In games, actions have consequences. This is broadly true in all cases: The game is defined by its reactions to the actions you take within its spaces. However, when we talk about games – and when games talk about themselves – the concept of ‘consequence’ tends to take on a very specific meaning: When a game says that actions have consequences, it means narrative consequences – and, though this is not so much stated as assumed, it also tends to mean that these consequences are karmic. That is, good actions achieve good results, bad actions achieve bad results . If you’re not sure what good or bad are, don’t worry: The game will tell you.
While consequences in these games may be unexpected or even unintended, they almost always fall within the broad moral scope of whatever choice you’ve made. If you choose to kill, more people die, more chaos is created, the world is made worse, and if you choose to spare the world is made happier, safer, more predictable – regardless of who or what it is you choose to kill and what mayhem it may cause in the future, or how cruel the circumstances of ‘sparing’ might be. Obviously, cause and effect are not always this predictable: The world is capricious, and when you take an action within its systems the consequences that emerge from it are often quite unpredictable and unrelated to whatever moral reasoning was used to arrive at that decision.
This abstraction would perhaps be less galling if the games using these karmic systems weren’t premised on the justness of violent intervention under all circumstances, with only these specific predetermined pivot points being where the use of violence to achieve your definitely just and righteous goals was questioned.
Even if this is frustrating, it’s also revealing. We take a lot of cognitive shortcuts when it comes to moral reasoning. Often, legality comes to stand in for morality, which is convenient because then the flawed mechanisms of human justice can appear as some sort cosmic justice, and the consequences of our actions can seem, if we squint, to take on a moral dimension. The worst evils, though, are frequently entirely legal, and performed by organizations rather than individuals, while the law often punishes courageous moral acts performed by individuals. First legality, then morality, comes to be defined as that which stands with power and protects the status quo. No one with a heart and mind could believe that this is a good measure of ethics. Many people manage it, regardless.
Most games are either interested in an absolutism where the law is the rules and any infraction is a failure to play the game properly or in a nihilism where all legality and morality is irrelevant and the player can cause as much mayhem as they wish without thinking about its impacts. However, when we try in games to explore moral gray areas it mostly comes in the form of individual decisions – and overwhelmingly often in taking shortcuts to ensure extralegal punitive justice is meted out. This is in some ways an acknowledgment of the limitations of legality as a system for approximating cosmic justice – but always by stating the system is insufficiently punitive to some person in particular. We know the law and its enforcement is often unjust, so standing against it might not seem morally gray at all if we don’t tack on some other ethically questionable action such as vigilantism – but this leaves a gap. Morally gray action 1: Uphold the law, which is questionable. Morally gray action 2: Defy the law in order to do something questionable.
In aggregate, most of the options offered by games are: Follow all the rules, break all the rules, or selectively break rules to enforce punitive justice. Rarely do we actually have the option of defying the law in order to do something morally just beyond punishment. This gap between legality and morality is vital to explore, and yet because of how we have defined our moral terms it becomes invisible to us. When the law bans compassion, only the outlaws will have compassion.