Do the Parameters of Video Games Absolve us of Moral Responsibility in Them?


The January 2016 issue of Ethics and Information Technology has an article by Christopher Bartel that examines the issue of free will in video games. Bartel basically argues that even if the constraints of a videogame limit your free will in certain ways, you can still be held morally responsible for your actions in the game, if you still wanted to do them. In other words, even if the game forces you to commit a certain action, that in itself does not excuse you, morally, at least in cases where you want to do the action anyway.

It’s an interesting distinction, and one that has me wondering where it does or does not apply. Consider the very controversial scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. In this scene, which can be skipped at no penalty to the player, you join Russian nationalists who are committing an act of terrorism at an international airport. It’s a gruesome scene, as the terrorists murder innocent people, and you must pretend to go along with this in order to pass the mission. Technically, you do not have to kill any of the civilians, but you also cannot stop the attack (without failing the mission).

Bartel discusses this scene in his paper, as an example of a no-win situation, morally speaking. Many players are uncomfortable with the mission because there is no way to make a morally good choice. However, since the game’s own parameters are what prevent the player from acting morally, one could argue that the player is not really responsible. If you simply stand there and do nothing, you will pass the mission without killing any innocents. This may make you uncomfortable, psychologically, but that was the point of the mission, according to the designers (see the link above). By not engaging in the brutal behavior, you’ve taken the best option you can in the context of the game (well, the best option might be to skip this level!).

But suppose you go along with the terrorists and murder the bystanders. They aren’t real people; they are video game representations. Still, if you feel a certain joy in partaking in a murder simulator, could you be said to be engaging in immoral behavior?

Following Harry Frankfurt’s view that there is a difference between being determined to act and being willing to act, Bartel suggests that the latter may be the important part, morally speaking. In other words, there may be situations where the outcome is pre-determined. There is nothing we can do to stop it. In the deterministic sense, we are not really responsible for such events. They happen regardless of what we actually do. But such acts could happen either with our will or against our will. As an obvious example, we will all die some day. This is determined. There are even cases where we know death is coming and cannot change it. However, how we react to this inevitability does say something about us. If someone we know is dying, and we are unhappy about it, this is different, at least psychologically, from being happy about it. The results are the same either way, but how we view it does say something about our character.

What it says exactly is a complex question, and depends greatly on the context. We might be happy that a loved one dies because we are glad that they are no longer suffering, or we might be happy because they were mean to us, or because they left us money. The first reason seems virtuous to some degree, while the other two are less so, and may even verge into vices if taken far enough.

Let’s take this back to video games now. In the Modern Warfare 2 example, you cannot stop the attack. But suppose you aid the terrorists and start shooting at the civilians. What does this say about you? Well, it depends on why you are doing it. Perhaps it’s just a game to you, and you think this is just how the game works. In other words, you’ve divorced yourself from seeing it as anything more than an active movie of sorts. You aren’t taking joy in murder as such, but rather in playing the game well. Maybe you are roleplaying. Your character is a spy, trying to infiltrate this group. Maybe you are trying to think of the greater good here, in some utilitarian way. I’m not a big fan of utilitarianism, but at least this would have some sort of morality behind the motive…I guess.

But suppose you just think it’s fun to murder people. Then your actions reflect something about your character here. And it’s not good (do I have to say that???).

The issue of whether video games cause violence or create bad habits is very complicated, much more than most people realize. Studies done on this are often flawed, and there really aren’t enough of them to make conclusions in either direction. But I think how people act in simulations can say something about who they are in real life. The problem is determining what it says exactly. I have no way of knowing why you are killing civilians in games like Modern Warfare 2, or GTAV. Even if you tell me, I can’t really get into the psychology of why you are doing something.

Still, I do think that there are ways that people can play video games that do expose them as being unvirtuous to some degree or another. The fact that some video gamers might be bad people won’t surprise anyone who has actually played any games online, especially if you have voice chat on. But Bartel’s article is more about the psychology behind our actions, as it manifests in relatively deterministic worlds. It’s an interesting question and one that will definitely have me rethinking my actions and motives as I play games in the future.

Pillars of Eternity and Abuse of the Power of Nobility


“All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” — Lord Acton

Like my other post on Pillars of Eternity, this will contain a specific example from the game, and is thus a spoiler. In such examples, I avoid using the main quest line. It’s possible that you will not follow this side quest, but it is rather easy to find and start. So be warned that you if you want to play the game without spoilers you should not read any further. This incident occurs in and around the village of Dyrford.

The setup for the quest is that a noble lord and his daughter were passing through the village on the way to a city. The lord says that he is hoping to find someone for his daughter to marry. Unfortunately, she has gone missing, and he suspects that she has been kidnapped. I immediately offer to help, of course, but as I ask around, I notice a few things are not adding up.

First, the noble is taking a rather circuitous route to his destination. There are easier paths, though this one is less likely to draw attention. The people in the village all dislike this lord very much and don’t really want to help me find the girl. The man’s servant doesn’t seem to know much about the girl, despite claiming that he’s been in service to the lord for years.

