Virtue’s Last Reward: moral dilemmas and philosophical leanings

That evil giggling bunny puppet sure knows what he’s doing. He is the lapine proxy ringmaster of the wonderfully unhinged room-escape adventure Virtue’s Last Reward. The escapes are crunchy, and I enjoyed the ‘brain memory’ metaphor for the notepad; it’s wittily limited to two pages, so that you end up with an illegible palimpsest of scrawled, panicky notes in red, blue and green. But what I found most intriguing was the game’s so-called ‘novel’ aspect. I was initially sceptical of anything so described, but it actually provides a vivid and innovative illustration of the way videogames can become systems for the exploration of moral choices.

A recent study by psychologists at Indiana University asked 75 undergraduate videogamers to fill out a “moral foundations” questionnaire and then play Fallout 3. It turned out that their answers to the questionnaire – answers about how they would behave in real life – reliably predicted the moral choices they made in the game’s world. When they made an antisocial choice, they felt guilty. Of course, a cunningly designed videogame will play on the guilt it expects you to feel for an assumptively ‘bad’ decision. But the player must exercise an extra layer of judgement, too, not only asking ‘What is the right thing to do?’ but ‘How will this choice affect my progress in the game? What kinds of punishments or rewards will the designers have laid in store?’

The exposition of the Ambidex Game in Virtue’s Last Reward brilliantly exploits this reflexive duel of player-against-system-architects as well as player-against-characters. The game lays out the structure of the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma, a foundational scenario of game theory, with a clarity equal to that of any philosophy or economics text, but then it does what such texts can’t do and makes you play it. When familiar fictional characters are your potential allies or those you might betray, a visceral layer of understanding is added. Through the lucidly bleak explanation of my geek-intellectual sidekick, Phi, the game steered me towards betrayal. I understood that it was the rational choice. But I wanted to be good, heroic. Surely the game would reward my idealism? So instead, at the last minute, I chose to ally with our fellow prisoner. If she allied too, all would be well. And then came the results. She betrayed us. I was outraged, even though I knew it was the sensible call. And now Phi and I were just one bracelet point from death.

So why don’t more videogames play with game theory? The invitation is right there in the name of the discipline. Games could, moreover, also model the kinds of dilemmas associated with the modern movement of ‘x-phi’ or experimental philosophy, which surveys the intuitions of non-philosophers when they are confronted with lurid thought experiments. Should you throw a switch to divert a runaway train from a track where it would kill five people onto a track where it would kill only one? What about if, to save the five people, you instead had to push a fat man off a bridge and onto the track? And if a fat man is stuck in the only exit to a cave, so that ten other people will starve to death if he can’t be moved, should you blow the fat man up with dynamite?

It’s an odd feature of x-phi examples that they often involve a fat man, usually because his bulk can make an important difference to the environment. So build the situation in a videogame where the fat man is lovably characterised and we actually have to heave him off the bridge or detonate his adipose person ourselves. Would our moral intuitions be different? Might the necessity for a naturalistic simulation to fill in his details (age, personality, and so on) reveal that some of those details make an unforeseen difference, and that the abstract thought experiment is therefore incomplete?

Videogames could engage fruitfully with such research because they are process toys that allow you to explore, rather than only to predict or imagine, different actions and their outcomes. Yet to do this with branching narrative systems, as in, say, Mass Effect, one normally has to reload a save point and choose differently the next time. This always feels a bit like cheating, and so it’s possible to argue that, in such games, the consequences of your decisions don’t matter because the ‘choice’ is illusory or weightless.

One alternative is for a game just not to allow you to go back, as in Heavy Rain. Virtue’s Last Reward, by contrast, incorporates into the ludic fiction itself a means of exploring the consequences of different actions: its ingenious Flow system, through which you can jump back to a previous decision point. In this way, the game is no longer merely a time-reversible system for exploring the consequences of single actions or the longterm ramifications of single-action chains, but a metaconsequential simulation whose map is the entire possibility space. Here, then, in a deliciously eccentric handheld work of art, is the idea of a videogame that is at once both laboratory and seminar room for game theory and experimental philosophy. That darned rabbit is even more freakily cunning than I thought.

Illustration: Marsh Davies