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. I second the “Noble Hero Complex” thing. As for your thoughts, I think they’re spot on. Approaching games from some sort of reflective standpoint not only engages our conscience in the process, it is the type of thing that helps some people carry reflective practice into “real life.” I know of one student that began playing Bioshock because it looked cool, and came away with serious thoughts about the social impact of unrestrained capitalism.

    Your post is lovely. I hope it encourages more conversations of its kind.

  2. Well I certainly hope I’m not what I play. I certainly don’t have a Noble Hero Complex, in RPGs my characters tend to have Pure Evil Complexes the majority of the time. Take my Dark Side Jedi Knight on SWTOR as an example… I can’t be the only person like this in games… right… anyone… anyone at all?

    I’m a nice person in real life… promise 😀

    1. Oh, I’m sure you’re not alone in having Pure Evil Complex, no worries. I believe that you’re nice in real life, really! … *backs away slowly* … just kidding hahaha. 😉 Thanks for commenting!

  3. The thing with most RPGs is playing an entirely noble person puts you at a disadvantage, because noble people don’t go round opening chests that aren’t theirs and desecrating tombs. I usually make the “good” choices, but it’s hard to reconcile with the murdering and stealing. I suppose “chaotic good” is the easiest character type to play, unless you justified a “lawful good” character by giving them kleptomania.
    pomsawaydownunder.wordpress.com

  4. I always thought that I would be the honorable kind of video game player. I always do the missions that make the world better, I believe that this has stemmed from my humble routes playing Mario on my Game Boy. Although recently I have found my self playing a lot of FPS and friendly fire has become a bad habit. While saving the world or even the galaxy, I will often prefer to go the missions alone, taking out my squad for the use of a better gun or even just because I find them annoying to see them running around doing nothing. Maybe this is the real me coming out now that the choices are becoming available in games.

    By the way, I only kill my teammates in campaign mode, so don’t go blocking me on xbox live. I am a good teammate online, when there are people to give out to me.

    1. I much prefer playing alone to having teammates or helpers… NPC companions annoy the heck out of me in Skyrim. No worries about me finding you on xbox live, I avoid online games like the plague, haha… Thanks for your comment! 🙂

  5. A very interesting account of your gaming experience, and one I can relate to. Although, I don’t have a problem being an assassin or a thief in Skyrim, but I just don’t like it when people don’t like me…I mean my character! 😉 I’ll share this with my readers! Congrats on being FP!

    1. Thanks! I know what you mean, when people say bad stuff about my character I get upset – especially if I just did something awesome for them, like, you know, kill a dragon that was about to burn their village down. Some people. Love your site, btw! 🙂

  6. I usually end up playing the noble hero as well. I made a really bad choice in Skyrim once and had to kill all of the guards in a town (I can’t remember the name of it though. It starts with an ‘M’.) Anyway, everywhere I went I kept getting attacked by other guards. I guess that word got out that I was a baddy. It made it really difficult to play the game further as I didn’t know how to do damage control. I’ve never thought about why I prefer being a goody-goody in games, but I think that it does make it a bit easier to concentrate on things I want to do rather than having to watch my back all the time. It’s probably also because I want to be a hero in real life. 🙂

    1. Hahaha, that’s hilarious! I don’t think you can ever kill all the guards, I think they just respawn… and continue to hunt you… maybe if you went to jail (then broke out) you’d be cool? Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      1. Me? Go to jail????? Oh no no no no. I can’t have that on my virtual record. I hadn’t thought of them respawning. hahahaha! This is probably another reason I have to be a goody all the time. I just don’t have the brain to be a criminal mastermind. So maybe it’s nothing to do with my moral code, but that I lack the facilities to handle my misdeeds. For example, in real life I am totally against lying. I hate it so much and never do it. Part of that is because I like being an honest person but lately I’ve also realised that I have a shockingly bad memory. So maybe I don’t lie because I know that I won’t remember my stories and think that I’ll get caught out. Your topic is definitely an interesting one and I don’t think that it’s very easy to answer. 🙂

        1. I will never forget the time I accidentally killed a bunny, and it went on my “virtual record” in Skyrim. There’s actually a category for “bunnies slaughtered.” I felt terrible!

          I’m totally with you on the lying thing. I am a terrible liar, probably because I’ve had so little practice. I’m not sure if this is a bad thing or a good thing…

  7. To be honest yes, I suffer from the noble hero complex. I just like doing it that way, I mean on occasion I do go out and burn the village down or kill everything in sight but when I do that I usually go and play a game like gears of war or COD. But yeah when I’m in RPG mode I’m the noble hero alight.
    But from a Christian perspective things get interesting I think. Two christian principles factor here as far as I’m concerned. One, that we should consider what comes into our senses; I take this to mean that engaging in most anything in excess or to the detriment of yourself. Two, that there are many parts that make up the ‘body of christ’ and that we should each play to our strengths. IE, if you feel you care capable of dealing with something without if causing any detriment to you then feel free to do it. Christianity should always teach caution NOT fear.

    1. I agree that caution is important – you have to know yourself and your own limits. TBH when I first read this comment and you says “play to your strengths” I thought you were going to go on about how, if my strengths are thievery and assassination, I should play to those… hahaha! Thanks for sharing your thoughts! 🙂

  8. I also play as if I were in the game… or like to think that would be how I would act. Always the good guy. Can’t bring myself to do something bad. I often think ‘It would be so much fun to smash this place up…’ why can’t I bring myself to do it? If I really were in some of those situations I would run and hide.