Further investigation finds that she seems to have run away rather than being kidnapped. However, the people that helped her seem a bit fishy too. Something is way off in this situation. The details are kind of fun, so I won’t spoil them, but eventually you learn that the girl in question is not the man’s daughter at all. She’s his niece, and (TRIGGER WARNING…seriously!), she’s pregnant with his child. Apparently, the lord’s own wife is unable to have a viable child (all of her children are hollowborn, which means they lack souls). In a last ditch effort to procreate, he forces himself on his own niece.

It’s a disgusting act, and as the player character, you are given the option of helping her enact revenge on the noble lord and thus expose the corruption of the noble class or stopping this plot. The revenge path has a high cost on everyone involved and will likely leave the young girl permanently broken (at best!). However, you are told that it will serve as a blow against the elite who abuse their power.

Of course, there are other ways you can deal with this problem. I chose to wipe the unfortunate girl’s memories and deal with her uncle myself. This seemed preferable to sacrificing her in the name of revenge. Still, I can’t help but wonder if hiding the truth from her was the right move. I sent her to a chapel, hoping that the priests there could help her start a new life. I wonder what will become of this poor woman.

These are the kind of quests that haunt you even after you complete them, and they are a big part of what makes Pillars of Eternity such an interesting game, if a bit dark at times.

Pillars of Eternity uses the Trolley Problem


In a previous post I mentioned that I really like how Obsidian Entertainment approaches ethics in their game, Pillars of Eternity. However, they are not content to rest on an excellent virtue ethics system that tracks how your character reacts to situations. They also present you with moral dilemmas that are often quite difficult to solve, or at least make you consider which choice is the right one.

Before I give a specific example, I need to point out that this post will contain spoilers for a particular quest in the game. It is not the main quest; so you might not even find this quest. However, it is not overly difficult to find. It takes place in Defiance Bay, in Act 2. So once you have finished with that area, then you can read this post (or if you don’t mind a spoiler for one side quest).

I won’t spoil the details that get you to this point, but it turns out that an acting troupe is luring various citizens into joining them in order to essentially create a snuff fil….err, play. In other words, they literally kill these people on stage in front of an audience. The underground theater’s patron is a lord in the city. When you confront him, he points out that he cannot help himself. He has a perverse desire to see people die. He is ashamed of it, but it is just who he is. In order to keep his desires in check, he tries to select people that will not be missed, or who are not particularly good people in the first place. Moreover, he tells you, he donates a lot of money to charities in order to balance out his wrongdoing. If you destroy him, those people will no longer be helped.

It’s a classic dilemma—a version of a thought experiment called the Trolley Problem.

The Trolley Problem presents a situation where a trolley driver looks ahead on the tracks and sees that there are five people stuck in some way to the main track. Luckily, there is an emergency side track that goes around these five people. The driver need only push a button to switch tracks. Unfortunately, there is a single person trapped on the side track. The question is: should he push the button?

Most people say that pushing the button is at least morally permissible. Some say that he should push the button and would be wrong not to do so. The calculation in either case is basically utilitarian. Killing one person is better than killing five.

Now consider another case. A world class surgeon has five patients in need of various transplants. They will die without them. The doctor has a separate patient who is perfectly healthy and has all of the organs needed by the other five patients. Assume that the doctor is so good that the surgery is (effectively) 100% likely to succeed. Should the surgeon be allowed to sacrifice the patient in order to save the other five?

Here, most people will say that the surgeon may not do this. Some people will say that the healthy patient could volunteer to die for the other five, but many people do not find even this acceptable. In any case, our intuition is that the surgeon cannot simply take the patient’s life.

Why doesn’t utilitarianism prevail here? Many answers have been suggested. Philipa Foote says that the difference between the two cases involves killing versus letting die. Killing five people in the trolley example is worse than letting five people die in the surgeon example. Judith Thompson, on the other hand, says the difference lies in rights versus utility. In the surgeon example, we would be violating the healthy patient’s rights by killing him or her. The five other people have no right to the healthy person’s organs. Of course, the single person on the train track also has the right not to be hit by a train. Unfortunately, in the trolley example, rights get violated either way, so you fall back on utility. Violating one person’s rights is better than violating five; the lesser of two evils, so to speak. However, in the surgeon case, rights can be respected, so they should be. In Thompson’s terminology, “rights trump utility.”

Whatever solution you prefer (even if it’s some other solution!), Pillars of Eternity is offering us a similar choice. We are asked to consider whether the good that the nobleman does somehow makes up for the lives that he is taking. If we are purely utilitarian, we might argue that he does so much good for the city that the loss of a few lives is outweighed by the good done. If we are deontologists (explained a bit in the second paragraph of this post), or if we simply believe that rights are inviolable, we might argue that rights should never be ignored in this way, no matter what good may come of it.

What’s interesting is that PoE gives us this option. You get to choose which approach to ethics you (or your character) prefers to take. Of course, in real life, you might just kill the guy, take all of his stuff, and donate it to the needy. Solve both problems! But that misses the point of the thought experiment. Besides, this example takes place in a fantasy world where some people literally have the power to cure the insane impulses of other people by using mind magic. If you want to break the example, just ask Obsidian why they don’t let one your characters simply fix the nobleman so we can have the best of everything!

But that would be unrealistic.