Morality in Video Games

So I have been wanting to write this post for a while now and with the recent release of Grand Theft Auto V seemed like a perfect time. The GTA games have often been surrounded by controversy due to the acts that you can preform. Some of the problems I think people have are that you are acting out situations presented in real life. The other part is that in the game you control a character that is a criminal committing illegal acts. This alone would probably give some people’s problems, but there are a few other things that people have problems with.

I have personally never played any of the GTA games and have never had a desire to, but they do bring up an interesting question; are there things that you would be unwilling to do in a video game? The controversy around the most recent GTA game revolves around having to torture a person for information. It sounds as though it is a necessary part of the game to actually torture someone, which some people have a huge problem with. It is interesting because you are potentially killing people speeding away from the police, and even more. Yet, some people have chosen to draw the line at fictitious torture. It is an interesting exploration for where people draw the line.

Reality versus Fantasy

Now personally I have never been interested in playing games based too much in reality. Games where you are playing a soldier in a real life war situation has never interested me. I think some of that goes along with the other media I enjoy. I read science fiction / fantasy, and love tv shows and movies that deal with fantastical elements. It probably says something about me, but I have no idea what. Part of it for me is that the fantastical elements cause a distance from things that happen in real life, which is where I can understand some people’s problems.

When we play characters that mimic reality there is a thought that we will identify too much with the characters we are playing and it will desensitize us to violence, criminal acts, etc. There is nothing to prove that this is correct, but I do have to say I think it would be hard to accomplish some tasks in games that are supposed to mimic reality. Especially if it is supposed to be closer to reality and as graphics get more realistic so can the games. There is something to be said for games to not be too based in reality. In Borderlands you are killing people and creatures left and right, but you are using guns that are over the top and the graphics style is animated – both create a different world than the one we live in. Some might argue that separating yourself from the violence could be worse, but that is a different discussion.


The other part when discussing morality in video games is the choices that we get to make. There is power in the choices we get to make or not make in a video game. If we are forced down a single path it can make us upset. I have tried to play the hard-ass character who does not care and I cannot do it. Playing Mass Effect I am willing to kill someone who I think is a bad guy, but I cannot ignore the poor widow who is just trying to get her husband’s body or the people who need to get a criminal off of their back. I want to save lives when I can and not destroy lives.

Shadow-of-the-colossusThe supposed morality of the person being helped or hurt matters as well. It changes the dynamic when you are killing innocents versus bloodthirsty murders. The most interesting morality decision I have seen discussed is in Shadow of the Colossus. You play the main protagonist who is trying to save someone that they love, but to do so they have to destroy these colossi. The game itself takes place in a beautiful world where you get to explore as you try and find these colossi.

The thing about it is the colossi are not doing anything evil. They are not randomly attacking people, they do not seem to be causing any sort of destruction; they are just existing. We actually go and find them out. The challenge of killing them is one thing, but if you actually think about what is happening it is incredibly sad. The main protagonist in a fit of grief is killing these gorgeous amazing creatures to try and bring one person back to life. One discussion I read a player discussed how they actually had to stop playing because they could not bring themselves to keep killing the colossus.

We do not always think about it playing a video game, because it is just a game it is not reality. Even though some try to argue that it affects people in their real lives there is nothing that proves that is the case. At the same time there is a question of how we approach the game. If you do it for the challenge then you are thinking of it as a series of actions not as something you are really doing. If you actually think of these things as real actions how does that change your reaction to what you do, even if it is in a video game.


One response to “Morality in Video Games

  1. Great post! I’m a diehard GTA fan and have been since III back on the PS2. I love crime fiction in all its forms, and the games have done an increasingly better job with each installment of interactive storytelling within that genre. GTA V is a complete masterpiece in that respect.

    Especially with the last two games, Rockstar North has moved into a level of sophistication with the writing and theme that is beyond what 99% of the industry is doing — the violence, language, and general adult content may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it also provides a resonance that space marines and elven warriors in chain mail don’t, because it’s based in a world that has a degree of realism to it. The characters are fleshed out through the massive amount of writing and dialogue to a point where within a single game, they’re more three dimensional than some ‘heroic’ icons that have been around for decades. Playing a GTA title now is like watching multiple seasons of a no-holds-barred television crime drama, something like Breaking Bad or The Wire, in a marathon session.

    The story in GTA is dark and violent because it is a drama about criminals, and especially with this generation’s IV and V, the themes are less tongue-in-cheek and more ‘serious’ in that the protagonists often do pay a toll for their lifestyle choices — just like any good gangster film, being a goodfella is romanticized for a decent chunk of time, then you start to see the heavy cons to the illicit pros of respect, money, and power. There is an emotional investment in GTA that I see in few other games, because not many developers make deep characterization and story as high of a priority over just mowing down terrorists or aliens.

    While it’s easy to focus just on the glorification of interactive violence in GTA, I think it’s equally important to look at the artistic side of what developer Rockstar North does, as well — outside of the RPG genre, few other games offer up such high standards of interactive storytelling, and fewer still have it set in a world that is literally outside our windows and not a fantasy realm long ago or in a galaxy far, far away. I’m not sure I’d want to be or emulate any of GTA’s protagonists, but it is fascinating to spend a few dozen hours in their shoes and explore that point-of-view.


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