The question of ethics in video games is one that we think has been resolved by companies such as Bioware and their 'morality engines' in game. However, this is only an illusion.
The strength, and the difficulty, of ethics is the nature of context. For example, if you follow non-objective ethics and instead treat ethics as moral commandments (an edict that is given to you by a holy authority, which is therefore absolute), you end up with Immanuel Kant's Case Of The Inquiring Murderer:
Immanuel Kant was a big old absolutist (and the biggest fraud in the history of philosophy), he eschewed the application of rational thought in ethics and instead favored absolutist edicts, which were backed up by his definition of the Categorical Imperative... a piece of fallacious nonsense that he essentially defined as "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." Can you see the problem with the Categorical Imperative? Well, for starters, it's a perfect case of context dropping: it eschews all ethical considerations of particular context and instead demands blind obedience to 'the universal law' that must be reflected in your actions.
Confusing? Don't worry, we're going to clear that baby up right now by discussing the Inquiring Murderer:
Kant paints the following scenario: He asks us to consider the situation of a murderer just outside our friend’s house. The murderer asks us “is your friend inside?” How do you answer?
According to Kant, you are bound to uphold the maxim 'Do not lie.' (this is a moral commandment) Kant himself defends the idea that in this difficult case you should not lie:"To be truthful in all deliberations, therefore, is a sacred and absolutely commanding decree of reason, limited to no expediency."
Let me run that by you again: Immanuel Kant, the man who is (falsely) revered as one of the greatest philosophers in Western philosophy, comes to the conclusion that based on his own categorical imperative, upholding the truth is more important than sparing an innocent life. To boot, the innocent being a friend of yours. Kant's ethics demand a total and blind adherence to these 'maxims' at the cost of everything else.
This is the outcome of divorcing ethics from their very source- rational thought and reality. An ethical system divorced from rational thought is positively Kantian and therefore inapplicable by any human being. Being divorced from the nature of reality means that anyone seeking to apply these ethics will always fall short of them, and will end up with a large amount of guilt for this.
A rational ethicist will tell you that it is perfectly acceptable to lie to the murderer- by the nature of his actions (seeking to enact force against an innocent) he himself is not worthy of earning honesty- ethical behavior is only a requirement among individuals willing to deal rationally and peacefully with each other, the brute and the murderer exclude themselves from this exchange by rejecting its very nature and one gains nothing by extending such cordiality to them- except one's own death, or the death of another innocent.
The approach to Ethics in the stories of videogames is, also, positively Kantian, it drops all context. Game companies claim to have successfully addressed the issue with their 'wheel of morality' system-- in dialog trees, you can usually choose between two options at important junctures. Each option has a different moral posture. In this, Bioware implies, we have finally managed to include ethical dimensions. Except that this isn't quite so.
In games such as Fallout 3 or the Star Wars roleplaying games, the character choices range between the game society’s conception of virtuous good (which isn’t necessarily in harmony with the objective definition of such actions) and psychopathically evil bordering on the edge of sheer insanity. An example: In Fallout 3, a post-apocalyptic dystopia, the player is in a town (Megaton) which, at its center, has an unexploded nuclear device. The player is approached by a shady character and he has the option to:
A) work with the shady character to detonate the bomb, killing everyone and destroying everything in it because his boss considers the town ‘a blight in the landscape’ or
B) Refuse, report him to the Sheriff and then kill the man for not only clearly willingly working towards mass murder, but also for trying to kill the Sheriff as well (a tricky option, you have to be very fast to kill him before he kills the Sheriff.)
While this clearly does afford the player a choice, it is an insulting one by clearly painting an almost disfigured portrait of how good and evil come about. Most of the virtuous or good actions the player can choose are usually tied to a solid context: in helping Megaton, the player helps his own chances of survival in the Wasteland. But what does an evil character think he gains from the mass destruction of Megaton? Wouldn't he gain more by taking over Megaton subtly? It could also be argued that in a post-apocalyptic scenario, even the unethical and immoral's self interest is served better by a rekindling of civilization (which means increased safety) than a return of barbarism- destroying Megaton would mean the world is one outpost behind from regaining some civilization. Even categorically evil people get tired of fighting every day for their survival.
