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What's with the name?

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Essay

Laying Down My Sword: How Games Can Inspire Moral Decisions, Even Without Asking


A curious thing happened as I was completing Mark of the Ninja a few weeks back (and yes, there are significant spoilers ahead). While the game has an entertaining story, it’s there for context and flavor, rather than being the driving force. The star of the show is the deliciously stylish gameplay, which caters to puzzle-loving adults who grew up with Saturday morning cartoons and martial arts movies. I often take satisfaction in playing stealth games as non-lethally as possible, but the combat in this one was too good to pass up. Ambushing baddies from shadowy air vents never got old. But I stopped doing it anyway.

The unnamed player character (I’ll just call him the Champion) is tattooed with a mystical ink which bestows him with special powers. Unfortunately, it is also driving him insane. Near the end, my NPC companion asked me how I was faring with the hallucinations. To my knowledge, I hadn’t experienced any hallucinations. She warned me to be careful, as I might see enemies that weren’t really there. I received this warning before sneaking back into my dojo (for reasons that are too involved to explain), and I readied myself for the sight of creepy ghosts or spirit animals — you know, the sorts of hallucinations you’d expect to see in a cartoonish environment. The dojo was crawling with guards, the exact same gun-toting patrols I’d faced in every level before. I wasted no time in dispatching my enemies, and as I was also challenging myself to play for speed, I did not linger over their bodies. I did notice, however, that a magical puff of petals appeared over them once they fell. I attributed this to tripping out, nothing more. I had left a lot of bodies behind before I noticed that as the petals appeared, the bodies changed. I stopped running and studied my handiwork up close.

The guards in the dojo weren’t guards. They were ninjas, members of the Champion’s clan. The guards were the hallucinations. The Champion had been killing his friends. And I was making him do it.

As the realization sunk in, I knew that I’d be going through the rest of the level without causing any more deaths. It wasn’t even a question for me. The Champion was a killer, yes, but not a indiscriminate one, and these people had done nothing wrong. They didn’t even want to fight him. I would beat the game, but I wouldn’t spill any more blood.

Now, gameplay-wise, this decision makes no sense whatsoever. I had chosen combat abilities geared toward clever takedowns, not non-violent stealth, and changing up a practiced playstyle so late in the game made things exponentially more difficult. Mark of the Ninja does give the player a bonus for completing a level non-lethally, but as I was about a third of the way in before I decided to stop killing, I wouldn’t receive anything. The reasonable course of action would have been to restart the level, but in the moment, I was invested in the narrative. The Champion would have no reason to spare guards if he wasn’t aware that they were hallucinations, which he wouldn’t be at the start of the level. I wasn’t going to retcon my tragic hero at that point. I was caught up in imagining this honorable man realizing the horror of what he’d done, trying to stave off madness and bloodlust just long enough to let him complete his task. Melodramatic, perhaps, but it made for a damn fine story. In my head, at least. The game didn’t care either way. There was no punishment for killing anyone in the dojo, no change to the ending. My score suffered for it, and my hopes at finishing quickly were dashed as I agonized over how to clear the final room without killing anyone. The only benefit of my decision was that I finished the game with a mollified conscience.

The potency of moral decisions in games is one of the hallmarks of the medium, but typically, we discuss that experience in terms of decisions built into the gameplay. I’m talking about moments in which the player must make a difficult choice in order for the game to proceed. The first Little Sister in BioShock. The heretic Geth in Mass Effect 2. Any time you’re asked to do anything in The Walking Dead game. Moments like these have a profound impact on players. They can stick with us for years after playing. We might pause the game and pace around while we wrestle with ethics. We might realize things about ourselves and our own beliefs as we do so. These moments are intentional on the part of the designers; it’s their way of starting a conversation about big issues, or at the very least, delivering an emotional whallop. And even when in-game decisions aren’t so major, we can find questions of morality woven into the mechanics. A decision to spare a life might result in bonus points or unlocked quests. Stealing goods or killing civilians almost always results in some sort of penalty. Joining a thieves’ guild will result in a different outcome than volunteering for the king’s militia. Even in settings where morality falls into gray areas, the message of “actions have consequences” can be found everywhere in games.

