Marcus Schulzke

Marcus Schulzke is a PhD student in political science at the State University of New York at Albany. He holds a BA in political science and philosophy from Rutgers University and an MA in political science from the University at Albany. He is working on a dissertation about the theoretical presuppositions of different research programs in political science. His primary research interests are political theory and comparative politics.


Moral Decision Making in Fallout

by Marcus Schulzke


Many open world games give players the chance to make moral choices, but usually the differences between good and evil paths through a game are slight. In order for moral choices in games to be meaningful they must be fairly calculated and have significant consequences. The Fallout series is one of the best examples of how to give players thoughtful moral problems and multiple paths to resolving them. This essay looks at the series, and Fallout 3 in particular, as examples of how moral choice can be incorporated into video games. One of the oldest fears about art is that it may corrupt observers and lead them to immorality - a criticism that has resurfaced with attacks on video games. Fallout 3 does the opposite. It encourages players to think about the morality of their actions in the virtual world, thereby teaching them the practical wisdom that Aristotle considered essential to being a moral actor.

Keywords: Fallout, Aristotle, Phronesis, practical wisdom, morality, education.


In the Poetics Aristotle initiated a new line of thinking about tragedy that dominated aesthetic thought for centuries (Aristotle, 1997). While his predecessor Plato condemned art as being deceptive and leading to immorality, Aristotle believed that tragedy had the power to make audience members into better people. Plato objected to art for several reasons. Morally, he thought it was corrupting because it intoxicates those who experience it, putting the observer under the spell of the work and hindering clear thought (Plato, 1925). Aristotle defended tragedy based on its pragmatic value. He thought tragedy was useful precisely because of its intoxicating affect. It gives the audience catharsis - a chance to lose themselves in the work and experience the emotions of fear and pity in a controlled setting. Subsequent aesthetic theorists built on Aristotle's work to find other pragmatic functions of art, including some who saw art as having the capacity to teach moral lessons (Burke, 1998; Shelly, 1904).

Video games are only the latest art form to suffer from accusations of corrupting morality. Just as Plato and Aristotle argued over the relative merits of tragedy, contemporary social theorists and commentators in the popular media debate the intoxicating effect of video games. The strategies of attack and defense have changed little over centuries. Video games are, however, much different from earlier art forms as they are the first to be truly interactive. It has long been a criterion of good art that it provide the spectator the opportunity to participate in the content by supplying new meanings and interpretations. What sets the classics of literature apart from lesser works is the former's engagement of the reader and encouragement to go beyond passive receptivity. Yet even a great work of literature fall far short of video games in participation because games allow the content to change based on the players' decisions. Players can remake the game world and produce their own characters rather than simply attributing meaning to those created by others. As Jesper Juul points out, games are "half-real." They create fictional worlds for us to play in, but they have an impact on us in this world; our actions in the game determine what our relation is to the game in reality (Juul, 2005).

The engagement of players in fantasy worlds allows video games to serve the cathartic purpose that Aristotle had in mind, but it also gives them an educative function that he did not anticipate. Interactivity makes games an arena in which players can experiment with different ways of resolving moral problems. This essay shows that the Fallout series (Bethesda, 2008; Interplay, 1997, 1998; Universal, 2001), and Fallout 3 in particular, provide a promising look at how video games can serve as tools of moral education. The Fallout series is among the video games best suited for ethical instruction because it is set in an open world that grants the player freedom of action - including the freedom to be moral or immoral. Although these games have not perfected the moral dimension of play, they are effective in presenting players with complex moral dilemmas that require careful reasoning. The games do not purport to teach morality and they should not attempt to do so. Their value is in creating compelling simulations that force players to test their own values then using sanctions in the game to respond to the player's choices. We should see them as a training ground in which players can practice thinking about morality.

