Playing with morality has long been a part of the video game industry. Ethics and morality, for instance, are central to the narratives and game mechanics of Richard Garriott’s Ultima (1981 – Present), Roberta Williams’ King’s Quest (1983 – Present), and Brian Fargo’s Wasteland (1988 – Present). They were, however, exceptions to the rule as the vast majority of games released throughout the 80s’ and 90’s took an act first, think later approach to game design. So though morality play has long been a part of the industry, ethics and morality do not take a more prominent position until what can be considered the industry’s ethical renaissance with the release of games such as: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002), Fable (2004), Mass Effect (2007), Fallout 3 (2008), BioShock (2009), Dragon Age: Origins (2009), and Infamous (2009).
Though ethics have become a more central narrative and gameplay thematic for the industry, far too many franchises—such as Infamous, The Elder Scrolls, and Fallout—treat ethics in mechanical terms: affecting quest availability, character interactions, skill access, and sometimes ending. This effort to operationalize ethics ironically reduces the ethical weight of these choices to a cause and effect logic, wherein one’s ethical behavior is guided by the desired effect: if I want this quest, companion, skillset, or ending, then I ought to behave “ethically” or “unethically.” In essence, the effort to operationalize morality reduces ethics to crude economics.
Ethics, however, is not merely about choice but also, as the late French Philosopher Henri Bergson argued, about reflection and emotional obligation (or "impetus of love"). Not the mere obligation to do the “right” thing but also reflection about what constitutes the nature of the “right” choice and the emotional obligation to follow through with the weight of that choice. There are, fortunately, games that take up this ethics of reflection and emotional obligation. Shadow of the Colossus (2005) and The Walking Dead: Season One (2012) are two such examples. In games like these, the ethical emphasis is not on choice (though it may exist as in The Walking Dead) but rather playing in such a way that one could not imagine playing otherwise; knowing that even if you were to have to pay a heavy price for that choice, it would not matter.