Moral-Making Through Gameplay

Life is Strange and Existential Simulators

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Amanda Caldwell is a recent graduate from the University of Glasgow, receiving her MLitt in Fantasy Literature. Studying English Literature, Sociology and Women & Gender Studies in her undergrad, she is most interested in where text intersects with society. After completing her dissertation on the function of narrative in modern video games with an emphasis on how the ludic and interactive nature of games affects the shape of the narrative, she is looking to continue her research on interactive narratives and participatory culture. Follow the author on Twitter

Many videogames are becoming known as “existential simulators” (Miranda, p. 837), games that pose moral, philosophical, or ethical questions by presenting scenarios and give the player multiple options for how to respond. These options then have consequences that affect the overall narrative of the game. One such game is Life is Strange (LIS), a videogame in which the player-character Maxine Caufield discovers that she can rewind time, an important gameplay mechanic that the player can use to help work through the different situations and ethical problems that they encounter throughout the narrative. The player can use this game mechanic to change their decisions in order to get different results and responses from characters. The game itself then becomes a simulation in which the player is forced to make tough moral and ethical decisions that will have often unforeseen repercussions. While these moral decisions take place within the confines of the game, their effects extend beyond the limits of gameplay as players discuss their decisions with others through community spaces such as online forums or video playthroughs called Let’s Plays (LPs), ultimately resulting in conversations about real-world moral behavior. Using LIS as a case study, I will first look at how player/character identification is created and encouraged in choice-based games and demonstrate how this identification allows the player to experiment with and form their own moral framework. I will then look at an LP of LIS and how fan communities can foster, expand, and carry forward discussions regarding gameplay experiences to help build moral frameworks for entire communities.

According to Andrew K. Pryzybylski, et al., “video games are intrinsically motivating in part because they provide a context (albeit a virtual one) in which players can explore different aspects of their selves and ‘try on’ ideal characteristics” (p. 69). Their study found that when an individual’s “game-self” (as determined through the actions and motivations of the player character) was closest to their ideal “moral-self” the player had greater motivation to play. It is this “trying on” of characteristics in order to build an “ideal-self” that is an important aspect for understanding the ways in which videogames can affect the players and their lives outside of the game. Since games are inherently interactive through the necessity of input from the player via the hardware/software systems, the player does not merely watch the narrative unfold like in other forms of media, but physically participates in the unfolding of that narrative. This participation can give the player a sense of agency, thus making it easier for them to identify with the protagonist of the game. This is especially true if the protagonist embodies characteristics congruent with the player’s sense of an ideal-self since the “convergence between people’s experience of themselves during play and their concept of their ideal self [is] related to enjoyment of play and positive shifts in affect” (Przybylski, et al., p. 74).

This ability to play out an ideal-self through a videogame is important in choice-based games such as LIS. In fact, the creators of the game describe it as “a set of thought-provoking metaphors for the inner conflicts” of Max (de Miranda, p. 826). However, if the player is encouraged to identify with Max as a stand-in for an ideal-self, then Max’s inner conflicts become the player’s. This is, of course, not always a straight-forward relationship as the limitations of coding and bias of the videogame creators can lead to inadequate choices in gameplay, such as LIS’s bias towards punishing rebellious, queer women (Butt and Dunne). However, the illusion of this one-to-one relationship between the player and the player-character still motivates many players to attempt to navigate each scenario in a way that produces a satisfactory conclusion that is congruent with their own moral code, or as close to such a conclusion as is available. This act of identification then turns a simple videogame “into a series of philosophical, ethical, emotional, and collective thought experiments” that range from small choices that the player may face in real life, like whether or not to snoop in a classmate’s belongings to find a pregnancy test, to much larger moral and ethical concerns that many players may never actually face in their lives outside of the game, such as finding a way to talk a classmate out of suicide (de Miranda, p. 835-6). In each situation, the player must decide how to have Max handle the moral dilemma. These choices then become a rehearsal of the player’s personal intentions, moving beyond the simple parameters of the videogame and into the real world of the player and their moral framework.

However, Miguel Sicart warns that many games may negate any real moral development in the player by “rewarding” one choice as “correct.” They do this by having the other options incur negative repercussions or by allowing players to use previous save files as a way to redo certain choices, thus undermining any consequences or permanency to the decisions made (Sicart, p. 31). While rewinding time and trying out different options is a key aspect of LIS, this is not done to explicitly undermine any potential consequences, but to give the player a chance to weigh those consequences in order to start building a moral framework through experimenting with the available options. For example, in the second episode of the game, while talking to a classmate named Kate who claims to have been drugged and sexually assaulted at a party, the player must decide whether to have Max tell Kate to report the crime to the police or to wait to find more evidence of it before reporting it. Unlike games that Sicart refers to, if the player experiments with both available options, they will find that neither of these options are treated as “correct.” Sarah Stang has discussed this same pattern in TellTale’s The Walking Dead series, another choice-heavy narrative in which “the player is forced to make ambiguous or dilemmatic decisions” (p. 22). Instead of presenting the player with an obvious “right” choice that leads to an uncomplicated happy ending to the situation, each choice is followed with some kind of repercussion. If Max tells Kate to go to the police, she worries that they won’t believe Kate’s story. But if Max tells Kate to wait, she worries that Kate will feel like Max doesn’t support her. Instead of being given a clear “right answer,” the game makes the player decide between two choices and sets of consequences: support Kate no matter what or try to protect Kate from negative repercussions.

The player can choose to go to the police or look for proof in order to help Kate.

The player can choose to go to the police or look for proof in order to help Kate.

