Games

Digital Morality

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I recently started playing through Mass Effect again, and I plan to run through the entire trilogy. I’ve played the series once before, but I found myself missing the experience of being in that world, so I created a new character and dove back in. I opted for a female protagonist this time, but I’m still playing the game much like I did last time, which is to say I’m trying to be as good as possible without ruling out the possibility of force or intimidation. The game lets you make choices that fall along a basic continuum, with kind or “good” choices turning you into a Paragon and harsh or “bad” ones making you a Renegade. You can also usually choose a neutral response in most encounters, resulting in no real moral change to your character.

I find myself playing as a “good guy” for a number of reasons. Part of it’s the control: the more charming and persuasive you are, the more you can decide the outcome of a situation simply by talking your way out of it. That’s a compelling part of the moral logic that doesn’t get a lot of press. Part of it is also achievement-based: I want to unlock certain narrative paths for my character that are only possible by pursuing certain moral extremes. Mostly, though, I just like the feeling of being good. The writing in the game is effective enough that negative moral choices carry an appropriate sting, and I’m not as comfortable as I would’ve been a few years ago with bullying my way through the story.

Some friends of mine remarked that the morality system in the game felt limited and restrictive, though, and that choosing to be good even for the sake of a few Paragon-related achievements was nevertheless constricting. I don’t think they’re wrong, but I also don’t think that’s a bad thing. The game’s restrictiveness in this area isn’t a bug, but a feature. It’s one of the things that makes it feel real.

What else, after all, are moral choices but opportunities for us to wage an internal battle between love and anger, restraint and release, honesty and selfishness? When you butt heads with a partner or colleague or family member, your first instinct might be to snap back in retaliation. You know it’s not a good idea, though, and the benefit of just a few seconds’ thought can help you chart a better path. The game gives you an opportunity to practice that: every conversation and encounter hinge upon you, and dialogue halts while you weigh your responses. It’s the chance to pause and examine your motives we rarely take in real life. The game’s pace forces you not merely to pick an action but to consider the consequences it will have on the other characters. Is it really so hard to see the parallel between these scripted interactions and the much more unpredictable ones we confront every day? Do we really need reminding that love and good are often about shouting down the voices of greed and oppression that echo in our heads? The game’s version of a moral compass might be rudimentary, sure, but it’s anything but ineffective. Doing the right thing often means not doing the wrong thing. It’s as much about inaction as action. The pursuit of goodness is nothing if not defined by control.

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