Games like Fallout cultivate what Aristotle called "phronesis" - the practical wisdom of knowing how to act morally in particular situations. According to Aristotelian virtue ethics, morality is not a matter of learning universal laws. It is learning how to be good by strengthening one's practical wisdom to the point that it is capable of resolving moral dilemmas as they arise. Practical wisdom is essential even for those who believe in a moral code as it is the skill that allows one to recognize when to apply a particular rule. By situating players in a virtual world in which they can test their phronesis and improve it without suffering from the adverse consequences actions real world, video games serve as an invaluable educational tool. When players choose to act morally they get practice in making sound decisions, and even when they choose to act immorally they gain experience in evaluating moral problems and experience the consequences of their actions. Simply being presented with opportunities to act morally and immorally can, from the Aristotelian perspective, make players wiser and more sensitive to real-world moral dilemmas.

Moral Choice in the Virtual World

Unlike many video games, which have only minimalist plots and rely on graphics and action to promote the game (Piot, 2003), the Fallout series has an engaging story. It takes place in a world torn apart by nuclear war. In each of the games the player takes control of a character in the United States who was insulated from the outside world by living in a subterranean vault or a primitive tribe. The character ventures into the wasteland of post-nuclear America to find an array enemies ranging from mutated ghouls to renegade factions of the US army and must complete a series of open-ended quests that make game experiences personal. With the exception of the series' tactical RPG, Fallout Tactics, the games allow for a great deal of personal choice including what quests to complete, how to complete them, what kind of character to create, and how to explore the map. What makes the games so enjoyable is that choices matter. While players must complete the same main quests they have so much choice over which side quests to complete and how to complete them that no player come away with the same experience as another One of the qualities that sets the Fallout series apart from other games is that the quests are not only open but that they also attach moral weight to the player's choices. Moral choice is a part of many video games, especially RPGs, however, the Fallout series and especially Fallout 3 have taken it to a new level.

While some of the choices in Fallout 3 are extreme, most are more complex and nuanced than in its contemporaries. BioShock (2K Games, 2007), for example, gives the player a single major moral choice that is repeated continually throughout the game (Tavinor, 2009). Players must choose whether to kill little girls called Little Sisters in order to harvest them for ADAM, a mutagen that gives the player more strength. Saving the Little Sister also results in some gain, but not as much. The choice has an effect on the game's difficulty, but is ultimately shallow. Only two endings are possible - one for a purely evil character and the other for a purely good character. There is no middle ground between the two. The choices also do not affect the locations the player visits; the game follows the same path regardless of which option is taken. Once the player has decided between the good and evil paths little more thought is required because the scenario that tests morality goes unchanged. There is a great deal of moral speculation in the game's story, but the most significant questions are confronted passively. The character is presented with deep questions only as issues for contemplation; they do not enter into gameplay. As Sicart puts it, the BioShock is "focused on very concrete experiences," even as it meditates on deep philosophical problems (Sicart 2009, p. 156). This is not a major improvement over earlier games. Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II (LucasArts, 1997), for example, included a similar dilemma between extreme good and evil. The player had to decide between the light and dark sides of the force by choosing what powers to improve after each level up. These choices had an effect on what powers the player could use and changed the ending, but had little substantive impact on the game.

Mass Effect (BioWare, 2007) is a better example of an innovative moral choice engine. Although it falls short of having the same depth as the Fallout series it does have the novel bipartite morality scale. One earns paragon points and renegade points so that no good action can negate a bad one and the reverse. The two scales slide independently. These do have some effect on gameplay as a high rank on either scale opens new assignments. Nevertheless, being good or evil does not force the player to sacrifice anything. One can be high in both paragon points and renegade points, making it possible to unlock all the quests. As with BioShock, Mass Effect lacks any significant consequences to the moral choices.

Moral traits are found in many other RPGs as well, but they are usually ascribed to the character rather than being earned. In Dungeons and Dragons games players have moral alignments like "chaotic good" and "lawful evil," but these are chosen when making a character and thus exist before the character has actually done anything. Rather than having actions determine the character, the character is set in advance and actions are supposed to conform to it (Fine, 2002, p.17). Their fault is that one's character is taken as something given rather than something to be produced in action.

