Siobhan Keogh is the NZ Herald's gaming blogger.

Siobhan Keogh: Real-world morality, in-game decisions

Siobhan Keogh wonders if your moral compass changes in the gaming world.
inFamous: Second Son tests your moral compass.
inFamous: Second Son tests your moral compass.

I recently came face-to-face with exactly how much my real-world morality has an influence on how I play games.

On the surface, recent PlayStation release inFamous: Second Son - a game where you play as a super-powered man called Delsin - has a pretty straight-forward morality system: you either make the good, selfless, caring decision or the bad, selfish and cruel one. Many critics have suggested that the game would be improved by some moral ambiguity. While I agree to some extent, I also think that you, the player, are the thing that makes this fairly ordinary morality system more complex and interesting.

I say this because, when I first booted up the game, I had already decided what I was going to do. Having played previous inFamous games, I knew that I could either be good or evil. And I was going to be evil. I wanted the darkest, most destructive powers. I wanted to destroy buildings and rain fiery hell down on the city of Seattle. That, I told myself, would be more fun than playing as the everyman.

Things didn't go to plan. When confronted with the first big decision, I just couldn't bring myself to do something so horrible - even in character, and even in a video game. It tugged on my real-world heartstrings, and as a result I wound up playing through the whole game as a good guy.

Which is a shame, because when I saw my co-op buddy finish the game with the evil ending, I thought it was much, much more awesome.

As games get more and more narrative-driven, they increasingly play on our morality. For some reason, we all feel like we have to make the right decisions to please or even impress the characters in games, just like we do in real life. It feels bizarre to me - after all, the character doesn't actually care - they aren't real.

But when I play a game like inFamous or Spec Ops: The Line or BioShock - hell, even a weird love triangle game like Catherine - I do care. It's weird how much I care, and how much sensitivity I treat the playable character's friends and family with.

It's all contextual, however. When I play silly games, like Dragon's Dogma, I may or may not enjoy doing things such as throwing important characters off of cliffs, just because I can.

And anyone who doesn't have a good relationship with my character? Well, they're fair game, even if they seem like they're okay people. When I played Skyrim I frequently saved so that I could go on rampages around villages, slicing anyone who talked about arrows and knees to shreds.

When I rebooted the game, I did it not because I felt any guilt or remorse, but because I didn't actually want to be attacked by the town guards for the rest of my game.

I can't think of too many games that play on this double-standard we have when playing - the way our morality shifts when we perceive a character as an 'other'. It's a clear reflection of society's real-world attitudes, particularly toward war, that we think nothing of killing countless people in video games just because we're told they're bad.

One example, though, is Spec Ops: The Line, which starts off playing like a regular military shooter and slowly evolves into an insane, near-psychedelic examination of the moral choices we make when we play games. The gameplay itself is mediocre, but as a concept it's something quite remarkable. It impressed critics so much that Australian game journalist Brendan Keogh (no relation to yours truly) wrote a book-length analysis of it called Killing is Harmless.

While I enjoy seeing the mirror held up to my own moral standards in video games, not much has changed since I played Spec Ops.

Even though I played through as 'good' Delsin in inFamous, the double-standard was still in play. While you're given the option of restraining enemies instead of killing them, you're unlikely to get all the way through the game without an accidental death. Did I feel bad about it? A little. Did I think about their potential wives, husbands and families? How they were just trying to make a living and protect the innocent?

Nah, not really.

* Do you think there is a difference between morality in the gaming world compared to the real world?

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Siobhan Keogh is the NZ Herald's gaming blogger.

Siobhan Keogh has been playing video games for almost as long as she's been able to read. Her passion for games started with Sonic the Hedgehog and Alex Kidd in Miracle World, grew when she discovered the Final Fantasy series as a teenager, and became near-obsessive when she worked as games editor for PC World magazine. She'll play almost every kind of game there is, from shooters to strategies to adventure games to Peggle, on any platform she can get her hands on. Her love of games isn't limited to the screen - she also plays both board and card games on the tabletop. When she's not gaming, she's tweeting lame jokes about games on Twitter. Occasionally she takes a breather from that and talks about running and fitness instead. Siobhan works as community manager for New Zealand's largest locally-owned technology company, but her views on gaming are her own.

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