  9. I rarely play RPGs as I lack the patience. Even choosing a name for my character takes up a lot more time than it should and by the time I’ve finished customising the look of my character, I’ve usually lost interest. But I agree, RPGs are a great way to explore morality and explore options you’d never explore in real life. It gives people the opportunity to step outside of themselves, as it were, and maybe even learn a little more about themselves. 🙂

    1. It does take me WAY too long to customize my character, usually. These are important decisions! I have to look at, I have to BE this character for probably way too many hours of my life! My husband always makes fun of me for how long I take, haha. It’s worth it, though!

  10. Trying to tie-in being a Christian with how you “should” be playing a video game, role-playing or not, is asinine. I have been a Christian my entire life, willingly, and at no point do I feel I need to be “careful” about how I play the games. Most of the time I create assassin style characters and thieves. Does this conflict with my faith in God and acceptance of the Bible? Hell no, of course not.

    You play the helpful person BECAUSE your personality is so weak. You are a weak person in life so you are fantasizing about being a helpful and noble person. I, on the other hand, while being helpful and more of a sheep dog than a sheep, tend to like playing sneaky and on the edge of “evil”.

    Why? Because it’s a way in which I can do what I feel I would want to do in life, but in a manner in which I am actually accomplishing it. Sheep like it when they feel power. Wolves always feel the power. Sheep dogs do what they can to help the sheep, but often times they start to bite the sheep, even if it’s helpful. That’s me.

    Nothing about the Elder Scrolls or Legend of Zelda or anything similar is going against God and anyone thinking otherwise is obviously a fool who has a pathetic amount of understanding.

    1. If you don’t feel like your Christianity has to affect your game playing, that’s totally fine. I appreciate you sharing your opinion in that regard. But there’s no need to go the extra mile and attack the character of the people who feel differently. If you were only attacking me I wouldn’t care so much, but since your words reflect on everyone here who has shared, I do care. Everyone here has different personalities, different backgrounds, myriad different factors that affect how they view and play games. To reduce all of that down to strength and weakness, or intelligence and foolishness, THAT is asinine.

      1. Strange, I don’t see where I was attacking your personal character. How odd you took it that way. Perhaps this is something you are actually struggling with then?

        It is strength and weakness, though. You even made reference to how you are a weak person, but you play the games as the “Nobel Protector”. Your personality is the reason you do it. Did I not mention I am more of a sneaky back-stabber than a stand and fight because I could get away with it in the game? Yet, in life, I am more likely to go ahead and get in a fist fight than be sneaky or passive aggressive about it.

        Intelligence has very little if anything to do with any of this. The exception is stating if you’re a Christian you must be careful how you play the games. That’s just silly and I will continue to claim such.

  11. A nice read. Congrats on the Freshly Pressed!

    I always end up playing the “good guy” in any game I play. Of course, my life-long love is Zelda, and you have a pretty narrow game path with that series! But I, too, become so involved in a game that I consider all characters as fellows. I honor all agreements, all conversations — until they betray me.

    But do you feel that monitoring the types of games young children play is smart and/or warranted? In my mind, having children play progressively more involved RPGs and JRPGs would instill discipline and a tendency towards relationship-upkeep (important traits), while simple shooters (and progressively bloodier ones) are just about instant gratification and power. I wouldn’t mind having a kid sink 150 hours into a Final Fantasy game. I would be incredibly concerned if they did the same for Call of Duty. Game achievements and storyline resolutions are NOT the same thing.

    1. Thank you! I love the Zelda games too, they would be among my all-time favourites, right up there with Chrono Trigger!

      I don’t have kids of my own, so according to a lot of people I probably don’t have the credibility to talk about this, but having been a kid and witnessed the development in some of my younger cousins, I would say the more involved you can be in a kid’s play from a young age, the better. Not necessarily to govern it, but if you know what it means to summon an aeon or kill a darkspawn, if you can understand and participate and model, I think you’ll be in a better position to guide them along. My dad played games with me when I was very young, and when I was a bit older we fought over computer time for Red Alert. So he could have a positive input in that way, and I usually wanted to play the games that he was playing. I hope that answers your question, at least a little bit. Cheers! 🙂

  12. Totally noble hero. I hate thief quests or murder quests so I don’t do them if I can avoid them, but then it irritates me that I have uncompleted tasks. I started my last skyrim play as an argonian thinking it might make it easier to be less human, but no, I’m just a heroic lizard!

    1. What do you have against Argonians? Haha. I totally understand about the “uncompleted tasks” thing. I can’t bring myself to do certain tasks, but it annoys me that they sit unfinished in my log, so sometimes I do them just to get them out of there – but then I feel bad! Argh!

  13. I tend to make my characters good through and through. And make choices in the game as I would in real life, for the most part. In Skyrim, I had no qualms about doing all the Thieves Guild quests, but going down the path to the Dark Brotherhood? No thanks. I’m also obsessive about making sure my horses in Skyrim don’t die, silly as that sounds! Haha.

    For me, my characters and my choices are definitely a reflection of myself. But I’ve known the nicest people to create the most evil characters, so I think it’s a slightly different experience for everyone, which is why video games are so great. They allow you to experience the outcomes of your actions, and act on your most primal urges (such as killing the bad guy) without all those messy real-world consequences.