In most games the moral choices the player confronts are distant from everyday life. Many of those in Fallout are as well, but not all of them are as distant from everyday life as the post-apocalyptic setting suggests. There are some choices that are so immediate that government censors have found them objectionable. Fallout 3 was initially banned in Australia because of the prominent role of drugs (Peckham, 2008), only to be accepted in an altered form that fit with the country's game rating system. Reviewers from the Office of Film and Literature Classification deemed the drugs too suggestive of real life drugs and said that they rendered the original version of the game unclassifiable under the country's rating system, which does not have a mature level. In the game, each drug is accompanied by a small graphical representation of the drug and the player is shown using them when they are taken in the game. The drugs closely resemble real ones. Med-X, was even called 'morphine' before censors forced a change. They are also suggestive for having numerous positive and negative side-effects as well as the possibility of addiction. Usually drugs in games are far more one-dimensional, repairing hit points or increasing strength and not doing much else. The first two Fallout games also included high levels of sexual content. In Fallout 2 the player could collect condoms, "Jimmy Hats," and work in the post apocalyptic American pornography industry. The scenes were never visually graphic, but they did bring real moral questions about sexuality into the game with uncompromising directness.

More than anything else, the Fallout series is unique in giving players an open world in which they can make genuine moral choices. Moral dilemmas are not presented for passive contemplation - they are an integral part of gameplay. As Sicart points out in his study of virtue ethics in games (Sicart 2009), virtue ethics is player-centric. It makes sense only when players are not merely passive recipients of the games content but actually play a role in determining the course of events. Fallout is certainly player-centric and it includes a sophisticated system of quantifying players' actions in order to work them into a computer simulation.

Calculating Morality

Moral choice engines depend on weighting moral and immoral actions. The fact that games can quantify moral choices is itself an accomplishment as earlier attempts to do this in the real world were plagued by problems of incommensurability. Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism is the most famous of these attempts at calculating the consequence of actions. His theory is based on the belief that happiness is the greatest good and that morality should therefore be defined as acting to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people (Bentham, 1961). Bentham considers the source of the pleasure irrelevant and thinks that only the amount matters. The problem that he runs into is using this as a criterion for judgment. Different people value different goods; everyone has their own incommensurable objects of happiness. It seems very difficult to weigh one person's happiness against someone else's and because there is no objective measure of the amount of happiness a person receives to serve as a basis for comparison. His solution to each of these problems was to design a calculus that could measure a person's happiness. With this objective measurement he could overcome incommensurability and, he hoped, have a reliable way of making moral decisions by weighting the quantitative value of one person's happiness over another's.

Bentham measures happiness by assigning numerical value to the variables intensity, duration, certainty, propinquity, purity, fecundity and extent. For time and propinquity this is easy since we already measure time and space numerically. Bentham also thinks we can assign numbers to the intensity of a pleasure and how certain one is of obtaining it (Bentham, 1961). The Hedonistic Calculus he uses to do this is a Baroque apparatus with little real value. It runs into many problems. To start, it is unconvincing that the numbers assigned to pleasure and pains are meaningful. Quantifying the intensity of pleasure or pain, for example, runs into the same problem of how we can attach a numerical value to something subjective. It only shifts the incommensurability problem to a lower level, by dividing happiness into a number on analytic parts on which the problem is recapitulated. Another major difficulty is that it is hard to imagine ever being able to use such a system of measurement. Our moral choices must be made quickly, in most cases, or at least more quickly than the Hedonistic Calculus can be used. In fact, the calculus is a great deal more complicated than what is outlined here as each of these variables must be multiplied or added together to arrive at the number of hedons or dolors that a given action would produce. Quantification does not work well in making daily moral decisions, but it is promising in the virtual world where developers can determine the wishes of each character and assign numerical values to the player's actions to make a neutral standard of judgment.

