Disputing morality in games

Editors’ Note: In this post, guest authors Jan H.G. Klabbers and William Robinson dispute morality in games.

Jan H.G. Klabbers: Literature, among others, serves to enlarge the empathy of the reader, a capacity which is considered an important moral function. This is an interesting assertion as it enlightens that great novels investigate what it means to be human, even under inhuman conditions.  Great new novels bring us face to face with personal and social moral dilemmas of contemporary time.  Emmanuel Kant noted in “Kritik der Urteilskraft”  (Critique of Judgment, 1790) that art disconnected from moral ideas only serves entertainment.  One should be aware that I do not argue in favor of moralism.

This understanding applies as well to great movies and great games, all representing artifacts of human culture:  human constructions and inventions that potentially address important issues. Games are distinct from novels and movies due to the added requirement of actively playing those narratives, while novels and movies only presuppose observers. Literature, motion pictures, and games without such a moral dimension are entertainment. They serve to maintaining the status quo, and therefore are considered non-hazardhous.

Professional gaming (their design & utilization) since the 1940s has focused on social questions with an underlying moral function.  They aimed to improve and enhance human conditions in a wide variety of areas both from a purely scientific and practitioner’s perspective.  Those who played those games became actively embedded in individual and social choice, based on underlying norms and values (explicit and implicit rules). Those games aim  to better understand the intricacies of human affairs and enhance a mutual search for satisfying solutions:  change and development.  Great games resemble great literature and movies in mirroring the human condition.  They interactively tell catching stories.

With the advent of digital entertainment games that worthwhile gaming tradition tends to become overlooked by the gaming industry and by academic circles that are mainly focused on the instrumental qualities of digital games: entertainment & computing.

One may comment: “We are aware of it. So what? What’s next?”

What is bothering with entertainment games, especially the variety that deals with violence –  the class of games such as, Grand Theft Auto (GTA) – is that in order to play those games, one has to switch off in advance the moral choice button.  As soon as – in the flow of events  –  the avatar for moral reasons  would hesitate to act,  and would consider not to select the “shoot button”, she is run over and the game is lost.   Once the avatar has acquired a gun, there is only one option: shoot or be shot.  The related game designers do not offer other options for conflict resolutions/engagement. Players, for good reasons taking time to contemplate whether or not to act in a certain way, will always loose, and they will not be able to “level up”.  Bad for them.

The paradox of those games:  they require in advance switching off the moral choice button, while during play they explicitly require the players to make moral choices: attack, shoot, blow up, kill, and so on, and so on.  That schizoid play condition: switching off the moral function, while simultaneously making moral choices seems perfect  for entertaining psychopaths and sociopaths in status quo settings.

Contrary to novels and movies,  players do not merely observe the unfolding story, their sensory-motor system is highly active while pursuing whatever goals, changing the course of events within the game space provided. They do not distance themselves from the situation at hand. Players of those games are not challenged to enlarge and deepen their empathy.  This notion is quite unsettling, providing the high potential of games in this regard. GTA-type games may  from a technical viewpoint look artfully designed.  They are not art. Therefore, the communities of gamers should treat entertainment games as toys. Assessment of those toys should follow a road very much different from valuing games for professional practice. Professional games should be  designed and judged more in line with literature and movies.


William Robinson: If you had played Grand Theft Auto IV, I feel you would not be making this argument. Certainly it is no Deus Ex (Ion Storm 2000), you must kill, and kill often. But by no means do you turn off your moral switch (if that were even possible). If I choose to read Lolita, I must deal with discomforting sexual violence towards a young girl on behalf of Humbert Humbert, whom Nabokov [author of Lolita] has me identify with. I actively participate in the progress and unfolding of Lolita’s narrative. I perform, mentally, the dialog on behalf of the characters. I continue to read, even when I am disgusted with Humbert Humbert and with myself. It would difficult to accuse Nabokov of having not produced a great new novel which “brings us face to face with personal and moral dilemmas of contemporary time.”

