Some Video Game Companies that Try to Include Ethics

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(image is from Enderal; image owned by GameStar.de)

Everybody loves lists, right? In planning out the future for this blog, I’ve been thinking about the various companies that try to incorporate ethics into their games, in a very willful way. I’ll admit from the start that I tend to think about RPGs when I think about morality in gaming, but that’s a bit unfair. Lots of games try to incorporate ethical decision-making.

So here’s a list of companies that I think are making a genuine effort to include some examination of ethics/morality in their games. The order is a bit arbitrary, but those at the start of the list are the names I thought of first, which means I more strongly associate them with intentionally dealing with ethical issues.

  1. Bioware- Bioware has been at the forefront of trying to bring into video games more of what makes tabletop games great. Back in 1998, when Baldur’s Gate was released, you could really tell that Bioware was trying to transport D&D to the computer. Yes, games like the Ultima series had included virtues, and several of the Might and Magic games asked you to choose between light and dark. But Baldur’s Gate felt like you were playing a classic module. It gave you dialog options that ranged from heroically noble to selfishly petty, and there were consequences for your choices.

Unfortunately, Bioware tends to present ‘evil’ or ‘immoral’ choices as being a selfish jerk. One of the problems that video games have, when compared to tabletop games, which are much more open-ended, is that the programming limitations mean that your choices will be limited. You can’t allow complete open freedom in choice making and still have consequences for each available choice. So if you want to play a monk that has been broken by the world and decides that it would be a better place if he took over everything, you probably can’t, unless that’s the actual plot of the game. This will be true even in open world games, which leads to the next company!

  1. Bethesda- Way back in 1994, a game called Elder Scrolls: Arena was released, which allowed your character to walk for miles across a seemingly endless world. Daggerfall took this a step further, and Bethesda continued to tighten each game in the series while adding more and more depth. Bethesda builds worlds for you to explore, and those worlds allow you to create characters that can be as ethical or unethical as you want. Once they took over the Fallout series, they took these choices even further, allowing you to either a savior of the wasteland, or just another mercenary taking advantage of everyone around you. There aren’t many games that allow you to nuke an entire town; but Bethesda created one of them! As an aside, doing so isn’t really ethical.

In the latest Elder Scrolls game, Skyrim, you can start a family, build a house, have cities like or dislike you, etc. The same is true in Fallout 4, which includes all sorts of choices in the quests, factions to join or annoy, etc. Bethesda is one of my favorite gaming companies right now, because their approach to world building draws me in like no other RPGs out there. I love what they are trying to do, and I love the fact that they get closer to achieving their goal of placing players in a living world with every iteration of their products.

If you want a nice bonus, check out the Enderal total conversion, which takes Skyrim and creates an entire new world, with new gods, a cost for doing certain magics, and a lot more philosophical thought than you tend to find in Skyrim. It’s still heavily about exploration, but they reward that pretty heavily by basing skills on finding books that enable you to raise your abilities. This one has some interesting world building and decision making and is well worth checking out. Plus, it’s free! It is NOT made by Bethesda, however. It’s made by a company called SureAI, and is thus an indie project, essentially. Probably has some bugs, though it’s been solid for me so far.

  1. Obsidian- Since I’m only looking at current studios, including Obsidian allows me to capture a bit of what made Black Isle and Troika so great as well. Obsidian is at their best when building on existing games and taking them a step further. Two games really exemplify this: Fallout: New Vegas and Pillars of Eternity. The former took the Fallout engine that Bethesda created and added a real sense of a thriving world. There were factions that cared about whom you helped and whom you hindered.

The latter (PoE) built a brand new Infinity Engine style game and crafted a new world to go with it. The writing is superb, with characters who ask deep questions about religion and philosophy, and others who twist those questions in horrid ways (looking at you, Durance!). Obsidian deserves a ton of credit for understanding how to make worlds more immersive by having your actions affect the game itself. Unfortunately, they have a reputation of releasing buggy products, a problem that likely led to the downfall of Troika games, which made classics like Vampire: Bloodlines and Arcanum, both of which allowed you to try different playstyles and make different choices that would affect the game.

There are other companies out there that are trying to incorporate ethical decisions into their games. These are my top three, but a lot of independent studios are stretching the boundaries here as well. If you have other publishers/developers that you think are doing a good job of this sort of thing, let me know in the comments!

Colin Kaepernick Continues the Conversation

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(above image belongs to the NY Daily News)

San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick has received a lot of heat since he decided not to stand during the singing of the Anthem in honor of the U.S. flag. The move was symbolic, meant to show Kaepernick’s frustration with the continued racial injustices that face African Americans and other minorities in the United States. Here are his words on the subject:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” (NFL.com link)

Despite the criticism that he received, Kaepernick continued his protest in the very next preseason game, this time kneeling instead of sitting, but still refusing to stand in honor of the flag and the country it represents. Fans at the game booed him, but he stood (knelt?) his ground.