The player can use these choices in the game to build, refine, and redefine what constitutes an ideal moral-self. This ideal moral-self then might influence the player outside of the game as they experience their own moral dilemmas, as well as influence the ways in which the player expects others to act in similar situations. According to de Miranda, “By creating the person we wish to be, we are suggesting a possible universal image of human community [. . .] To choose to be this or that, to actually do this or that, is simultaneously to affirm the good value of what we are doing or refraining from doing” (p. 829). While the choices the player makes in-game may build an ideal morality on an individual level, the greater moral discussion must take place on an interpersonal level, combining multiple points of view in order to create de Miranda’s “universal image of human community.” Videogames, which like all media have an element of community around them, also present the perfect opportunity to extend the moral discussion from the individual to the community.

From arcades where people would take turns playing the machines, to console gaming with multiplayer options, to massive-multiplayer online games and online discussion forums, videogames are not always a solitary experience. Let’s Play videos, in which players record and upload their playthroughs of games, are a central component of many videogame communities. Since the Let’s Player narrates their feelings and choices in their videos, LPs “reveal a hidden layer of the game narrative: the story of the player and the experience” (Kerttula, p. 17). This is especially relevant to the discussion of morality and moral-making because the narration of the moral and ethical choices moves the discussion from an individual to a community space. According to Sari Piittnen, “LP narrations significantly feature complex moral evaluations, and explore the discursive means through which these are produced” (p. 4672).

In this way, Let’s Players participate in the same game-self/ideal-self moral convergence that most players do, but since it is done on camera it extends the moral conversation and the construction of the “universal image of human community” into an actual community space. Unlike regular playthroughs of a videogame by an individual, a Let’s Player is constantly verbalizing the reasoning and justifications of the choices they are making for an audience. Since the Let’s Player is constantly aware that their LP will be watched, “player-narrators speak to the audience even if the audience is not there” (Kerttula, p. 13). This performative game play narration necessitates a self-reflexive, verbalized moral evaluation of each in-game choice, which then creates an opening for the audience to participate in that moral conversation through comments, conversations, or other responses to the video.

According to Gary Crawford, audiences are all but passive. He identifies three forms audience participation takes: the semiotic, the enunciative, and the textual. The semiotic consists of active interpretations that reinterpret the themes of the main text, while the enunciative refers to the social aspect of discussing the main text, and the textual is the making of new texts from the main source (p. 47). The audiences of LPs simultaneously embody the first two forms of participation through comments on the LP video, which combine the interpretation and social aspects of audience participation. These comments also arguable embody Crawford’s third form of participation by adding to the experience of the video itself. While audience comments do not change the content of the video once it is uploaded, they do add to the overall text of the webpage, creating new content for future audiences to interact with. Once the video has been posted, many people will begin to discuss the choices made in the video through the comments, even creating threads in which members comment back and forth, discussing the choices and whether they agree or disagree.

For instance, a popular YouTube Let’s Player, Jacksepticeye, posted his LP for the first episode of LIS on 9 February 2015. Since then, the video has had over seven million views, and includes forty-two thousand comments. Therefore, this one video has extended the moral-making of a single player from an individual experience to an experience that includes millions of people, thousands of whom decided to participate through comments. While some comments only reference favorite parts of the LP or the overall enjoyment of the video, others use the comments as a way to participate in the moral-making process. As one comment reads, “Even in 2018 I’m pissed you forgot to reverse time to save the girl from the football.” Another comment from 2019 reads, “It hurts me that Jack didn’t rewind him breaking the snow globe.” Both comments are responses to the moral-making choices in the LP. Jacksepticeye did not react to these situations in the way that the users felt reflected an ideal-moral-self, so they extended the conversation by pointing out what they felt to be an inconsistency. Thus, some audience members use not only the scenarios in the gameplay, but also the choices made in LPs to create their moral framework. Both comments are also recent, even though the video is over four years old. Therefore, the reach of LPs not only extends the moral conversation into a community space, but also extends it over time.

The Let’s Player may also respond to these comments, either directly in the comment threads or in the next video, further extending the conversation. Audience members can even participate in the creation of a Let’s Play in the form of a livestream where the audience comments on the in-game choices as the Let’s Player is making them, potentially influencing the decisions. In this way, the Let’s Player and the audience work together to create a moral framework to handle the situations that arise. Thus, the videogame itself becomes the vehicle for a community to create an ideal moral framework as they strive for a “universal image of human community.”

This idea of a community moral conversation was especially important for LIS. Since LIS was released as five individual episodes between January and October 2015, there was time between each episode release in which the community could create a discussion around the moral situations and choices in each individual episode. According to de Miranda, “A game like LIS can be seen not only as a personal existential simulator but also as a collective one [. . .] [Players] discussed their experience of the game’s existential themes in real life or online between and after each episode” (p. 836). The game developers even include a list of statistics at the end of each episode that shows what percentage of players made each choice, a trend that became popularized by TellTale Games. Adding this feature automatically creates a conversation between the individual players of the game by providing a visual representation of the moral framework being created by the players as a whole. Not only does the player see which choices they made, but they can also see if their choice falls within the majority of other players’ choices.

The list of player choices provided at the end of each chapter in Life is Strange. The percentage indicates how many players made each decision.

The list of player choices provided at the end of each chapter in Life is Strange. The percentage indicates how many players made each decision.

In this way, the game itself and the LPs that follow provide two modes for creating an ideal moral framework. The players of the game can create an ideal-moral-self by testing multiple reactions to the same situation. They can then extend this ideal moral framework to a community space through LPs and the comments and conversations that happen around them. Thus, a single videogame can create an environment in which players not only understand their own moral framework better, but also that of a larger community.

Bibliography

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