The Moral of the Story: how video games shape our morals
And why that’s a really, really good thing.
Video games are all about morals — or so you’d think judging by the amount of discussion.
If I had a cent for every time that I heard “video games will make you aggressive/anti-social/BYOA (bring your own adjective),” I’d be rich enough to buy some really snazzy noise-cancelling headphones and play in peace.
And while it’s true that the media we consume shape our personality in ways big and small, that’s not necessarily bad.
The discourse may be annoying when coming from a place of moral panic, but it also gives gaming the importance it deserves.
With storylines that center on the society during apocalypse and examine how it may rise or fall, video games have way more significance than just being the last man standing in battle royale.
So let’s take a look at what we can learn from video games like BioShock and Fallout, and how games’ approach to morality affects our own.
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
Call me crazy, but as soon as I see the image of Vault Boy, I think about the end of the world in its darkest light.
Even that is Fallout’s way of portraying society and absurdism: Vault Boy is the mascot of the post-apocalyptic world, and he’s grinning.
Traipsing through the wasteland after a huge nuclear war, we’re constantly confronted with the consequences of mankind’s shitty choices.
And the smiling mascot serves to remind us of the lax approach with which these decisions had been made — leaving us to pick up the pieces.
So when Marcus Schulzke says that video games are the perfect platform to teach morality, I agree. They’re interactive and in the case of many games like Fallout, offer enough choices for the player to have to engage their own moral compass.
In turn, that leads to questioning.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there were quite a few times when I questioned the choices I’ve made in a video game, often stopping and thinking about who I am as a person.
20,000 Leagues under the Sea
If we’re questioning our choices in Fallout where the emphasis is definitely on the player making the decisions, then in BioShock we’re left to observe a crumbling society which believed itself to be better than any other.
BioShock is different from Fallout in its approach to morality. Instead of letting us shape the game with our choices, we’re taking a look at what happens when we get so stubborn in believing ourselves to be right.
The prime example of how wrong we can be is BioShock’s Rapture and its toxic intellectualism.
Like Ciarán Ó Muirthile writes in his essay, “Ryan, in building Rapture, built an escape from the impulses which, he felt, restricted growth in the facets of human development important to him. But in doing this he forced other elements of natural human instinct and society to be quashed in the spirit of individualist freedom.”
BioShock, like every good story, mirrors our desires and radicalizes them to show us where they could lead us in the future.
We think emotions are pesky and glorify intellect as the supreme. Science is put above art, productivity above enjoyment.
Even when we discuss video games, there are always people quick to say that they are a waste of time. Medium is overflowing with articles full of tips on how to cut back on our leisure time and be more productive, be more logical.
In BioShock, the emotional side of mankind is shown as destructive. Parents sacrifice children for the greater good of Rapture, morals are rendered null and void.
And instead of emotionality, it’s the overt intellectualism pushing everything else back that destroys Rapture.
True North on the Moral Compass
There are many other games which allow us to pose important questions about ourselves and the world we live in.
The best ones don’t just create characters similar to us and flip the world upside down to make us question reality.
No, we question our own morality because there is something unsettling in that game that we recognize.
We don’t have to live in an underwater city or in a post-apocalyptic wasteland to notice the undercurrent thread of a culture that glorifies just one facet of humanity. It shouts at us from billboards and smartphones.
But we only pause to consider it when a video game shows it to us in a different light. The conclusions we’ll make about ourselves and our culture are entirely up to us.
There’s no true north on the moral compass, and the best games tell us that. They leave us at the point where we have to start thinking about our choices and the future we build.
And since no two gamers will realize the same, we still have room to grow and reconsider. It’s time to take the questions from the screen into the real world. It’s time to discuss.
The game may be finished, but our journey isn’t.