Morality as fashion February 9, 2006Posted by joshg in mainstream games, morality & ethics.
If someone was to ask for a game that deals with morality, the avid gamer might come up with a few off the top of their head. Games like Black and White, for example.
In Black and White, the player acts the part of a small-scale deity, and becomes known as either a good or evil god through their actions. (If that offends you as someone who takes the topic a bit more seriously, I sympathize; but please do read on anyway.) A player who treats villagers and their pet well is recognized as Good, and their lands are filled with bright skies, flowers, etc. Those who abuse their minions and emphasize destruction and punishment are labelled Evil, and their lands become dark, shadowy places (perfect for an afternoon of deep brooding).
Many reviewers and gamers took this as an example of expressing morality within the context of a game. I used to myself, until someone pointed out this problem: the game has no moral message at all.
Good and evil are presented as opposing sides to choose from, but the game presents both sides as equally acceptable. Your “conscience” is presented as two characters, a white angelic-but-cute old man and a black-red creepy-but-cute chubby devil. They tell you, “We’re your conscience.” That’s both of them together, not the good conscience vs. the evil temptor.
Perhaps more importantly, there are no negative consequences for choosing evil. Oh, you’ll get a tsk-tsk from the good side of your conscience, but there’s nothing that catches up with you in the end for doing wrong along the way. The game is designed to be equally playable as either good or evil, with tradeoffs and challenges either way. Which is fine, from a game design perspective, but it certainly isn’t portraying a reality with a moral message.
One could argue that being morally indifferent can actually be a message, and I would agree. (Not a message I’m very fond of, but a message nonetheless.) However, I find it hard to believe that Lionhead Studios, the makers of the game, are consciously promoting this message through their game. The game doesn’t take itself all that seriously, and the goal seems to be simply to let people have fun expressing themselves while playing however they want to play.
None of this is to say that there aren’t other interesting lessons we can learn from Black and White in terms of portraying faith. While it’s decidedly neutral on issues of morality, it demonstrates other ways to turn theological issues into gameplay mechanics. But I’ll leave that topic for another day.
Next we’ll look at a game series that began with the morality-as-personality-test mentality, but then took a turn towards something more.