Video Game Ethics Part 1

This is a post that I’ve been meaning to write for a while, and it’s been one that has been intermittently on my mind depending on what game I’m currently working my way through. I’m currently playing something that’s brought this topic to mind quite strongly – Fallout: New Vegas – so now is as good a time as any to talk about the way that someone’s sense of ethics applies to games. I’m primarily going to talk about my own experiences with this, but I will go into some of the observations I’ve made watching others play games, and into some of the more cliche aspects of the way that players generally act within the worlds provided to them by games. But first, I want to set the scene for New Vegas, as – since it’s the game that’s re-sparked the desire to talk about this – I’ll be framing a fair bit of the discussion around it.

Fallout: New Vegas takes place in an alternate reality where culturally the world never left the ‘vibe’ of the 1950’s, but advanced scientifically at a rapid rate. Set in the year 2281 – over 200 years after the ‘Great War’, which left America (and by implication the rest of the world) scarred by the aftermath of the nuclear warheads that dominated the final hours of the war, leaving a wasteland in it’s wake – the player character wanders the open world that the game provides, learning to deal with the residual radiation, the scarcity of food, and the brutality of the societies that have sprung up in the aftermath (humans having survived in fallout shelters called ‘vaults’) in the wasteland surrounding Las Vegas (which, through the machinations of one of it’s leaders, survived the bombs). I could speak about the setting and various aspects of the game for the entire blog post, but I’ll just post this link to a wiki page for anyone interested in finding out more.

Since it’s a Role-playing Game (RPG), New Vegas allows you to create a character of your own, and shape them into whatever you want them to be over the course of the game. You start with no affiliations to any of the factions in the world (either major or minor), and very few skills and abilities. Over the course of the game, your decisions shape the world around you for good or ill, and by the end of the game you have brought one of the three main factions into complete control over Vegas and the Mojave – or destroyed them all, leaving total anarchy with you as the most dangerous person of them all. You meet a lot of people, some of whom will try to kill you, some of whom will help you if you stay friendly with them (or do something for them), and some who are happier to leave you be (as long as you give them the same courtesy). You are free to do whatever you wish to – most of the NPCs in this world are killable, anything that can be carried is there to take. There is a justice system (if it can be called that), but it requires someone seeing you commit a crime (theft or murder primarily), and it results in everybody in the area (or in the wider faction, if your relationship with them is poor enough) turning hostile and trying to kill you – which if you’ve spent any time leveling any combat skill isn’t too much of a hassle for the player if they know what they’re doing (as somewhat demonstrated here and here), and especially once they’ve passed the half-way point of the game.

A lot of people I know would criticize a game that gives anyone this kind of freedom – to essentially be a sociopath with little consequences (the lack of places to sell items and buy ammo would be the only…..oh wait, there’s an unkillable merchant who will sell you stuff no matter what….never mind) – and there are certainly people who would play using that mentality. I can’t talk about them, however, since I have never felt comfortable playing that way, and there aren’t many people who actually own up to that sort of play-style anyway. There is one person I know of who played through a previous Fallout game without killing a single creature (with the exception of the one you need to for the combat tutorial), which he documented here – it wasn’t a completely non-violent play-through (which I don’t think it would be possible to do), but his character’s hands ended up being completely unsullied by blood, human or otherwise.

My personal play-style involves putting myself into the characters shoes, and making decisions the way that I would if I was in that situation. I only kill human characters if they attack me first, or if combat is otherwise unavoidable – companion characters are problematic (one of them attacks members of the faction they hate on sight, others run off to attack anything hostile that they detect, even if the hostiles haven’t seen us yet), and it’s always a possibility that I could fail a skill check that avoids fighting. I’ve sided with the main faction that is the least questionable about their methods (when they get around to actually doing things, they’re bureaucratic to a fault). My character does steal occasionally, but only rarely is it truly theft (i.e. the owners are still alive), and there are some fairly decent reasons to do what the game considers theft (i.e. After stumbling upon a base owned by a faction that hated me – the one in direct opposition to the main faction I have joined – they all attacked me, and I felt that taking their equipment – which in all fairness, they weren’t using anymore – was fair in exchange for all the grief they had given me). I help others with their problems rather than just demand that they give me what I want – or take it by force or theft (both of which can be possible solutions to problems). In short, I carry my own ideas and concepts of what is wrong or right – which in themselves are informed by my relationship with Christ – into the game with me – slightly modified to match the setting, but there all the same.

So this post went a little long (over 1000 words), and I’m not quite finished taking about what I wanted to say…..looks like this will be part one of two then. Next week I’ll talk a bit more broadly about this, move away from just the one game….until then, God bless.


One response to “Video Game Ethics Part 1

  1. Pingback: Video Game Ethics Part 2 | Freelancing for the Kingdom

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