Of Ethics, Feelings, and Skyrim

I’m currently visiting my family in Ohio, which means catching up on all the gaming I’ve been too busy for during the last five years. My 12-year-old brother and I have a nice symbiosis going: he has a Windows machine, which meant I could install Skyrim on it, and I have a purchased copy of Skyrim. So we take turns watching each other play.

Kilkreath Ruins. Creepy, yeah? Well, maybe you just had to be there.
Kilkreath Ruins. Creepy, yeah? Well, maybe you just had to be there. Credit: Ekulylnam

Last night, while I was adventuring through the Kilkreath Ruins on a quest from the Daedric Prince Meridia, my brother remarked that he found the cave scary–the creepy noises, the unidentified black mist near the ground–and that started off a discussion about the emotional effects of games and how we feel about them.

My brother said that he’s actually glad that the game is making him feel things again. He has previously played it on Xbox (claiming, in fact, that he “beat the game”), but he said that after a while, he stopped feeling bad when people died or feeling scared by the parts that were meant to be scary. But he prefers to feel those things even though they don’t feel good, because otherwise he worries that he’s becoming unempathetic, somehow cruel. This, he said, is why people should be careful about letting little kids play games: you need to make sure they don’t get used to not feeling things.

I hadn’t actually thought of it that way before, though it seems obvious now. I had always been frustrated by how deeply I felt things that happened in games, and how much that actually restricted my gameplay. My ethics as a game character are not very different from my ethics as a real-life person: I don’t steal (unless, hypothetically, it’s vitally important), I don’t fight anyone who doesn’t fight me first, I try to avoid injuring innocent people with splash damage unless it’s totally unavoidable, I try to persuade people rather than bribing or threatening them, and I don’t hunt wild animals (except the ones that attack me).

But despite everything my brother said, we soon discovered that our styles of play are actually quite different (besides the fact that I play slowly and deliberately whereas he tries to get through quests as fast as possible, a difference that he had already remarked upon in frustration many times). After the Meridia quest, I ended up doing another quest in which I was falsely accused of multiple murders and ended up in a prison mine with people who had attempted (and failed) to recapture the city from people they thought were oppressing them. Together with them, we escaped from the mine, since they all turned out to be very capable mages.

Outside the mine, the escaped prisoners were confronted by prison guards. I had planned to fight alongside them, but here my brother started insisting that I kill the prisoners instead. Why? Because they have really good armor, I wouldn’t get a bounty, and I could kill them easily now that I had my own armor and weapons back. I said, “But they already gave me a set of that armor as a gift.” My brother said, “But it’s really expensive and you could make 10,000 gold just from selling all of theirs.” I said, “But I have other ways to get gold.” He said, “But it’s so easy! Just kill them!”

I knew one thing for certain: I had absolutely zero desire to make 10,000 gold by killing these men. At that moment, there was nothing I wanted to do less than to kill them. The idea just felt bad.

And so I told my brother, “Remember how you felt so scared of the cave you asked me to turn the sound down, even though you knew it was irrational? That’s how I feel about killing the men. It would make me feel bad. The point of playing a game is to have fun. That would make it very un-fun for me.”

He immediately stopped trying to convince me to kill the men and never brought it up again.

It’s true, refusing to kill the men was an irrational choice. Within the game, there were no disadvantages to killing them, and one huge advantage to killing them. But outside of the game, the advantage seemed so small–what’s 10,000 gold, really?–and there was also one glaring disadvantage–the fact that I would feel crappy and uncomfortable, partially defeating the entire purpose of playing the game to begin with.

Earlier I might’ve found this frustrating. I thought that I let myself get way too affected by virtual things. I’m the sort of person who would treat even a fairly rudimentary robot as I’d treat a human or a non-human animal.

Now, having had the first conversation with my brother and the subsequent moral dilemma with the prisoners and the guards, I started to think differently about it.

After all, we (I include myself in this) are more likely to think of it as a feature, not a bug, when we experience emotional reactions to things like films and shows and novels. (That, in fact, is what I reminded my little brother when he called me crying after finishing The Little Prince, and again when he called me crying several years later after finishing Flowers for Algernon.) Playful teasing outside, feeling terrified or very sad during movies is pretty standard. Why not in games?