Fallout 3 attempts something similar to Bentham's quantification of pleasure and pain with the Karma scale. Although Fallout does not start from the utilitarian assumption of happiness being the greatest goal, it does measure the amount of harm done to other characters in the game. There are six moral types corresponding to the numerical values. Between -1,000 and -750 the player is very evil, -749 to -250 is evil, -249 to 249 is neutral, 250 to 749 is good, and 750 to 1,000 is very good (Hodgson, 2008, p.29). Nearly everything the player does in Fallout 3 affects Karma in some way, either increasing or decreasing the number of points depending on the morality of the action. Stealing incurs minor penalties, killing results in more significant drops in karma, and destroying an entire town - something the game allows the player to do - exacts a heavy karmic price. In order for the system to work the developers had to assign numerical values indicating the magnitude of each action then set good, bad and neutral paths by which to complete each task. This is a far easier task than with real people for the obvious fact that developers can determine how much pleasure and pain characters suffer. The result is a world governed by something akin to the hedonistic calculus in which the player receives immediate feedback about the effects of their actions based on the karma system. A quantifiable morality allows the game to apply a consistent standard for moral actions that the player can adjust to and use to inform their decisions.

Morgan Luck writes that "Most people agree that murder is wrong. Yet, within computer games virtual murder scarcely raises an eyebrow" (Luck, 2008). While this is true in most games, non-player characters (NPCs) in the Fallout series react to the player's actions, including their murders. One of the clearest indications of one's karma level comes from interactions with NPCs. They respond differently depending on the morality of the player's past actions and in many cases even react to specific actions. For example, a player with good karma might be welcomed by a shopkeeper, but when the good karma was earned by helping that shopkeeper with a past quest then her behavior reflects that particular good deed. The NPCs are not uniform either; they have their own moral preferences. Some are good, some neutral and some evil. Each responds to the player in a way befitting their personality.

Karma levels also determine what locations the player can visit. Evil NPCs like slavers and raiders welcome the player if one is evil enough while those who oppose these factions respond by attacking and barring entry to their locations. There is no way to act in the Fallout world without creating new opportunities and closing off others. No karma rating is without its price. The Fallout 3 world is overrun by factions that in constant competition for land, technology and weapons and there are factions that hunt players for being good or evil. The Talon Corps Mercenaries hunt good players on behalf of those whose ambitions were thwarted by past good deeds and the regulators hunt evil characters. A player that has been both good and evil will be hunted by both for past actions because a change in karma does not erase the memory of past actions. The only character that is safe from such attacks is the neutral since taking the middle course is likely to avoid harsh reactions from others and is exceedingly difficult to remain neutral in a world that demands action.

Experience and karma come together to give the player a title. In the original game there were twenty levels of experience and combined with the three basic moral affiliations of good, evil and neutral, there are sixty titles in all. A level one evil character is a "Vault Delinquent," a level ten neutral is an "Observer," and a level 20 good character is the "Last, Best Hope of Humanity." As these show, each experience level grants a more dramatic title. They show how other characters in the game perceive the player. The developers clearly think that neutrality is the course that most people take as good and evil characters earn lofty titles and the titles indicating neutrality stress how average the player is. The level 20 neutral title is Paradigm of Humanity and at 30, the highest level possible, one becomes a "True Mortal" while "Messiah" and "Devil" go to the good and evil players respectively. Allowing players to be neutral is one of the Fallout series' most significant innovations as most games force them to choose between good and evil. Neutrality is the hardest path to take in the game. Again this is not a flaw in the game because it reflects the reality that neutrality is a hard to define. As it is commonly used, neutrality is staying aloof from moral dilemmas and not intervening on behalf of any interested parties. However, this kind of neutrality is usually not true neutrality because refusing to play a role in a conflict amounts to allowing the stronger side to win. In Fallout 3 the character has to make choices - there is no simple neutrality of nonintervention.

