Retronauts did an episode last year about morality in videogames. They described a bunch of RPGs and their various “morality systems”. Ultima IV increased your compassion stat if you paid blind traders over the odds; Knights of the Old Republic moved a slider towards the light side if you saved a village from a tyrannous gang; Mega Man Legends turned your armour black if you kicked puppies. That kind of thing.
For a blast of vague topicality, let’s throw in The Witcher (2007). It’s topical because even though it’s seven years old, I’m not the only one talking about it. At least I wouldn’t have been if I’d written this before Kateri, on her Falling Awkwardly blog, finished her satirical bonking diary of it this week. [EDIT: It’s not finished! Sorry!] What’s the morality system in The Witcher? Well, it doesn’t have a system of moral variables like the games above, but it does manage to be morally objectionable.
But how does The Witcher cause more of a moral stir than the others, without even having a stat for objectionableness?
How can videogames embody a moral stance at all?
I have two points here. First, stipulating that a variable corresponds to moral goodness, and then having actions in game adjust that variable, does not in itself constitute a moral stance about the actions performed (or portrayed). For example, if I have a stat for “goodness” and that stat is increased by clubbing seals, is my game advocating clubbing seals? Not necessarily, I will argue.
Second, following from that, the fact that The Witcher presents ladycards for schtoinking women and other females as if they’re just collectibles doesn’t in itself constitute an endorsement of the view that women are collectibles to be schtoinked.
The idea of encoding morality into games with stats and points is very videogamey. It’s a schema for interaction, which other media can’t really do. But simply setting up a schema doesn’t carry any moral weight, and to embody a moral stance requires a rhetorical context — in games just as in works in any media.
“Moral variables have no moral weight.” Discuss.
Back to my seal-clubbing game. Actually, I’m thinking of The Politically Incorrect Adventures of Gewt Ningrich (1997), an actual seal-clubbing game I played at school. That game didn’t have a stat for “moral goodness”, but it required the player to club seals to progress. Is that advocating seal-clubbing, if it’s the only thing players can do? No, it was satire. It was presented as a comedic work. If I added my “moral goodness” counter to the game, would that change? No, it wouldn’t. The rhetorical context of the game is the same: it’s still satirical.
Stipulating that something in a game is morally good doesn’t make it morally good. You can’t code goodness. It looks a lot like a Humean “is-ought problem”: an unjustified jump from non-normative code to a normative assertion.
This idea can help us make sense of The Witcher’s moral stance.
Is this is where you defend The Witcher?
Let’s take the idea of morality coming from context and not being encoded in a game and do something interesting with it. Bear with me for a little bit while I defend The Witcher. Stay calm: this is just an exercise.
You object to the ladycards. You don’t simply look at the cards themselves and say, “These are morally bad”. Rather, the cards are a kind of currency of goodness. You see them as an endorsement of the actions taken to achieve them. In short, you think there’s a reward — in the form of ladycards — for objectionable thinking in this game.
But what is the value of that reward? The card’s just a receipt for committing the act you committed. If that’s a bad act, then those cards are bad things. If you think you need them — if you consider them a reward — then that says more about you than it does about the game.
Haha! Checkmate! You’re the pervert! Printing the cards out and putting them in binders was never CD Projekt’s idea anyway.
You scramble for an alternate approach. The Witcher offends, you say, by associating immoral acts (as judged externally to the game) with material benefits, as defined within the game. In effect, we are presented with a bad universe where bad people consistently get good things.
But that still doesn’t get you there. Saying “imagine a bad universe” is not the same as endorsing a bad universe or wishing the real universe were configured that way. Describing something bad is not the same as taking a moral stance — and it certainly isn’t the same as taking a stance in favour of the bad thing described.
Well why is The Witcher so bloody objectionable then, Poindexter?
Let’s imagine that The Witcher is a morally good work, advocating goodness. (I know, but just imagine.)
If we’re to say The Witcher is morally good despite its bad universe then we have to say that the audience is intended — or at least free — to respond disapprovingly to the bad universe it presents, because that’s what good people do. Our response doesn’t need to be coded into the system of the game: we don’t need a “disapprove” button. The stance the game takes is in the response it allows its audience to have.
For example, if there were some hint that any character in the game, or even just the writers of the game, resisted, even internally, the badness of their universe then our theory would hold up. If we saw the hero Gorlath sigh heavily at an opportune moment in the final cutscene, for instance, or if we saw a sign that despite the complete absence of reward, good people carried on doing good things, or if there was even just some ominous music over the credits letting us think that the world presented was indeed a dystopia and we’re expected to dislike it, then we would have room to make this interpretation.
But we don’t get that.
Haha! Checkmate, you sexist pig!
No! I'm not giving up in my defence of this game! I will leave no avenue unexplored. OK, so we don’t get a condemnation — or even a subtle sign of disapproval — of the bad universe, but neither do we really get a fanfare or a celebration of it. The game is morally neutral. If you collect the cards and print them out and make binders of them all (can’t believe she actually did that) then that’s up to you. If you need the game to say “Tut tut and that is bad, isn’t it everyone? Boooo!" then you’re the one lacking in moral calibre, since you’re unable to reach that response for yourself.
But this defence gets nowhere. When there is a moral issue on the table — especially if, as the designer of a game, you put it on the table — then you can’t not have a response to it. Whatever you do next, including choosing to do nothing, is your response. And inaction and non-objection are not acceptable responses to a bad universe you told everyone to imagine.
Can you just wake me up when you agree with me?
And that explains why the The Witcher is bad, and how any game can be bad. Notice that this wasn’t anything very videogamey. It’s the same way works in other media can be good or bad. And that point takes us back to the beginning of the discussion.
We started with this “morality system” model where we wondered if we could just code morality into our game world because games are interactive. That breaks down, but it doesn’t leave games without moral weight. Artistic works have always carried moral significance, and games can have all of that practised history of moral rhetoric for free. So of course The Witcher takes a moral stance, and of course it’s one about the worth of women and who is and who isn’t entitled to be a bearer of sexual agency. I haven’t gone into discussion of whether that stance is wrong and bad: hopefully we’re all in agreement there.
I understand now: games have nothing new to offer as moral works
Whoa, whoa! OK, look, there may be other ways. When we engage with things, we naturally form our own responses to them. Since the nature of engagement with games is different to other media, I’m sure there are differences in how we respond. Some games have probably explored that already in really clever ways of which I’m just ignorant. All I’m saying is that good and evil are not just another dimension to plug into the game engine like mass, luminosity, gravity, or UV rays hitting the cartridge or something. It can be assigned a variable, but that variable can’t carry moral weight in virtue of being labelled “goodness”.
I get the feeling I’ll be coming back to the topic of morality in games at some point. Until then, if you want to swot up then I have stuff on the meaning of game controls and narrative rhetoric compared to procedural rhetoric.
But before that, do make sure you’ve read Kateri’s Witcher diaries.
[Addendum: For those who came in via The Game Critique’s Twitter link, thanks for reading to the end! I don’t think his unfavourable appraisal of this post is wildly misplaced, although I do think it’s flattering to me to suggest I made the same point as Kateri. Why not take a look at my browse page and try a different post? All the others are really good, I promise.]