Maybe it’s because we assume that the point of film and literature (as a fan, not a scholar) is to be absorbed into a story. The point of games, some might argue, is more tangible: to shoot stuff, to solve puzzles, to build cool things, to become the best. Stories may matter in games, but they don’t matter the way they matter in films and novels.

And there are definitely games I would play purely for those tangible aspects. I don’t get emotionally invested in the story of my SimCity creations (though maybe some do). I care slightly for the plight of Fez’s Gomez, who has literally had his entire world as he knew it torn to bits, but mostly I’m just there for the cool puzzles.

Persuade, intimidate, or bribe: Skyrim's eternal moral dilemma.
Persuade, intimidate, or bribe: Skyrim’s eternal moral dilemma.

But with games like Skyrim, I come for the fighting and stay for the interesting narrative, and that generally means starting to feel immersed enough in that world to feel bad when people die needlessly in it. The experience of considering (and strongly rejecting) the idea of killing the escaped prisoners for their valuable armor reminded me of something I think I already knew: that much of ethics, at least for me, is based on automatic emotional responses. Stealing feels bad. Threatening feels worse. Killing needlessly feels even worse.

There must be ethical systems out there that rely on something besides emotion and that still result in minimal harm to other people, but they feel alien to me. In any case, I doubt that those systems would transfer over to virtual worlds. Why bother?

Sometimes I wonder if other people feel that way, and if other people end up playing about the same way that they live (give or take a few magical abilities and badass warhammer techniques, of course). If there are gamers who feel bad when they kill NPCs, I wouldn’t expect them to ever say so, because nobody seems to talk very much about the emotional experience of gaming in general, and because of the hypermasculine culture of it.

But for me–someone who has no interest in participating in or belonging to any sort of “gaming community” and who wouldn’t even take up the label “gamer”–it doesn’t feel like a big deal to say that games make me feel things. Not just general things like excitement or fear, but specific things, like I feel sorry for that man who died even though he’s just a bunch of 1’s and 0’s. Or I wish I didn’t have to kill that dragon; it would feel much better if we could just be friends. (That one might be influenced by the fact that I recently saw both How To Train Your Dragon movies and really liked them.)

And now I’ve finally decided that I like it that way. It’s more rich and fun that way, even with the bad feelings too. Like my brother, I like myself better when I feel those things. Embracing that irrationality feels more human to me.

Of Ethics, Feelings, and Skyrim

27 thoughts on “Of Ethics, Feelings, and Skyrim

  1. 1

    Ooh ooh! There’s a large proportion of gamers who care and absolutely do talk about emotional reactions to games. Just the other day I watched this video where two people talk about what’s more important to them: gameplay or narrative. Obviously both are great, but one can lean one way or another. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cfFBxOuJiYU)

    Tons of games exist beyond the layer of yearly first-person shooters and sports games and Mario. Gone Home is one from last year that I will continue to recommend. But other shooters like The Last Of Us and Mass Effect have really immersive worlds and stories that eclipse the guns, zombies, lasers, and deadly powers.

    It’s really cool to see you write about this subject. It’s exciting to see it have an effect on you.

  2. 3

    I always try to role-play these games so I’ll play through being very good, or very evil, or trying to find the middle path. Even if there’s no obvious consequences. I prefer the ones that have consequences though because I think as a character I should have to deal with them. However…I usually end up playing a sneaky character who is as good as a sneaky person can be because I get scared in the caves and can’t face opponents openly 🙂

  3. 4

    When I played Civilization regularly, I found it difficult to take actions, like bombing civilian populations, or initiating an unprovoked military conflict, that I personally believe to be unethical.

    1. 4.1

      I used to refuse to have nuclear power when I played that game. As a result I would play for hours and never make it into space. I also refused to initiate military conflict and felt a bit betrayed when allies turned on me. On the other hand, I had no qualms about running my country as a theocracy because it seemed to be the easiest form of government.

  4. 5

    Very interesting post, Miri.

