Gaming Moral Complexity

Friday’s terrorist attack on Paris will likely, as others have before it, result in a rash of violent crimes against Muslims, as well as ratchet up tensions in Europe surrounding the many refugees seeking asylum from Syria. Many Europeans will be, quite justifiably, frightened and angry, and trying to find a way to express and cope with this fear and anger.

As a species, we like moral certainty; we are comforted by a worldview that can easily separate good from evil (and good decisions from bad), and it is in our nature to gravitate to those points of view whenever possible. It can be especially difficult under circumstances like these determine where our worldviews protect us, and where they put us — or others — in harm’s way.

In light of this tendency, the moment seems right to explore how the games we play can prepare us to face morally ambiguous situations, and to evaluate decisions when no high road is discernable. Many games don’t engage with moral ambiguity; this isn’t a discussion of such games and/or the shortcomings of video games in general in that respect. Instead, I’d like to look at one particular game that explicitly makes ambiguity and decision-making a primary aspect of play.

The game is Stoic’s Banner Saga, set in a fantasy Viking-esque world undergoing a mysterious decline. The player controls a party of characters who occasionally do battle, but the main driving force of the game consists of making decisions without adequate information. The game does change based on decisions the player makes; party members live or die, supporters remain or abandon the group, and responsibility can feel quite heavy.

Banner Saga style Viking llama
Check out the Banner Saga and its beautiful hand-drawn art at http://stoicstudio.com/game-overview.

Banner Saga is far from perfect. At times it feels like the game sets the player up to fail or deliberately tricks her into making decisions that turn out later to have dire consequences. Trying to discern the rules of the game’s universe can backfire when those rules are bent to accommodate the game’s narrative. (There are also stretches of inactivity that can get boring, but that’s neither here nor there.) Strangers frequently ask to join the player’s caravan, hoping to avoid a lonely and certain death. They can be turned away, but sometimes prove to be valuable assets; it’s impossible to judge, based on the information provided, whether a newcomer will help or harm the group. But even as a frustrated player, watching one of my best party members die in a cut scene because I had trusted someone who turned out to be treacherous, I could see how my reaction – this isn’t fair, I couldn’t have known – is only too relevant to our contemporary (and timeless) real-life moral position-finding.

While I might prefer to play a game where I can determine what the best course of action is based on my intuition and contextual clues – it’s validating, and a nice respite from messier reality – I do think Banner Saga tries to do something valuable and important. Games make good learning experiences because they provide a safe place to explore, and the exploration of morality is vital to our development as human beings and citizens.

Banner Saga isn’t the only computer game to make this effort, and video games are not the only game medium to succeed in putting morality at the heart of the gameplay experience. Have you used gameplay to explore moral decision-making with students? How did you choose games for the purpose, and what were students’ responses?

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