The karma scale improved through each installment of the Fallout series. In the original game there was reputation, which acted like karma but lacked the same moral connotation. There were also few special perks for having a positive or negative reputation, but not as many as in Fallout 3. Unlike Fallout 3, morality only made minor changes to gameplay. There were no factions hunting down a player just for having a bad reputation nor were there any locations made unavailable to players based on morality. Although the moral dimension was less overt in Fallout 3, Fallout did have greater scope for immoral action as well as particular labels that would attach to the player based on misconduct. There was, for example, the "child killer" label bestowed on a player who killed three or more children. This would provoke bounty hunters to come after the player and NPCs were aware of the standing. In Fallout 2 the karma scale was introduced and the range of potential moral and immoral actions was expanded as the game included new opportunities for drug us and subquests having to do with pornography and mafia killings. Yet, it did suffer from a few shortcomings. The reputation system was still present in Fallout 2, making it and karma two different scales on which the player could be judged and there were not as many perks based on the player's karma level. The karma system is one of the series' greatest innovations, but what truly sets it apart from other games are the challenging and innovative quests.

Morality in a Post-apocalyptic World

The quests of Fallout 3 differ greatly in their content and their degree of moral sophistication. At two extremes are the quests "The Power of the Atom" and "Free Labor." One of the game's most well-known and controversial quests is "The Power of the Atom" in which the player is faced with the problem of whether or not to detonate a nuclear bomb sitting in the middle of the town of Megaton. The residents are aware of the bomb and a cult even worships it and bathes in the radioactive water that it sits in, but until the player arrives no one has the skill to defuse it. The player is approached by the scheming NPC Mr. Burke, who offers the job of detonating the bomb in exchange for money and an apartment, but at the cost of -1,000 karma. The reason he gives for needing the city destroyed is that it is an ugly place that blocks a clear view of the Capital Wasteland. A good player can get the quest of disarming the bomb from the town sheriff Lucas Simms then capture Mr. Burke. This course of action only results in a gain of 200 karma, making the good and bad courses of action vastly disproportionate in karmic impact.

"The Power of the Atom" is an entertaining quest, but one that does little show off the game's moral choice engine. There is no middle ground between the extremes of destroying the town and saving it. What is more, there are not even significantly different results. Destroying Megaton results in higher pay, but either resolution earns the same experience point bonus and a new home. Each also results in vigilantes or mercenaries hunting the player in retaliation. Of course, the game is changed by the removal of the city, but this is not a change to the main character.

In The Pitt, a Fallout 3 expansion, the player is faced with a moral decision that is far less clear than most others in the game. The main quest, "Free Labor," revolves around a difficult choice between freeing slaves and curing a degenerative disease by kidnapping a baby or defending the baby and the scientists looking for a more humane cure to the disease while allowing the slaves to remain oppressed. The designers took a care to present compelling reasons for each choice. The slaves clearly live miserable lives and aspire to something better, but they are also ready to hurt the innocent baby in pursuit of their cure and want to kill all of their former captors, not all of whom seem immoral. On the other hand, the slavers treat the baby well and they have a strange paternalistic care for the slaves because their leader claims to defend them from the outside world. The masters are flawed because they keep slaves and because the forced labor includes such unnecessarily harsh measures as forcing them to fight each other to the death. Thus the player is forced to weigh two choices that will each produce a great deal of good and evil. This makes the quest far more sophisticated than "The Power of the Atom," but, it is so complicated that the designers themselves seem incapable of resolving it. They assign no good or bad karma for choosing either course, as if to say that there are good reasons for both.

"Free Labor" is an excellent example of how morality can be handled in a game; its only limitation is that when a problem has no clear moral and immoral resolution it is difficult to make the character feel the effects of their actions. The choice does lead to two different endings, one in which the player may simply leave the city and another in which the player joins a battle to free the slaves, but there are no moral consequences. They player does not have to incur karmic penalties and there are no factions that hunt the player for retribution. Decisions are most meaningful when they have some moral weight and significant results. In this case the player gets a profound sense of how difficult doing the right thing can be, but the consequences for the action are purely subjective.