    That reminds me of something I like about some games: having friendly characters who turn against you if you attack them.

    Like Bungie’s Marathon 2 from nearly a decade ago. In that one, if you kill too many of your fellow human colonists, they all turn against you for the rest of the level. Late in the game, some aliens show up who fight on your side; they look sort of like like curled fish in spacesuits. If you attack one of them, it will attack you back, but the others won’t care.

    Its sequel, Marathon Infinity, had a first-class mindfuck. It featured some alternate timelines for Marathon 2’s events, and in some of them, the human characters are your enemies. It can be painful fighting your old friends turned enemies.

  5. 6

    I agree completely and I really enjoy games with a narrative. Even games without built-in narratives can become emotionally important

    The most recent bout I had with that was in Kerbal Space Program. I had just built my first manned (Kerballed?) rocket to the Mun. I rejoiced in my first manual controlled landing and felt great when I planted the first flag. Then I felt devastated when I realized what an idiot I was by not mounting solar panels on the lander. There was no power and I couldn’t ignite the engines to send them home. Sure I could have just hit “Revert to Launch” and tried it all over again, but I felt some responsibility for the lives of Jebediah and Bob and for their accomplishment. I instead dropped all my plans and launched an emergency rescue mission to recover my Kerbals. It was messy but it worked and Jeb and Bob lived to fly another day. I missed an important launch window to Duna to do it, but I never regretted it.

  6. J B

    This is why I continue to prefer table-top roleplaying games. Most computer games do an amazingly awful job of engaging ethics well, and it’s very hard for them to do it at all well, so it doesn’t happen often.

  7. 8

    Hmmmm. I agree with the article quite a bit, but I am confused about your ethics here as I think the plot is much more complex than the article portrays. Specifically, the forsworn are engaged in guerilla warfare against the occupying race (not against the occupying government). At the beginning of the quest you see someone who has been brainwashed by the forsworn suicide attack on a single civilian in an effort to terrorize the population. The guys who you escape the prison with are the leader and inner cadre of the forsworn in prison. The people who are ordering these attacks.

    This makes the ethics in that situation much more cloudy in my opinion. I would like to hear what people think.

      1. Interesting, when I play rpgs like skyrim, I find that I roleplay the characters that I play, as in I create the personality, morals and personal limitations understanding and even addictions. I think this could correspond to why I react to this dilemma this way, I percieve the character as a seperate entity than my personal beliefs, so it would be really important to consider the greater moral implications of killing them in the game world which is the only reality my character inhabits. (Just to explain where I am coming from)

        What perplexes me about your stance is that in rpgs like the elder scrolls or fallout there are evil people doing some undeniably evil things, are you ok with tolerating child murderers or slavers so long as you don’t have to initiate combat? I dono, I can see that some here have stated similar moral positions, I just don’t understand why you look at your actions as moral seperate from the context of the ingame plot. Would you act if an innocent ingame character was threatened in front of you but you have to initiate combat? Is there a rationale beyond don’t attack people or initiate combat that defines this ethical barrier?

  8. 9

    Sometimes I wonder if other people feel that way, and if other people end up playing about the same way that they live (give or take a few magical abilities and badass warhammer techniques, of course).

    This is how I play most games on the first run through. On subsequent plays, I usually make up a character backstory and try to stick to it.

    If there are gamers who feel bad when they kill NPCs, I wouldn’t expect them to ever say so, because nobody seems to talk very much about the emotional experience of gaming in general, and because of the hypermasculine culture of it.

    There’s a small minority who do. I sense we’re growing as gaming slowly becomes less white and male (I think the last few years of controversy in the gaming community are evidence of that; ten years ago no noise would have been made over most of them). Open World RPGs have almost always had a wide range of emotion available to players, and it’s a tragic shame that most of the gaming community seems to think it would be “weak” to actually indulge it.

  9. 10

    It sounds like you and I play, and feel, Skyrim in very much the same way. I handled the prisoner quest the same way both times I’ve played through it, for much the same reasons. I tend to play stealth characters and it helps to decrease the number of “innocent” people I need to kill. I almost always end games with very poor pickpocket abilities.