    1. …so does that mean you’re a master thief in real life? 😉 I wasn’t comfortable doing Dark Brotherhood stuff at first, but after going through the Thieves Guild quests I grew restless. Careful, thievery is a gateway to greater crimes in Skyrim, haha!

      I think everyone must be different in how well they can compartmentalize their characters and their real lives. For me I can’t watch a zombie movie without seeing zombies around every corner for days – months, even, in some cases – so I get really into things and it’s hard to separate myself from my character. But obviously lots of other people have no qualms – that’s why it has been so interesting to hear from other people in the comments on this. Thanks for joining in! 🙂

      1. Ha! I think I wish I was a master thief in real life 😉 Oh my goodness, what you said about zombies, though, that happens to me all the time. My boyfriend recently got me to watch Walking Dead with him, I couldn’t sleep for weeks. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw zombies. I expected to see them walking around on the lawns in our neighborhood. I don’t know what it is, if I can find a way to rationalize that something could be real, it affects me in real life. Here I felt silly for the zombie thing; glad I’m not the only one!

        1. Haha, it was 28 Days Later for me. Wrecked my piece of mind in unfamiliar spaces at night for more than a year. I find it helps to be proactive, and when the zombie scenarios enter your head, to think of what the best response would be in that moment, scout the area, etc. Imagine the best possible outcomes…

  14. One of the things I like about video games is the chance to explore my world views. I do tend to make characters good and heroic. If I create an evil character I often don’t use them long and usually don’t like them much. I think I mostly game how I live. But now and then…

  15. I tend to make evil characters partially due to the fact that in an escapist fantasy world there are no real-world consequences for doing so. I’m not bold enough in real life to stab my friends in the back (even if they REALLY deserve it haha) or fight dragons for that matter (if they existed). But in a game all is possible.

    1. True enough, in the real world you wouldn’t find me anywhere near a dragon! Unless it was a cute baby one, maybe, haha. The lack of real world consequences is definitely a huge factor. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

        1. Thanks! I have a adventure/life/teaching blog at thejwsdojapan.wordpress.com where I write as “genkiduck,” and I occasionally write travel articles for other sites. I have a few other things published in random places that I’m considering compiling a “best of” for on Breaking Moulds… and more to come, hopefully! Thanks for your interest! (#^.^#)

  16. In theory, I feel okay with going down the dark side’s path. However, in practice, I feel often bad for some actions. The first time I played Metal Gear Solid 3, I felt bad about killing the soldiers off, and used my tranquilizer gun to complete the game. Later, I was ok with blowing things up, but still with a small twinge of guilt now and then.
    As for Mario, I am perfectly okay with jumping on goombas and koopas, even just to rack up points.

  17. Great Post. You have the noble hero syndrom but I’m like the opposite. I always try to do the right thing in real life, making sure to hurt no one. Whereas in video games (if i have the choice to be bad) I’ll be as bad as I can be and maybe save the world in the end. I feel a twinge of remorse afterwards but during the gameplay I just think like the character. Like rihanna sings in S&M “I’m maybe bad but I am perfectly good at it.” in video games at the least ^^

    1. If you are the opposite does that mean I am a terrible person in real life? (O_O) Haha. I’m getting better at being ‘bad’ the more I play… at first I just dabbled in thievery but couldn’t fathom killing anyone for no reason, now I’m deep into the assassins guild and there’s no turning back…

  18. In an RPG I think it is almost impossible not to have your character reflect on who you are in real life. Not totally. I mean I have played Fable both dark and light and in real life I am not running rampant slaughtering innocents, but as you stated, you tend to become your character. For most people it is easier to become a character if it has some relateable (and most of the time redeeming) qualities.

    You lost me at the Christian section and you probably should have made that a second part to the article since for me it took away from what *I* found was interesting in the article.

    1. I think the need for the character to be “relatable,” as you mentioned, is key. When I play the darker character types, I find it more difficult to naturally relate to my character, so I have to make up justifications for why I (as my character) would act the way I do – “the burden of greatness is too much to handle,” etc… haha.

      In a similar way, I’m sorry if you didn’t find certain parts of the article relatable, but when we get into talking about worldviews and morality it’s pretty difficult to leave things like beliefs out of it. Yes, these will be different for everyone, and that’s cool, but I I don’t feel that I could have approached this topic quite as honestly if I wasn’t open about where I, personally, am coming from in this regard. Cheers! 🙂

  19. SInce I’ve been eight years old I’ve been obsessed with fantasy games and books. From Lord of the Rings to the Dune saga. When I was ten a couple of friends and I began playing Dungeons and Dragons. We would have our humble beginnings where we (invariably) meet in some shady tavern before we set out to save the world from some evil wizard or dragon.
    But as we grew older our priorities in these games changed. We also began playing Fallout (the pencil and paper version) and world of darkness (the pencil and paper version of Vampire 2:bloodlines). We stopped having quests forced upon us and began creating the story lines around our own characters lives. We’d live casually, meet each other and interact, before stumbling upon something sinister. Maybe this is just the more mature approach to the game, but a pattern emerged where we became slavedrivers in D&D, we became drug dealers in WoD, or we’d become bandits in Fallout.
    Yet when I play a PC game where you see the man you’re about to assassinate’s children, or when you are given the speech options of “I shall put my weapons down… for now” or “I don’t want any violence, let’s come to a peaceful resolution” I’ll pick the latter. In fact I’d be a paragon of virtue to the point of being spineless. I’m playing a light-side jedi in star wars right now and I’m beginning to think I might be losing out on a lot of plot twists.