The strength of the Pitt scenario is not that neither side is entirely good or evil. Up to the moment of decision there are bits of information that help the player understand the situation, yet nothing that conclusively points in one direction or another. The absence of a complete perspective that games usually provide draws attention to the epistemological difficulty that plagues us in decision making. We only have limited information from which to make moral choices. This information is often woefully inadequate and stops us from making a truly rational calculation. Good and evil are not chosen based on a careful analysis of all the fact and it is rare that we can even see that one side is good and the other bad at the moment of action. Even when the moral difference would be clear given more information, we rarely know enough before acting to know what results an action will have.

The best scenarios for approximating reality and providing an engaging moral dilemma are those that fall somewhere between "Power of the Atom" and "Free Labor." The ideal is a scenario in which there is a moral dilemma with the potential for good and bad resolutions and that carries with it significant consequences, but in which the player does not have complete information about the problem. "The Power of the Atom" could be rewritten to pose the same problem but with the NPC's motives made less obvious or even deliberately hidden. Mr. Burke could lie to the player to make his evil plot seem as though it were well-intentioned. More dishonesty and half-truths from NPCs might be a good way of achieving this. The player has many opportunities to lie in the Fallout 3 dialogues and in a chaotic world of individuals seeking only their own self-interest it is surprising that the NPCs do not dissemble more often. It is particularly strange that those with evil intentions are so forthcoming with their motives. Quests that force the player to resolve moral dilemmas based on limited evidence would be more challenging. The player would be unable to resolve on their character type for guidance. There are a few quests in the game that approach this ideal.

One of the best quests in Fallout 3 and one of the strangest is "Oasis." It is about a small community hidden away from the desolate wastelands in which there is thriving vegetation. It is all because of Harold, a character from each of the preceding games. He used to be a ghoul with a tree growing out of his head, but the tree overtook his body and he became trapped within it. A cult arose to worship him and the trees that grew around him, but the members ignore his pleas for death. Life as a tree is excruciating and so he asks the player to travel underground to find his heart and kill him. There are three distinct choices to make: to kill Harold and save him from a life of pain, to apply a liniment to accelerate his growth, or to apply sap that will stop him from growing, but keep him alive. The reason for keeping him alive or accelerating his growth is to sustain or even enlarge the forest that has grown up around him. The quest raises the question of euthanasia and to what extent it is worth making an individual suffer for the good of the group. It is thus an excellent moral test - one with clear practical import. Like "Free Labor" it is a morally complicated quest with no clear correct answer; it is shrouded in ambiguity. Like "Power of the Atom" it encourages the player to form an opinion about what is the right thing to do and it imposes consequences. What sets it apart from them is that it forces players to resolve moral dilemmas that they encounter in the real world, albeit from a new perspective that fosters original thinking. There are also distinct rewards for and punishments for each of the resolutions, which means that the way in which the quest is resolved affects the rest of the story.

Learning to be Good

Aristotelian virtue ethics is one of the dominant schools of thought in moral philosophy, and, as Miguel Sicart notes (Sicart 2009), video games are well-suited to teaching the practical wisdom that is central to virtue ethics. Aristotle avoided giving definitive rules for moral conduct as there are in utilitarian and Kantian ethics and instead argued that moral behavior is learned through practice. In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle characterizes virtue as the mean between extremes. For any given virtue there are two corresponding vices of excess or deficiency (Aristotle, 1999, 1106b) that must be avoided. Courage, for example, is not simply fearlessness. It is the mean between fear and overconfidence, each of which is a vice (Aristotle, 1999, 116a5). "The former two show excess and deficiency, while the courageous man keeps to the median and behaves as he ought" (Aristotle, 1999, 115a6). The same guidelines apply to other virtues. Finding the mean can be difficult because where it lies is contextually dependent. Courage for a soldier is the mean of standing in ranks and marching into battle with his comrades while the extremes are running away from the fight or charging into it alone. Courage means something entirely different for a scholar or a statesman, but it consists in the same ability to find the mean. The mean is always there, but finding it requires special skill. As Aristotle develops his theory, it becomes clear that seeing what the middle road is in every situation and having the ability to follow it requires a special practical wisdom that he calls phronesis. The theory thus settles on the importance of practical wisdom that allows one to find the mean between extremes and act on it.

