It's a deceptively simple question, and yet one that manages to have no good answer: "do real world morals have a place in video games?"
That's what Erik Kain at Forbes has asked. Kain asks the question in terms of violence. We can do violence in games, he points out, without feeling the need to do violence in reality: "I don't go from killing three dozen soldiers in Spec Ops: The Line to raving-shooter in real life because I don't think of those soldiers as real people – and neither do the millions of other gamers out there who play violent video games. I think of those soldiers as digital obstacles, whether or not they're realistic or cartoony."
Kain does acknowledge, however, that games, as a medium that exist in the real world and not only inside their own invented universes, have an obligation to be aware of what messages they send, and why. "Unless we want to dismiss games altogether, acknowledging that the ideas and images presented in video games matter, for good or ill, is necessary," he confirms. He concludes, "I think the game's creators are complicit, and responsible even, not just for the quality of a game but for what it tries to tell us about the world. Like any good fiction, a game is a reflection of reality. ... Real world logic and morality are essential to video games, even if we simultaneously accept that in order to solve these puzzles and overcome these obstacles, we have to play by different rules."
I will always agree that video games matter in the larger cultural picture, and that what we say with them matters. Stepping back to look at high-level patterns, interesting trends emerge.
But the question "should games be judged externally by our everyday moral system" is not the question Kain asked. And the question, "do real world morals have a place in video games?" is perhaps a more interesting one.
Morality is about more than violence. In the real world I have never killed anyone, and the vast majority of the physical harm I have caused to others has been unintentional and accidental. In digital worlds, I have racked up an impressive body count. And yet, almost every instance of pixellated murder I have committed was in the name of what I felt to be the greater good.
My real-world morality made me want to bring down Caesar's Legion in Fallout: New Vegas. Real-world morality makes me try hard to seek diplomatic, beneficial solutions to as many problems as possible in Mass Effect. And real-world morality makes me approach nearly every character I inhabit with a weird, innate need to seek approval without compromising that real-world morality in order to achieve it.
And yet in a game, I can shoot Caesar in the face and feel gleeful about it. That real-world morality seems to support using games as a playground, a what-if space that doesn't harm any real people. And well it should.
Games, like any other art and entertainment medium, can send messages not only about their characters, but also about their creators. And yet the ability for a player to choose how to participate, and to what degree, lets—or forces—us to take some responsibility as well. So how do morality, ethics, and the way we play games fit together? That's one we'll be arguing out for decades yet to come.