But why make a decision that the game does not demand, especially one that might hinder your success? Look at how my partner plays Skyrim. In dungeons and tombs, she loots everything that isn’t nailed down. But when grateful NPCs offer her whatever they own in thanks for her help, she takes only a modest selection of necessary materials, even though the game is freely offering her as much as she can carry. She doesn’t feel right about cleaning out peasants’ pantries. Or what about the people who decide not to finish Shadow of the Colossus, because somewhere along the way they feel that the cost of success is too great? That story I linked to is not the first time I’ve heard of that happening, and it’s interesting to note that those players don’t feel that they’ve missed out on the ending. They’re satisfied with the moral epiphany they experienced in real life. Not everyone plays games this way, of course, and there are plenty for whom the goal of gear or high scores is worth some (fictional) moral compromises. But I’m willing to bet that most gamers have had at least one moment where they gave up on a quest or passed on some loot out of personal misgivings. I’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t leapt to reload a saved game after making a story-based decision that didn’t sit right.

You could chalk this behavior up to the fact that many of us love to create games within games. I’m thinking of things like the attempt to play Skyrim using nothing but illusion spells, or playing Dishonored as “Corvo Attano, the Loudest Man in Dunwall,” or folks who play pacifists in World of Warcraft. Games don’t reward us for these things, either, but the achievement of beating your own challenge is gratifying enough. But I’m not sure this is quite the same thing as what I described above. The choice to make a game within a game is a very intentional one, just as choosing to roleplay as a villain or a thief is a measured decision. These are choices that take planning and commitment. When I decided to stop killing in Mark of the Ninja, it was a knee-jerk response, and it went completely against my original, conscious choice to play as an efficient predator.

With the conversation about how games affect our sense of morality back at the forefront, it’s important to point out that gamers never enter a virtual world as a blank slate. We can’t help but bring our moral compasses along for the ride. Even when a game has us do things that would be horrific in real life — I, for one, would never drop down from a chandelier to stab a person through the throat, and not just because I am physically puny — we still possess a sense of right and wrong. Escapism can only take us so far. So while there’s no harm in playing an assassin or a warrior for a while, I think there’s something telling in those moments when our consciences trump our suspension of disbelief. Even when we’re immersed in make-believe, sometimes we can’t help but do the right thing.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles and can always be found on Twitter.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/matthew.ninemire Matthew Wayne Ninemire

    lThis article should be required reading the next time knee-jerk reactionaries start piling on video games in the wake of another tragedy (which sadly, is almost bound to happen again). Your writing serves as an eloquent rebuttal of the idea that gamers are so completely malleable in our moral leanings that something as rudimentary as a video game can mold us into sociopathic killing machines in real life.

    While I won’t completely disavow the idea that violent media can impact and influence people, I think that generally speaking it’s influence is greatly overstated. For the average person violent media and games might make us a little less empathetic in the long run to violence that we observe. However, when it comes to those people who go beyond the pale and commit atrocious crimes, I don’t think that violent media is to blame. Often these people are found to have consumed such media in large quantities, but I think that alot of people get the coorelation backwards. Rather than saying that such extremely violent people are made that way bey violent media (and games in particular), I think the more logical coorelation is that these people are already predisposed to extreme acts of violence for a wide variety of reasons. Instead, these people seek out violent media and games because it appeals to a part of them that is already fundementally broken. If violent video games didn’t exist, they’d turn to violent TV or movies or books. If all violent media were removed from the equation, they’d hone their skills through hunting or target shooting (which by the way, you often find such people also do in addition to playing violent video games, funny how that never gets brought up though, and certainly you don’t hear impassioned cries to close up gun ranges).
    Anyhow, I’m going into rant mode and I’ve got to disengaged, I’ve got stuff to do today. Great article, always appreciate your writing.

