Saturday, November 14, 2015

Video Games and Morality: What Fallout Taught Me About Myself (part 2)

This article, the second part of a two-parter, was originally posted on my blog, here.

Now to get to the good part: moral dilemmas and consequences!

Choices, Choices...
There's a Karma system in Fallout - if you kill good people, steal, pickpocket, or otherwise make a fallout-3-karmanuisance of yourself, your Karma will head swiftly downward. If you help people, complete quests for good-karma characters, and choose a more diplomatic course in general, your Karma will rise. New Vegas also has a faction system in addition to the Karma system - if you complete quests for one faction, it might anger another faction, and you could very quickly find yourself taking sides without intending to do so.
What intrigued me about this game in particular is that it you have a choice to alter the game world through your actions. You can choose what kind of person to be - Very Evil, Very Good, or in between. You can choose to deal civilly with your opponents if they will allow it - or you can make enemies of them by shooting first and not asking questions at all. In short, you can explore morality - that of yourself and your character. Each game is its own story.
The Factions
In Fallout New Vegas, you have the choice to side with one of three major factions:
Mr. House - a rich pre-War industrialist that put himself in a hibernation chamber in the Lucky 38 casinofallout_new_vegas_mr_house_desktop_1920x1200_hd-wallpaper-1173403 shortly before the war, and who now controls the New Vegas strip. He bankrolled the rebuilding after all, so what he says goes - at least for now. You were delivering a package for him when you were shot in the head - and saved by one of his robots.
NCR - the New California Republic, a government that is attempting to restore order and organize a working government in the West. They control a good portion of California, and like all governments, can't help but fall prey to the temptation to expand their influence - by force, if necessary.
The Legion - Led by a former translator/diplomat who calls himself Caesar, the Legion is modeled after the Roman Empire, armor and everything. All the named Non Player Characters in this faction have Roman names. This faction is aggressive, militaristic, and are slavers to boot. can choose to take advantage of Yes Man (a robot that can help you usurp Mr. House) - an option that allows you to fashion an independent New Vegas with you, of course, at the helm.
In the end, it's you who decides the fate of New Vegas, the Hoover Dam, and the Mojave Wasteland. That kind of power is intoxicating, even just in a game. It didn't take long for me to think, "why let Mr. House control New Vegas, when all that power is well within the grasp of my grubby little paws?"
The Problems
Mr. House's attitude and behavior SCREAM "authoritarian ." The Strip is technically his property, however, and anyone who doesn't like his rules is welcome to leave.
The NCR is, well, the NCR. This government sucks, just like every other government. Taking control of land, then informing the residents that they have to pay taxes in exchange for the "protection" that the soldiers supposedly provide, it's little more than an extortion racket with pretty uniforms. It's better than The Legion, but it's definitely not ideal.
The Legion offers the worst outcome for the Mojave in general (in my opinion). Being slavers, my guess is that the bulk of the wastelanders who live in the Mojave would either be absorbed into the ranks of the military, killed, or enslaved if this faction were to take over. It has the potential to bring a harsh order to the wasteland, but it's not exactly a rosy picture.
What I Learned About Myself
When I first started playing, I played as if it were actually me - I made choices that I thought I would make if I were in the same situation as the Courier (or Lone Wanderer, depending on the game). That's when some funny things happened.
I found that I'm not much of an altruist. If I feel particularly generous, I may accept a quest from someone for no payment - after all, fame and reputation could also be considered forms of payment.
But, I observed cynically, fame doesn't buy me bullets. A good reputation doesn't hand out food or stimpaks (stimpaks are a method of health regeneration - essentially a drug, portrayed in the game as what looks like a fancy schmancy hypodermic syringe). Everything's expensive, scarcity is a significant influence, and though you can loot abandoned buildings and dead people, it's rare for you to get something for free.
So, apparently, living in a post-nuclear wasteland brings out the pragmatic cynic in me. It's always good to know how one would react to a stressful environment.
I also learned that I become easily irritated by negative attitudes - something I've known about myself for quite some time. It comes to the surface a lot quicker in a game setting where the consequences of being surly, a smartass, or difficult just for the Hell of it would be negligible. I mean - it's a post-nuclear wasteland. There are mutated animals, hostile factions, and practically everything you eat or drink is irradiated. With that kind of reality, is it any wonder that a person who treats everyone like crap risks me (or someone else) knocking their block off? When the world is so depressing, why make life harder for everyone?
Joshua Graham
Joshua Graham
I also, paradoxically, become as gentle as a teddy bear with certain characters. If they show gentleness, compassion, and strength despite hardship, I respect that. If they become cynical and practical but still retain a healthy dose of humor about their situation, then I genuinely like them. If they are businesslike, single-mindedly pursuing money, we can use each other to benefit the both of us. If the character is a born leader, competent and sure, then I'll follow (as long as I too believe in the validity of their cause).
Playing a Very Evil Karma character in Fallout 3 also taught me a lot about myself. For example, when I stole, pickpocketed, enslaved or killed someone, I felt remorseful - even if it was just a game. Sadly, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Partly because it can be rationalized - it's just a game. I feel bad for doing vault boy thumbs up1bad things, even if those bad things are not done to real people. I would not do these things if I had the opportunity to do them in real life. That in itself is proof that I'm a good person.
Strangely enough, that was the validation I didn't even know that I was looking for. When I played as if it were me, I wound up with Very Good Karma. When I intentionally played as Very Evil, I felt bad about doing bad things, no matter what I did or how often I did them.
I had no idea that a video game could change my life so much.
Apparently, psychological validation costs $19.99 at Gamestop.

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