You’ve just about reached the end of Call of Duty: Black Ops II. The fate of of the main antagonist, Raul Menendez, is in your hands. “Martyr me,” he implores you. Do you press A and take him alive, or do you press X and shoot him? Let’s say you do choose to kill him. Did you think your character, David Mason, would have had a thirst for revenge? Do you simply like shooting people? Did you just want to see what kind of final cutscene you would get upon killing him? Was it hard for you to make the decision? Did that choice reflect in any way upon your own real life self?
Such split-second, binary (or sometimes ternary, rarely over quaternary) moral decision-making procedures have become a common feature of first-person shooters over the past decade. Beforehand, game-altering decisions, non-linear plotlines, and issues of ethics and morality had originally been mainly relegated to other genres, such as RPGs. Games such as Fable and Black & White helped popularize this kind of gameplay mode, in which players, through both scripted encounters and general conduct, are “free” to fashion their character as good or evil. Here I will broadly examine the procedural rhetoric of morality systems in contemporary video games, as they are presented explicitly to the player like in the example from Call of Duty, as well as moral choices more implicit, obscured, and taken for granted as foundational to the game.
Pauline Belford, Michael Heron, Brandon Purdue, and other scholars have variously taken up the study of how morality systems are employed by various video games. In this post, I intend to synthesize and build upon their work, particularly in how it applies to violent, military video games, which are often themselves the subject of moral panics. Obviously, the existence of any direct link between media representations/simulations of violence and real life acts of violence is dubious, but I believe that, when the military-entertainment complex funds the production of media intended to promote and and recruit for further military operations, it is crucial to understand how this media engenders a moral system in which positions certain kinds of violence as normatively good or bad.
Morality systems provide the player with a sense of choice. A game which incorporates decision-making is not just a mindless shooter-on-rails that plays itself, but instead it forces the player to consider their actions, which can alter both narrative and gameplay. As the player, you carve out your own personal experience of game by choosing from within the options laid out to you by its design. However, while the intention behind regularly confronting the player with difficult and uncomfortable decision-making scenarios might be to force the player to consider their own sense of morality and that of their character’s, I side with the previously mentioned writers in contending that video game morality systems do not necessarily encourage reflection but are simply yet another element of gameplay to be mastered by the player.
Morality systems can be both quantitative and qualitative. In Call of Duty and other shooters like Far Cry, the player’s choices alter the plot of the game and may unlock extra cutscenes and other narrative elements. On the other hand, in games like Fable and Black and White, morality exists on a continuum between good and evil, dark and light. The consequences of the player’s moral decisions are calculated numerically but affect access to certain mission sequences and the player’s interactions with characters of different alignments.
Generally, in open-world games like Fable, Mass Effect, and the Elder Scrolls, different moral alignments are given equal weight; though the content of their consequences, their form and quantity are roughly the same. As a result, these games reward extreme moral consistency, as certain gameplay elements are unlocked the further gains one makes in one moral direction or another. More narratively linear games like Call of Duty, which essentially place the player in the middle of blockbuster action movie, place greater value in making the “right choices”; only the player who makes them can end up with the full, canonical ending cutscenes instead of to the various other apocryphal or at least incomplete cutscenes. Obviously, these games are skewed heavily towards one “correct” narrative of morality.
However, regardless of how these morality systems are set up, they engender an almost amoral engagement with morality. The flexible temporality of almost all games, which can be infinitely reloaded and restarted, largely dulls affective response to the consequences of one’s actions. If you realize the results of your choices were not desirable, you always have the chance to do things differently. In this way, morality systems add greatly to the replay value of a game, as the player is encouraged to explore all the possible moral paths available to them. Morality simply becomes a matter of completion.
As Bedford and Heron note, in these kinds of systems, it is generally the main character who is facing the moral dilemma, not the player. It is the character whose intentions inform their decisions, and who must live with the consequences. The player, amidst the game’s “magic circle,” acts detached from their performed morality. However, I would argue that these explicit markers of “morality” in discrete moments of decision-making occlude various other moral stances engaged in by player through the very procedure of the game.
One of the first missions of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, “No Russian,” (video) became infamous upon its release and continues to generate heated conversation among players on the ethics of play. In the role of an undercover CIA agent who has penetrated a group of Russian terrorists. As a false flag operation, this group, including the player character, enter a Russian airport and shoot everyone, who are mostly civilians until well-armed police forces arrive later in the level.
While this is a classic “how far would you go to save your country?” moment in the vein of the Splinter Cell series (before the mission begins, Allen is told by his commanding officer that being involved in the attack is necessary in order to later stop the terrorist group: "It will cost you a piece of yourself. It will cost nothing compared to everything you'll save."), instead of prompting dialogue on the ethics of the United States’ history of funding terrorism, players debated other matters. Even though players did not have to kill any civilians and were allowed to skip the mission at any time, many still felt uncomfortable, arguing that it was totally unnecessary and inappropriate to be put on the “bad guys’” side where they were, at least in the narrative, supposed to kill “innocent” people.
Suddenly, the 3D models Call of Duty players have been conditioned to shoot were wearing different clothes and not shooting back. There was no positive nor negative incentive for killing the civilians, though there was nothing the player could do to stop it. In various discussions on forums and comment sections, no players (other than the usual group of alleged misanthropes) aligned themselves with the terrorists; this particular moral stance was untakeable. Yet while this mission continues to marked as one of the most morally, ethically contentious gaming moments yet, does this controversy not ignore the unquestioned violence that pervades the entire game? When the player kills or captures Raul Menendez, who fights for the global redistribution of wealth and a decentering of Western hegemony, there is no moral dilemma, no desire by players of a third option to join in his struggle.
As video games come to take on more and more choices and narrative non-linearity, coming to resemble Jorge Luis Borges’ "Garden of Forking Paths", we must always consider what paths are closed off amidst this rhetoric of moral complexity and player control. In games like Call of Duty, success is achieved by killing the enemies of the US military. Even the airport massacre is justified as necessary for the safety of the United States; never would the player be allowed to act as “just” a terrorist. Morality does not come into play just when the game tells you it does and it is not simply reflected in quantity and narrative progress. The procedure of almost every game is itself a morality system to some degree among whose choices the player must choose between. In military shooters, pacifism is not an option. In many ways, the choice presented at the beginning of “No Russian” to not play truly reflects the game’s implicit system of morality. Play is inseparable from killing. Either you do both or you do neither. What would happen if we flooded Call of Duty’s servers with conscientious objectors?