  • Mara, Queen of Britons

    I really enjoy playing the Total War games, particularly Medieval II. I recently bought the expansion campaigns and began playing the Britannia campaign, which focuses solely on the British Isles and you basically have to take them over county by county. Playing as the English, the victory conditions I needed were to eliminate the Welsh faction and hold London, Caernarvon, Dublin and Edinburgh and 35 total counties. So, through a relentless onslaught, I destroyed the Welsh and moved north to take Scotland. However, as I was laying siege to Edinburgh, the Scottish faction tried to negotiate peace and I was able to make them my vassals. All of their counties were counted under my regions list. Great! That much closer to victory, right? Well, I went to Ireland and captured Dublin, but no victory. I had over 40 counties by then. So, I went ahead and took over the rest of Ireland just to be safe. I also had a lot of fun marrying my faction leader and heir to two Scottish princesses. Finally, every place in the British Isles was under either my direct or indirect control. I finally figured out that although Edinburgh was counted as mine through my vassals, I needed to control it directly in order to win. I would have to attack my vassal. So, mustering my troops on the border, I prepared for this most base of virtual Medieval betrayals. But I didn’t. Instead, I saved the game and quit. They may have been AI vassals, but they were bound to serve me and I was bound to protect them. I had married their princesses and I decided that failure with peace was better than victory with war. I felt very silly and very wise.

  • Anonymous

    “…it made for a damn fine story. In my head, at least.”

    That’s why we play, isn’t it. Well, not everyone, but the gamers I respect the most relish sharing these meaningful story moments at least as much as their satisfaction after finessing a challenge. Now I’m off the share this link with them.

  • Anonymous

    It literally took me an hour to make the final decision in Mass Effect 3. My Shepard sat at the three way fork and literally couldn’t decide what to do (all the while I’m watching the Fleet be destroyed through the windows. I sat at my computer for about 25 minutes trying to decide, then got up and walked away, leaving the screen open. This was one of the hardest moral decisions I’ve ever faced in a game, and I applaud Bioware for doing it. I didn’t want to do the “Destroy synthetics” option because I had worked damn hard trying to reconcile the Geth and the Turians and I wanted that to work out. I didn’t want to choose the “Merge” option because where was my Shepard’s right to determine the evolution of every race in the galaxy. Even with the controversy of the ME3 ending, having that difficult decision to make was an incredible climax to that series.

  • http://twitter.com/witchfury Bel

    This is a lovely article – but there’s a bit of irony in the Mark of the Ninja analogy used. Guards are just as innocent (or not) as your fellow ninjas, I’d say, but we kill so many of them that they don’t seem to count anymore.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alasdairmurray Alasdair Murray

    Wow, that ‘how games saved my life’ site is incredible. Everyone should read it. Those stories, by themselves, justify the existence of the entire video game industry.

    As for the article: yes, it’s interesting how games can lead us to discover things about ourselves, even the ones that aren’t supposed to be about ‘moral choices’. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no wrong way to play a game, and the way that you chose to play Mark of the Ninja is an entirely legitimate choice.

    Personally, I never thought I’d find myself emotionally affected by a video game… but then I recently started playing The Walking Dead. Enough said on that one, I think.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t kill the puppy looking things on Kirby Epic Yarn because if you cause a loud noise by them they get scared and it makes me feel bad. Kind of a goofy reason I guess but they’re cute and scared, I couldn’t possibly kill them.

  • Anonymous

    Good article! I get this a lot. For example, a certain decision in Mass Effect 3 took me over 2 hours to make, because after missing a mission by accident, the Paragon option wasn’t available and I had to choose to kill one or another of my team-mates! I just didn’t feel comfortable about my Commander Shepard after that! :(

  • Anonymous

    As others have said, this is a fantastic article, which really points at some of the ways that games can do things that passive media can’t. After playing games like Dishonored, the various Deus Exes, or even the more lethal Mass Effect, it’s hard to go back to linear games like shooters where one’s actions are not one’s own (though I’m curious to play Spec Ops and see how it attacks this issue from the opposite direction…).

    That said, I now *really* want to do “Corvo Attano, the Loudest Man in Dunwall” for my second Dishonored playthrough.

  • http://twitter.com/Ostercy Ostercy

    We need more immoral decision making in games, So much more fun.