In the days since these protests, the internet has been torn over what Kaepernick is trying to do. On one side, critics slammed the young quarterback, accusing him of being ungrateful to the country that allows him to be paid millions of dollars to play football. On the other side, many people (including many veterans) cited freedom of speech/protest as a core American value, which means that Kaepernick should have the right to protest the Anthem and the Flag. Many of his colleagues in the NFL chose sides, often arguing over Twitter.

I have written a few articles on this site that look at problems of race in video games, tabletop games, and our society. Obviously, then, I agree with Mr. Kaepernick that there are plenty of problems with the ways in which minorities are treated in the U.S. Is this the way to address those problems? I don’t think I can answer that question.

When we tell people that they aren’t protesting the right way, or that their approach to solving injustices is not the right approach, we are often guilty of tone-policing. Tone-policing happens when instead of listening to the message that someone is trying to convey, you focus on the tone with which they convey it. This can happen during an argument, when you might say to your spouse, “Maybe if you stopped yelling at me, I would listen to you!” In reality, that person has probably resorted to yelling because you were not properly listening when they tried to communicate their issues in another way. Most people do not enjoy yelling at another person.

Similarly, I strongly doubt that Kaepernick enjoys having fans boo him, or even enjoys that he’s feeling so much disappointment in his country that he cannot bring himself to honor its flag. Those who do not follow the NFL are probably unaware of just how tenuous the life of an NFL Quarterback can be. Unless you are truly elite, like a Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or Cam Newton type QB, you are constantly playing for your job. Kaepernick is no exception. The 49ers have paid him a lot of money, but he is not a guaranteed starter, and calling this kind of attention to himself is not doing himself any career favors.

So here we have a man who feels so strongly that his country needs to be changed, in fundamental ways, that he is unwilling to engage in the ritualized saluting of the Flag. We should consider what would lead someone to do this before we move to condemn his actions. For most of us, the flag represents a combination of many things. It’s a symbol of liberty, yes, but it’s also a representation of our society. We are taught to love the Flag, as we are taught to love our country, because it helps protect us and has allowed us the opportunities that we enjoy. But what if you looked at the Flag and it reminded you that millions of people, just like you in some fundamental sense, were not being granted the same opportunities? Would you still salute it? Should we automatically salute the Flag, just for being the Flag?

I am a white, cisgender, hetero-normative, male. I am reasonably attractive, by most standards, well educated, from a middle class family. This has opened doors for me, and even in those times when it has not, it has never closed doors to me, much less locked them. I have not experienced people in authority looking at me suspiciously because of the color of my skin. I have not had to defend my attraction to other people, or my way of life, or anything else that is fundamental to who I am as a person.

As a result, I cannot fully imagine what it is like to be in Kaepernick’s shoes, where he sees a bit of himself every time he sees a minority incarcerated, beaten, shot, or simply treated with less than the normal respect that most of us take for granted. But I’m willing to try. So let’s put ourselves in his shoes for a moment. Yes, he has a lot of money, and he personally has benefited from the extraordinary athletic gifts that he possesses both naturally and as a result of his hard work. Despite all of that, he knows some people will always see him as inferior, because of the color of his skin. He also knows that minorities that have not hit the NFL lottery in the way that he has must face prejudice every single day.

But he has a platform. The eyes of the nation are upon him. They want him to shut up and play football. They don’t want to hear about his political views, unless they are safe views (e.g. “Everyone should vote!” or “I just think we should all be nice to each other!”). He’s asked to pretend that nothing is wrong, to be thankful that he was given what he has been given, even as others continue to be oppressed.

Is it really a surprise that he might balk at this role? Kaepernick is not calling on people to riot. He’s not inciting violence. This is about as peaceful of a protest as one can make. Another, more famous quarterback, Tom Brady, has apparently been silently protesting the power of the NFL over his life for the whole preseason. I doubt that he will get anything but support, as others agree that the NFL might be abusing its power. From Kaepernick’s perspective, the issue of racial inequality is not being fixed quickly enough, and he does not want to celebrate a country that has this fundamental flaw.

Kaepernick is exercising a fundamental right that is protected by the First Amendment. When politicians suggest that he should leave the country, they are missing the point that this protest is about making the country accountable. Whether I agree or disagree with how he goes about this isn’t really relevant. It’s not for me to agree. What I know is that he has gotten a conversation started, or perhaps he is continuing an ongoing, but much needed conversation. Either way, I definitely support that.