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The Best Video Game Players Are Also the Jerkiest

How do people who are really good at these games make moral choices?

Fallout 3. Image: irrezolut

Some of the most popular video games out there require moral choices. Forget Super Mario Brothers, where all you have to decide whether to steal coins from your friends. Think BioShock and Fallout. The choices in these games are huge. In Fallout 3, you grow up in the game—everything you do changes who you are. It’s almost like Second Life, where your persona in the game is the result of the sum of your actions. So how do people who are really good at these games make those choices? Do they pretend to be themselves, or do they throw morality to the wind and screw everybody over?

Andrew Weaver, a researcher who tested people’s morality in these games, found that people who were the best at the game were also the worst ethically: they made the least “moral” choices, they killed characters to get ahead, and they sabotaged their friends. And they won. Popular Science explains:

They had experience with the game or similar games, so after already, presumably, making a run with the moral barrier intact, they could play strategically, making decisions that would make for a character objectively stronger, even if that raised the body count.

It’s more complicated than a decision between an evil action and an angelic one, though. Some decisions include multiple factors. For example: An authority figure in the game might ask you to do something you felt was wrong. A player who valued authority over justice–determined by a survey done before they were sat down with the game–might submit to the pressure and listen to the order. But that didn’t factor in the same way for people with in some ways a more typical goal: just beating the game. That doesn’t make them bad people, just good players.

Weaver told Popular Science that there’s an important distinction in the type of game that’s being played. Take Grand Theft Auto for example. The point of that game isn’t particularly strategic, and most people playing it make horrible decisions because the point of the game is to cause mayhem. In Fallout or Bioshock, however, that’s not the point. Here’s Popular Science again:

You make “decisions” in lots of games–shoot this guy over here first, or this one?–but moral-choice games force you to take a good, hard look at what those decisions mean. In early games, Weaver says, designers might implement a naughty/nice bar that changed based on what you did, but that’s not the same as changing the narrative of the game based on your choices. “It’s not a moral decision so much as a technical decision to move the gauge,” Weaver says.

So what about the real world? Are the people making decisions to kill their friends in these games bad people in real life, too? Do their moral choices bleed over? Well, there’s a huge debate about how real video games are to us. Do players in World of Warcraft feel closely connected enough to their characters that they embody them? Scholars disagree about this, but Weaver says that on the whole, no, we don’t take these games seriously enough for our moral lapses in them to destroy our real life. But he does say that perhaps, if people spend too much time in these games, things can start to get fuzzy.

More from Smithsonian.com:

The Essentials: Video Games
Food and Video Games

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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