    I think a lot of this is an age issue – younger folks (like your brother) may be more likely to see a game as a goal to win. I certainly used to. Now I see gaming as an experience to have, which is part of why Skyrim is so outstanding. The style allows for an enormous different experiences, emotions, and play styles. That’s part of why I love it so much.

  10. 11

    I play Skyrim exactly like this!

    Strict rule of no killing, except in self defence. So I own hundreds of wolf and bear pelts, but I never killed a fox. (I got a pet one, though, which is frankly hilarious.) I keep checking my stats to make sure Murders is at zero. In the Dark Brotherhood quest, of course I turned the bow on Astrid instead of the innocent captives, and ended up feeling guilty about that, too.

    As a guy, I still feel more guilty about killing female enemies, and even guiltier for having felt guilty. (Residual sexism, etc.)

    Needless to say, I own the Masque of Clavicus Vile and not the axe.

    The best part about Skyrim, for me, is about exploring my own ethical values, and the reasons for them. Incidentally, it would be interesting to think whether this empathy/compassion extended to non-human NPCs: eg to Paarthurnax or not to Paarthurnax?

  11. 12

    I remember I would always save the little sisters in Bioshock, because killing them just felt horrible. But then, that’s a particularly over the top example of a morally evil choice in a game. Killing the little sisters makes you literally Hitler, oh and here are some extra goodies you Objectivist scoundrel. I’ve always been surprised to hear from people who said they felt bad at first, but then got used to killing the sisters because it was the best choice in terms of in-game outcomes.

    It probably says something about how desensitized I am that only this over the top choice has ever really prompted that much of a reaction in me. In open world games I tend to act morally, but I don’t feel too bad about switching it up in order to explore the decision tree.

  12. 13

    I think this line can be drawn at many places.

    I like Skyrim. Some of the most fun quests, in my opinion, are those for the Dark Brotherhood and the Thieves Guild. This was true in Oblivion as well (I have not played earlier games in the series).

    Now, that obviously means I have less problem with playing an evil character than Miri. On the other hand, Skyrim is (as many CRPGs are, and even many tabletop RPGs are) basically a game of murdering people and taking their stuff. You might argue that when you kill the Falmer in their cave, or vampires, or bandits, or whatever that they attacked you first. But you invaded their home, uninvited, probably armed to the teeth and with no illusions that this was likely to be a peaceful visit. Inarguably this is less evil than killing innocent people because the Night Mother asked you to – but it’s not exactly the sort of thing we’d regard as ethical behaviour in the real world, unless you are some sort of law enforcement professional (and even then, there are rules).

    There are, to be fair, people that have played Skyrim in a completely pacifist manner, but I would be unsurprised to find that someone had managed to complete Saints Row 3 or Grand Theft Auto without committing any crimes as well – that sort of achievement though is very difficult, because the game isn’t really designed with that play style in mind.

    I don’t mean to suggest that I take an “anything goes” attitude to games. There are certainly many experiences I have no interest in sharing even vicariously through fictional characters or 1s and 0s. It just appears that I draw the line a little to the right of some of you.

  13. 14

    I feel the same, I like playing the “good” path and find the “evil” path difficult to take at times. I felt awful making a certain Renegade choice on Tuchanka in Mass Effect 3.

    I’m currently playing through Dark Souls on the 360 and the morality there is really interesting, because you have no idea. The plot is totally minimalist. In contrast to Skyrim, there is no journal, no quest markers, and no real plot. No map, and for a long time no kind of fast travel except with one specific item that takes you to your last checkpoint. This is also a double-edged sword as resting at a checkpoint refills your spells, heals you, and replenishes your healing potions, but also respawns most enemies too.

    For example, I found a prisoner in a cell and I happened to have the key, so I let him out. I found him later in the hub section of the world, and he was appropriately grateful. As you play through, he kills another NPC the Firekeeper who fuels the checkpoint bonfire in the hub area, rendering it useless. If I wouldn’t have let him out, that character would still be there. I have no idea why that happened, and had no idea that it would happen. You do later have a chance to recover the soul of the dead NPC, and resurrect her, but you have to kill the prisoner you released to do so.

