Have you ever found yourself in a situation in a game where you have two choices, one good and one “evil” and not being able to choose? One of the things that games can do is test our limits or how we see things; the same way as movies and books can. Some stories told in other media can be very disturbing but we still choose to watch/read/experience it. I think the same about games, but in games the player usually have a choice.
Many games give us a choice to play as a “bad” guy, which when impersonated by the player, suddenly becomes the good guy or the hero. Some games does not even have a choice, you have to play on the wrong side of the law or order. Take the old classic Dungeon Keeper games, where you take the role of an evil master of a dungeon. In most of this type of games you are the hero, trying to kill monsters, save people or the world and find treasure. Instead in Dungeon Keeper you are supposed to lay out the dungeon so the hero will fail on his quest and the “evil” side should win.
Then there are these games where you actually have a choice. The “moral way” in games can be dictated by the player, at least in role-playing games or other games with complex relationship features, but still most players stay on the “good” side. Why is that? Why don’t we even try to play a bit bad in some games? I know that at least I have a problem saying the wrong thing or doing “bad stuff” in games, even though it is just a game! I guess it depends on because it is our choice and we really immerse ourself in the character(s), then if we do something bad/”evil” then it feels as if we did it personally.
In many of the “bigger” games, i.e. more open games, sandbox games or large RPGs, the player has a large piece freedom to act as he/she wants. For example you can steal from people, neglect their cries for help, make them really angry by pissing them of verbally or even killing them. I know that I don’t have a problem stealing in games, but I would never steal in real life, but I have a really hard time choosing the wrong/immoral answer in a dialogue conversation, where you are given good and bad choices. Why is that? Same as for stealing, I refrain from talking bad to people in real life also but still I cannot do in a game! One of the differences about stealing (without getting noticed) in a game and talking bad to someone is probably that if you steal from someone (in-game) you know that the character will probably not miss what you steal and in the game world there is no complex market-model where each character have to have some amount of money at home to survive, but as for the “talking bad” you fear that if you talk bad to someone this person might not co-operate with you or let you proceed in the game any further.
I cannot recall one single point in any game where you are stuck and cannot go back; I guess there are a few games like this, but most developers refrain from stopping a player in his/her progress through a game just because she made a few wrong choices. In the worst case you can reload, but they would almost never let you get stuck so bad that you have to start a new game again. That is the same reason you cannot throw away the master key in some games, because that would stop the player’s progress. The fear of being “stopped” in a game because of doing bad things is of course a valid worry but anyway probably not a likely scenario.
Even though it is just a game and we have the choice, most of the time we refrain from doing bad things. What is stopping us from doing immoral or evil deeds in games is ourselves and our own ethics and moral backbone, not the game or its rules. I find this very interesting, where we apply our own real life “borders” and “rules” even in a fictional game world. How amazing isn’t the mind (and our hearts)!