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The choice often presented to gamers in modern gaming is the question of whether they will be good or evil. Will they let their nemesis live or will they mow them down in cold blood. Will they be polite, lawful citizens of their inhabited universe or will they set their world on fire by being cruel, chaotic rogues? Choices like these are meant to give players the freedom to develop a character unique to them, allowing for additional personal investment in a character. However, these choices are often limited by the dichotomous nature of meaningful choices in modern video games.
A dichotomy is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a division into two especially exclusive or contradictory groups or entities. Also: the process or practice of making such a division." Essentially, a dichotomy is when you have two options that are polar opposites or in no way related to the other. A definition also highlights another aspect of a dichotomy: that it is the act of making that separation into two radically different groups. What is interesting, however, is how much this concept can apply to how morality is handled in modern video games, especially Western video games (and even more so to American video games).
When players are faced with moral choices in video games, especially American video games, the choice they are given is almost always an A or B situation, a situation which is almost always between a clearly defined good or evil action. Take, for example, the popular Red Dead Redemption. One of the mechanics of this game is the Honor scale, a numeric slide that measures our characters honor, sliding between the nefarious and the saintly. Actions have numeric values that affect the positioning of the meter's indicator toward one of the two extremes. This system is reflected in many other video games, and has been for years now. The mechanic has been present in one form or another in games such as Knights of the Old Republic (Light/Dark), Fallout 3 (Good/Bad Karma), Mass Effect (Paragon/Renegade), Fable (Good/Evil), and numerous others. In each instance, morality is defined by a visible quantifier, a scale that gives players an indicator of the morality of their actions. Even the position of the values on the scale can serve as a visual indicator as to the morality of an action (good is pretty much always above evil). It's an easy and handy way to show players an immediate consequences of their actions. Note, however, the exact number of moral definitions given to these scales: two. The choice is always between one of two extremes, quantified by a given value that assigns impact to a decision. For a very good action, four hundred good points! For a moderately evil action, fifty evil points! And neutral options rarely do anything at all.
This quantification inherently differentiates the two decisions by polarizing decision making. There are ways to soften this inherent polarization, such as Mass Effect's use of two character morality meters to provide the simultaneous existence of good an evil in a character (though ostensibly they are not morality meters, but character response meters, but the difference is negligible). On most other games, there isn't even the option for simultaneous morality, as all morality is handled on one scale and there is no gray option for a complicated moral character. In fact, in such games, gamers can even be indirectly punished for not allying themselves exclusively with one side or another. In effect, video games are creating two unique, independent groups which are exclusive from the other. They have created a moral dichotomy.
There are definite benefits to a moral dichotomy in video games. It provides a clear definition of ethics in a video game for a player. In Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto series and Red Dead Redemption, morally dubious actions and decisions are often immediately awarded with a negative consequence in the form of law enforcement. While it is certainly possible to defeat your pursuers, as your negative actions stack up the consequences scale right along side the actions. Eventually, the evil player is left with relatively little gain and a lot of pressure from the stacked up consequences. What grey there is is often of relatively little consequence or passed off as one extreme or the other, such as killing a man to save a woman being defined as a good deed.
Clearly defined duality also allows for the simplification of consequences. Take Bioshock's Little Sister mechanic, where players are given the choice to save or kill mutated children. While benefits are provided for each side, the choice isn't gray in the slightest: it's a clear option between the morally responsible in a morally corrupt world or the morally hideous. The fact that killing only one of the Little Sisters immediately hands you the 'bad' ending is proof enough of this moral polarity. The player is given a clear option, and the choice to take one road or the other is absolute and immediate. It gives players a moral foothold in video games, where each new gaming experience requires players to be reintroduced to the rules of each new world. Clearly defined and dual morality is a universal standard that allows for easy transition between ethics in vastly different environments.
However, the constant enforcement of absolutes in video gaming is not entirely beneficial, to gaming or to gamers. Gamers are constantly handled A or B choices, consistently breaking down reality into a multiple-choice test where there is one right or one wrong answer. Certainly players are free to choose which, often knowing the consequences, but there certainly isn't much gray in between for players to explore. Reality is certainly not a limited set of values for people to choose and dutifully follow. Reality is defined by shades of uncertainty as to what is right and what is wrong. Gaming, still a young method of storytelling in many ways, struggles with this uncertainty. Subtlety is not a trademark of gaming in any way, and doubly so when it applies to morality. There are very few games out there that present true moral choices to the player beyond simple kill/don't kill situations. In Western gaming, the Mass Effect series is one of the more notable attempts to provide moral uncertainty, but is often contradicted by, of all things, its conversation system, which not only often presents clear moral distinction but often places the moral value in the exact same position on the conversation wheel. If a player never wants to make an evil decision in Mass Effect 2, simply keep flicking the thumbstick up and to the right. Perhaps the better attempts would be Quantic Dream's ambitious Heavy Rain, which often creates consequences off of actions without an attached arbitrary moral value. It provides actual subtlety in gaming by letting characters simply act and move with the world rather than pause and manipulate it according to their numeric vision of morality. Duality may still be present, but it is quiet and restrained, more like the real world.
Perhaps another interesting example of a more subtle and less polarized approach to morality in a video game might be Atlus' Catherine. Catherine has been praised for allowing gamers to make decisions in much less dramatized and more considered ways, through innocuous questions rather than bold choices between a clear right and wrong. By making players truly consider their personality, Catherine made for a truer representation of morality. It made players think about what they truly wanted their character to be like, rather than simply choosing between two extremes. Although not a moral dilema on the scale of the numerous choices made by gamers in sweeping epics like Mass Effect or Fallout 3, where hard choices like those facing players in Catherine occur roughly every ten minutes, the handling of moral choice in Catherine is arguably superior to the simple polarity of larger games.
Dichotomy has its place in gaming. There are always true polar opposites and a choice to be made between them. But the degree to which modern gaming quantifies morality in choices is representative of how gaming is still making its way through unfamiliar territory. Advances are being made, in leaps and bounds at times and in small steps at others. Eventually, perhaps gamers can look forward to truly complex morality on a grand scale. Evidence of such a future can be found even now. But there is still a little ways to go.
Heavy Rain: Moral Compass
Mass Effect 2 Conversation
Disclaimer: In the interests of full disclosure, I have never actually played either Heavy Rain or Catherine. However, appropriate research was done when writing over this topic.