The Moral Excuse For Shooting a Mutant in the Face

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Do you like video games? OMG, me too!

What would you say if I told you that playing video games would actually make you a more morally well-rounded person?

Blasphemy! Jack Thompson has clearly shown that video games do nothing more than teach otherwise good children how to steal cars, kill grandmothers, and eat babies.

Puh-leez, no one is going to miss a few babies and grandma’s…

In all seriousness though, there is legitimate philosophical background to justify video games as tools to develop moral decision making.  It has been discussed here, in a decently well-written paper by Marcus Schulzke in the journal “Game Studies”, and today I’d like to give you a quick summary of the arguments made in the study, and why I agree with them.

Exhibit A: Aristotle Vs. Plato

(The Boring Part)

Wait a second, wasn’t this article about video games? Why are these old geezer’s here?

Well… because it’s my article, not yours, and I’ll take it whatever direction I want to take it.  HMPH.  If you really don’t care though, skip this section to get to the part where I talk about how awesome video games are.

You see, the argument over whether or not video games are BAD-FOR-YOU!! is not anything new.  In fact, the same argument has been made for movies, TV, fiction novels, and even theatre for literally THOUSANDS of years.

Back in the day (4th century BCE), the famous philosophers Plato and Aristotle disagreed over whether or not comedy and/or tragedy theatre was beneficial for a moral human being.  Plato argued that “morals” were basic human instincts, and that seeing someone “being killed” on stage would desensitize the viewer to the idea of death, and therefore make them more likely to abandon their instinctual moral code and kill someone in the future.

Aristotle believed that people were not “born” with morals, but instead that morals were something people learned through experience (what he called their individual “phronesis”), and that seeing comedy and tragedy on-stage allowed them to live through the actors, and experience the on-stage events in a safe, simulated environment.  Aristotle was careful to insist, however, that true development of the phronesis only occurred if one was able to experience the consequences of ones decisions.

Experiencing the consequence in theatre is easy to understand… Romeo and Juliet decide to pursue their forbidden love, and they die for it…but given the reputation of games like Grand Theft Auto, how do you experience the consequences in a video game?

Exhibit B: Fallout 3

(The Awesome Part)

Fallout 3: Post Apocalyptic Perfection

Fallout 3.  If you haven’t played it, DO IT, you’ll thank me.

Fallout 3 is an open-world game set in a gloriously realized post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C.  As the antagonist  of your own story, you set out from a protected childhood in an underground vault into a world of mutants, robots, desolation, and unexploded nuclear ordnance.

The beauty of the game (and it’s usefulness as a moral decision making tool) lies in the fact that the player is FORCED to make very difficult choices at almost every circumstance.  These choices are sometimes clear-cut; help a town of peaceful survivors to disarm a nuclear warhead, or blow up the town and move into a sweet new penthouse, courtesy of the local mafia.  However in many cases, the choices you are forced to make are not clear-cut, and are very difficult to discern “right” from “wrong”.

For instance: at one point in the game, you discover a small “oasis” of trees and plant life in the middle of the desolate, apocalyptic wasteland.  A thriving community has been built around the oasis, and the inhabitants of this area seem to worship a large tree in the center of town.  Upon further investigation, you discover that the tree is actually a human who has been warped by radiation to have a tree growing OUT-OF-HIS-HEAD.

Look, I’m not racist or anything, I just don’t like tree-faces…

Upon meeting this creature, he tells you that he is alive, trapped inside the tree… and that every day is constant agony as the growing tree compresses and contorts what is left of his human body.  He sincerely begs you to kill him and put him out of his misery.

So what do you do? Do you show him “mercy” by killing him? If you do, then this community of healthy survivors will most certainly dissolve and be forced to move back into the dangerous wastelands.  If you don’t, you have decided that the happiness of many people is more valuable than the suffering of one person.

Making the decision is easy; living with the consequences of that decision is what is difficult.  You will either hear the wails of the tree-person every time you enter the town, or you see the disenchanted townsfolk kill each other and descend into chaos.

The game is filled with dozens of similar experiences like this one.  And while there is a main storyline to follow, the reputation that you develop for yourself throughout the game is largely based on these open decision encounters.

Now backtrack to Aristotle; since the player experiences the game in a safe & simulated environment, AND because the consequences of those experiences are both visually and emotionally apparent, we can safely conclude that Aristotle would most likely consider video games to be morally beneficial, in the same way as comedy and tragedy theatre.

