive to games than me, and might be more comfortable sticking to running fetch quests for the upright citizens of Skyrim, or, you know, saving Princess Peach. Some people might even see value in exploring moral paths in the game world that they would never think to follow in real life.

We are all different, but the important point is, as Kevin Schut writes in Of Games & God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games,

“We should always be prepared to think through our game playing. Unexamined ideas, actions, beliefs, and mind-sets can impact us; conscious engagement makes a difference.”

Ultimately I think video games provide a safe space for us to experience different worlds and experiment with alternative modes of being. They are not real life, but they can have a real-life impact on us, so we should be careful not to live the life unexamined. As far as my life’s concerned, for better or worse, no matter how hard I try to quell my real-world conscience in order to enjoy my fictional game play, there will always be a noble hero beneath the surface just waiting for me to set myself straight and get on with the proper business of world-saving.

***

How about you? Do you suffer from Noble Hero Complex? Or are you happy to flirt with your dark side in video games? How much do your game characters end up reflecting your character in real life?

Related Posts:

Why I’m Not Supposed To Like Video Games – Breaking Moulds

Of Games and God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games – Book Review –  The JWs Do Japan

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131 thoughts on “You Are What You Play… Or Are You? – Experimenting With Morality In Video Games

  1. Funnily enough, you and I always choose the path no matter how much we tell ourselves we’d “check new things”. I simply can’t stand hurting harmless bystanders, or seeing them get hurt. Skyrim and Red Dead Redemption always seems to portray a world so bleak and negative that I think I’m the only one oozing optimism in there. So I choose, often, to do good.

  2. I have seen video games bring out the inner leader in people and allow them to show the confidence they always had inside them. Perhaps this is the step the needed step to show what you can do without the consequences that come from life experiences.

    1. “You are a genius”… Finally someone who thinks so (besides my mom). Just kidding, haha, sort of. For sure it applies to lots of things, video games by nature of their immersiveness and interactivity just make them a really interesting place for these kinds of ideas. Thanks for your comment!

  3. This was a good read. I have to say that I believe games do affect us and our decision making. Even though I think it doesn’t fully reflect who we are on the outside, it definitely does affect us. I always played Rogue in World of Warcraft, now thinking back, it kind of is who I am 🙂

  4. Oh my word I thought I was the only one! In my first ever game where I got to choose my morality (star wars: knights of the old republic) I ended up not being able to complete the game, because in order to do that you have to have a certain degree of bad, but I always felt so awful killing the innocent ones or not choosing the direct good that I simply never did! My stomach literally ties in knots if I see my ‘goodness’ go down on ‘Fable’, even though I know the game would be so much more fun if I didn’t care! I think I am quite sensitive to video games though, when the drums come on in ‘halo’ usually signalling its time to flee, I have been known to genuinely hide. I’m glad you found a way around it though, gives hope to scardy cats like me! Really enjoyed the post 🙂

  5. I kind of agree with the noble hero complex…at least until recently I was the same way. I honestly felt weird when I start stealing things in Skyrim just to see what would happen. (Gasp. I’m so horrible.:P ) But I think I’d like to see how different the story is if I switch things up a bit. I like that Skyrim is fairly realistic in the sense that you actually *can* do something bad if you want. I play other RPGs (such as LOTRO) where the diversity of my character is limited to the class or type of character I pick, the hobbies and professions I choose, and the types of quests I complete. As far as I know I couldn’t go around stealing horses or slaying hobbits even if I wanted to (unless I played in monster mode, I guess).

    Although having the option to be evil or assist unsavory characters has its risks, I’m sure. I agree with what you said, that it’s not the same for everyone. I’ll probably always feel a little strange when I make my character do something that I personally would stay away from.

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