Moral Choices: The Virtuous Player

Words: 2796 Approximate Reading Time: 20-25 minutes

We now draw to a close in a three-part set of essays on moral frameworks in video games. Having already discussed the philosophies of consequentialism and deontology and how they might be incorporated into video game choices and narratives, we arrive at our final framework: virtue ethics.

Having written a lot about the role of morality in video games, allow me to step back in this opening to talk about morality and moral philosophy more broadly.

When morality is often used in everyday life – by which I mean presented as a series of conundrums rather than as part of our actions and choices – it is most commonly displayed through the lens of simplified narratives. Moral problems are passed around as memes, sometimes for the purpose of demolishing an opponent’s argument, sometimes to “make you think” by just presenting a puzzle without any deeper meaning behind it.

But this simplification ends up missing the overall functionality of these hypothetical moral situations.

Moral conflicts in narrative have been used for thousands of years, in varying forms of artistic expression. However the conflict is presented, whether as tales of gods and heroes, tales of tragic figures, stories about animals, imagined situations, or anything else, these scenarios have largely served at least one of two functions.

Firstly, and perhaps most commonly, they exist to present a particular moral lesson. Think about something like Aesop’s Fables – stories like “The Tortoise and the Hare” and “The Fox and the Grapes” – which are meant to tell a small story with a message. Here is a particular behavior that is good or bad. Mimic the good behavior, don’t mimic the bad behavior. Put in this way, the style may seem crude, but plenty of narratives focus on the idea of telling you what to do.

I should note that that isn’t bad. It’s bad if the lesson itself is bad. But sometimes a clear lesson can be useful.

Secondly, these scenarios can exist to get people to think about a particular problem. Sometimes it might be a broad problem, sometimes it might be a specific problem. The point is not to necessarily tell the audience what to think, but to get the audience to consider things on a deeper level. To confront the audience with a problem that they must carry with them for the next several days or weeks or years or even their entire lifetime to try to figure out.

And that’s where a lot of attempts go wrong. Even when hypotheticals are created to get you to think, the “thinking” involved ends up being fairly shallow. It’s not a big problem with an unclear answer. It’s a small problem that doesn’t really matter. Or it has plenty of answers that are all viable, and there’s not much point in sweating whether your answer is “right.” Or it’s just not an interesting problem to think about at all.

The result is that a lot of these hypotheticals become something like fancy jewels. They’re neat to show off, but that’s all that they’re good for. You collect these thought experiments, put them in a box, show them to people when you get a chance, and then once you’re done you put them back in the box. They’re the mental equivalent of toys.

And so when we get a lot of moral themes in video games, they explore ideas through these very simplistic frameworks. They lean towards the easy questions with easy answers. Or they’re tough questions, but the questions are reworked to make them feel like they have easy answers. Which doesn’t mean that we can’t draw anything deeper out of these games and the choices and themes they present. But what is important is the invitation that the game creates. When players are invited to something simple and comfortable, the discussion that surrounds the game will sit within that simple and comfortable context. It’s when the source material pushes players to consider tough questions in an in-depth form – often forcing players to step out of their comfort zone – that the game truly invites players to consider morality from a deeper perspective.

With that, I will now move to describing virtue ethics in brief, and then explain how we might use the systems of video games to explore the ideas of virtue ethics to make for richer choices and themes within video game narratives.

Building Good Habits

Virtue ethics is somewhat hard to describe, but I will do my best in this space.

Virtue ethics, unsurprisingly, focuses on “virtues” as the core for what makes actions good. A “virtue” is defined as a habit or disposition to do the right thing. There are numerous virtues, all of which need to be cultivated in different ways to make a well-rounded and fully moral person. Things like courage, moderation, justice, and so on all fit into the idea of what a “virtue” is.

Now what I just said may seem circular. If a virtue is a disposition to do the right thing, then how do we figure out what the right thing is in the first place? And in approaching virtue ethics, it can definitely appear like it’s just spinning around. Because a just action, for example, is the kind of thing a just person would do.