Nico Bellic is the Humbert Humbert of GTA IV. You are engaged in his narrative, and in order to progress through it, you must re-enact his story. Surely if I were playing a person of low moral character in a play (say in the stage adaptation of A Clockwork Orange) I would not be accused of low moral character, in the way you accuse players of violent games. And while Bellic is rather bellicose, GTA IV stops us periodically to reflect on his actions. For instance, a man who I’ve been to told to kill is running away, I chase him till he trips and hangs from a ledge. I approach as Nico Bellic, and the game prompts me, asking if I would like to run him out of town or rub him out of existence. Regardless of what I choose, the simple pause has me think about my actions and those of Bellic in the narrative. I do not need to agree with Bellic to perform his fictional actions. I do not need to turn off my moral switch. I could choose to kill this man, because this is how I think the story should progress, and how it would be in keeping with Nico’s character. Games like Deus Ex should be commended for their ability to provide narratives in which the player may forgo killing a single individual, but they have different goals, different structures, and different valuable messages to offer.

GTA IV is a roughly fixed narrative (with two possible endings), and a compelling one at that. It deals with the politics of war, post traumatic stress disorder, what it means to be an immigrant in a big city, and the greater themes of betrayal, justice, and love. It critiques the zealous right wing parties of the U.S.A. on the ambient radio. It mocks the problematics of consumerism. Irony, humor and melancholy are regularly drawn upon. Worse case, you can view the game as a treatise on how urban boredom leads to urban crime… There is a wealth of value meaning available in games like GTA IV. It is true that alarmist newspapers and news networks say things that unsettle peoples notions to draw more ratings, but they do not have the time to play games and rarely understand art anyway. Certainly there is a way to go before all games reach the heights of GTA IV, but at the end of Uncharted 2 I am literally asked to think about all the people I killed just to reach that point. In Metal Gear Solid 3, I must walk upstream and face all the people I have needlessly killed. Often people talk of how the silent/dull moments of Splinter Cell are moments when the game wants its player to think about what their protagonist is doing. Peter Kivy in The Performance of Reading writes that the pauses people take when reading are inherent to the reading experience. They offer opportunities to think about what one has just read. However, one does not pause at every moment in a book to think whether the protagonist is morally righteous. In the same way, it would be absurd to ask that players consider every act, especially when they are acting out linear narrative sequences whose winning actions do not vary from kill everyone relevant. Kill everything, and when the dust settles, so can my notions of what I have done.


*Dr. Jan H.G. Klabbers founded the Social Systems Research Group (SSRG) at Radboud University in the Netherlands and was general secretary of the International Simulation and Gaming Association (1976 to 2004). He is currently Managing Director of KMPC, an international management and policy consultancy based in the Netherlands.

*William Robinson is an undergraduate student at McGill University


3 responses to “Disputing morality in games

  1. This is a very intresting discussion, but there’s something that keeps bothering me, is morality important in a reality where one is immortal?. It’s possible to “die” in GTAIV, but after dying, just in a couple of seconds, Nico will be out of the hospital, good as new. He won’t stop “existing”, no matter what. I’m not really sure about how is morality born, and talking about its creation seems like a very long subject (and distant) for this discussion.

    It seems like everything on GTAIV points the player to a direction of “succeding” in the story, and for such, actions have to be made, such actions echo in reality and thus gain importance (or atleast, that’s what I understood at the reading) but even if certain decisions will lead the game to one ending or another, things won’t really change in it, Liberty City will go on as if nothing happened, as well as the life of Nico. I don’t mean to break the fiction pact of the game (nor bash it, I really liked GTAIV), but how can its morality have any importance in reality, if it’s objectively usless on the game itself?

    Hope I didin’t sound too rude. =)

  2. I’d like to make a correction. The game in which you “must walk upstream and face all the people [you] have needlessly killed” is Metal Gear Solid 3 as opposed to 2. Slight oversight. Of course, both games deal with similar themes, but the river sequence is exclusive to the former.

    Apologies if this has already been brought to light.

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