As Mormons, we have a pervasive, if not terribly well-attributed, belief that, in the next life, if we turned out to be good enough, we’ll get to make our own planets. Folks, why wait? There are a wealth of world-building strategy and role-playing games available right now. One has me in its web right now and it is causing me to consider the creation of a moral universe.
I don’t play many video games, as they become a massive time suck for me. However, when we moved to Germany, I bought my son an Xbox 360 as a kind of bribe for allowing himself to be dragged to another country. It has actually proven a sound investment in some ways; he taught himself to play guitar with it (thank you, Rocksmith). However, inevitably, the question of Skyrim came up. My son is a great fan of the Lord of the Rings and fantasy generally. Skyrim is, by many accounts, the best fantasy game available on the Xbox. It is also a “Mature” game. Not much sexually, but blood spurts a fair deal. So, we had to decide whether to get it for him.
My wife and I waffled on the subject for a few months and then, in a rare alignment of waffles, wound up getting it for him for Christmas (twice!) All of a sudden, my son had a whole realm of dragons, elves, bandits, and beheadings to explore. At first, I thought it was okay, because the violence, as I said, is neither particularly realistic nor particularly gory. But I soon learned my error.
The makers of Skyrim have tilted the powers of the game in the direction of evil. By which I mean, Skyrim actively encourages you to have a strong disregard for other people’s lives and suffering. There are reasons for this in the mythology of the series, but basically you get cooler stuff and powers if you just embrace the evil. I’d sit down and watch my son play as he would gleefully assassinate random characters and brag about how much power he had. The reason it’s mature isn’t the violence; it is the temptation to mayhem without consequences.
What’s worse is that I started playing it myself. I started honestly as an attempt to show him that the game can be played successfully without succumbing to the various temptations arrayed before you. Sure, on occasion, I’d choose conversation options that would result in a fight because I wanted to kill someone. Of course, all bandits were sure to die, whether or not they were crawling away screaming “Yield!”. But I avoided killing (non-bandits) in unprovoked, cold-blooded attacks and I didn’t even join the Thieves Guild (another morass of moral relativism). That went fine for a while, but one day my son accidentally erased our characters. Suddenly, all the work I’d put into my oh-so-pure character was gone.
At this point, the dark side called and I answered. I decided to make the evilest character I could and get all the bad temptation out of me in one go. I choose a lizard-man, literally cold-blooded, and quickly built him into a powerful assassin and thief. And, for the most part, I had a lot more fun.
However, there are limits. One of the first missions you get as a budding assassin is to kill an insane, homeless beggar named Narfi.
Narfi is a true loon, shouting stuff about his dead (it turns out) sister and whatever else wanders into his head. I’ve no idea why anyone would want him dead. In my previous nicer character, I helped Narfi get some closure by finding his dead sister’s necklace for him.
I decided that my stone-cold assassin would also find the sister’s necklace and return it to Narfi, to give him some peace before killing him. I retrieved it, but I wasn’t able to give him the necklace. The conversational options had all changed to things I would say to him before I killed him. I couldn’t bring him comfort anymore because, earlier, I’d entertained the possibility of killing him. I tried to get one of the villagers to help me, but nothing would work. Strangely, there isn’t much information about both helping and killing Narfi online.
At this point, my frustration was mounting. Narfi, who I’d been mentally treating like an annoying one-note person, now became a series of lights on a screen. What did it matter if I killed him? No one would care (that is, no real person (actually, I doubt the fake NPCs in the game ever express loss at his murder)). It came down to what I wanted to be and how I wanted to get there. Nothing would stop my hand if I wanted to kill him. There would be no punishment (it is no crime to kill a computer pretend person).
So, I did. I became a pretend murderer. I continue to be to this day. It’s a fun game and an enormous timesuck, but I play it whenever I figure I can.
Here’s the quandary: Skyrim presents a world where things go much smoother if you do what you want, whenever you want, without regard for the (pretend) people around you. Killing and stealing are actively encouraged if you want to get ahead quicker in the game. You can rationalize just about every transgression or crime you commit, finding a way to justify it morally. The only moral force (for good) in the game is what you choose yourself.
So, what is a better way to play the game? My first attempt, where I kept myself from the temptation to murder and plunder? Or the second way, where I gave in to temptation and got a lot more powerful? I ask because upon finding myself the ultimate moral arbiter in my little Skyrim universe, I’m still not sure what to do or how what I’ve done reflects on me. And if I’m not ready now, how am I going to do it in some hypothetical future?