  14. 15

    Reminds me of how in Oblivion, I completed nearly all the game except for the Thieves’ Guild and the Dark Brotherhood. It would have been a big leap for me to make lots of enemies, especially enemies that were former friends, and I never got around to trying.

    1. 15.1

      Sometimes the definition of ‘murder’ in Oblivion gets a little murky (to those who’ve never played, you have to murder someone to draw the attention of the Dark Brotherhood and be able to do the assassin questlines). While I was playing my (nearly) pure mage Breton last night, I was doing the next-to-last mission for the Mages’ Guild. I was able to simply walk in to the lair of the Big Bad Evil Guy – Gal, actually – and was greeted amiably enough by the renegade mage mooks. After killing their boss, I had to fight and flee to get out; apparently killing them counted as murders, though the ones that died by my summoned monsters didn’t. Anyway, the Speaker for the Dark Brotherhood showed up when I slept at an outdoor camp and I ended up killing him as well. Not easy, especially for a 6-7th level mage, but the aforementioned summoned monsters were extremely helpful. He had a nice set of robes/hood suitable for a mage so it was arguably worth the risk. I didn’t want to be an assassin anyway.

  15. 16

    I can never get any emotional attachment in games like Skyrim. It’s too big and vague for me to ever see any of the NPCs even as characters, much less emotionally connect with them. I didn’t go on killing sprees because I didn’t want a bounty, and I might need the NPCs for something if they aren’t hostile. Everything’s open to you. You can be the head of every guild. Joining and taking over really fast. Just complete a few quests and you’re the leader. There’s just so much to do, and it really makes no difference what kind of character you are. So if the game doesn’t care what kind of person your character is, why should I?

    In other games I do get very emotionally involved. In the PSP game Jeanne D’Arc I rage quit when one of the main characters died and there was nothing you could do to prevent it. And I still feel guilty every time I take down a Colossus whenever I replay Shadow of the Colossus.

    In narative games where you get choices, I’ll usually make my character honest. And if there’s a no-kill option to get through the game, I’ll go that route. The exception is Mass Effect, I make my Shepard the red Shepard for most conversations, minus some of the really cruel options. I do get emotionally attached to Shepard, and though I like her being a big jerk and a hardass, I don’t like making her pure evil.

    The short version: It’s up to the game to make me care enough for my morals to become a factor. And in sandbox games like Skyrim, it’s hard for me to see the characters as anything but lumps of sand.

  16. 17

    I started noticing this when I was playing Metal Gear Solid 2 in high school. I found the visceral impact of using lethal weaponry (the blood, the screaming, etc) to be not just harder to clean up, but downright disturbing.

    Partly it depends on the game and the narrative within the game. In games like MGS2, the Deus Ex series, and Dishonored, I find it difficult to deliberately take a life, often resorting to constant save-scumming when getting through tricky stealth sequences.

    On the other hand, in Mass Effect or Fable, I have no problem mowing through human enemies (I’ve been known to giggle at bullet-time headshots playing Soldier Shepard). At the same time, I have difficulty treating NPCs like dirt when they’re not actively trying to kill me. I’ve tried playthroughs as renegade or dark side and just given up an hour in, because I just lose interest.

    Then I go play Binding of Isaac. And cry a little.

  17. 18

    Oooh, video game ethics. Awesome.

    I tend to view ethics in video games as very simplistic. Generally speaking, the only consequence that one can mete out is death. In the Forsworn v. Markarth `civil war,` after breaking out of the prison, I killed everyone. In reality, I would advocate for social reform, and kill only when necessary (say, maybe, the forsworn leaders and in defending civilians). But the game doesn`t give me that option. Instead, I have the forsworn leaders and agents of the oppressive government all in one spot. I was a mage, with heavily boosted magicka, magicka regeneration, and feats the cut the cost of my spells; I spammed fireball until everyone was dead. Utterly unethical, but within the framework it’s all I have.