But even then, it could be said that the whole ethical scenario is pointless. The ethical answer is obviously A, and the unethical answer is B. This sort of scenario doesn't do much to advance the concept of the exploration of the moral and ethical dimensions in interactive media, because they're mere caricatures. Other franchises are extremely guilty of this level of ridiculous choices— Skyrim, for example:
I came upon was the case of Grelod the Kind, an elderly woman who runs an orphanage. In the city of Windhelm you come across an escaped orphan who tells you how awful Grelod the Kind is to the children, and he wishes to see her dead… which he wants to do by summoning the Dark Brotherhood, a secret guild of assassins (he mistakes you for one of them, and you don’t do much to dispel his assumptions.) If you travel to the city of Riften where the orphanage is, you will see that the city is crawling with corruption, and that the real master of the town is the Guild of Thieves, run by a woman called Maven Black-Friar. The allegedly actual ruler of the city, Jarl Laila Law-Giver, is convinced that she has things under her control. If you overhear her dialogue with her courtiers, it is made apparent that she doesn't find the Thieves Guild a problem, and her courtiers (Yes-men of the Guild) constantly assuage her concerns, telling her that nothing is wrong. Laila’s most trusted aide? Maven Black-Friar.
So we are set up with a stage for disaster: The Jarl is a simple-minded idiot whose weakness enables corruption, and a spider woman runs the city. Just peachy. When you go into the Orphanage, we find out that the complaints are not only true—they are worse than you could imagine. Grelod “The Kind” has a closer with child-sized manacles. She constantly beats the children and demands gratitude for the beatings, she tells them they will never be loved or adopted and that they will end up tossed into ‘the cruel world’ when they come of age—and she also actively prevents the children from getting adopted. Constance Michel is a girl who works as an assistant at the Orphanage, and is kind and loving to the children… but even she cannot counteract Grelod, the actual owner. What is the player’s character to do?
When returning to the Jarl, there is no option to talk to her about the orphanage. Presumably, because the Jarl is, again, an idiot. Maven Black-Friar gains nothing in helping the orphanage (again, she is an evil character whose aim is to control others, much like Grelod herself,) so it is most likely that it would never be addressed. At the end of the day, the player is only left with two choices: Do something about Grelod The Kind, or walk away and leave the children doomed to a life of abject misery. Confronting Grelod simply shows the player that she is not afraid of him/her, is completely intractable to any arguments or intimidation, and the only choice if you want to help the children eventually is to kill her. Yes, kill her. I decided to follow that choice and see what the game developers had in mind--- a bit like Raskolnikov cleaving Alyona Ivanovna’s head in twain in Crime and Punishment (in a way, Grelod is a strange mixture of C&P’s Alyona and Annie’s Miss Hannigan.) In an almost Dickensian manner, the children rejoice over the slain hag while Constance enters into a panic until you leave. Yet, no guards are ever called on you by the people of the orphanage. Allegedly because Grelod was such a horrible human being that her death was more celebrated than mourned.
The whole thing is ineptly-written and terribly forced. A resourceful character could have easily found a way around ejecting Grelod from her orphanage without killing her-- which could have provided for even juicier story developments if Grelod was in cahoots with the guild of thieves and Maven Black-Briar decided to go after the player for it. But the choice is never given to the player- he or she is simply given a caricature of ethics and then forced to choose between two ridiculous extremes—complete passivity or slaughter. Bethesda essentially presented the player with a logical fallacy known as the False Alternative, but Bethesda is not alone in this, most game companies who try to play at ethics fall into the same problems.
The purpose of Ethics as a philosophical study is to find a way to behave towards oneself and others that allows the individual to thrive while at the same time respecting others who deserve such respect. As such, ethical exploration is wasted in ridiculous caricatures of Light Side/Dark Side choices, but rather more nuance is required- and it is far more difficult to achieve in writing. Two games that achieved this (and probably only two of a handful of games that have ever achieved this) come to mind.
In Ultima IV: Quest Of The Avatar, you are the Stranger. A person who has vanquished three great (stereotypical) evils from the land three times before. Whereas the previous installments of the game had a Big Bad Foozle to vanquish in the midst of wholesale slaughter, Ultima IV turned the tables by giving you... no Big Bad Foozle. Instead you come to Britannia following a summons by its king (Lord British), who tells you that moral corruption has started to sweep the land and that the world needs philosophical guidance. Your quest, if you choose to accept it, is to embody the Eight Virtues that derived from the three philosophical concepts of Truth, Love and Courage. By mastering those virtues, it is said, you will become the Avatar- the philosophical leader of a new age of enlightenment.
