Morality in video games shouldn’t be about being a good turtle or evil scorpion

Hey, I’ve got a story for you. A story about morals. And it goes like this: A scorpion and a turtle stand at the bank of a mighty river, considering how they might cross it. “I shall swim across yonder river using yonder turtle tail as a cute little rudder,” said the turtle, “as it is in my nature to be able to indulge such fanciful aquatic notions, yonder.”

“Would you mind,” interjected the scorpion, “if I rode across the river on your back? Because I’m a scorpion, and I think scorpions melt if they touch water.” “Hmm,” the turtle hesitated. “I read a book called Scorpions Are Actually Absolute Bastards, where a scorpion stung an airline pilot with his tail and the plane crashed into a nunnery. Aren’t you fundamentally hardwired to be violent?” “Nah, mate,” replied the scorpion, “you’re getting me confused with bees. Let’s go!”

Long story short, the scorpion ruins everything by stabbing the turtle with his tail halfway across the river and drowning them both. He had accrued far too many evil points on his way to the river that day by choosing mean dialogue options and so every choice besides ‘laugh and sting the turtle to death’ was greyed out.

This fable is as important today as it was in 600 BC. It suggests that morality exists on a simple sliding scale, with scorpions at one end and turtles at the other, and that we can slide up and down this scale based on our most recent actions. This fable laid the groundwork for every morality system in almost every videogame (including Fable, actually).

The problem

Morality in games has been drastically oversimplified. In Mass Effect – a series about sexing aliens that features a side-quest about saving the galaxy – you can swing the moral-o-meter backwards and forwards by either punching or kissing the people you meet. Be consistently malevolent and you even unlock the “Morality in games shouldn’t be about being a good turtle or evil scorpion” ability to push them out of windows mid-sentence. (The idea that bad guys have special powers has its roots in Star Wars, an old film in which the most evil person gets to shoot lightning from his fingers, but is cursed to look like a scrotum).

Things get more confusing when you consider stealth series like Dishonored and Deus Ex, in which you’re handed a bag full of grenades and warned not to kill anyone if you want to see the ending that has confetti falling down the screen.

Games like this promote the dangerous idea that there are no real consequences to behaving like the rudest of boobs. If you’re a jerk-hole in Red Dead Redemption you get chased around by a posse every now and then, while if you act the goose in Skyrim you get invited to live in a wet cave with some grumpy sods. We’re left with less of a moral compass and more of a moral wet-finger-in-the-air. So we see men and women desperately trying to min/max their way through life – people like Jeremy Hunt and the Pope – in an attempt to unlock all the best weapons.

The solution

Instead, games should better reflect the mind-boggling complexities of ethics and morality – subjects so difficult to grasp that even Socrates, an intensely clever Greek man famous for his marble head and shoulders, never figured out the answer. What we do know is that we are not evil scorpions or good turtles, but something in between (an ambiguous platypus perhaps or disinterested worm).

Telltale’s The Walking Dead series presents the player with genuinely complex situations about zombies, and asks tough questions about whether it’s okay to cave somebody’s head in if they’re being a bit of a nuisance. By working with actions and consequences, rather than just totting up good points and evil points as it goes along, the series becomes a more cerebral and nuanced dissection of the human condition (with zombies).

Ditch the sliding scale, as Telltale and others have done, and you open games up to a far more interesting exploration of what is nice and what isn’t. You can experience good people doing bad things, bad people doing good things and neutral people standing on the riverbank, refusing to get in scorpion-infested water.

This article originally appeared in Xbox: The Official Magazine. For more great Xbox coverage, you can subscribe here.

Steve Hogarty

Steve Hogarty is a London-based freelance journalist covering games and technology. His bylines have appeared in publications including GamesRadar, The Independent, Yahoo, VICE, Eurogamer, and more. He is also the co-host of the pocast, Regular Features.