Meaning, Morality, and Video Games: the enduring value of RPGs

Final Fantasy VII

Final Fantasy VII

Moral decision-making, ethical dilemmas, and choices regarding civil and political rights do not seem like winning topics for video games. However, many of the most beloved Role-Playing Games (RPGs) tackle these very concepts through adventures that require players to make difficult moral decisions and be responsible for their outcomes. For many of these games, it has been years since their release and newer games have surpassed them technologically. Nonetheless, many of these older games become, and remain, favorites for both new and old gamers. The two questions one has to ask are, “Why do these kinds of games remain popular a decade after their release?” and “How and why do the moral choices in these games become meaningful to players?”

People have accepted that only intelligent species play throughout their lives, and video games are a form of it.[1] Play is important for animals because it allows them to learn how to interact effectively with each other and the world around them. Play is essential from a survival standpoint: if we did not enjoy learning basic skills, we probably would not learn them at all. We continue to learn by playing throughout our lives, starting when we are children running around playgrounds, learning motor skills, and continuing to when we are adults playing golf or tennis.

One can see video games as another way in which we develop our ability to aim, our sense of time, coordination, and our capacity for strategizing. In addition, because we are inherently social creatures, we enjoy acting out roles and video games provide an opportunity to do so. Some of the best RPGs allow a player to assume a role, moral code, and personality in order learn about the world of social interactions through novel situations that require people to make decisions that are ultimately moral in nature.

These high-quality RPGs are games such as, but not limited to, Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn and Final Fantasy VII, which have retained their popularity for over a decade despite companies creating newer games with more sophisticated technologies.[2]  Although these two games operate on different platforms, they share two important features that appeal to the human desire to learn and practice social skills. First, both have complex plots in unique and rich worlds. Second, in these games the player must make decisions, both large and small, that influence the development of the story.

Both of these features mean that the player must process a lot visually and intellectually when going through the game. The depth of the world and the degree of autonomy a player has enables him or her to become invested in the story as well as the characters his or her decisions affect. Even though the worlds are not entirely realistic due to the fact that characters, for example, talk to mini dragons, wield impossibly large swords, and may look rather cartoonish, the flexible and immersive nature of these games allows the player to emotionally invest in the story and treat the decisions as though they were ones that would personally affect him or her.



By looking at the first five minutes of a relatively new action RPG, we can see how a detailed world and some degree of free-will allows a player to treat the story, and the moral dilemmas it presents, as more than just a game.[3] In Skyrim, you start out waking up, bound, in a cart with other people in a similar position. It turns out that “the Imperials” have accidentally captured you along with the rebel “Stormcloaks”, led by the allegedly rightful “high king of Skyrim,” who is sitting next to you. The Imperials are taking you to a town called Helgen (of whose mead your fellow prisoner has fond memories) and are going to be executed because you walked into the trap when you were crossing the border to Skyrim. You learn all this in about two minutes and probably feel as overwhelmed as your character does by all this new information. Upon reaching the town, and the chopping block, you finally get to create your character. As soon as you finish, you receive a sympathetic comment from an Imperial about your bad luck and then it is time for you to be decapitated. Fortunately a massive dragon interrupts your execution and you run around through the pandemonium and face your first decision. You must choose to follow either a “Stormcloak” rebel who the Imperials captured along with you, or the Imperial that showed you some compassion before you were called for your execution.

The three important points to note about this example are that within the first five minutes of Skyrim the player is primed to find meaning in the game because he or she is instantly immersed into a developed world, his or her character’s life is in imminent danger, and the player has to make an important decision. First, the depth of the world is instantly apparent and engaging, not only due to the strange words, titles, references to geography and political conflicts, but also because of the overwhelming auditory and visual beauty of the world. Second, because we take survival, particularly our own survival, so seriously that when a game informs us that the person we are playing is about to be executed, we become invested in their existence and treat the decisions that the game presents as important. Third, as the player is trying to avoid the flame-breathing dragon, he or she must make a moral decision regarding whom to follow in an attempt to escape the attack. The player must decide whether to align with the rebels (at least temporarily) with the knowledge that their leader allegedly murdered the previous king of the country, or to join the very people who would have executed your character without caring that he or she was falsely imprisoned. The opportunity for the player to make this decision show that he or she has, and will continue to have, a significant influence on the development of the overall story.

After the first five minutes of a successful RPG, the player will have accepted the world and have an idea of the conflicts that are driving the story. When the introduction ends, the player generally finds his or her character without good equipment or skills, but with significantly more freedom on where to go and what to do. At this point, the player can reflect on whatever moral decisions he or she made earlier. For instance:  “Maybe it would have been better to side with the Imperials (Skyrim)”; “it might have been better to not yell at Winthrop (Baldur’s Gate I)”; good thinking not killing all of those Lizardmen (Neverwinter Nights II)”, etc. This reflection occurs naturally because the player finally has the chance to stop and think about the preceding events and how to continue from that point on.