  • Jenny Cole

    A great article! All gamers come to their gaming with baggage and that baggage is there when they stop gaming regardless of what happened in the game. Jen x

  • Lady Viridis

    On the other hand, I’m always disappointed by games that appear to offer a moral choice with consequences and then don’t actually punish you. The specific example I’m thinking of is Fable 3, where very early on you’re offered a choice: either your loved one will be killed or a crowd of random peasants. When I played through the demo, I experimented with both options, but was deeply disappointed to find that whatever choice I made didn’t really affect the game. I would have expected Fable to be the type of game where, if you do pick the peasants, you then have to have a very serious conversation with your loved one about the guilt you both probably now feel. But the game didn’t seem to include that, and it felt lacking.

  • Kristy

    Just to add to the moral quandary that games have made me face – I present Bastion. The end of that game had me pausing, asking what would be preferable I even ventured to yell out into the house for other people’s opinions. I couldn’t trust my own, and even though I played through again a second time, keeping to the same decisions save the end, making the alternate choice – I was faced with a truly vivid idea of what each choice would present to both my character and the world he inhabited. I completely agree with this article, and the statements above about how necessary it is for people to start considering the medium of storytelling that gameplay can allow. And that good writing, no matter what medium, will shine through.

  • FakeKisser

    Wow. I played all the way through Mark of the Ninja and never realized this! I did a non-lethal playthrough, and, at the end, my powers allowed me to not even be seen. So, I just assumed the guards were the same guards as before, and that was a sign that the leader was “in bed” with the “bad guys.” Therefore, I had no hesitation in killing him at the end (even though, at that point, I obviously knew that the girl was a hallucination).

  • FakeKisser

    Wow. I played all the way through Mark of the Ninja and never realized this! I did a non-lethal playthrough, and, at the end, my powers allowed me to not even be seen. So, I just assumed the guards were the same guards as before, and that was a sign that the leader was “in bed” with the “bad guys.” Therefore, I had no hesitation in killing him at the end (even though, at that point, I obviously knew that the girl was a hallucination).

  • FakeKisser

    Wow. I played all the way through Mark of the Ninja and never realized this! I did a non-lethal playthrough, and, at the end, my powers allowed me to not even be seen. So, I just assumed the guards were the same guards as before, and that was a sign that the leader was “in bed” with the “bad guys.” Therefore, I had no hesitation in killing him at the end (even though, at that point, I obviously knew that the girl was a hallucination).

  • FakeKisser

    Wow. I played all the way through Mark of the Ninja and never realized this! I did a non-lethal playthrough, and, at the end, my powers allowed me to not even be seen. So, I just assumed the guards were the same guards as before, and that was a sign that the leader was “in bed” with the “bad guys.” Therefore, I had no hesitation in killing him at the end (even though, at that point, I obviously knew that the girl was a hallucination).

  • FakeKisser

    Wow. I played all the way through Mark of the Ninja and never realized this! I did a non-lethal playthrough, and, at the end, my powers allowed me to not even be seen. So, I just assumed the guards were the same guards as before, and that was a sign that the leader was “in bed” with the “bad guys.” Therefore, I had no hesitation in killing him at the end (even though, at that point, I obviously knew that the girl was a hallucination).

  • FakeKisser

    Wow. I played all the way through Mark of the Ninja and never realized this! I did a non-lethal playthrough, and, at the end, my powers allowed me to not even be seen. So, I just assumed the guards were the same guards as before, and that was a sign that the leader was “in bed” with the “bad guys.” Therefore, I had no hesitation in killing him at the end (even though, at that point, I obviously knew that the girl was a hallucination).

  • FakeKisser

    Wow. I played all the way through Mark of the Ninja and never realized this! I did a non-lethal playthrough, and, at the end, my powers allowed me to not even be seen. So, I just assumed the guards were the same guards as before, and that was a sign that the leader was “in bed” with the “bad guys.” Therefore, I had no hesitation in killing him at the end (even though, at that point, I obviously knew that the girl was a hallucination).

