We’re Totally Judging You
A lot of games allow you to play evil characters. In fact, some insist upon it. I remember years back when playing Grand Theft Auto, I was cursing loudly at the PC. My wife asked me what was up. I told her I was failing repeatedly at this mission. She asked what the mission was. I told her, “I have to transport a bunch of hookers to a party and I can’t do it fast enough.” She looked at me in that special way, shook her head, and left the room.
Ever since then she’s referred to GTA as that “Totin’ Ho’s Game.” Hard to argue with, really.
Then there are the many 4X games that allow you to play leaders who were quite awful in the day. Most disallow Hitler (if for no other reason than including him would make the game unsellable in Germany), but some happily let you play Stalin or Genghis Kahn or Alexander or Tom Brady or any old villain. Then you try to conquer Gandhi before he nukes you.
Are the assassins in Assassin’s Creed good guys or bad guys? I dunno. It’s not a career-path that nice boys and girls usually go into. Ditto with Hitman. Pirate games tend to gloss over the more horrid and evil parts of that particular lifestyle. I’ve worked on like three of them and the stuff I learned during research still gives me the sheebies.
Of course there are lots of games that encourage – if not insist upon – players being good guys. You’re beating back the Forces of Darkness or rescuing the Princess or Unifying the Kingdom or constructing a roller coaster that makes under 25% of the riders vomit or whatever. All good, clean, heroic fun.
Designers consciously or unconsciously make moral decisions during game-design. Lots of time those decisions are based upon the subject-matter, of course. You wanna do a game based upon Darth Maul? Cool. This game will involve murdering civilians and kicking puppies. If you’re not willing to reward that behavior, make a game about Obi Wan Kenobi instead.
Ultimately, players decide whether to engage in cheerfully constructive or destructive behavior, first through the choice of games they play, and then their actions in the game. In Skyrim, a player can survive and thrive by beating up monsters and villains, or they can plunder farmhouses and magic shops. Hell, a character can succeed by harvesting cabbages and selling them. That’s depth of play, by golly.
The point is, these are games, for your entertainment. If you want to be the hero, go for it. If you want to be an anti-hero, that’s swell too. We don’t judge.