As games progress, the emotional impact of decisions and player conduct often fades as the novelty of the virtual world diminishes. The designers and creators of good RPGs seem to be very much aware of this and implement rewards, penalties, and/or reminders of the consequences of a player’s in-game actions. For instance, in Skyrim, if you decide to slaughter an entire town (or a defenseless chicken) everyone will turn against you and you will begin to accrue a bounty on your head whose amount correlates to the severity of your in-game social infractions. The bounty system reminds players to either be more careful when committing a crime, or to act like a law-abiding person.

Dragon Age II reminds players to treat their decisions seriously by using two additional methods. First, the player must continuously address aspects of the morally ambiguous central conflict through every quest. In order to complete whatever quest the player is pursuing, he or she must ultimately take a stand on an issue pertaining to the main quest’s conflict by choosing between two choices that boil down to freedom (which is leaning towards anarchy and terrorism) and order (which is threatening to become tyranny and genocide).

The second way in which Dragon Age II reminds the player of the gravity of his or her decisions is through a mechanism that games such as Final Fantasy VII, Neverwinter Nights II, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Mass Effect use. In this game, as in life, the decisions a player makes affect how his or her companions feel about the player’s character. These reactions, and how the game quantifies them, serve as subtle reminders of the significance of a player’s in-game actions. For instance, ignoring or insulting a companion’s concern can result in a “-1” to how they feel about the player’s character. On the other hand, if the player decides to champion the cause of his or her friend, this can result in a “+10” to their attitude towards the player’s character. Ultimately, the game creators tap into our inherent concern over what our friends think of our actions and, by doing so, allow players to continue to find meaning in their in-game choices.

Ultimately, the “realism” of a role-playing game will not determine its lasting success or failure. As many of the aforementioned games demonstrate, stylized graphics and older technology have little bearing on the social and moral impacts they can have on players. What matters, instead, is that games have enough substance, and present enough of a cognitive challenge through complex plots and moral gray areas, that players become immersed in the game worlds. Furthermore, players derive meaning from their experiences in games by seeing the consequences of their actions in the virtual worlds. RPGs that withstand the passage of time and continue to appeal to players are more than entertainment; they are worlds that encourage players to learn and practice complex moral decision-making.

[1]  M. Kuba, D.V. Meisal, R.A. Byrne, U. Gabriel, and J.A. Mather “Looking at Play in Octopus Vulgaris

[3] For a video discussion on the significance of the “first five minutes” of a game, check out “Starting out Right” at


9 thoughts on “Meaning, Morality, and Video Games: the enduring value of RPGs

  1. Very interesting post.

    I definitely think that RPGs offer something more than most games, and that older RPGs in particular really drive home that concept of exploring choice, philosophy, and other worlds. I mean, Final Fantasy Tactics had me talking about institutional corruption and political intrigue. Planescape: Torment had me debating what can change the nature of a person. Fallout gave me a simple task, restore our means of water production, but in doing so also gave me an incredible world of sordid figures and foes to meet, befriend, or kill.

    Bioware may still be leading the charge on some aspects of choice in modern RPGs, but I don’t think their worlds and characters have the meat to really make those choices feel as significant or as deep or as meaningful. And while Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls may be skipping on moral choices, their worlds are far more wild and fascinating. What they lack in cohesive epic plot lines, they make up for by exploring a thousand more concepts without forcing you down a narrow path to each one.

    • It can be pretty surprising to find yourself thinking about rather complex philosophical issues while going through a game. You start thinking about your stance a political issues, corruption, the distinction between good and evil. Planescape: Torment is awesome. Relatively simple goals that make plenty of room for player decisions, experiences, in-game connections.

      Bioware does seem to be leading the charge, but I agree that its games are not the best at providing enough exploration and freedom to allow the player to get really invested. I think independent companies have a better grasp on that, maybe because they have more freedom to take risks. I agree, The Elder Scrolls really do not provide many opportunities for moral choices; it seems like they have to be inferred or internally rationalized. For example: Do I join the Dawnguard or the vampires? Should I become a werewolf or join the werewolf hunters? Should I help this daedra and end up becoming a cannibal? Which house should I join, or should I become an assassin? I think what is missing in the Elder Scrolls games is the “moral of the story” after quests, such as an NPC saying something conclusive that encapsulates the moral aspect of your choice.

