This title may seem grandiloquent or pretentious to some (or most) of you. How can a game have anything to say about morality? I think that that question has a corollary one that itself holds the answer: why does having choice in a video games make it better?
Most of us have played Mass Effect 2 I assume. It was one of the, if not the, greatest games Bioware has ever constructed. I find myself contemplating why exactly this was. It wasn’t because of the innovative third-person combat, because Gears of War had already conquered that terrain. It wasn’t because of the scale or expansiveness of the universe in which the game was set, because Bethesda, with Fallout and Oblivion, owned that trophy. It wasn’t because of the graphics, because in that area it was average or perhaps ever-so-slightly above average at most. So what was it?
It was down to one simple aspect, one that was seen in infant form years before in a different generation of consoles in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. It was the freedom of choice.
It was the ability to play the games twice and have entirely different experiences each time. That is not a hyperbolic representation; on your second play-through of Mass Effect 2 you’d literally see things that you didn’t even know existed the first time. That is why they were so amazing. They gave you choice. This leads us onto the obvious question of what exactly does choice bring to a game, and why exactly does it make it better
This, in many ways, is closely related to my article about characters in fiction. Having choice in a video game is important because it makes the entire experience seem much more realistic to the gamer. But it is much more than that. Oblivion and Fallout give the player choice too; you can be almost anything you want in those games. It was a specific type of choice. It was the choice to be good or evil, or somewhere in between. It was the choice to be a real human being.
This is where video games start to mirror literature and other forms of fiction. They start to speak to humans on a moral and emotional level. They start to tell them things about themselves that they otherwise may not have realised.
This was never more obvious than in Mass Effect 2. Because the production value was so massive the characters seemed real and you grew attached to them. So when you were in the situation where you may have had to sacrifice one of them, it really felt like you, and not Captain Shepard, were the one who had to do it, the one who had to let one of his friends die.
This is why I think that certain video games are to our generation what books were to every other generation that has ever existed (which does not imply that reading it useless. It is fact extremely useful). Literature has, and always will be, a vehicle for reflecting or informing people about the human condition. For example, what it means to be a good and moral person, or, in a broader sense, what it means to ‘be human’.
Literature does this and does it well because it has had many more years of activity (not to imply that literature automatically gets better in time), but video games are still (relatively) in their prime. Mass Effect 2 will always be remembered as one of the forerunners of innovative and progressive videogames because it created a world in which (despite the Sci-Fi setting) the player felt like their decisions mattered or were ‘real’.
This is what video games have to tell us about morality. They tell gamers who they really are. When they are confronted with the choice to torture a prisoner or question him lightly and risk losing the information their decision tells them something about themselves. This effect, of course, is largely contingent upon two things. The first is the attitude of the gamer. If they are not taking the game seriously and are making capricious or arbitrary decisions then this effect will be largely reduced. The second is how good the game is. Mass Effect 2 was good because it enticed players to take it seriously, through its story and progressive RPG system.
This is where I hope to see games go. I hope they continue to delve into the realms of freedom, moral freedom more than anything. I want games to evolve to the point where they are so captivating and well-built that they border on ‘philosophical’ (in a narrow sense). In other words I want a game that is Mass Effect 2 times one hundred, one that holds a mirror up to the hearts of gamers to show them what really beats beneath their ribs.
Mass Effect 2 and similar games have done that already to some degree. They not only provide amazing experiences in the normal video-game sense, but they also allow for deeper play-throughs that can tell gamers what type of person they are.