It wouldn’t be far wrong to assert that game designers in game worlds have more power than governments in real worlds. If they didn’t want you to steal or murder they could just make it impossible to do so. So although we live in a state with laws that we are inclined to obey with the use of coercion, in a game world laws become natural laws like gravity, but of course games can be just as coercive if not more so.
For example, moral choice systems often give you the option to commit atrocities. It’s not strictly telling you to commit atrocities, it just made it possible for you to do so…like a mad scientist making some sort of death ray, telling you how to use it, pointing it at France and leaving the room. You don’t have to do anything, but you are given the option and the means. This is why I find it slightly hypocritical when games like Infamous give you the power to make choices like this but then criticize your decisions. For instance, it’s as if you fire the death ray and France lies in ruins, which prompts the scientist to come in and give you an earful. When without his actions, my choice would not have been possible.
The choices you make also affect the way the character looks in Infamous – it’s the same in Fable. Perhaps it’s a visual metaphor for how the character sees themselves and thus how the character is perceived by others. The choices you make affect the types of powers you gain or the amount of power you gain – for example, you become more powerful by committing mini-atrocities, like in BioShock. In some games the moral choices we make affect the company we keep and the people that will follow us, like in Fallout 3; bad people like to hang out with other bad people, maybe to justify their own actions or to mirror each other or maybe just to talk about raping and pillaging on their days off. Personally, I much prefer Prototype because you’re so monstrous all your actions are a massive grey area – even eating people as health is just something a malevolent god just does.
Although we’re given the option to be bad, games still deem it necessary to punish us and coerce us in hopes that we will eventually do the right thing. We chose to be bad because it was easy and fun and we were curious and now we get the bad ending and we’re left with a bad taste in our mouths. The fear of the bad ending, and all the in game characters disliking you for your actions is how a game coerces you into its idea of acting in a moral way. Which is actually a lot like how morality works in the real world: we’re good because we want people to like us and we want good things to happen to us. We want the happy ending because we want to be happy, and we believe negative actions result in some form of retaliation from the game universe. So in this respect games are just as coercive as the real world but sometimes being bad and/or hated is still fun in a place where it has no consequence.
So the reason we obey laws is not because we’re obligated but because it ensures our future happiness. If you were a hedonist or a utilitarian and believed happiness were more important than law, you would agree that happiness should not be sacrificed for rule worship. In other words, laws should not be obeyed if they don’t serve the purpose of making most people happy. Utility undermines the political obligation to obey the law, as you obey not because you want to but because the state has great power over your happiness; you obey because they basically have a gun to your head. It reminds me a little of the morality system in BioShock, as although you believe you’re making moral decisions, it’s just a subtle coercive tactic to make you believe you have power when in reality you have none. Games, on the other hand, are supposed to facilitate your happiness, not dangle it in front of your face like a carrot on a stick. But what is happiness and who deserves it?
T.H Green believed that moral ideals were more important and fulfilling than pleasure, and he proposed that pleasure was in fact an accidental occurrence. We don’t play games necessarily for instant gratification – it has to be more than that because otherwise why not just have sex and eat chocolate constantly? It’s not fulfilling enough for pleasure to be your only objective: pleasure is a side effect of good living (Green), perpetuating moral ideals or stamping all over them.
So in a game, the fun doesn’t necessarily come from just the swing of a sword or the firing of a gun (although some of it obviously can; in Max Payne for example, there’s just something innately fun about jumping with two guns going ‘ahhh’). The fun comes from defeating the evil wizard and saving the village, or doing the opposite and raping and pillaging the village. Both are fun because in one you save the day and in the other you don’t. It’s all about fulfilling specific roles; it’s an extension of the fantasy of being someone else.
Law in regard to the spread of disease would be ineffective if those laws did not in fact stop the spread of disease, so it would be okay to break them. In the same respects, if a law does not prevent crime then what is its point? The law has to contain ‘good advice’ for it to be observed and obeyed. If it costs more to obey a law than it actually benefits you, you should not obey the law. For instance, I’m drawn back to this idea of obeying the speed limit or, rather, not and going on killing sprees in Grand Theft Auto. The laws in that game are pointless because they don’t stop real crime and they don’t have any permanence. They have no value as a deterrent against virtual crime because you’re just fined. Since there’s no other use for money in that game other than buying more guns to commit more crimes and get more money to pay more fines – it’s redundant. So the whole game is about funding lavish killing sprees when all the storyline is pushed to one side.
What do you do at the end of GTA (or any other games that let you continue on after the end for that matter)? I usually turn it off, but the game allows you to continue, somehow assuming that I want to wallow in the success or failure of all my crimes and cry and/or go on a killing spree in my fancy helicopter…it’s just so anti-climactic.