    1. I have been drawn to fantasy since a young age, too: before I was old enough to read novels, my dad read “The Chronicles of Narnia” to me, and I was reading LOTR in school reading time when other kids were still on the Babysitter’s Club. I never got into D&D though, probably more for lack of opportunity than anything else…

      Yeah, I find that the better the game developers are at making you feel like the people you interact with in the games are actual PEOPLE, the more interesting the moral choices become. Even so, it can be more fun sometimes to break out of your shell a bit and play more rogue-like! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  20. I liked your part about the “becoming” a character. So very true that it does not stop at initial creation. This goes triple for games like Elder Scrolls. I have been an avid play of this series and each time I have been careful in crafting my reputation. I am a major sucker for games that allow this continuing environment where my actions in one place will eventually spread to another. I look forward to true free form when things like your saving a whole village spreads as stories of a hero or if yo choose to destroy everyone you will hear whispers of a great evil and a village where everyone went missing. Of course I am usually prone to the hero role but it some may be entertained by the other.

    1. Yeah, Skyrim tries to do this with the small talk from guards and other NPCs after you do certain quests. One thing that has always bugged me is after I kill a dragon (especially if it’s near a city or in a town) people are WAY too underimpressed. Yeah, they sometimes gather and make comments, but shouldn’t they be all like, “wow, you killed that dragon! You saved our village! Let me buy you an Ale!” or something? Hahaha… thanks for sharing your thoughts! 🙂

  21. My husband is like you. He played through Mass Effect 3 three times (twice with me sitting beside him making sure I didn’t miss a conversation!) and could NOT bring himself to play as a … was it a renegade? Whatever the opposite of paragon was, anyway. He’s more able than me to just play the game as a game, whereas I get very much involved in the backstory and psychology of the character… This could be because he’s played a lot more games than I do. (My onscreen (and real life, let’s admit it) hand-eye co-ordination is pathetic to the point that I cannot even walk around in a FPS without ending up stuck in the corner staring at the ceiling. (Which is not saying I get stuck in corners staring at the ceiling in real life…)) We’re Christians too, and stopped hosting and playing D&D after a few years – not because we thought it was wrong, but because a number of people at our church had issues with it, and we didn’t want to “cause them to stumble”. We were happy playing spell-casting characters, but not evil-alignment ones.

    Interesting post. Congratulations on your Fresh Pressing, too!

    1. Haha, I’m not a huge FPS fan either, they’re a bit too frantic for me, but I’ve heard the Mass Effect games do try to get you to think about the morality in the game, a bit.

      I’ve never understood what Christians have against D&D. I remember, in university, being invited to play a game by a guy in my class. Another guy in my class, who knew I was a Christian and apparently was too, pulled me aside later and “warned” me about the spiritual dangers I would face if I went along with it. I didn’t end up going – not because of the warning but because the first guy reeked of desperation more than a little bit – but it’s puzzled me ever since.

  22. While I haven’t played a lot of rp games with choices that invoke moral questions involved, I am a big time roleplayed. I run a Pathfinder game, am part of a 3.5 campaign, and participate on a forum. Throughout all of those things, I have noticed that while I know the “bad guy” is doing things that are morally wrong, for me it’s more fun to play them. Mostly because I have such high moral standards in life. I enjoy setting up despicable plots for two reasons. One, I get to make the other players think. And two, I don’t so much as hold a mild grudge in life, so sometimes it is a relief to be the crazy baddy.

    Do I approve of my characters, and thus my, actions morally? No. Is it fun to watch everyone panic and try to figure of what to do to get out of a situation? Yeah, mostly.

    As for reasoning why a character would do something shady, isn’t that part of making/ being a character. I don’t know anyone who does things for absolutely no reason. Even a reason like “I wanted to” is still a reason. Creating the motivation for your assassin/thief is part of good roleplaying.

    Another note: White Wolf has a game entirely based on confronting the potential for evil and struggling with morality. It’s a dice rolling RPG called Vampire: the Masquerade. We’re getting ready to start that and I’m very interested to see everyone involved dealing with the conundrums that are thrown at us.

    1. That sounds really interesting! I’ve never really played table top RPGs, although recently I witnessed a bunch of friends playing one while we were camping. I’m curious how role playing alongside other real people, as opposed to NPCs in a single-player game, affects the experience of in-game moral choice. Thanks for the thoughtful comment! 🙂

  23. I like to do the kind of things I would never do in real life because of the consequences to myself or others, but which don’t affect anyone in games… mischief and havoc, mostly.

  24. I think it has to do a lot with gender too. My husband and I have both played all the Fable games and the Dragon Age games. We both usually choose the “nobler” side of the choices, but it bothers him way less to do something shady now and again. With us being about equal in our Christian character I have begun to see this as that him just being a guy. He does not get as emotionally attached to the characters. Myself, on the other hand, will cry if one of my virtual family members dies. I get upset when they do not give me a choice to “talk it out” with the band of good meaning bandits that I feel empathy towards and instead I must fight them and have my face caked in their blood.
    Maybe it is not his gender entirely, but maybe because he is a guy and he has played more violent video games he has become desensitized. All of those first person shooter games leave him with little emotion for his RPG characters, knowing that in video games most people just die.