But the way out of this circle is by noting the importance of the person – rather than the action – to figuring out what a “virtue” is. You can perform a courageous action without being a courageous person. It might have been an accident, or done for selfish reasons. It matters much more that you are normally inclined to do courageous things: when you are confronted with danger, you want to be brave, and consider the best way to be brave.

Put in this way, we can see that the definition of a virtuous action is that it is something that a virtuous person would do. Of course, that sounds a bit vague, but it’s still useful for distinguishing virtue ethics from consequentialism or deontology. Because with any virtue – like justice or courage – there are many ways to demonstrate that virtue. It’s not like there’s a single right answer to the question of “what is a courageous action?”

So instead, we try to imagine an ideal person. Say we’re thinking about courage. We imagine a truly courageous person. The most courageous person there could possibly be. And we put this imagined courageous person in a bunch of different situations – preferably ones that call for using courage. And we ask what the courageous person would do in those situations. And then we mimic those actions and try to cultivate a set of dispositions that match what the courageous person does, so that we too can be courageous.

This process requires a good deal of thought. And we need to have an understanding of things like vices (the opposite of the virtues), and how they relate to each other. In particular, we need to think about vices not simply as a binary. One way we can think of vices is that there can be multiple vices associated with a single virtue. To return to courage, we could have too little courage, which might make us cowardly, but we could also have too much, which would make us rash. It is by figuring out the appropriate amount that actually constitutes virtue.

The first philosopher of virtue ethics that we generally point to is Aristotle. Aristotle listed a grand total of 11 different virtues – courage, moderation, liberality, magnificence, magnanimity, ambition, gentleness, friendliness, wittiness, truthfulness, and justice. Different philosophers in the tradition have suggested different lists of virtues, but there is generally a lot of overlap among them. Being a good person means figuring out what all of these virtues mean. Which is a pretty tall task, and helps to show how complex moral philosophy is.

Hopefully this gives some sense of what virtue ethics is and how it works. Enough that we can shift to looking at how we might use virtue ethics in video games.

The Ideal Character

Because of the difficulty of grasping just how virtue ethics works, trying to capture the essence of it in media and narratives is going to be similarly tough. There is a lot of vagueness going on that serves as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there’s plenty of material to dig into. On the other hand, the material requires so much abstraction that making it concrete for the purpose of a theme or choice requires a careful touch.

Perhaps the best way to start is by setting up choices that get players to reflect on the value of dispositions versus mere actions. That is, is it only the action that matters, or does the intent matter as well?

For reference, here’s an example from Immanuel Kant:

Two different shopkeepers maintain a set of scales that are used to weigh the purchases of customers to know how much those customers should be charged. Both shopkeepers keep those scales “honest,” meaning that the scales are not skewed in a way to make things appear lighter or heavier, which would cheat those customers. One shopkeeper maintains honest scales because they believe it to be the right thing to do. The other shopkeeper would use dishonest scales and cheat their customers if they could get away with it, but is ultimately afraid of getting caught, and so maintains honest scales out of necessity.

The question, then, is are these two shopkeepers morally equivalent? From a consequentialist standpoint, yes. From a very strict deontological standpoint, also yes.[1] From a virtue ethics standpoint, though, our answer would be no. The first shopkeeper is morally superior, because they do the right thing for the right reason. If given the opportunity, they wouldn’t try to do bad things to hurt others, simply because it would not fit with who they are.

So using examples like these, where we contrast the same action but note the different dispositions at play, can be useful to getting at the basic intuition about how much intent and disposition matter in moral judgments.

Once this intuition is captured, we can then build upon it in various ways. A particularly powerful way of doing so is finding ways to contrast the goodness and badness of actions against the goodness and badness of persons. When moral frameworks – both in media and narratives as well as in everyday discussions about society and politics – often revolve around the idea that imperfections imply moral badness, being able to explore the complexities of ethics becomes an important service.

So take a character who is built up to be a “good person.” They do good things, they do those things for the right reasons, and in all they are presented as an ideal moral actor, or at least as close to an ideal as we can get.