    There was another situation within the prison where one is given the option to kill someone, or fight a large brute of an orc. Again, I was a mage, so one on one fist fights were not my specialty. But this time I’m given the option of an effective, ethical alternative. I kicked the orc’s ass in a fist fight, after about a half dozen tries.

    Another situation in Bioshock 2 bothered me. There are several (for lack of a better word) ‘bosses,’ and your morality is determined in how you treat them. Essentially, letting them live is moral, and killing them is not. One of these bosses is a bit of a “mad scientist.” He’s turned himself in an abomination of a being, trapped within a large tank of water. You have access to recordings he made prior to his transformation: he can’t stop it; he wants to stop it; he knows it will turn him evil and sadistic with little hope of recovery; and he wants you to kill him, both to spare himself living like that, and the lives he inevitably takes. Respecting his wishes is deemed to be evil within the game.

    Then I go play Binding of Isaac. And cry a little.

    Playing Binding of Isaac can feel awful sometimes. Some of the enemies (whom one must kill to proceed) are simply sitting in a corner, terrified and crying. I say above that I’m happy to mete out death to evil, harmful beings if I’m not given another choice, but these things aren’t any sort of evil or threat. The sound of it is heartbreaking, and the silence after one kills them is just as bad.

  18. 19

    Videogame ethics… how many here have ever destroyed Megaton in Fallout 3? I did it exactly once – to get the achievement and to see what it looked like. Then I felt so awful I went back to my earlier save and disabled the nuke.

    On the other hand, I would cheerfully go through Little Lamplight with a ripper (a kind of butcher knife-sized chainsaw) and kill every one of the brats living in that postholocaust NeverNeverLand as well as that one girl in Skyrim’s city of Whiterun because the little bastards seem to know that they’re immune to being killed and never miss an opportunity to be snotty.

  19. 21

    I know this is old and no one cares anymore, but I was struck by your brother’s line about kids playing games and not feeling things. Skyrim is, ethically speaking, one of the worst games I’ve ever played (I don’t play a lot though). I gave up about, what I guess was, 1/3 of the way through a “complete” play through and just rounded off the main quest lines and walked away. It’s a fantastically beautiful and interesting game but nothing you do in the game matters.

    I don’t expect my video games to teach me or my children ethics; I’m sure there are some “Christian” games that do, and w/o seeing them I’m confident they are insipid. What I do hope for though is the existence of consequences…it seems essential for a RPG. Skyrim is heralded as a gem for role playing, it lets you play as good or bad, ambivalent or interested in others, archer or Mage or melee, sneaky or obvious, and so on and you can go adventuring around regardless of what you chose. That’s nice, and within quests the choices you make have impact sometimes, but outside a particular quest line, nothing in the game matters. By “matters” I mean even registers on the the NPCs. I know that realistically no one is gonna know if I kill a dude in the bottom of a dungeon, but hey man, I’m actively advancing the Stormcloak rebellion and you imperial loyalist Jarl are making me Thane because I found a book for some alchemist in the town.

    The open structure of the game is perhaps what leads to this ambivilance of NPCs; it’s impractical to program in 14 different conversation lines for a character to offer based on what they might realistically be aware of about your past actions. But total ignorance of anything you’ve done, the easiest way to program it, TEACHES that what you do does not matter.

    It’s an odd experience more apparent to a child who is accustomed to being supervised. But we are all supervised, your coworkers, spouse, and friends react to the things you do. In Skyrim no one cares. I found it depressing, being so alone. It’s not freedom to be bad, or explore your idea of ethical behavior it’s just empty. If no one reacts to your choices, why even choose. Seems like this is what your brother was dealing with and why he liked playing with you so much, someone to at least notice his choices.

    This is a game in which advancement means gaining the ability to see your character decapitate their enemies. Perhaps not the best place to discuss ethics. But regardless of what a game “teaches” by it’s reward system ethically, just acknowledging that others care about your choices is the first step into having ethics.

  20. 22

    Just to be clear, having ethics, an essential part of a RPG imho, doesn’t mean giving benefits for being good. Or giving benefits for the opposite. It just means acknowledging that choices were made.

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