    1. …or he’s a psychopath? Haha just kidding, my husband was super embarrassed after he read this post because I put in the part about him going on killing sprees and then reloading. He protested that everyone would think he’s a terrible person…

      I would be extremely reluctant to boil it down to just a gender difference though, perhaps a difference in personality in which gender is one of many factors. I know a lot of guys who are similarly sensitive to games as I am, and lots of girls who aren’t. My husband has a female gaming buddy who he plays Borderlands 2 with online; she can kill shamelessly with the best of them!

      1. Definitely it is not solely on gender, just thinking how we are built emotionally plays a part. Oh and I’ll slaughter with the best of them on Borderlands. Fricken psycho’s are creepy and have to die. No “noble hero” complex there. I’ll romp with Tiny Tina and blow everything up! Hehe.

    1. Thank yooooouuuu! Finally worked my way through all the comments in order to get here, on my brand new and extremely annoying Japanese keyboard. It took me WAY too long to find the apostrophe and I still have no idea how to use the underscore. See you around! 😀

    1. I usually don’t think too hard about games while playing them, either, but this came up when I started a new character in Skyrim and my friend coaxed me into becoming a thief. I objected because “how can I be anything besides the Noble Hero?” and I’ve been thinking about it ever since those words spilled out of my mouth. No problems with just having fun, though! Thanks for your comment! 🙂

  25. To give you some context, I grew up with a Biblical Worldview instilled into me from my parents. I knew the difference between reality and fantasy as I committed random muggings in GTA and blowing Covenant away in Halo. I’ve noticed however that despite sawing someone in half on Gears of War and being completely desensitized to it, I’m stilled rather appalled by blood and a bone sticking out of someone’s leg when I see it in a mosh pit at The Warped Tour.

    The moral elements in video games have fascinated me as I’ve grown older. What I’ve realized is that literally every single pixel in a game communicates something. Whether its the design of the gun, the voice of the characters, the sound effects, ect. there is a message being communicated.

    I grew up playing games like Golden Eye and Super Smash Brothers on the 64, but I didn’t really start “gaming” till Halo. The Elders Scrolls 3: Morrowind though was the game that I started to notice “moral” decisions in it. To be honest, the decisions you can make in a game are somewhat shallow. Too often it seems your choice is either kiss the baby or kick the baby. I’ve been playing one of the newer MMOs, Star Wars The Old Republic and the moral choices are essentially either Light Side or Dark Side. It makes me think, “Really?”

    An approach I’ve been toying with in games like Skyrim and New Vegas is creating characters with different worldviews. What if my character was a through and through post-modernist? A nihilist? Some kind of brutal hedonist? What can I justify and what standard will I appeal to when I decide if an action is right and wrong concerning each one of my characters? As Rushdoony points out, who is my “God”? Me? The authorities? What set of assumptions does the belief system of my character built on?

    I will say this: Playing as a character Dark Brotherhood as a hedonist and nihilist makes me want to explore more chaotic choices. Might makes right after all, so whatever I determine is justice is exactly that. However choosing the utilitarian approach for the Dark Brotherhood has interesting play applications as well.

    1. “What I’ve realized is that literally every single pixel in a game communicates something.” I completely agree. I was a COMM major in uni so the communicative aspect of games is totally my thing.

      I like how Skyrim gives you a totally blank slate on which to build your character. There’s no backstory written in at all, so you really have the freedom to decide who your character is (and why, if you want to insert a world view and rationale). In contrast, Dragon Age, while it gives you a relatively open world and the ability to make decisions, as well, gives you somewhat of a backstory so you feel like your character comes with some pre-existing biases and inclinations. Of course the “origins” aspect of the game makes decision-making interesting as well, just in a different way.

  26. I think its ok to play violent video games as long as you know right from wrong and can tell the difference between real and fake. As far as kids go, I’d say don’t let them play violent video games until they are at least 10 years old. It may differ from one child to another but generally speaking, at that age they should at least know right from wrong.

    I personally can go from playing a healer type character to playing a thief/assassin in an instant and have it not effect me in real life. In an MMO I get a character to max lvl then spend a majority of my time helping others. But then in a single player game I usually play a thief and very much enjoy picking an NPC’s pockets then stabbing them in the back.

    1. I don’t have kids myself so I can’t really comment on that, except that the best take I’ve heard on it is to try playing with your kids when they first become interested in games. I played with my dad when I was super young, then when I got a bit older we’d trade on and off playing Red Alert or Warcraft (pre-World Of…). It gives you an in with your kid, I think, when you can understand and relate to their world.

      I don’t play MMOs myself, though, and I think that adds an interesting element to the idea of experimenting with morality. No real world person is affected by your decisions to do good or evil in a single player game, but in MMOs if you pick a player’s pocket, a real person is affected. It’s still a game but I can’t imagine they’d be impressed. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! 🙂

  27. I believe it was in GTA IV where I was first confronted with killing a supporting character or letting him leave town. I believe it was one of the Russian mobsters. Anyway, it was hard, and I let the guy go not because it seemed too real, but because I was interested in how the story would develop from there. The more I think about it, that’s probably my main motivation when given those scenarios in Skyrim as well. Sometimes when you kill a supporting character, certain side-quests become disabled. On the other hand, sometimes you can tell when a character is going to be more of a problem than he’s worth.

    I see it as acting more than anything. Games, to me, are not a fantasy that I’m looking to live, but rather an interactive cinematic experience.