Ultima IV is technologically primitive by our standards, but it achieved its goal remarkably. In order to embody the virtues of the Avatar, you had to act accordingly: Valor meant that you would not retreat from combat, but Compassion meant that you did not pursue non-evil creatures to the death, Honesty required you to be forthright in your dealings with merchants and others who deserved it, and so on and so forth. You still had to go through dungeons to acquire items that you would eventually need and to visit the Eight shrines of virtue, but the whole scope of the game had nothing to do with an over-arching evil, it had to do with who you were, both as a player and a character. Interestingly enough as well, Ultima IV conceives virtue and ethics not as something that is 'its own reward' (as the old, false chestnut goes), but rather as something whose reward is your ability to live and thrive. Ultima IV is perhaps the best exploration of ethics in a game, even if the technology and limitations with which it was created makes the game primitive by our standards. Nevertheless, its blueprint could easily inspire another great game of its kind to succeed in this territory with today's technological feats.
Before speaking of the second game, I'd also like to point out that ethics do not occur in a vacuum, as Kant would have you believe. Many games include moral quandaries and choices by thrusting characters with dilemmas into your face, asking you to be their arbiters. Often these problems are doozies, but there's a big problem here--- why should the player care about them? Most of the time you know nothing about these characters, so they are not real to the player (in the real world, it's different, but in a fictional setting characters must be worked to give them realism, to allow the player the ability to identify them as 'real' , even within the fictionalized context of the world)- even worse, most of the time they have absolutely no impact to you as the player! Once you solve their quandaries they move on, never to be seen again by you... or if they are, they return to being merely pieces of scenery with repetitive dialog options. For an ethical scenario to be successful, your NPCs should feel as real to the player as his character is to him- or close enough.
This is where we speak of the second game: Ultima V, Warriors of Virtue. In this game the Avatar returns to a Britannia that has fallen under tyrannical rule by Lord Blackthorn, who has turned the virtues of the Avatar into a set of eight mandates enforced by government law, transgressions are punishable by dire consequences. As the Avatar, you become part of the underground rebellion fighting Blackthorn's regime.
One of the most ethical scenarios found in the game comes if you happen to let yourself be captured by Blackthorn's guards during your quest. You and your companions are thrown into Blackthorn's dungeon, where the creep grabs one of your companions and suspends him/her under an enormous swinging pendulum (Edgar Allan Poe would be proud). Blackthorn gives you a choice: You can tell him the mantra of a shrine of one of the Eight Shrines (the mantra is required to enter the shrine), or he can kill your companion. These are companions that have been with you through thick and thin for several games (and which would continue to do so later on as well)- their death means a lot to you... but Blackthorn's moral corruption of Britannia also means that if he wins, none of you will survive it.
The ethical quandary here is powerful, as you essentially see one of your companions torn to pieces in a gruesome way and they can't be resurrected (in fact, the game erases them completely)- but if you choose to give Blackthorn the mantra... you guessed it, when you are freed and go visit the shrine in question... you will find it destroyed by Blackthorn. This ethical scenario is powerfully poignant in its 8-bit splendor because it puts two things that are extremely important to you (your companions, and the Virtues) as the Avatar, and puts them in the hands of a tyrant so that either one or the other is destroyed.
This is not only an excellent highlighting of ethical exploration, but also an excellent way to define villainy in an intimate context: The best villains are antithetical to the hero's values. It's easy to write cliched villains who become foozles out of generic reasons such as "hunger for power" or "taking over the world"--- Blackthorn is a villain, but his villainy rests in wanting to make sure EVERYBODY is Virtuous... whether they want to or not, for their own good. As the Avatar, you embody the element of ethical choice: You can choose to be virtuous or not, and accept the consequence. Blackthorn wishes to destroy that element of choice- and this is exemplified best in ethical application by giving you two apparent 'choices', both aimed at destroying something valuable to yourself in the process. That's an ethical scenario, and that's also an excellent example of good villainy.
Think about these choices above, and then think about the games you've played recently. How many of those games don't condescend to you by giving you real ethical choices? Or do they simply give you caricatures and tell you you've made a moral choice? Nowadays it seems that game developers equate ethical quandaries with whether or not you should harvest little girls or adopt them and give them puppies.