Choice & Ideology in Games

A fairly recent trend in video game form is to offer players a degree of choice in their actions which usually result in some kind of wider ramifications in the game world. Obviously nonlinear narrative has been present in gaming for years, but I am specifically talking about games that have decision-making as a core mechanic of the gameplay such as Mass Effect or Fable.

It is interesting to explore the various differences that this form of interactivity may have upon gaming audiences. Cast your minds back to Mass Effect, to fairly late on in the game and when you are wandering the citadel. There is a man and a woman who are apparently arguing over some matter. When you approach them you discover that the woman is a pregnant widow and the man her brother-in-law, the sibling of the deceased husband. It transpires that the father of the unborn child has died from a rare and hereditary heart condition and the baby is at risk from the disease too. The brother-in-law is attempting to convince the woman that gene therapy, a comparatively safe and accurate form of treatment will eliminate the threat of the baby contracting the disease, improving the risk of danger from 50-1 (no therapy) to 300-1 (therapy). His sister-in-law is dubious about the therapy and would prefer not to undergo the procedure on ethical grounds. As with the rest of the game, Commander Shepard (you) has the persuasive power to influence the couple to agree over one course of action or the other.

Depending on your choice, although the wider gameworld consequences are minimal; paragon or renegade points are awarded. This punishment/reward system serves to reinforce public discourses over certain debates, most notably in this case: gene therapy. Indeed, if the player decides that gene therapy (which [the innately amoral] science determines as the more logical decision) is the better option then they are subsequently labeled a renegade, one who does not conform with societal norms and essentially immoral. Granted, games have long been laden with Western ideology over ethics but this relatively new form of interactivity unique to video games functions in a different way to other mediums.

Other science fiction texts, such as I Am Legend also focus upon gene therapy. Again, as in line with widespread opinion (note: not necessarily the majority) in Western culture, gene therapy is depicted as potentially dangerous and unethical. Juxtaposed to gaming however, although the audience is invited to form their own opinions over gene therapy as a response to I Am Legend's narrative they are never commanded to. Passive-audience mediums are far less directly exposed to ideology than choice-based gaming like Mass Effect, whose active audience are forced into forming their own opinions based on the game content.

Armed with the knowledge that the decisions gamers make in Fable, KOTOR and their brethren will have direct and indirect consequences upon the game world, gamers will think carefully about the implications of their adjudication and will subsequently engage with the creator's (BioWare etc.) discourse to a greater extent than has ever been seen in any other form of media, or video game type for that matter. In conclusion, I think that video games, and choice-based games in particular are unparalleled in their potency to inject discourse on social ethics and ideals into Western society. Moreover, perhaps American sentiments to gene therapy and related sciences like stem cell research; which is generally more negative than Europe or parts of Asia are partially caused and reinforced by video games, particularly the games I have discussed. Therefore it seems video games have an increasingly important role within the public engagement with science and ethics that should not be overlooked.

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