    1. It is a bit like acting in the way you take on a persona, isn’t it?

      “sometimes you can tell when a character is going to be more of a problem than he’s worth.” – I know EXACTLY what you mean. I just had this the other day in Skyrim, when given a choice as part of a quest between killing a supporting character or just saying I killed him and letting him go free – (possible spoiler alert) I killed him with possibly a little too much glee because he annoyed the crap out of me.

  28. I also frequently run into the “Noble Hero Complex”. Maybe not quite as often as you do, but when given an open world, I lean toward the ‘good’ alignment.
    I like to experiment with other options. I try very hard when experimenting to rationalize one way or another why I’m doing what I’m doing. It makes more sense to me to have a personality for the character to act the way that they do. Very rarely am I capable of wanton destruction in a world not designed specifically for chaos.

    1. I wouldn’t say I run into it often, but it definitely does come up in games where open games where ethical decision-making is involved. Oh and the personality thing is an interesting point. I totally made up a justification for why/how my character was going to become a thief, then an assassin, when I started playing.

  29. I don’t play video games, and my love of horror stories and writing them means my characters rarely have that Noble Hero complex (I’ve also heard it called the Messiah complex, by the way). As for whether or not we can explore morality through games, I’m not sure that’s the best place to do it, since in the end a game is a place to score points and have fun.
    Then again, if exploring morality was fun, that would make a very good video game.

    1. It’s interesting that you brought up the Messiah complex. It definitely is similar but I don’t think it’s quite the same. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Messiah complex happens when a person (or character) thinks they are meant to save the world in some way or another. The Noble Hero complex has more to do with how you go about saving the world… Do you play nobly throughout? Or does the end justify the means? (I needed powerful armor, weapons and ranked-up skills, so I just had to steal all that stuff and kill all those people, but I saved the world in the end so it’s ultimately okay, right?) In terms of books vs. games I think the Messiah complex might be a trait of the game character/book character, whereas it may be the player or the writer who has Noble Hero complex. I.e. if all of the protagonists you write into your stories ended up being noble hero types, you as the writer would have it. Does that make sense?

      1. In some strange way, yes it does. But like I said, I rarely write my characters that way. They’re usually too busy trying to solve their own problems. Somehow that leads to saving the world, though.

          1. Haha, fair enough, I wasn’t a huge fan either, but the movie was interesting mainly because they took the trope of the stereotypical horror-trash movie and turned it on its head. In addition to holding up and mocking the individual character stereotypes (“the virgin survives” etc) and calling out different stereotypical villains, they ended it with the surviving characters deciding, not to do the heroic and self-sacrificial thing to save the entire world, but rather to let the world end instead.

  30. I believe that with the immersing lore, stories and visuals that depict something that in most cases never dies withing us (a desire to ride on the wings of the dragons) is why I think some of us will behave like this and be a Noble Hero. Even tho it is pixels on a screen it is also a word to other fellow live humans who sit behind their own screen, which is why I have always said that you can tell a lot about the person from their game characters. One can go and try to be on a completely rampaging spree or pretend the nobility, but if you play on an active and regular basis your true character, the one you emit and live by in RL, will most certanly show itself.
    I do have a Noble Hero thing, but I am enjoying it. I am a shaman who can save, heal, ressurect and similar, which is something that I cannot do in the magical aspect in real life. I don’t know why people lately always imply or feel the need to make their characters exactly the opposite of what they are in reality, while it always used to be ( at least in my expirience) making a character with virtues that you would love to aquire in real life, but you would be using an easier platform for it to boost your moral to achieve it, a platform where everything gets done with a few simple clicks.
    My dear character, after playing it for 6 years now, completely reflects mein personality, it is I who dream I could at times aspire and be more like him. Yeah, you can just freely write me in to the “Completely immersed” club 🙂

    1. Six years! Wow, that’s dedication! I love playing the Noble Hero, but the whole reason this all started is because I started a second character in Skyrim and wanted to try out different questlines. Hence the thief/assassin. In terms of immersion I’d definitely say I feel less immersed in the world when playing as this second character, probably because I feel a bit more dissonance between my desires and reactions and how I allow my character to react and develop. Interesting stuff, thanks for your comment! 🙂

  31. Like you I prefer to be the goodie and get pangs of guilt when I do something bad in these sorts of games. At the end of the day its escapism and its fun. I know that if I wanted to I can go into a game and kill the priest or burn the village but know that I wouldn’t do it in real life.
    To some people its quite disturbing that one could find fun in destruction but people forget that humans do have a sadistic side. Take away our technology and clothes and we are just smart apes ready to kill and do battle if our life depends on it. Its a side of our nature that most people don’t express which is why there is such an allurment in action and horror movies and violent games.
    At the end of the day what ever you do in the games doesn’t matter because IT IS NOT REAL. You know that, I know that. For people who don’t understand ther difference, there lies the problem.
    Great article 🙂

    1. Thanks!
      I suppose some games do cater to our more primitive instincts, don’t they? “Dragon! Bandits! Kill or be killed!” Of course I know that games aren’t real, but for me I’m still undecided as to whether or not it matters. I’m leaning towards thinking that how we engage with media like games does matter a little bit, but I’m still working through these ideas. Thanks for your comment! 🙂

  32. Moderation in all things. I don’t think there’s any harm in video games as long as it doesn’t take over your life.
    Has anyone seen this commercial from PlayStation? This kind of narcissist thinking is dangerous. I’m surprised Sony is celebrating it.

  33. “Or do I gorge myself on violent games so as to numb myself to them?”

