Is gambling immoral

Moral decisions in games

published by Martin Lorber on March 03, 2011

A viewer can get annoyed about a movie hero who makes immoral decisions - you can't change the situation. A character's thought processes can be represented very vividly in novels - but one can only ask hypothetically how one would act in such a situation. Video games, especially role-playing games, have developed better and better so-called moral systems in recent years, which allow good and bad actions by the player and at the same time show the consequences of the same. But what are these systems? How have the games developed in terms of moral decisions in recent years? And how do they affect the player?

"In morality, as in art, speaking means nothing, action means everything."
Ernest Renan, The Life of Jesus

Marcus Schulzke, who published an article on moral systems in games in the International Journal of Computer Game Research, sees games with freedom of choice as a kind of moral training ground. Various actions can be tried without having to fear consequences in the real world. In the game, however, the consequences are always clear.

Development and expression of moral systems in various games

The pen and paper system Dungeons and Dragons is widely regarded as a pioneer for computer role-playing games. To a certain extent, it has also laid the foundation for moral systems - albeit in a much less complex form than is the case today. When creating characters, you can decide which alignment a character should have. Whether the character behaves well or badly, morally or immorally, is primarily determined by this selection - individual actions no longer seriously change the attitude. Nevertheless: Even here, players were confronted with the decision of “good” and “bad”.

At the end of the 90s, Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II gave the player the choice between “good” and “bad” actions and - most importantly - also showed noticeable effects of his actions. As is typical of Star Wars, the player could choose the path of the light and the dark side of the force. An evil character learned the stranglehold of Darth Vader, bright characters caused as little damage as possible to their opponents. Different endings showed the player the consequences of his decision very vividly. In a single game, the player could be the hero or the villain and choose a direction as the game progressed. The player became a much bigger part of the story. He could change and influence the world of the game and his own career himself.

Jedi Knight contains, so to speak, the classic form of the moral system. Since then, games and the moral choices for players have evolved. The first-person shooter BioShock, the action role-playing game Mass Effect and the open-world role-playing game Fallout 3 showed what moral systems can look like in different genres.

In BioShock, the greatest moral choice revolved around dealing with the Little Sisters, little genetically modified girls. The player had the choice to save them or exploit them and thereby get the vital drug ADAM. The exploitation led to an immediate reward, while the rescue rewarded the player with special skills or items in the long term. Both approaches were equivalent in terms of game mechanics. The decision was justified on a purely moral basis and was entirely up to the player himself - he was rewarded for both ways. The latter is important in that the game did not provide a moral guide. The player had to recognize “right” and “wrong” for himself.

Mass Effect made the basic "light and dark" system of Jedi Knight even more complex: There were two different moral scales - one for good and one for bad actions. This made moral decisions more complex in that bad actions could not be negated by good ones. The consequences of a "bad" act were always visible. At the same time, the game not only drew a simple black and white morality, but also allowed much finer gradations: from minor misdeeds to major offenses.

As a classic open world game, Fallout 3 brought with it a complex moral system. For example, a realistic, multi-dimensional drug system was implemented here. The use of drugs brought the player playful advantages and disadvantages at the same time. The player could decide if he wanted to subject his character to addiction to drugs for the appropriate benefits. The crisis-ridden end-of-time scenario in particular brought the player into unusual situations that sometimes required unusual measures. Precisely this required highly sensitive moral decisions.

Player and morale - what actually happens there?

Marcus Schulzke states in the International Journal of Computer Game Research: Moral systems encourage the player to think about his actions in the real world - and they teach him, in the Aristotelian sense, to be a moral actor. Good art, according to Schulzke, gives the viewer the opportunity to interpret and reinterpret the content through participation. This is exactly what games with moral systems allow: This special form of interactivity allows players to experiment with different approaches to solving moral problems.

"The virtues [...] we achieve after previous activity, as is also the case with the arts."
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Second Book, First Chapter

The examples of the different moral approaches in games show the potential moral decisions have for the players. Although they offer a learning effect, they also increase the entertainment value at the same time.

The games don't want to educate us. And neither should they, says Marcus Schulzke. Although they often define what is good and what is bad, they do not only reward good behavior. That is what makes it so exciting. The Danish author Jesper Juul says: Games are "half-real". They play in fictional worlds, but they have a real impact on us. By confronting moral or immoral decisions, players can be made aware of dilemmas from reality. It is important to bear in mind that the moral systems are inherent in the game, which therefore remain in the game and are not to be understood as an image or even a model of real moral concepts. They are certainly not reflections of ethical questions on a theoretical level. So we cannot expect answers to the question of good or bad behavior in real life. But exercises for the mind do.

It's nice that computer and video games can offer such a bandwidth.

Further links on the topic:

Essay: "Moral Decision Making in Fallout" by Marcus Schulzke (

Web: The International Journal of Computer Game Research (

Web:Homepage of Jesper Juul (