The Ethics of Ludic Reflection and Emotional Obligation

Curator's Note

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.


I think you highlight well one of the difficulties of gaming: creating a lasting, thoughtful response by the player. "Moral Choice" systems with in-game manifestations, like you point out, can potentially weaken the impact because the consequences of the player's action are resolved in the game mechanics themselves. I think that, often, these consequences disappear as soon as the game program is closed from a player's perspective, limiting the potential of the game to incite thoughtful response. Maybe one way of creating that impact is to leave some results of decisions open-ended, like SOMA does when the player is (spoilers) forced to decide to kill their copy or leave him alive, confused and in a horrific state of affairs.

Thanks for your thoughts on morality and games, Robert! You bring up a very thought provoking point by considering morality in mainstream games like Fallout 3, The Elder Scrolls and the Mass Effect series as being a mechanical and transactional system. I’m interested in how morality is utilized in games as a way to create barriers to game content, and I wonder if there are ways to consider game choices outside of this oddly economic “moral” system. I thought it was interesting that you bring up The Walking Dead series as creating a different kind of moral experience, particularly through the introduction of emotion and affect. Do you think affect and emotion are necessary in creating a gameplay experience that is able to engage with morality outside of this transactional system? Or do you think affect and emotion allow us to engage with this transactional system in a different, transformed, way? I wonder, too, if we can consider game genre, genre-specific mechanics, and linearity alongside how these games mobilize morality, affect and choice. What might The Walking Dead be doing differently with morality in a largely narratively linear game, as compared to some of the “open world” games you mention in your post? It seems as though “open world” games might utilize morality transactionally because some of these “moral” quandaries appear as side-quests and fetch quests (though moral choices do appear in main quests, too). I wonder if different game genres and mechanics sustain different levels of affective engagement, how this might change how we perceive moral choices in games as well.

Thank you Fredrik and Whitney for your thoughtful responses. Whitney, you raised the question of whether I believe that affect is essential for morality, and my answer is yes, definitely yes. Though different ethical systems may grant affect more or less weight, the ability to recognize the Other, on some level, is essential if we are to understand the consequences of our actions. Granted, affect encompasses more than positive recognition—one could hate the Other—but affect is central to recognizing the Other as something more than a function or node in the system. Whitney, you also raise an interesting point about whether genre-specific mechanics make easier or exacerbate how games mobilize morality. I think the answer is complicated. On one hand, it is easier to flesh out the nuances of a limited range of characters in contrast to the hundreds of thousands that might populate an open world game. On the other hand, game designers make choices, and so there is no reason why some of the same mechanics in a game like The Walking Dead or Shadow of the Colossus cannot be implemented in an open world game. Likewise, we have been focusing on the individual thus far, but open world games could incorporate a communitarian approach to ethics, which would mean fleshing out the character of a given community (as opposed to specific individuals). I think Fredrik offers an interesting example of this with his discussion of Stellaris ( In any event, I think ethical games are at their best when they encourage the player to care about the consequences of their actions—over and above any transactional benefits of those actions (e.g., trophies, skills, et cetera). Thanks again for both of your thoughtful responses.

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