Now to be fair, Fallout 3 is not representative of ALL video games.  It’s a one-in-a-thousand masterpiece of both game design, and gameplay experience.  So what about those other games like Grand Theft Auto and Postal, where consequence is an oft-neglected and extremely unrealistic aspect of the gameplay?

Exhibit C: The Fact That I Have Not Murdered Anyone…Yet


I, like many other people of my generation, have killed hundreds upon hundreds of virtual humans, animals, zombies, robots, ninjas, pirates, robot-ninjas, zombie-pirates, and animated squirrels in video games.  As of today, I have yet to kill a human being in real life (OR a robot-ninja, but not for lack of trying).

Now this alone does not prove that video games do not dissolve ones morals, but it does illustrate that being passionate about video games is not likely to induce a passion for the actions that the video game simulates.

Moreover, I do not feel that I have been “trained” to kill an actual human being from the video games that I’ve played.

Swinging a baseball bat and hitting a zombie by pressing “B” is sure-as-hell a lot easier than swinging a real baseball bat at actual things.  In fact, I’m pretty sure after 4 or 5 dead zombies, my arms wouldn’t be able to swing the bat at the remaining horde.

Moving a mouse a quarter of centimeter to pull off an epic HEADSHOT is certainly easier than aiming and firing an actual weapon.

Driving a car, flying a plane, jumping a crevasse, wooing a girl… these are all things that are MUCH easier to do in a video game than in real life.  And just like books and movies, this alternate-reality type experience is what drives us to playing games in the first place.

I sincerely hope that I NEVER have to fight my way through a nuclear wasteland, but living through the scenarios in Fallout 3 is one of the most enthralling and entertaining experiences in my life.  But beyond entertainment, I was forced to make serious moral judgments which forced me to not only think about the possible consequences, but experience the actual consequences in-game.  And though I’ll likely never have to testify to a jury-of-my-peers as to why I chose to shoot the nice Mr. Super Mutant in the face, my mind developed new perspectives, and I have further solidified the reasoning behind my own personal morals.


Do you feel that video games have been a part of your moral development? Shout out in the comments and tell us what games you feel influenced you, and why you think that might be.  (For me, that list includes Command and Conquer, Final Fantasy 7, Zelda, Jedi Knight 2, Red Faction, Fallout 3, and Mass Effect.  All of these games had a moment for me where I sat and stared at my options for what seemed like hours while I pondered the consequences of my actions)



3 Responses to The Moral Excuse For Shooting a Mutant in the Face

  1. DustinNo Gravatar 8 February, 2011 at 11:45 am #

    How did I initially miss this posting?! It’s BRILLIANT!

    Unfortunately, I’ve missed most of these games! My time has been spent in the moral isolation that is Unreal Tournament and Guitar Hero. The one game I played that came close, but ended up jumping the shark a bit, was Marvel Ultimate Alliance. There were a few moral decisions to make, and they all seemed to be both obviously bad choices, and all the outcomes were all bad… but in an annoying, cartoony “But Nightcrawler *could* have BAMFed to freedom, so why did I have to save him and let Jean Grey die” kind of way… Oh yeah, Nightcrawler dying supposedly led to all sorts of bad outcomes later in the game. Dammit.

    Having played hour upon hour of Unreal Tournament, and lots of other first person shooters, I feel I am well trained to run a mech or avatar type weapon from afar, but know I have NO ability to translate my skill with the flak cannon into anything resembling a real life skill… or danger to society. :S


    • JacobNo Gravatar 20 February, 2011 at 4:41 pm #

      Hahaha, well your experience is pretty typical, I think. It took quite a while for the games industry to “mature” into the type of art that it is today. Sure, there were some limited examples of artful games back in the 80s and 90s, but I think we’re in kind of a “golden age” of gaming right now. The major consoles have all been out for around 5 years now, and game designers still aren’t hitting the computational limits of the 360 and PS3, so they’re getting the chance to really flesh out their art. Unfortunately, the Wii and Kinect, while awesome by themselves, are causing the market to be flooded with stupid games that’s the artistic equivalent of writing dirty words on a bathroom stall.

      Anyway, if you have time and interest, you should really pick up Fallout 3. It’s cheap nowadays, and still on store shelves, but it hasn’t aged at all yet. It’s well worth your time and money.

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