Practice is a central part of Aristotle's philosophy because it is only through constantly performing virtuous actions that virtue becomes ingrained one's character. Repeatedly finding the mean between vices through practical wisdom strengthens practical wisdom. It is, like any other skill, one best learned through training rather than through introspection and rational analysis alone. "Moral virtues, like crafts, are acquired by practice and habituation" (Aristotle, 1999, 1103a). The appeal of this approach is that it explains how moral reasoning can be improved through practice so it becomes second nature. A person with good character does not have to waste time thinking about what course of action is the best as a good person is habituated to doing what is right. As Barry says, "Aristotle's approach was, above all, practical" (Barry, 1998, p.11). Those with virtuous characters should be able to recognize moral dilemmas immediately and act correctly because of their cultivated practical wisdom.

For Aristotle virtues are akin to technical skills that must be improved through hard work - we should thus take the same approach toward them as we would to improving our ability to read or to draw. Knowing moral principles alone is insufficient to give on the ability to act on them when the time comes so it is essential to practice moral decision making as much as possible. When the moment of decision comes a weak person may see the right course of action, yet lack the character to act on it. Human passions plague the weak person and lead them to habitual bad choices. To make the right choices a person must therefore also be capable of withstanding the costs of doing the right thing. As in the "Power of the Atom" quest, the immoral choice is often the one that pays better and holds greater appeal for its immediate consequences. One must recognize that this is the alternative leading to long-term harm to one's character.

Each of the three scenarios discussed in the preceding section is useful in teaching phronesis. They confront the player with challenges that demand investigation and careful analysis of what consequences are likely to follow from each choice. They transform the player into an active participant in the game rather than a spectator, thereby making gameplay into practice for real-life moral dilemmas. Even when the scenarios are as fanciful as a mutant transforming into a tree, they make reference to well-known issues such as euthanasia. What matters is not the realism of the narrative but the realism of the problems that it raises. By recasting common problems in a virtual world the player has a chance to work through them and experiment with different outcomes without actually having to live with consequences of a bad choice.

Although McCormick defends violent video games on utilitarian and Kantian grounds, he says that they are probably indefensible from an Aristotelian perspective. He argues that an Aristotelian would say that "By participating in simulations of excessive, indulgent and wrongful acts, we are cultivating the wrong sort of character" (McCormick, 2001, p. 286). While it is true that Aristotle might be suspicious of many violent video games, he would not oppose all of them. He was not a pacifist and so would not object to violence as such. What is objectionable in some games is that the violence is the gratuitous killing of innocent people; it is immoral violence. Some games leave players with no choice but to kill innocent people, but Fallout 3 does not. It allows for killing good and bad characters alike. Choosing the good path, while violent, does not harm one's character as this path provides positive character development. Choosing the bad path does not have the same payoff for character development, but it does have the positive function of allowing the player to experience this way of life in a simulation and to come to a deeper understanding of immorality without causing real harm.

Educators have worked on developing moral dilemma simulators for years. Moshe Sherer conducted a study in 1998 of a simulator that measured development according to a moral development calculus developed by Avner Ziv (Ziv, 1976). The calculus measures moral stages, punishment and posttransgressional reactions of the player and revealed that those who play the simulation scored higher than those who did not. The simulation offered moral dilemmas derived from real life situations concerning family, friends, school, work, community, society, sex, criminal activity, drugs, money, military service, relationships with other groups, intergroup relationships and general behavior, with around 10 questions in each area. Players were offered four potential solutions for each problem and were scored based on their response. The scores were specifically designed to reinforce positive behavior and the players knew that they were being judged based on that system (Sherer, 1998, p.379). Based on the evidence of 20 weeks of playing the simulation the authors concluded that "computerized therapeutic simulation games may contribute to the process of moral development of youth" (Sherer, 1998, p.385). These studies show the potential of simulations to teach moral reasoning and thus lend support to the argument that even practice in the virtual world can improve our ability to think through complex issues.

