Morality and Shame in Video Games

So far in this class, we have played a variety of games dealing with moral choices as well as discussed them in class.

As I see it, it’s possible to divide games with a moral aspect into three categories: (1) social issue games, which deal explicitly with issues with a moral dimension, and make this clear from the get-go; (2) games that aren’t explicitly about issues with a moral dimension, but in time reveal that they do have a moral message. In the first category I’d put games like the microaggression text game we looked at in class the other day, and games such as Third World Farmer  in which you play as a farmer in a developing country, FarmVille-style. In the second, we have games such as Undertale. Their moral messages may either be “soapbox-style,” or preachy, or more subtle. A game like Undertale has a soapbox-style moral message, in that there is one correct moral decision. If the player makes the wrong decision, the game lets the player know, loud and clear. The player is essentially shamed for not making the morally correct choice. A more subtle game like Third World Farmer, on the other hand, does not tell the player what is right and wrong. It merely gives the player a platform on which to make decisions with moral dimensions, and lets the player deal (or not deal) with that as they will. The game might be designed so as to elicit certain emotional responses, but that is as far as they go. Given these various ways of dealing with morality in video games, I wonder which one is most effective, and why?

There are several aspects to games with a moral dimension that affects the player’s experience. First, it matters whether the player knows if it is a social-issue game or game with moral dimensions. This affects who chooses to play the game– it is unlikely, for example, for a right-wing extremist to play a game about microaggressions. Meanwhile, if a moral dilemma is embedded in a game that otherwise fits into the mold of mass-market AAA video games, it may reach much larger, more diverse audiences. Second, it matters whether the game preaches to the player or not. Morality always involves a dimension of shame– the immoral are shamed into making more morally correct choices, and the morally upright are praised. Shame is the primary dimension of the social control mechanism of morality. A game that preaches, then, might invoke feelings of shame for some players, while praising other players. This may alienate some players, while creating bigger fans out of others. For an example of this, all we have to do is look at Undertale’s fan community (we talked about the toxicity of this particular community last week; I believe the shaming element is why). A more subtle game, on the other hand, is more inclusive and tolerant. It merely questions and encourages. This means that the pure emotional strength generated by pride and shame cannot be stimulated, but that no one is left feeling personally attacked or alienated.

It seems that games dealing with more serious issues, and issues involving morality, are becoming more and more commonplace. As this happens, it’s worth asking (for both developers and players) what form video games with moral dimensions can take. It’s also worth asking which forms elicit what kinds of reactions in the player, and what reactions might be most desirable (and why that reaction is so desired).


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