Apologies for the use of the word “ain’t” in the title. For those of you for whom this is a deal-breaker, I understand.
The American Red Cross is working with video game designers to incorporate the Geneva conventions into their games. In the latest Call of Duty if you go to third floor of the bombed out hospital you’ll find a copy in the administrator’s locked desk, though you’ll need a grenade to open it, which unfortunately destroys both desk and the conventions.
Just kidding 🙂
But the first part’s very real. For right now the actions are very simple, if you start shooting at civilians, your own men might start shooting at you, or you might lose credit for a mission if you torture a prisoner, etc.
This got me to thinking less about video game violence, which is a topic discussed ad nauseam, and more about video game ethics.
I think there are three kinds of ethical situations in video games:
1) I have to do this bad thing to advance the game. (i.e. Grand Theft Auto)
2) I can do this bad thing, but it might have consequences for me later. (i.e. The Witcher)
3) I can do anything I want with no consequences. (i.e. Postal)
Here’s a simple example of number 3. This last weekend I basically spent something like 12-15 hours casually playing Avadon: The Black Fortress, a Spiderweb software RPG where you control a party of adventurers in an isometric landscape and fight monsters and giant spiders and the like. There are lots of hidden objects in chests, closets or out in the open, some of which are marked “NY”. No, that’s not “made in New York”, but rather “not yours”. Meaning you probably shouldn’t take it, or at least not while the owner is looking. But if you have the opportunity to steal, you can, and with few consequences (except apparently one shopkeeper who refuses to deal with you if you steal their merchandise but I have yet to encounter this).
Now on the one hand taking these objects really can make the game go smoother. And the ones you don’t really need, can be sold for coins which are hard to amass otherwise. But, stealing is wrong, and this game basically encourages it to advance (something that apparently differs from their earlier titles).
How should we feel about this? Should Spiderweb change their game to put back consequences for stealing (turning it into an example of scenario number 2), or just remove the “NY” label altogether to alleviate our guilt?
Let’s look at another example, The Witcher. The Witcher has some very sophisticated moral choices, and some shades of gray. Alliances are formed, enemies made, based on your choices.
And, it also includes a lot of dialogue trees that if successful allow you to bed more than a dozen beautiful women, and collect playing cards of your various sexual encounters.
Here’s one of the tamer ones:
So there are consequences to your actions, just not any that prevent you from sleeping with as many as 24 women. Yeah, I know it’s faithful to the source material for this game, and it’s also a bit prurient (or deviant in some cases depending on how you feel about semi-demonic women) so let’s not kid ourselves. But I hear it’s got nothing on Game of Thrones.
A better example of both scenario’s 1 +2 is Fahrenheit (otherwise known as Indigo Prophecy). In this game you are trying to evade the police because you’ve been framed for a murder you didn’t commit. Well, kinda. Actually you did commit it, but you were possessed by some kind of demon. And you’re also playing the cops trying to find you, while at the same time hiding evidence.
The game is fraught with consequences. Your character has a general mood which increases or decreases based on your success in the game. Let this mood get too low, and they might commit suicide, or quit their job, go on a bender, etc. Here’s a scenario from early on in the game, you’re in a park. It’s winter and a boy has just fallen through a hole in the ice. He’s trapped and is going to freeze and/or drown if you don’t help. But, there are cops not too far away (not close enough to save the boy, but close enough to spot you when you drag him out of the water). If you leave the boy you end up feeling terrible, if you save him you risk getting caught. What do you do?
There are points in this game where you have to do the wrong thing. You have to hide the body, destroy evidence, etc. But there are a myriad of others where it’s not clear what you should do, and the consequences play out over hours, not seconds of gameplay.
I guess that’s the point I’m meandering towards, life does have some instant consequences for bad actions, but more often than not their impact is felt over a long period of time. Or not at all. Like any form of media, video games can explore these dynamics, and the best ones do. There will probably always be parts of games we don’t like, or that we think aren’t very moral, but games can also make us think, and play out different scenarios and see where they go.