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Dark vs. light or good vs. evil is one of the most ubiquitous narratives in human history. We are fascinated by the moral choices and the ensuing battle of good vs. evil, and so we reuse this metaphor in many artistic works.

The video game industry has embraced the idea of duality by creating games with moral choices. There is no longer just a battle between users (good) vs. computer (evil); instead, the opposition is now between users (good) vs. users (evil). In reality, video games have made it possible to be at odds with oneself through the many choices we face.

First, before we continue with the idea of duality, we must understand what a video game is. A study conducted at MIT construed video games as a form of text: just as a book is a text, and a film can be considered ‘text’ in that it can be analysed according to conventions of form, meaning and style, video games are also texts that we can learn from and analyze in the same way as a film or a book.

Skyrim. Image by Josh WK.

In recent years, there has been an explosion of games that revolve around morality, choices, and consequences, arguably one of the most innovative aspects of modern gaming. The idea of allowing the player to make choices with protracted consequences adds substance to the rapidly growing medium of gaming.

In practice, morality is seldom simple black or white – and it is certainly not a one way street. Being told how to act and behave shapes our ethics, while, at the same time, the way that we actually act shapes our morality. In reality, every choice comes with consequences, and the video game industry understands this. In games such as Fable, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Infamous, and Skyrim, the moral choices made will in turn shape the morality of the characters themselves.

In these morality based games, players are asked to choose between immoral or moral choices with consequences pertaining to the character or plot. According to BioWare writer and designer Mike Laidlaw:

“The role of a morality system is a means by which a game can be aware of the way a player is interacting with the in-game world; in some ways it’s a way for players to measure their own progress in a certain way. It’s also a mechanic that lets us realise that these choices have some weight. It helps players understand that the things they’re doing and the choices they’re making have an impact beyond the moment.”

There are many people who say that the immoral choices that are featured in video games will corrupt the minds of those who play them, but according to Telltale Games—the creators of The Walking Dead video game—most people playing their game make the more moral choice, regardless of if it will mean negative consequences to themselves.

While it is true that many gamers are just as inclined to explore the immoral options, Dr. Chris Fergusson, an associate professor of criminal justice and psychology at Texas A&M International, believes that when we choose the immoral option it is more likely to be due to simple curiosity since it is something we would never think to do in the real world.

While some may deem morality-based games as immoral based on the fact that people are given the option to do immoral things, it was Oscar Wilde who said that “The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” If video games are in fact texts, then the games which society deems immoral are simply those that showcase the full spectrum of capacities that make up the human condition.

Fable. Image by Tamara Areshian via Flickr