Videogames and morality – separating fact and fiction

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A recently published study in the journal of Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking suggests most videogame players are governed by the same moral codes they apply to real life.

But there are a whole host of problems with any attempt to link the actions players take in videogames with real-life situations.

At the heart of the new study is the claim players treat videogames like the real world, with the implication that actions they take within the game will reflect the moral code they follow outside of it.

This finding is based on observing a group of college students playing through the opening act of the post-apocalyptic, open-world, roleplaying game Fallout 3, with the researchers focusing on how players dealt with situations and opportunities presented by the game.

The participants’ actions during gameplay were compared to answers they’d given to a morality questionnaire before playing the game – disguised, of course, so as not to influence them to play the game with morality already in mind.

During the section of Fallout 3 these college students played, the player-character is given a delicious treat, a sweetroll, at their tenth birthday party, which another child then tries to bully them into handing over (see video and image below).

The player is offered a number of potential responses including surrendering the sweetroll, fighting the bully, or insulting the bully’s mother. It’s easy to see why observing players’ responses to a scenario like this would appeal to researchers.

It seems ironic that after the effort of disguising the morality questionnaire, the researchers had participants play a section of Fallout 3 that features an in-game questionnaire, which itself includes questions that are clearly focused on morality.

This seems a trivial oversight, but many other issues that might be raised about the study’s methodology go back to its fundamental claims about how people relate to explicitly fictional scenarios.

Though the study’s conclusions seem to reflect positively on videogame players by suggesting they don’t abandon their moral codes when playing a game, in many respects this is really the same old argument about players being unable to distinguish reality from fantasy.

It’s still engaging in the discourse of moral panic around videogames, even if it seems like it’s opposing the panic.

The study links participants’ application of real-world morality to the game with the concept of suspension of disbelief, suggesting this means players accept the game’s world and characters as real, and act accordingly.

However, this concept is more accurately known as willing suspension of disbelief– the choice we make when we read Harry Potter novels or watch Batman movies to accept their fictional premises for at least as long as it takes the story to be told.

In the case of Fallout 3, this includes accepting the player-character can give up their sweetroll and see what happens, but then the player can reload the game and try another option. Willing suspension of disbelief is only possible if the audience is fully aware of the distinction between fact and fiction, and that awareness makes this study’s conclusions problematic.

There are any number of reasons players might choose to apply real-world morality to videogames, especially in this study. Players unfamiliar with Fallout 3 might be unaware of opportunities to act otherwise within the fairly structured section they played.

The study suggests the in-game training on controls and game mechanics provided in this section of the game negated the need for a separate familiarisation session. But this also means players might not have wanted to risk disrupting the instructions being given. Without a good knowledge of how the game and its systems might react to immoral actions, players might just default to a real-world moral code.

But even for those familiar with the game, how they approach its fictional premises, and exactly how they negotiate that willing suspension of disbelief can vary widely.

Fallout 3 includes an explicit morality mechanic called Karma – a score that changes depending on the player’s actions. “Good” actions – such as disarming a nuclear warhead in a heavily populated town – will earn the player Karma, while “bad” actions – such as detonating that same warhead (see video above) – will result in lost Karma.

Importantly, the game notifies players when they have gained or lost Karma, making it clear how the game’s morality system judges their actions. Among other effects, a player’s Karma score will determine how friendly and helpful other characters in the gameworld are.

With game mechanics such as Karma, even ostensibly moral and socially acceptable actions can be motivated by a self-interested desire to “game” the system. Given Fallout 3’s place in the role-playing game genre, players might decide their player-character is a virtuous do-gooder, for whom performing immoral actions would be out-of-character.

A player very familiar with other similar games produced by Fallout 3’s developer Bethesda Game Studios – games such as Oblivion or Morrowind – might even recognise the sweetroll situation as a callback to these earlier games, and approach it as an in-joke not to be taken seriously.

The study’s conclusion signals the utility of videogames as a way of studying moral choice, and suggests avenues of further inquiry. But even this exploratory study takes an overly simplistic approach to how players relate to the fiction of videogames.

If further research is to actually examine how videogame players make moral decisions, it will first have to deal, in a more sophisticated way, with this fundamental question of how players relate to games.

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