Then have that character do something “bad.” It’s probably not a good idea to make the bad thing incredibly heinous or monstrous. But something that we would just generally and clearly consider to be “wrong” is what we’re looking for. It could be murder. It could be theft. It could be associating with another character that has been shown to be evil. The exact example doesn’t matter, except insofar as it doesn’t completely demolish the narrative of this character being good. A character that slaughters millions is probably impossible to redeem and sell as a good person, no matter how hard you try.

The final ingredient is the reason for that bad action. We normally think that bad actions are done for bad reasons. But bad actions can be performed for morally neutral or even good reasons. We sacrifice the lives of some to protect others. We steal from a shop to help feed a helpless person. We hurt others out of ignorance about what the results of our actions would be. All of these different reasons speak to a fundamental distinction between the intent behind the action and the action itself.

And so we ask the player: does that bad action mean this character is no longer good? If so, how do we square that judgment against the definitively not bad reason for that action? And if we chose to carry this examination even further, we could have the character perform multiple bad actions in this same vein, and then ask how many bad actions are necessary to make this character bad, or at least “no longer good”?

We can see that one of the major problems is that incorporating virtue ethics requires very careful narrative control of the character, and especially an understanding of how people might react to certain components of the character. We can often be suspicious of characters that we are told are good. There is a fuzzy line where that assertion transforms from something we are willing to accept to something we actively fight against. So we can’t push that narrative too hard, at least not overtly and directly. And we also can’t just leave a bad action hanging in the air, because doing so can imply a fundamental character change or some form of deception: this character was only pretending to be good, and now the bad action reveals their true colors. There are a lot of ways crafting this example can go wrong.

The last thing we can do with virtue ethics is use the variety inherent in it. If there are a bunch of different virtues, how do they fit together? Richard Garriott’s Ultima IV serves as an example of how the virtues could be explored, both in the sense of practice and in the sense of conflict.

I note practice, because if there are a bunch of virtues, not every action is going to make use of every virtue. Not every decision we make involves courage. Not every choice involves justice. Being virtuous is about being prepared for these situations when they occur, not using the virtues at every opportunity. Which means we need to cultivate these virtues, which requires exercise. In the same way as we exercise muscles in our body. So sidequests that help build up the various virtues of a character can be used to help transmit the idea that different virtues apply in different situations, and also that the virtues themselves require this constant work.

Conflict can also be important. Just as not every virtue is relevant in very situation, sometimes more than one virtue may be relevant. Sometimes the just thing to do conflicts with being friendly. Sometimes courage tells us to do something that ambition tells us is wrong. The disagreement can be useful to explore, because we can’t simply ignore certain virtues entirely. But at the same time, we have to make choices. These dilemmas can help us to see how we rank certain moral ideas: what is most important for you in being a “good person”?

Concluding Remarks

With this discussion of virtue ethics complete, we’ve now explored the three major moral frameworks. We’ve seen how they work, and how they might be used in video games to create richer narratives and themes and establish more substantive moral choices.

There are plenty of other ways in which we could accomplish the same goals. While I’ve presented here some general ideas to dig into, we can get at this same richness and substantiveness by focusing on a particular philosopher. And there are a lot of choices that can be made, and a whole host of ways to explore those choices.

What’s more, while these three frameworks help lay out the basic structures of moral behavior, they certainly are not the ending point. There are plenty of other frameworks that build in different ways off of consequentialism or deontology or virtue ethics that can also be used in the same form.

And finally, nothing says that these frameworks are ultimately mutually exclusive. We can judge actions on their consequences and on the disposition of the actor, for example. Of course, saying that in the abstract is easy, but actually figuring out how the judgments work is much more difficult. Which is why we engage in these in-depth examinations in the first place. Being able to subject a player’s ideas to a more thorough trial helps them to understand their own ideas and how they work.


[1] As I noted last week, very few deontological thinkers actually hold that the rule is the only thing of relevance. Many also note that it is also important to follow the rule for the right reasons, as Kant argues in this example: the shopkeeper who keeps honest scales because it is the right thing to do is the better person. This is where we get a bit of overlap between deontological morality and virtue ethics.

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