    I am really suspicious of this approach, I have to say. Would you say the same thing about racist video games — and I’m sure they’re out there? That people who play them — and gorge themselves on them — would be nicer and less racist that others because they would “numb” themselves to that sort of behavior? I don’t think we’d accept that, that bingeing on racism makes people less racist. So why would bingeing on violence be accepted as a believable way to deal with violence?

    I’m just not buying the defense that “gorging” makes you “numb” in a positive way. We’d instantly smell a rat in that justification if someone were caught reading KKK literature or using white supremacist “skins” in their video games and tried to excuse it by saying it “numbed” them to racism and made them less likely to act that way in the real world.

    So I am absolutely going to look side-eyed at anyone making the same claim for violence in video games. B*llsh*t it makes you less violent in the real world.

    1. In fairness, the part you quoted was meant to illustrate one of two potential extremes, and my conclusion was that the truth lies somewhere in between the two. I don’t necessarily think that “numbing” yourself to violence in games (or movies or TV shows for that matter) is a positive thing, or that it would make you any less violent in real life. If that is how you interpreted my words, that wasn’t what I intended to imply. If anything I would guess that numbing yourself to violence (or racism) through media would cause you to become, if not more violent (or racist), at least less sensitive to the violence, or less offended by the racism that you encounter in media in the future.

  34. V cool post, my characters do tend to end up with noble hero-itus! Which bugs me, Because I very much doubt I would act like that in real life. Granted, I don’t do the things which “bad” based characters would in a video game, but this unconscious pull still bugs me.
    Lately I’ve been trying to play games like the “real” me. What would I do, now, faced with a similar situation. And I’ve come up against an interesting question: What would I do, faced with a similar situation, but with the similar realities that exist in the game?
    Where a sword stab could be healed by a potion in seconds? Where pain does not exist, except at most to change your capabilities, or blur your vision slightly? Where I could google the outcome of each major decision and even reload if i didn’t like it?
    The truth is, hell, I think I *would* like to be the hero. I would like to do good. The things which hold me back from these things now is fear, of pain, of death, ultimately, of consequences which I fear I will not be able to live with.
    In a game, there’s always reload. Or the off button. The comfort in the fact that it is fantasy, it’s not real and no-one has to suffer the true consequences of the actions and events in the game. Whether instigated by my character, or not. (Other than oversleeping the next morning because my city just wouldn’t stop losing money in simcity 4)
    Ultimately, perhaps my characters reflect the man i’d like to be, given the realities that exist for them in their respective games. And the lack of reality thereof.
    In true reality, if Skyrim was where I lived, and it was governed by the same laws as reality (except for magic and dragons, etc.) I would probably have enough trouble making sure I had enough food to eat, and a place to sleep. And can you imagine the hygiene?

    1. To be honest, if Skyrim was “real life,” odds are I would probably be a terrified bard or a harmless bartender, not a hero capable of saving the world from fire and ice-breathing dragons. It’s interesting that games like this allow us to be someone we’re not, while a part of us still feels like we need to be true to ourselves somehow. I suppose this is why fantasy can never be truly disconnected from our experience, otherwise it would cease to be relatable. In the case of The Sims, even, people will apparently prioritize things that are priorities for them in real life (people who value tidyness in real life will put higher priority in keeping their Sim house tidy, etc). I’m this way with the little things in Skyrim, too – in real life I’m somewhat of a compulsive collector, so of course I have to collect everything in Skyrim – even if I don’t really do Alchemy, I must have all the things! Thanks for the thoughtful comment 😉

  35. I couldn’t agree more. I have a very difficult time even enjoying a game in a negative light. Alliance over the Horde, always a Jedi never a Sith etc. I feel as if even in a fictional world, I betray myself going against what is right. Although at times my darker side does pull at the strings and causes me to stray every now and then, as a whole I find comfort in knowing that when the choice presents itself I will make the right one.

    1. Re: Alliance over Horde. In most of the lore, the Alliance are shed in a worse light than the Horde, but neither side is generally the “bad” side. That’s what makes the choice of Alliance Versus Horde such a gray area. Neither is morally, ethically, or any other -ally (except maybe cosmetically) superior. Just for the record.

      1. Agreed – and certain aspects of both can be cast in either light, the Tauren race for instance I’ve always viewed as most peaceful and noble in their priorities. Yet still a part of me finds the Alliance to be on the lighter aspect of things. Perhaps it’s my unyielding faith in humanity even in the face of overpowering evidence against human nature reaching a balance.

    2. Indeed. I remember when I was younger, playing Warcraft II was so much more interesting if you played as Orcs. They said such funny stuff if you clicked on the units repeatedly! But I did feel bad killing the humans. If I played the other way around, though, I never felt guilt about killing the Orcs. They were the evil invaders, after all!

  36. Hmm its definitely something I think everyone’s thought about whether its for hours or for a split second. That moment in a game where you get the option to knock someone out or to kill them; does that test your morality as well? Like you said, it’s not the same for all people. Some people have a good divide between reality and games whereas some are greatly affected by their decisions in gameplay because it’s gotten very real to a certain degree. A solution could be to cut out all games like that completely but we all know that if you’re a gamer its hard to do.

    1. For sure… and yeah we’re all different. If you get to the point where you can’t tell the difference between reality and games? You probably need to take a self-imposed time out, haha. Go to the beach and soak up some real life rays… thanks for your comment! 🙂

  37. I lose myself in films, a good television series, and a well-written book. I love to become a character and explore other realms, but I feel like you. I become them. Then, I feel like they live in me. I’ve always seen that as the “danger” of video games. I guess it’s up to us not to stay lost in them. Your writing helped me understand this a little more.

