Please read this first.

Welcome! This blog is devoted to considerations of morality in the The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim by Bethesda. Rather than a fansite, review, or walkthrough, it is a serious attempt to examine the game through a moral lens. Please note that the purpose of this blog is to discuss morality within the context of the game, not to determine whether playing the game is immoral in and of itself; the latter type of "discussion" tends toward tedium and inhibits, rather than promotes, a meaningful conversation.

If you have not visited this blog before, it might be helpful to read the posts labeled "Orientation," most of which are the first few entries in the blog archive (see right). These posts include a short introduction to this project, a content-specific author bio, and a few other pieces that explain key concepts relevant to this study. These posts are of particular use to those readers less familiar with Skyrim (or video games in general).

PLEASE NOTE: HERE BE SPOILERS!

If you have visited this blog before, thanks and welcome back!

Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Player as a Moral Agent

The virtual nature of video games presents both challenges to and opportunities for moral study. Because the people, places, things, and events in the game do not exist in the real world (at least in the traditional sense), it is possible for the player to engage in behavior that a fear of actual consequence might otherwise inhibit. In a game, the player is free to commit heinous crimes or perform valorous deeds that she would have neither the inclination nor the chance to perform in her daily life. Unfettered by moral and physical reality, she can use her enhanced abilities to murder innocent "people" at will, or perhaps endure incredible "pain" to save the virtual world, or both -- all without affecting her real world. As a moral agent, she is subject in her choices only to her own will and to the limits of the game's programming.

It is the latter factor, however, that presents the greatest hurdle to the player as a moral agent.  Consider Pac-Mac; because of the limitations of the game's design, the full menu of player choice consists of the four cardinal directions and timing.  Furthermore, without a back story, the choices themselves have no significance outside of survival strategies.  We have no idea who Pac-Man is, who the ghosts are, and why they keep trying to eat each other; there is no possibility for meaningful moral choice.  In order to act as a moral agent, the player must have both sufficient information to make informed decisions and the ability to make choices that impact the experience of the game beyond mere success and failure.

I first noticed the moral possibilities of video games when I played GoldenEye 007 on the N64.  The back story of this game is little more than an interactive retelling of the 1995 James Bond movie of the same name, so the plot is rich and the characters are well-developed. Because it is an FPS based on an action movie, violence is a key component of the game, but, unlike earlier FPS games such as Doom and Quake, indiscriminate killing is not always advantageous or even necessary.  Although most NPCs are enemies that need to be eliminated in order to progress through the level, some are neutral or even friendly, and killing them can cause mission failure.  Moreover, not every enemy needs to be killed; in a handful of scenarios, a player can choose to sneak past an enemy.  Therefore, the player has at least some opportunity for moral choice.

The moment from GoldenEye 007 that introduced me to the moral dimension of gaming occurs early in the game (Mission 1: Arkangelsk, Stage 2: Facility).  At one point, I found myself sneaking behind an unsuspecting guard in a hallway.  He carried a card that I needed in order to progress through the level, so I knew I would have to kill him (there are no pickpocketing or persuasion options in this game), which in and of itself did not bother me as I was already accustomed to the genre.  What gave me pause was the moment at which I was aiming the sniper rifle at the guard's head.  I hesitated to pull the trigger.  I felt guilty, as though what I was about to do was wrong. 

This image is a screencap from a YouTube video of another player's GoldenEye007 playthrough of the aforementioned level, hence the silenced pistol in place of the sniper rifle.  To see the full video, click here.
 
This was the first time that my sense of morality had been engaged by a video game, so I spent some time trying to isolate what it was about this situation that unsettled me. Of course, there was the cognitive dissonance of a reasonably gentle person like me planning to "kill" a fictional person in cold blood, but eventually I realized the real problem: I perceived the scenario as inherently unfair -- dishonorable, even.  Looking at the guard's pixelated head through the crosshairs made me feel as though I were playing the heartless assassin rather than the noble warrior. Ultimately, I understood that I had unconsciously constructed a set of mores for my player character that, while distinct from my own moral code in the real world, carried enough personal significance to affect my gameplay.

Since that moment, I have been observing issues of morality in video games, and I have been able to define some rules for moral engagement. The central rule is that, in order for the player to act as a moral agent, the game must provide two features: 1.) a well-developed fictional structure (including back stories and compelling characters, or at least the opportunity to invent these) and 2.) real choices that challenge the player's moral reasoning within the game scenario.  If one of these factors is missing, the player has no moral agency.

The first feature -- solid fictional structure -- encourages the player to see the game as a world peopled by emotionally engaging entities in much the same way that a compelling novel or movie might.  I might be invested in a game of Tetris, but because there are no characters to speak of, my investment is limited to achieving a high score and little else.  In my GoldenEye example, even though the guards are low-level mooks, they still pantomime enough human behavior to be regarded as characters in a story rather than pieces on a gameboard. 

Even with the first feature in place, however, a game cannot encourage moral agency without providing meaningful choices.  Take as an example the much-beloved title in the Legend of Zelda franchise, The Ocarina of Time.  The game provides a lovingly detailed back story, many engaging NPCs, and an almost open-world setting, but no morally significant decision-making; gameplay is robust but linear and nearly lock-step.  At no point is Link able to do anything other than the right thing, aside from perhaps harrassing some chickens.  Furthermore, the choices offered must lead to different outcomes in one way or another.  Despite my misgivings about shooting the GoldenEye guard, I had very little meaningful choice in the matter.  While I certainly could have alerted the guard to my position and engaged him in a face-to-face battle, the end result would be the same.  In order to progress to the next stage of the game, I needed the keycard; I could not obtain the keycard without killing the guard; therefore, my only option other than killing the guard would be to stop playing the game.

There are those who would argue that the option to stop playing is a meaningful moral choice, and they make a valid point.  I have never played games in the Grand Theft Auto series because I would find it unpalatable to play a game in which the player character was not only rewarded for antisocial behavior, but whose progress in the game depended almost entirely on such behavior.  Still, my focus in this study is the concept of moral choice inside the confines of the game, not the ramifications of playing a game that encourages immoral behavior.  If I were to replace Skyrim with GTA in this blog, I would still be discussing moral agency, but the mores available would be limited to those of the criminal underworld that constitutes the game's setting.

One of the running themes in this blog is the high degree of moral agency offered in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim by virtue of its exceptional combination of the two necessary factors. Skyrim not only provides a world rich in plot and character development, but an extraordinary array of moral choices available to the player.  In short, I argue that the player character in Skyrim has more moral agency than in most other games of its kind, and this blog explores one player's experiences as a moral agent in this fertile environment.

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