      Sorry! I kind of went off on a tangent! It was very exciting to read your comment and hear what you think of this whole concept 🙂

      • I typically play Elder Scrolls games from a roleplaying perspective rather than a game playing perspective. They are often too free to play as a game, and you’ll quickly end up a min/maxed power house who will suck the loot out of hero or villain alike.

        Instead, I make up a quick background, decide on a limited skillset, and approach my new surroundings from a specific perspective.

        Which, in a gaming sense, really sucks since so much is my interaction with the world within my own mind rather than being native to the world itself. But that’s what makes sandboxes so fun to play in, after all, isn’t it?

        • There definitely is the option in those games to abandon role-playing and just go for the loot and power. I veer more on the side of role-playing with them as well. Having a backstory that influences skill and faction/guild choices creates a much richer experience.

          I too feel that most of the interaction ends up in your head, which can be great! However, sometimes I wish there were more opportunities for interaction in the world itself, even if it did limit the open nature of the world. Regardless, sandbox games are some of the most fun games out there, at least in my opinion.

          • For all its glory, there are definitely moments in Skyrim that needed some imagination to make work. The rebellion/imperial quests in particular given how few people showed up for the big final part of the line.

            I do wish Bethesda would fully embrace a roleplaying approach too. Outside of Morrowind and a few moments in Skyrim, the main questlines are hardly any comparison to many of the other, more interesting questlines. There are mods for PC where you can start somewhere other than Helgen in a wagon, but I’d love to see that designed as part of the experience in the next game.

            And more interactions outside of straight combat are always appreciated. A good sandbox has room for that sort of stuff. It may not be a traditional sandbox, but I like to play Civilization IV as if it were one. Especially with the founding religion, it always felt so much cooler to not play it as a glorified board game on steroids.

  2. Amazing piece and enjoyed reading every bit of it! I was wondering whether maybe you could give me a few tips on writing, have all these ideas in my head for articles and stories but can’t gel them together, can’t organize it so that it’s structured. Can find me on GTalk on Thank you again… brilliant piece!

    • I would be honored to! I am not on gchat very often at all, but I will write you an email (that may become a post in itself if it is good enough)

      Thank you so much for your kind words and I applaud your commitment to becoming an even better writer 🙂

  3. Okay…there’s way too much in this article to even attempt a ‘proper’ reply here. I found my mind flying off (not literally…) in numerous directions with nearly every sentence I read. I could read a book about this subject.

    I have a copy of Skyrim for Xbox (thankfully I didn’t get it for PS3, given the Skyrim/PS3 issues) but I haven’t actually played it yet. I did however play it’s predecessor Oblivion, up to a point. I think I got as far as a place with a huge burning eye, or eye on fire on something like that. Then the combat became a little too hard and my character wasn’t effective enough to stop dying so easily. I’m afraid I gave up then. I loved the whole Oblivion world but I did get very frustrated with the menu system. I’m afraid the menu was too large and complex for me to get to grips with and impacted my enjoyment. It felt like having to do a Maths exam before I could actually enjoy making menu choices which would improve my character.

    I’ve often thought it must be a nightmare for a developer to create a menu system that’s easy enough to get to grips with without reaching for headache pills, yet complex enough to give you a range of choices and outcomes that you enjoy making.

    I totally agree that the first moments of a game are crucial in gripping the player although I have found with some games, as with some books and films, that even if the beginning of a game isn’t ‘all that’, if you persevere a little then it gets better. Of course the problem is that some people won’t stay beyond that beginning. I suspect I don’t have the patience for long term submergence in RPG’s, at least not the one’s you mention, but I guess we all have our favourite genres.

    I’ll leave it there except to say that the best sentence in your article has to be “Fortunately a massive dragon interrupts your execution…” Always good when that happens! I could have done with such a dragon at various points in my life. Never a fire breathing dragon around when you need one 🙂

    • Thank you for the reply! I am sorry for the delay 🙂

      The Oblivion menu was tricky and I think Skyrim’s is also a bit challenging to figure out, at least on the PC. I would say it is definitely a new and more artistic approach to everything, although it does seem rather disjointed.

      I would be so stressed out if I had to make a menu system and would definitely be reaching for the headache pills too!

      You are right: RPGs take patience and sometimes it is very hard to muster the focus to remain aware of the plot, subplots, as well as the gameplay itself. Sometimes you just want to bash/hit/shoot/pillage without having to worry about the finer points.

      There does seem to be a lack of fire breathing dragons in my life too! 😉 Having one around would certainly make things interesting! Haha!

I would love to hear your thoughts, ideas and questions! I will make sure to visit your blog (if you have one) and make substantive comments on your posts. Thank you for reading!

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