    1. Thought I replied to all the comments already, not sure how I missed yours, sorry! It does seem like a little piece of every character that I really connect with stays with me, both from books/movies and games. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! 🙂

  38. In games where the main focus is to break the law and do reprehensible things (GTA) I have no problem going off the proverbial deep end to do as many horrible things as possible in a short amount of time.

    But in games like Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Fallout, even Dungeons & Dragons tabletop gaming, where you are given a real choice in the matter, I have a very hard time playing anything but the noble, do-right character. It’s somehow a lot more visceral and real when you start in a place of neutrality to go dive off the deep end of the morality pool and wade in the blood of the innocent. I have never played an “evil” game without eventually doing the wrong things but for the right reasons. And even that makes me feel bad.

  39. This is something that I want to respond to in some detail later on. If I haven’t responded after a few days, kick me.

      1. I’ll do my damnedest to get to this post tonight. Right now Rise of the Triad: Dark War and making the decision to remove myself from games that are necessarily multi-player (League of Legends, EverQuest II) has taken up my time. When I finish ROTT I’m going to put up a post about it’s various high points. At the moment and halfway through the game, I can’t recommend it enough.

      2. I approach the games I play, especially RPGs, with the mindset of ‘if I was me, in this game world and in this situation, what would I do?’

        When I played through Geneforge as a Shaper I was kind to the Serviles in world (except the hostile Serviles in Kazg), however I did not hide my thoughts from them. There was one situation where I was asking a clerk/librarian for useful information on how to infiltrate Kazg, to get past and off the island I was stranded on, and instead the clerk presented me with a plethora of utterly useless records from the long-dead inhabitants of the island. This group of Serviles believed that they should still fulfil the wishes of the Shapers and wait for them to return and, as such, even useless information was preserved. When I was given the option to tell the Servile my thoughts I did just that and it wounded the Servile deeply, so much so that it wouldn’t talk to me for the rest of the game.

        When I play Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 with my girlfriend I regularly encounter situations where the Survivor Bot AI refuses to help someone else when they are pinned down by Common Infected or captured by a Special Infected. (We’ll leave notions of Valve’s absolutely terribly job with AI out of the discussion since it isn’t germane.) When Survivor Bots are pinned down I do what I can to safely extricate them, however I will not shoot through them if it can be helped. At the same time, if they are ignoring my girlfriend’s need for help I will readily shoot through them to free her -not because she is my girlfriend, but because she is my girlfriend AND she is a fantastic FPS player. There are other times when I am at low health (40hp) and, especially when playing alone, the Survivor Bot will heal themselves with a rare Health Kit at much higher health than me (60+hp). In these situations it’s often a toss-up of whether or not I kill the Survivor Bot for wasting precious supplies -sometimes I remember their behaviour and incapacitate them before the safety vehicle arrives on the last map. Why react like this instead of ‘playing the mechanics’? Because I want to immerse myself in the game and prefer to play as though I was really there. This means that the actions I would take above would not immediately apply if I was playing with 4 human players instead of AI: much like in life, real people should be reasoned with and I treat the AI as ‘unreasonable’.

        The above games are examples where choices are given to the player, but there are more games that do not offer such choices. Still, I play in the same vein.

        When I play DOOM or, currently, Rise of the Triad: Dark War I am not looking to find every secret in a level or any secret in a level. What I am looking to do is kill as many enemies as possible on the way to the next level and, when possible, kill them to a man. Why? Because, following the game’s narrative, it’s important to the safety of the world that my mission be accomplished and these enemies are out to make sure that the world is destroyed. I’m not going to preserve a single demon if I can help it but, at the same time, I’m not going to hunt every single one down. The game says I have a job to do and hunting madly for every last enemy isn’t always doing it.

        The only exceptions to this are games that contain mechanics that do not enable me to play as though I am the protagonist. In Botanicula I control a little group of plant creatures trying to find a way to save their home. There is no combat and it is a point-and-click game, so I can only go where I am allowed and cannot thwack that black spider-thing with a stick. In Rule of Rose I play a physically weak protagonist that is also female (gender isn’t an issue for me with immersion, provided I can still take actions that would be ‘me’), so I cannot fight back against the twisted creatures in that game and the game’s controls and weapons support that. Combat is purposefully difficult and at times needlessly clunky, but when one of my weapons is a dinner fork it’s a sure bet that forcing my way through (cf. Silent Hill 2 and melee combat) isn’t what the developers intended.

        1. “I want to immerse myself in the game and prefer to play as though I was really there.”

          This is kind of what it boils down to, hey? I love the immersive experience that games, particularly open world RPGs, provide, and I get super involved. The feeling of involvement is similar to playing the Myst games when I was younger, although in those games it wasn’t decision-making that was the issue so much as complex puzzle-solving. I would be so immersed in those games, though, that I’d dream about them and how the heck to solve the latest puzzle I’d been faced with.

          While for me, I typically try to play as I would if I were in the game, as others have mentioned in the comments here, sometimes it’s interesting to “act” a little bit or impose a different worldview on your character. When I do that, though, it does end up putting a bit of distance between my character and I, and weakens the immersiveness of the game just a little bit.

          As always, I appreciate the depth of your comments! 🙂

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