Measuring Morality: The Fantasy of Being Good in Games

Fallout 4

I’m sure you have heard someone argue for the joys of being bad in games. It’s not really a new approach. Of course, I’m speaking specifically about games that are open in terms of morality—that let you choose evil. These choices are often reduced to a clear binary: between good and evil or, on a smaller scale, nice or douchebag. In these games, there are those who will always advocate for evil.

The explanation for this pleasure in being bad usually goes something like this: “I’m a good person in real life, so being bad is a fun break from reality” or “I can be bad without hurting anyone real.” These are valid ways to game; I’ve even played evil before. However, it is interesting that no one really discusses the reverse. Other than to avoid that odd guilt I get when I ruin a fictional person’s life or earn the disapproval of my comrades, why would I want to be a good person in games?

It’s simple, really. Being good makes me feel empowered.

We, meaning the broader gaming community, talk about games and power quite a lot, usually to describe something as a power fantasy—a loaded term that, for many people, has negative associations. Video games—to some degree or another—are about power. Most, if not all games bring enjoyment to the player because they make them feel empowered, usually by giving them some control over their situation along with some particularly useful skills for further manipulating it.

It may sound insidious, but it isn’t inherently insidious. These power fantasies only become a real problem when the power comes at the expense of those without it in real life (like the dreaded “Male Power Fantasy” that dehumanizes women). If I am gaming in part to feel powerful, then some people would assume I want to be evil—that I would want to exert my power over everyone and everything as fully as I could. I worry about those people.

No, if there is one kind of power I want in a game, it is the power to change the world for the better. I want to be good. Better than I am in real life. Or perhaps not a better person, just a more capable one. Without trying to sound too cynical, it can be exhausting to care about the state of the world deeply and yet have so little power to change anything significantly.

I know I’m not the only one disillusioned with notions of my own significance. Just look at how many people don’t vote in America because they truly believe their vote doesn’t matter. That doesn’t mean I’m advocating for apathy; we should all still do what we can, but it can be discouraging when the means to help people and instigate change seem to be beyond you. This is one of those places where games can provide the chance to let you do what real life doesn’t.

Fallout 4

Let’s take Fallout 4 as an example. Fallout 4, like many Bethesda games, lets you make decisions about how your character chooses to survive. Become a thieving drug addict, let money drive your every action, help only those you like, or try to save as many lives as possible—take your pick. I could easily believe that playing a crueler character than my saint of a Sole Survivor would make for some fun gaming. But, for me, saving the Commonwealth was almost therapeutic.

I’m not even talking about the main quest line—it’s probably not hard to guess, but I sided with the Railroad—so much as the smaller ways in which the game lets you help people. Partially, this is because those smaller moments feel much more incontestably good. The Railroad does some fairly sketchy things to achieve its end goals, even if those end goals are something I support. Ultimately, what was satisfying was not restructuring society (although I’m still for a touch of revolution) as much as helping a lost ghoul kid reunite with his ghoulish parents.

Unfortunately, the “good” in a game like Fallout 4 is hugely problematized by the amount of violence committed. For someone I have just, albeit jokingly, dubbed a saint, my Sole Survivor sure did kill a lot of people. But hey, it’s fine because they were unnamed bandits, right? Fortunately, the game did give me plenty of chances to talk my way out of violent situations and find a peaceful resolution. High charisma for the win! But in all seriousness, it is pretty telling that the characters we would commonly call “good” are still often responsible for incredibly high body counts.

Undertale

Perhaps an underlying awareness of this bizarre code of ethics in games can explain the popularity of Undertale in the past year. The game deepens that binary referenced earlier from “good” and “bad” to “Pacifist” and “Genocide.” That is not to say that the game is in any way reductive. A pacifist playthrough is hard. Sparing everyone is incredibly difficult. It took me three to fours tries just to succeed in not killing the very first combatant. Not killing in Fallout 4 is easier, but only when the game provides the option.

Despite its often unavoidable violence, I still felt empowered by playing a good person in Fallout 4. I made the Commonwealth safer for those who could not protect themselves—something I strive to do in real life. Unlike real life, in Fallout 4 I am guaranteed success or at least a second chance. My Sole Survivor is capable of helping in a way I will never be. That power fantasy of capability and compassion helps me overcome my disillusionment with the real world struggle to be a force for good.

In a way, my reasons for playing good characters mirror those who want to play bad ones. We’ve just chosen different approaches that work for us. They escape by being worse; I escape by being better.

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One Comment on “Measuring Morality: The Fantasy of Being Good in Games

  1. Interesting. I totally agree, I enjoy playing “good” in games much of the time because we don’t always have the opportunity to be heroic in our daily lives. Like you said, we can control very little in real life but can accomplish a lot in games, even if it’s fictional, and that feels empowering.

    That said, I find it interesting that some games (like the Bioware games) allow you to play “renegade” but it’s not actually evil. You still end up being the hero in the end, because the video game’s story is heroic. It’s just that you can kind of be a badass, or a jerk, or a the-ends-justify-the-means type of character if you want. I enjoy going that route.

    Like

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