The Illusion of Choice: Moral Ambiguity in Gaming


While I was looting the dead body off of a shop owner I had just blasted in the face with a shotgun, I paused and thought to myself, “Why don’t I feel bad?” 

In this particular instance I was playing Fallout: New Vegas. If you are unfamiliar with the Fallout franchise, the games take place after a nuclear war with China and is set in post-apocalyptic America. This particular installment is set in Nevada. As is the norm regarding the post-apocalyptic setting, there are no more “rules.” You may govern yourself however you want—there is room to be morally ambiguous. You can either be the Mojave’s sweetheart or the anti-Christ. There is no in-between.

If my memory serves me right, I always played it safe whenever I played a game where I knew there were options to be good or bad. I would help the townsfolk, rescue the captive slaves, and offer my assistance to strangers in need. I gave money to the poor and never killed any innocents. But I accidentally stole something once and when the game told me that my karma had increased, I realized that I didn’t care.

So then I would go around being the most horrible person. Gone were the days where I took the time to be helpful—I would now kill everyone who stood in my way. I remembering traveling through the Mojave Desert with my companion (Boone) and we were stopped by an escaped slave who needed my help. I shot him with my shotgun and moved on. Eventually, I came across the men who were looking for the slave and I shot them too. No one was safe from me.

But let’s bring up Mass Effect. The illusion of choice actually impacts your game, and I’m the sweetest goddamn space hero in the entire galaxy. I’m all paragon and no renegade, baby. Heaven forbid I accidentally picked a renegade option; I’d start over the entire scene to make sure I got it right. I can’t tell you how many times I saved the game before talking to any companions to make sure I didn’t say the wrong thing.

MassEffect2 2011-01-02 15-13-26-84

Morality and choice are a very grey area when it comes to video games. If given the option to be good or bad, wouldn’t be easier to be bad? This is, after all, a video game. This is an environment where I could kill someone and not be reprimanded. This is a world where I could call a character out and still fall asleep peacefully at night. Yet the way I choose my behavior greatly depends on the type of game I play.

Take, for example, Grand Theft Auto. I do not take that game seriously. I love going around and stealing cars, running people over, and then crashing said car into the nearest wall to kill myself. I think it’s fun to be the worst kind of person in the kind of game where it encourages you to do whatever you want. Now, if GTA had a morality meter, I don’t know that I’d still act the same way (because come on, you could outrun the police). 

I guess the point I was trying to make was this: in “open world” (such as Fallout or Skyrim), games where I see no real consequences for my actions, I will loot, murder, and tell off any person I see. I don’t feel a connection with any characters in the game so I don’t give a hoot about anyone other than myself. Bring up a game where my choices ‘matter’ and I’m given the opportunity to know my companions on a personal level and I’ll always, always do what’s best.


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