Computer games designed for entertainment are probably far more engaging than those used in Sherer's study and, even when set in fanciful environments, will be more immersive and thus feel more real than educational simulations. Those like Fallout will also be far more open-ended than most education simulators. The more immersive the environment the more real the experience and thus the more useful it is in giving players practice that is useful in the real world. In video games players can interrogate the game's characters about their motivations and feel the consequences of their actions after their decision is made unlike educational simulators that tend to focus exclusively on the moment of decision without providing it much context. We should, therefore, see video games as one of the most promising tools for teaching moral-decision making rather than continuously blaming them for social problems.


An opponent might claim that the greatest weakness of Fallout 3 when judged as a way of exploring morality is that it does not put forth a moral code. In this regard it seems to be a strange source of moral instruction, yet the lack of a moral message is one of the game's strengths. It mirrors real life in that one is not forced to obey a particular moral code. The player has a vague notion of what is right and wrong, but does not encounter the game's morality as a coherent system. The consequences of actions are realized after the actions are made. It does not teach a particular morality. Instead, it shows that there are consequences for every action that arise from the response of other characters; it throws players into a world of moral judgment without offering any definite rules and forces players to t in a morally ambiguous world. This will never lead the player to a systematic moral philosophy, but it will help teach the practical wisdom which Aristotle thought was so much more valuable than theoretical knowledge.

It might be argued that introducing morality into games could be misguided because the developers will always be judging players by the developers' personal values. Again, this is one of the strengths of moral choice engines. Individuals can make autonomous decisions, but these are subject to consequences outside of their control. In the real world, murder is punished as a crime regardless of whether or not the murder thinks the act is justified. The murderer's own feelings about the crime are irrelevant if the legal code and other people consider it wrong. In the Fallout universe there is no legal system that punishes crimes, yet the same informal sanctions of popular sentiment are at work. Games should reflect the moral values of the developers because this makes the player struggle to understand what moral rules are in effect. It is a strength of games that they make players come into contact with other people's moral judgments. Sicart argues that "Playing is an act of judgment of the rule systems and the fictional world the player is presented with" (Sicart, 2005, p.16). This is true with for the game's moral system. The developers may make whatever rules they want and the player will still gain experience in applying these to the challenges faced in the game.

We can also see that the Fallout deals with morality and especially with consequences more effectively than most other games. It is rare for individual choice to change the game's content so drastically. One might be arrested in a Grand Theft Auto game for going killing innocent people, but no matter how egregious the crime it can be washed away by avoiding the police for a few minutes and changing the car's paint color. There is either no element of moral reasoning or it is presented in a shallow form of needing to avoid punishment. This is markedly different from the Fallout world in which every action is judged and becomes part of a permanent reputation. While it is true that players are just as likely to play as neutral characters or evil ones, and many players take pleasure in becoming as evil as possible, they are still playing the game according to a moral standard. The player who consistently tires to be evil is making the same calculations as the consistently good player, going through the same judgments of the consequences of the action, and just choosing to act in a way that will lose karma.

Game critics often urge games to do things that they cannot reasonably accomplish or that would compromise the experience of play. For example, Barrett criticizes GTA: Vice City (Rockstar 2004) for not serving as a platform for criticizing California's three-strikes laws or drawing attention to the disproportionate rate of imprisonment for African Americans (Barrett, 2006, p.101). This is asking too much of a piece of entertainment, especially because it fails to account for the fact that Vice City is only supposed to resemble a city in California and not actually be located there. It is unreasonable to expect games designed for entertainment to solve the world’s social problems, especially when these are external to the plot. The moral dimension of games is, however, one that was created by developers and not forced upon them from the outside. It adds to the enjoyment of play while having an educative function. It gives games more depth and creates multiple routes through the story for better replayability and a customized experience. Thus it seems fair that commentators draw attention to the moral dimension of games and encourage further improvement of it. The Fallout series is a great illustration of how education and entertainment can meet without compromising the latter.


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