The Game Stash

The Game Stash: Virtual Virtues

Steve Butts | 7 Jul 2010 21:00
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Did I just miss something here? Looting from the dead is where most of Shepard's funding and equipment comes from. Sure, the confrontation works great as a story moment, but it openly challenges one of the fundamental RPG traditions, which is stealing everything that isn't nailed down (and can't be pried up). Even the living aren't exempt from this type of robbery. At one point, Shepard gets Paragon points for encouraging a couple to seek safety and then he promptly steals thousands of credits from their home. At that point, the Paragon points stopped being a true measure of my moral decisions and simply became a game element to be manipulated. At least in Bethesda's Elder Scrolls games you'd need to be sneaky about this kind of thing.

Again, I don't want to make fun of Mass Effect 2, because it is an amazing game and definitely more nuanced, ethically speaking, than previous RPGs. But it also represents a paradox so firmly established in the genre that we overlook its inherent inconsistency, even in titles that are exemplary in all other respects. Even those games that don't allow the player to steal outright must deal with the notion that it's okay to slaughter hundreds of human beings, just so long as they're bad. It seems that all that separates heroes from villains in most games is that the heroes are just killing the right people.

Heroic acts of stealing and killing have become so central to our idea of what roleplaying should be that it seems almost insane to question them. To a certain extent, they are valuable and necessary components for these games; no one wants to play Star Wars: Mediators of the Old Republic or Peaceout: New Vegas. But following on my recent argument against the conception of games as primarily mechanical challenges, we should at least note where the gameplay actively works against the story. Even if you disagree with my original premise that context shouldn't take a backseat to gameplay, you should at least concede that context and gameplay shouldn't contradict each other so openly.

This is, of course, assuming that the role you've adopted in these games is more in line with good than evil. I think, for most of us at least, that's a safe bet. Designers of these games have often lamented that so few people take the "bad" path, and much creative energy has been spent trying to find a perspective that encourages players to give in to the Dark Side or, more interestingly, to present choices that aren't as obviously good or evil.

I suppose it's encouraging that, even in a virtual world, most people tend to be good, but it also suggests the strongest consequences for a player's morality are in his or her own mind. It's what anthropologists mean when they distinguish between societies of shame, where judgment comes from without, and societies of guilt, where judgment comes from within. Susan Arendt, for instance, chose not to steal the cash from the couples' safe because she established her own personal context for the action. Even though the theft had no external consequence of shame, she still refrained from stealing because doing so would carry the internal consequence of guilt.

If the situations and characters are compelling enough, our own internal values will enhance the moral relevance of the games we play, but that's not an excuse for game designers to avoid expressing the consequences of our ethical choices in the game world itself in ways that are consistent with our own consciences. When your main heroes spend most of their time killing and stealing, all to save little shops, china cups and virginity, that's no easy task.

Steve Butts is still trying to get in touch with his inner villain.

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