4 Lessons of Moral Theology in RPGs

E3, essentially the biggest and most anticipated yearly video game entertainment conference, carried a lot of weight this year. Not only did they introduce several new games like they do every year, but this year marked the beginning of the newest generation of consoles the Xbox One and the PS4 (and to some smaller extent the Wii U). But I was only looking for details on one game currently in development: Dragon Age 3

It makes me joyfully sob in anticipation.

The world of video games is an excellent one for showing a person’s true intentions. It’s a completely immersive environment that lacks accountability. Where Plato would argue through his character Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic that man is only ethical because of a fear of punishment, choice-based video games test the true virtues of a man in an environment that seems to have no real world repercussions.

Ultimately, these games show us a lot about ourselves, our decision making skills, and how we react to conflict. Here are some of the lessons I think these games teach us about morality.

4. It’s Hard to Be Good

I remember playing my first choice-based/morality video game called Fable. In the world of Fable, your morality changed your appearance. If you were good, you started to take on a heavenly glow and wore a halo above your head. If you were bad, you got flies and glowing red eyes.


Courtesy Fable Wikia

One of the things I observed quickly in this game was how hard it is to be good. You have to be deliberate to be good and evil actions just come naturally. Accidentally eat something you shouldn’t? Evil Points. Want to follow a specific quest all the way through? Evil points. To be good in the Fable universe a character had to jump through several hoops, abstain from almost anything, and give incredibly large amounts to charity just to be classified as slightly morally good. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that you are utterly depraved and absolutely evil. It’s super easy to be neutral (or slightly evil/good) and remain lukewarm throughout the entire game never fully achieving all there is to achieve. It’s much more difficult to choose a side and keep it.

This ties into real world experience of complacency. We have examples of this in the secular psychological world such as diffusion of responsibility. This phenomena manifests itself when you’re in a crowd of people, you’re less like to take responsibility for action or inaction like calling 911 if someone has a heart attack in front of you. No, it doesn’t happen to everyone, but it happens to many.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, we’re warned in Zephaniah 1:12-13, “At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the men who are complacent, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill.’ Their goods shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste. Though they build houses, they shall not inhabit them; though they plant vineyards, they shall not drink wine from them.””.  In the New Testament, Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:3-4, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

It’s much easier to be complacent than take real action.

3. Your Actions have Real Consequences

One of the true appeals of games like Dragon Age is the idea that the decisions the gamer makes in the game affects the outcome of the plot. For example, the DA series has several different conflicts going on at all times. There are instances of racism (Elves are slaves and humans have the highest prestige), classism (noblemen get special treatment), and sexism (the female warden’s changes in dialogue). Perhaps the biggest conflict however is between mages and non-mages. Mages are seen as dangerous because they could be possessed by demons, so a group of soldiers lock them in a tower for their ‘safekeeping’. With all these conflicts going on, you, the lead character, are forced to make some difficult decisions that affect a lot of people.

Perhaps the most prominent game consequences I can think of is in the game, Dishonored. You are Corvo, the Royal Protector, and it is your job to get the Empress’s daughter back from the bad guys. If you had little regard for subterfuge and you racked up a huge body count, your ending was drastically different that if you were a bit more covert and worked for a more peaceful resolution.

(Warning: those linked videos have some violent content.)

While some might have you believe that ethics only truly matter if there is no victim (i.e. issues of morality are inconsequential), Paul in Galatians argues otherwise. “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” Galatians 6:7

2. You will be Forced to Choose

At the climax of the second installment of Dragon Age, your character had to choose whether to side with the Templars, effectively giving a death sentence to all the mages, OR side with the mages, effectively releasing a plague of dangerous mages on the public. That’s it. No third option. No truce you could form. You could turn your console off, but the decision would always be there to come back to whenever you started up the game again.


Oh it’s cool. We’ll wait for you to come back from the bathroom. Courtesy of Spinskville via WordPress

I am very much a victim of our open option culture. I like to have as many options as I can have and loathe having to make a choice with deep consequences. I have a tendency to want to avoid conflict and avoid making difficult decisions that could potentially not turn out right. Games like these can force you to make a final decision that’s not always as black and white as you had hoped and teaches you that life isn’t always so clear.

1. Your Can’t Please Everyone

One of my greatest irritations (!) in the Dragon Age franchise is the inability to please everyone. I am a horrible people-pleaser and while it is an aspect that I’m working on, it manifests itself in video games like this:

Option A: Say Yes and lose respect from Companion A and Companion B.Option B: Say No and lose respect from Companion C and Companion D.
Option C: Throw controller at screen and sob uncontrollably.

Not only does your character in DA have to be morally right and chose the most strategic options, but he/she also has to somewhat please his/her companions to keep them around long enough to finish the quests. I found myself making a lot of not-so-great decisions just because my favorite companion disagreed with the decision for purely superficial reasons.

It’s incredibly revealing about our personalities and ethics to think that we wouldn’t make the right decision because a companion disapproved, no?

Overall, I think games have a long way to go when it comes to morality. I think they need to show how morality is much more deeply consequential than most make it seem. I look forward to more games that give players moral choices, and I hope it leads to a deeper understanding of morality.

What do you all think?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s