I have been a gamer for as long as I can remember. I have seen the industry and art form of the video game develop from infancy into a robust form of expression matching (and at times exceeding) cinema, music and literature. I have also seen self-appointed cultural heroes attack teenage gamers grieving for their dead fellows at Columbine and at innumerable domestic tragedies since. Video games, and those who play them, have periodically been a convenient target. Like hippies, we rarely hit back and lack the organization and financial resources to be considered a cohesive demographic worth catering to for major media outlets.
But games present us with a complex ethos. More than any other media (yes, even more than the classics of literature- you can’t change Hamlet’s decision to seek revenge on his uncle or his treatment of Ophelia), games confront us personally with ethical quandaries and demand that we face the consequences. Anyone who doubts that we can make good decisions in the real world after gaming would do well to look into the history of the Child’s Play charity.
I am not going to suggest that simply playing games will make you a good person. Morality in each of us stems from many factors and it takes much work to synthesize these into a cohesive whole. A necessary part of this process is exposure to ideas. What I will say is that games, like all forms of culture, can be a way to exchange ideas. In this exchange we build and pass on our morality as a group in powerful and wonderful ways that shape the people we will become.
Perhaps the most common lesson video games teach is personal responsibility. This is not the petty ‘my actions have consequences for me’ type of responsibility that adults usually called ‘personal responsibility’ when I was growing up. This is ‘my actions shape the world and the people I share it with’- something far more visceral and more fulfilling than avoiding discipline. You are the hero. Moreover your death is inevitable, so you had better get moving and make your life worth it. If the princess is kidnapped, you must save her. If the milk cow is kidnapped, you must save her, too. If the hay needs to be baled, chickens fed, bandits driven off, whatever. Large or small, your actions make a difference (possibly the only difference) in the world. It is therefore your responsibility to make it a good one. The mundane is often as important as the lofty, and you will go nowhere in life by ignoring the plight of the little people.
Games can also teach us a think or two about how we handle economics. On the personal level, resource management is often finely tuned in games. The resources that you have are almost certainly enough to do everything you need to do. No use complaining about what you want, you have what you need. If you don’t, learn to need less; everything worth doing is possible. The flip side of this is that the resources you have are most likely precious. In fact, the chances that they are exactly enough to do everything you need to do and no more are exceptionally high. Waste is potentially lethal.
This goes double if you find yourself in a situation of sudden abundance. Plan for monsoon season, not rainy days. Walking this narrow edge can also be instructive. Having exactly enough and no more than you need means that success may take some practice. So you practice. Anything worth doing is worth doing right. Often that means doing it wrong dozens of times.
On a slightly larger scale, interpersonal economics in games can be surreal to those coming in from the real world. Auto-split is the default setting for money. Equal work for equal pay. Need before greed (giving items to those who will use them instead of those who will profit from them) is the default for non-monetary rewards. Some communities I have played in enforced this harshly- if word got out that you broke these rules it could be weeks before you could find anyone to play with again.
The practical benefits of need before greed are also vast. Most people who play with a regular group quickly come to understand that the roles will eventually be reversed and greed-based looting will leave everyone in relative poverty. And/or dead when you find out that you’ve sold all the equipment everyone else needed to do their jobs.
Which dovetails nicely into the last thing I wanted to mention- games have a lot to teach about how you treat members of your community. Without your team, you would still be feeding chickens for copper pieces. And without the old man who needs his chickens fed, you would be standing around with a sack of raw grain. And odds are pretty good someone had to help you get that, too. There is no such thing as a self-made hero. I once played a game where I started by waking up wearing a burlap sack with my hands tied behind my back waiting to be executed over a misunderstanding until someone swooped in at the last second to cut me loose so I could go save the world. It’s called ‘Half of the Role-Playing Games Ever Made’. Everything you have, and everything you will ever have is due in part to the people who have helped you get it. Get over yourself, and give back a little.
This is especially true if you find yourself in a teamwork situation. Success often depends on everyone doing their part without being sure that the rest of the team will follow through. Survival often depends on being the first one to abandon the team and run away. Without trust nothing will ever get done, and most of you will die anyway. The whole is not automatically greater than the sum of its parts- that takes work and trust. Planning ahead and sometimes doing the jobs you don’t want to do is required for success. Taking the worst job or sacrificing yourself for the good of the group is often rewarded lavishly.
I briefly flirted with the idea of trying to sum this all up neatly and pretend that there is some underlying metastructure to the lessons I’ve learned from gaming that tries everything back together into one overall moral; but it wouldn’t be true and it would be a poor way to learn ethics if it were. We learn as we go, adding to and bettering ourselves whenever and however we can, so there it is. I have no illusions that I have made a complete accounting of everything video games can teach you. However I felt compelled to at least codify some of what I have learned from gaming. This is (and will probably always be) a work in progress, and I may update as time goes on or if I get particularly interesting suggestions.