Tabletop gaming is, by its very nature, a social format. While certain aspects of the game, such as character creation, can be performed solo, the game itself requires a number of people talking to each other in a shared (usually physical) space. Four or five people sit around a table for several hours, engaging in a kind of improvisational, communal storytelling. The kind of story they tell depends in large part on the people doing the telling. For example, I used to play AD&D with a GM who required extensive one-on-one back story sessions with each PC before engaging in the main adventure, but there are other GMs who run campaigns in which players control entire armies in a Risk-like setting. Our group was hero-oriented, with each PC cooperating to do the right thing in each adventure, but there are other groups that allow or even encourage self-serving, treacherous, or villainous gameplay. The video below provides a glimpse into a gaming session with some very experienced players:
Part of the appeal of tabletop gaming is the unique and nonreproducible nature of each session. Even if two gaming groups do the same, store-bought adventure, the personalities of the GM, the players, and the PCs they create will alter the playing experience. It is precisely this variability that makes tabletop gaming an extraordinarily complex medium for focused moral study. Because tabletop gaming is social, all moral decisions occur in a social context; therefore, the player must consider not only what is right in a particular encounter, but also what fits the needs and desires of the group. Furthermore, the absolute liberty of the GM to alter the game as he sees fit allows PC to employ lateral thinking to find unanticipated solutions to their moral dilemmas.
The following personal example should help illustrate the unpredictable nature of tabletop gaming. During one of the gaming sessions with the aforementioned group, we found ourselves in an underground river passage. We were attacked by a powerful water creature, which pulled several members of our party into the river, making combat far more difficult. Because I had little faith in my PC's ability to fight the creature single-handedly, I looked for alternate strategies. As it turned out, my PC had in his inventory a potion of shape-changing. I had him imbibe the potion and choose the form of a giant octopus -- my thought being that I could rescue my companions with some of the tentacles while fighting the creature with the others. Our GM, not having anticipated this move, quickly calculated my chances of success for each of the eight appendages my PC now controlled, and told me which dice to roll.
As a moral agent in the scenario above, I had to weigh several factors in making my decision. As I was attempting to play a heroic rogue-style character, I was obligated to try to rescue my companions. Furthermore, the guys with whom I was playing were my friends in real life, so abandoning their carefully constructed characters to an almost certain death would probably not go over well. Even if they did survive, their PCs would now be wary of the one who left them to die, which would negatively affect our gameplay. My PC was ill-suited for single combat against the monster at hand, so blunt heroics would most likely have failed. Therefore, the combination of contextual moral obligation, the limitations of my PC, and the freedom of the GM to improvise allowed me to do what was right in an "outside the box" manner.
Here is where tabletop RPGs and their video progeny part ways. Even an RPG as sophisticated as Skyrim is little more than a piece of computer software; it can only do what it is scripted to do. If I get caught without weapons in a fight, I can use the pickax I was just using as a mining implement and wield as a weapon, but I can't pick up a chair and smash it over my opponent's head because there is a script for the former but not for the latter. Similarly, I can sit on a bench and sleep in a bed, but not vice versa. I can explore every part of the game map in any order, but I can't move an end table. While these restrictions limit player innovation and creativity, they actually provide a benefit for a focused moral study. The limitations of Skyrim's script frequently place the PC in Kohlbergian dilemmas that often prevent players from escaping the central moral question through crafty gameplay.
An additional factor to consider when examining moral agency in Skyrim is the solitary nature of its gameplay. Tabletop games require cooperation, but most action-adventure video games are single-protagonist affairs. While online RPGs such as World of Warcraft reproduce the communal spirit of tabletop games, FPS games like Skyrim provide a kind of moral testing ground free from the danger of external consequences. Because the tabletop player is likely to consider the impact of her PC's actions on her relationships with the other flesh-and-blood people in her gaming group, she might not make the decisions she really wants to.
Skyrim, therefore, provides a medium for focused moral study that is substantively different from its tabletop predecessors. The expansive but ultimately limited number of choices available to the player, combined with the single-player format that isolates the player from outside influences, creates an environment especially conducive to a serious study of moral agency in gaming. Moreover, the reproducible nature of the video game facilitates this type of study; the dilemmas in the quests described in this blog can be accessed and experienced first hand by anyone playing the game.