Moral Tracts From The (Virtual) Mojave

Giraffes can wait. Let’s talk about virtual morality for a spell.

Despite my engorged social calendar this past month, I still manage to find the time to play video games in my free time, because (A) I have not totally renounced being a hermitic recluse and (B) it doesn’t require gas money—a particular bonus, because I think my car has acquired a leak somewhere along the fuel line. Anyway.

I received a hefty number of those foul electronic amusements for Christmas (luckily my family learned you can shop online just in time for Amazon’s Cyber Monday), but recently I’ve pretty much been exclusively playing a game called Fallout: New Vegas. New Vegas is what we bespectacled gollums refer to as a role-playing game (or RPG), specifically a ‘western’ style RPG. To put it in other, more approachable terms, it’s a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. Everybody starts out at the same place, and the end always happens at the same time, but how you get there and what that ending looks like is generally up to the player. (Within the developers’ limits, of course. Without breaking open a game and accessing the code, you can never do anything in a video game the developer doesn’t want you to be able to do. They’re sort of like God that way. (Actually… Hmm. Let me mull over that.))

This illusion of choice and control generally takes the form of “good” and “evil” options. Be a hero, be a villain, maybe occasionally be something in between. It’s actually possible to blame this entirely on Canadian developer BioWare. They started it in their “Baldur’s Gate” games—which were built on the Dungeons & Dragons system, and included its classic “alignment” system—but the real kicker was Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic.

Here you have a recognizable brand with an easy alignment system; players ultimately have to choose between the Light and Dark Sides of the Force. It’s awesome. It’s also influential to the point of being invasive. Not many years later, even more games are including Good/Evil alignments under any number of names (Paragon/Renegade, Open Palm/Closed Fist, Holy/Infernal, Fallout has Good and Bad Karma), and even those games that don’t keep track still have a tendency to present you with good and bad choices.

With no exception, I have always picked the Light Side. No exception. And only now I’m beginning to ask myself why.

Aside from the obvious positive influences, of course.

New Vegas—I won’t get into the minutia of the Fallout series’ setting, other than to say it takes place in a world where science works the way it did in 1950s sci-fi films that was then nuked to high hell in a war between the US and China, and now it’s a post-apocalyptic wasteland—New Vegas keeps the Good/Bad karma system, but adds reputation. Now it not only matters on some grand cosmic scale how you treat other (virtual) people, but they will react accordingly. Keep in mind, there are bad people, who will like you more the worse you are, as long as you’re nice to them.

For the most part, this is easy enough to navigate. The three main groups are the New California Republic—trying to recreate a stable and just government, but essentially bloated and ineffectual—Caesar’s Legion—rapists and pillagers styling themselves after Roman centurions, set on conquest—and the ruling families of New Vegas itself, caught in the middle. All three groups want control of the Hoover Dam and the electricity it provides, and it’s ultimately up to you to decide who gets it.

It’s easy enough to see that Caesar’s Legion are the bad guys here, but you have two groups, the NCR and independent Vega…ns?, both of whom have a claim to the moral high ground. I’m having a hard time deciding, and the longer I think about it, the odder this seems.

What drives me to always be the good guy when given the option? It might seem obvious (as in real life, so in fake?). Because I don’t want to write a thesis, I’m going to make a gross oversimplification that serves my purposes and say that morality is derived from two primary sources:

  1. From above (God, some higher power of your own choosing, platonic justice, etc.) or
  2. From within (a duty to our fellow man (and the ladies), etc.)

In a single player game—that is to say, not a game like World of WarCraft, which is populated with millions of players and yet is somehow a total black hole of any human emotion other than petty jealousy and murderous rage—the only real higher power are the developers of the game themselves. They crafted the world, created its inhabitants, and dictated the behavior and activities in which the player may engage. They set the confines of the player’s morality: the player can only be as good or as bad as the developers have decided he can be. But they make no edicts as to how you should behave, indeed, regarding the sorts of games I’m talking about, they’ve made sure to give you options. My heroism is mine.

(Outside of the game, but still related to the game, I have a relationship with the developers. I respect the fact that the put a lot of effort into its creation by purchasing it legally, and they acknowledge that I spent my money on it by releasing updates to ensure it runs correctly. As social contracts go, it’s simple and effective.)

Consider then the second blatant reduction of the complexity of human morality: we are moral because we owe it each other. Through the lens of a game like Fallout, our fellow man (and the ladies) is nothing more than characters who populate the world: petty, loving, vengeful, savage, drunk, compassionate, idealistic, secretive, hateful, bureaucratic, mutated by deadly radiation—a complete spectrum of lovingly flawed humanity if there ever was one. But they aren’t people. They’re code. Sure, you can save their lives from additional nuclear holocaustings, but these “lives” cease to “exist” to me as soon as I shut off the console. God forbid I should delete the save file.

The imminent road scholar Jerry Holkins, amidst the furor of a completely different and much more poignant and interesting issue (it involves the phrase “rape culture”), made a point of calling out “electronic heroism” as “empty, amoral, and borderline vile”. And he’s not wrong. “I will save you to the extent that it earns me my +2 Boots of Majesty,” you say to the villagers in need. “I only needed to save five slaves. Alright? Quest complete.”

So perhaps I erred in calling it morality. I know a good many fine young men (and the ladies) of moral fortitude and uprightness who enjoy playing the villain in these sorts of endeavors. And I’ve never thought to extrapolate from that predilection any sort of judgement regarding their quality as a human being. The B-side of that album, then, is that a person can play the hero at every opportunity, but you can’t take that to reflect on his or her larger moral standing.

Consider it, however, as a question of narrativity. There is no morality, no “electronic heroism”, but there is still a story, and story is a powerful motivator. What story do you want to tell? What story do you want to be told? I for one like stories where the good guys win, or, failing that, suffer poignantly, and this often influences what books I read, what films I see. There’s no reason it wouldn’t affect the way I play a game. And maybe it has an impact on the way I live my life.

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  1. Nitpicky stuff: Your parenthetical paragraph has a weird sentence at the beginning and a typo in the last few words. Also,I think you may have meant Rhodes scholar. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhodes_Scholarship

    About the actual post: I’ve thought about this too, and what it may mean. The time I first started thinking about it was playing Mass Effect in college. I, without really thinking, took the good guy route. Fin, without thinking, took the bad guy route, and made sure I was paying attention when he would, say destroy the sole surviving members of a species. I’ve wondered before about what that says about us, and I agree with your later analysis. I like stories with good guys, and I like being the good guy. Fin, though, just wants to see asses get kicked, with some badass one-liners to go along with them.

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