  • FakeKisser

    Wow. I played all the way through Mark of the Ninja and never realized this! I did a non-lethal playthrough, and, at the end, my powers allowed me to not even be seen. So, I just assumed the guards were the same guards as before, and that was a sign that the leader was “in bed” with the “bad guys.” Therefore, I had no hesitation in killing him at the end (even though, at that point, I obviously knew that the girl was a hallucination).

  • FakeKisser

    Wow. I played all the way through Mark of the Ninja and never realized this! I did a non-lethal playthrough, and, at the end, my powers allowed me to not even be seen. So, I just assumed the guards were the same guards as before, and that was a sign that the leader was “in bed” with the “bad guys.” Therefore, I had no hesitation in killing him at the end (even though, at that point, I obviously knew that the girl was a hallucination).

  • FakeKisser

    Wow. I played all the way through Mark of the Ninja and never realized this! I did a non-lethal playthrough, and, at the end, my powers allowed me to not even be seen. So, I just assumed the guards were the same guards as before, and that was a sign that the leader was “in bed” with the “bad guys.” Therefore, I had no hesitation in killing him at the end (even though, at that point, I obviously knew that the girl was a hallucination).

  • Anonymous
  • http://twitter.com/ghilbrae Angela Rivera

    Great article, thank you! While I was playing Skyrim I was faced with this issues more than once, I wanted my character to be a hero, an heroic Nord, so when faced with difficult decisions I always chose the path I though was the legal good one. I realized that I was missing some of the fun by not joining The Dark Brotherhood or the Thieves Guild so I made another character (chaotic neutral). As I love RPGs for both characters I decided to role-play them as best I could and what I found was that I was not very happy when killing some people or when stealing things from my neighbours, I felt really troubled when I played my chaotic character. It was fun but troubling. As you have pointed out, I discovered something about myself.

  • Swami Rabbitima

    My last epiphany came when I was playing SWTOR. I had a Sith I was trying to play sort of like Judge Dredd (extremely tough but fair). Did the little morally questionable quests, staying more or less neutral with the Force (bad things took you to the Dark Side, of course). Won a Sith lightsaber at a lower level, then all of a sudden, the game tells me I don’t have enough “Dark Side” energy to use it. Quit the next day.

  • Anonymous

    I like adding my own moral obligations in when I play games. For example if there are civilians around I do my best to keep them from harm even if the game doesn’t care, Also if possible I will go beyond the requirements for a quest and free extra slaves, destroy more enemy materiel than requested, or kill more monsters, if it wouldn’t make sense for my character to just arbitrarily stop and leave behind the sixth slave (penny arcade did a comic on this exact subject) or whatever the objective is because I met the quota. Also Iji by Daniel Remar is an excellent example of morality choices in a game; not only does it change the dialog in the typical obvious ways, it actually changes the sounds that the player character makes when getting knocked down, kicking, etc… depending on how high your body count is. Plus it’s a really well done fun metroidvania type game.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, same here, I had chosen the Path of Silence and snuck by everyone without realizing they were ninjas. I still chose harakiri in the end, though, because the leader chose to lay down his life before me, and I couldn’t imagine any bad guy doing that, so I couldn’t bear to kill him.

  • FakeKisser

    Thanks for the reply, but I really enjoy hearing about other people’s interpretations. I really like how you interpreted the leader’s actions. I personally felt he was taunting me, as if to say, “You don’t have it in you to kill me.” That sort of thing. However, I can now totally see what you mean about the possible sincerity in his actions.

  • Anonymous

    I found this post because it was mentioned (favorably) in one of the “developers’ commentaries” included in the Special Edition version of the game. I agree–in my own playthrough, I was totally prepared to kill Azai at the end, right up until Ora said something like “and then we’ll have to cleanse the clan because they have no honor.” And I realized: I’m the one with no honor. I promised to kill myself when my mission was over, and now here I am preparing to murder what amounts to my whole extended family. I really have gone completely insane. And if that’s the case, then I can’t believe anything I’ve seen or been told throughout the game. I have no choice: I *have to* kill myself. It was pretty remarkable how the game managed to completely turn my view of events around entirely on my own, without drawing attention to it at all.