Morality in the Mechanics
Online Editor Harry Caton delves into the complicated relationship between moral choices in video games and their interactive mechanics.
Games have always had an investment in morality. From Civilisation’s vision of betterment through progress, to Call of Duty’s militarist power fantasies, the industry repeatedly uses mechanical interaction to play off of whatever keeps us awake at night. However, to my mind, ‘morality’ has come to mean something else in big-budget media space. Throughout the 2000s, video-games began to develop the ‘morality system’ – a series of choices that offer different paths throughout the narrative, usually arising at some crux in the story. Slogging through any given level, the player must snap back into full consciousness, abruptly making some heinous choice within their present situation. But far from actual mechanical interrogation, video game morality has so often become sugar-dusting of self-awareness over mechanical reality.
Nothing quite sums up the glaring lack of self-awareness rife within the video game form than the moral choice. If a game seems to suggest one thing in how its played, the developers would much prefer you to think something else. Take the critically-lauded Mass Effect (2008) and Infamous (2009). Here, morality is a prescribed binary, a back-of-the-box feature. For the former, this comes through its conversation tree (‘paragon’/‘renegade’ options for good/bad), while the latter presents quandaries to the player every so often (kill/help a bystander). These choices are framed as binaries. Good/bad plot consequences are colour-coded; each game demarcates them as red and blue. There’s little tangible difference in terms of gameplay, these presupposed ideas of morality only add another layer to the game.
“These games fashion their ‘moral choices’ as fundamentally apart from how their interactive values.”
Moving away from this means looking at what ‘morality’ actually means. Cultural theorist Ian Bogost notes that “video games develop values, strategies, and approaches to the practice of play”. Mass Effect and Infamous rely on destruction as their primary values; more often than not, our way into each game is through blowing stuff up. Your character is not, however, a sociopathic pyromaniac. These games fashion their ‘moral choices’ as fundamentally apart from the interactive values central to their means of play. In other words, they take attempt to take morality out of the mechanics. This is a common theme in the later history of ‘moral’ choices; Bethesda’s Fallout games (2008-16) allow a purportedly ‘good’ character to indulge copious violence, while the Dishonored games (2012-7) judge their good/bad metrics on whether the player has killed under/over 20% of a level’s population. In each case, it’s hardly saint-like.
I’d argue that there’s something faintly sinister going on here. I’m reminded of a section within this year’s new Call of Duty game. Rushing through the streets of St. Petersburg, your elite team of SAS operatives chases down a terrorist. All the while, his goons shoot back, the player character and their friends mowing each of them down in turn. If you kill eight of them with eight different weapons, you receive an achievement! Once we finally reach the terrorist, he’s with his family, terrified. We’re given the choice to take part in their interrogation, or wait outside. Doing the latter elides a presumably successful bout of torture, the grisly details remaining within the room. The former, however, sees an increasingly wretched series of threats and violence visited upon the terrorist and his innocent family. The interrogation likewise succeeds, and we’re offered the choice to kill, spare or wound the terrorist. Charming stuff.
I get the perverse logic that the game seems to force upon us. This is brutal, nasty work, it suggests – but necessary. It’s a fairly ho-hum vote of confidence in a terrifying Western consensus on the legitimacy of torture. Nothing new for the series, perhaps; but let’s dial back a second. If we think about Bogost’s statement – that video games develop their values through gameplay – we reach a curious disconnect. The game wants us to think about the ugliness (if necessity) of brutality and violence, but only in this particular instance. So, what of the level previous? Weren’t each of the men we gleefully, violently gunned down worthy of a similar level of thought and care? Torture is vile, but that was death on an industrial scale.
“The pursuit of power through violence and death becomes all the more normal.”
This is the real sleight of hand at play. We’re given some degree of agency over our culpability in torture, able to agonise over the action. This is important, the game screams. But the industrial war machine, kitted out with so many weapons and slaughtering foreigners in the thousands? That gets a tacit a-okay. The morality system is a fig-leaf; these sorts of media want to make you think only in certain contexts, when the going gets visibly tough. There are shades of the public enquiries over extreme rendition and ‘enhanced interrogation’; while we spend time prevaricating over the morality of what is visible, the pursuit of power through violence and death becomes all the more normal. Yes, Call of Duty wants you to ultimately agree with torture, though accepting that that’s a hard pill to swallow. The wanton destruction that precedes it, however, goes utterly unquestioned.
We might ponder more consistent interactions of morality and mechanics. Spec Ops: The Line (2012) initially plays out the same – it’s a violent shooter. Despite this, Spec Ops offers little in the way of ‘choice’. Instead, it dissects these power-fantasies, spinning out their consequences. Here, the morality is the mechanics, with no reframing. Your character grows increasingly deranged and psychopathic in his manner. A player-operated ‘White Phosphorus’ attack results in hideous casualties. There are no ‘good’ options. In its denouement, the game near-begs you to stop playing.
Spec Ops opts to remove the pretence that ‘moral choice’ affects core play. It asks us to focus on what games actually do. Ironically, in the marketing, this year’s Call of Duty promised to “make you question your own morality” – while offering White Phosphorus as a ‘killstreak’ reward. Even titles such as Mass Effect and Infamous, despite their genuine commitment to eloquent storytelling, only reproduce these mechanical ideas. Games need to think more acutely about this stance. The morality they present comes from the play itself, and not simply the choices grafted on top.