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The Morality of Anti-Heroes in Video Games

Why We Don’t Always Like Being The “Good Guy”

You’re an honest-to-goodness, law abiding citizen. You don’t lie, you don’t steal, and you certainly don’t kill. Like most people in society, you behave according to an ethical moral code which forbids any sort of reckless, deviant behavior.

But when it comes to video games, that code is temporarily deactivated and another largely contradictory set of rules emerges. As Kara, you stole the bus tickets in Detroit: Become Human, and proceeded to lie about having found them. As the dragon, Spyro, you routinely set sheep on fire. And as the master thief, Garrett, you picked pockets and swiped valuables without a moment’s hesitation.

You could say what’s occurring here is a form of cognitive dissonance which has little mental discomfort attached. In fact, a good majority of us enjoy these games tremendously.

But why? Why is it fun to be the “bad guy?”

The Thrill of Misconduct

“What is locked, can be opened. What is hidden, can be found. What is yours, can be mine.”

Morally gray protagonists are fun because of the chaos residing within them. They give us a chance to indulge in our more destructive capacities without the guilt that would ordinarily follow were we subscribing to a more virtuous, socially ordained set of ethics. It’s not just liberating, it’s exciting.

Through clever use of first-person perspective and meaningful hand animations, Ion Storm’s, Thief: Deadly Shadows, convinces us we are accomplished criminals whenever we pick a lock.

We are rewarded for similarly dishonorable acts—stealing loot, resisting arrest, betraying the organization we’re supposed to be working with, and neutralizing enemies (or knocking them unconscious) to clear the path ahead for easier, risk-free navigation. Further electrifying gameplay is the realization Garrett’s actions aren’t for comedic purposes like the wonderful showman Bob Arno—they’re for survival. And the ends usually justify the means. That isn’t to say games with lighthearted tones can’t be equally intriguing. House House’s upcoming avian sandbox, Untitled Goose Gamelooks set to hit the mischief-making sweet spot.

The Paradox of Dualism 

“People will always believe in monsters. It’s easier than accepting their own darkness.” 

Traditionally speaking, games prefer a clearly defined split between good and evil—benevolent plumbers, and their koopa archnemeses. Blue hedgehogs, and wicked scientists. Fair-haired heroes of time, and megalomaniac kings. Villains fall, heroes triumph. But Dr. Philip Zimbardo believes reality is far more complex. In his popular 2008 TED Talk, he argues that the line isn’t fixed—it’s movable and permeable—even for the average joe.

One character who exemplifies this shift is military doctor turned bloodsucker, Jonathan E. Reid.

In Vampyr he has to grapple with the desire to murder the very innocents he once swore to protect, and Dontnod is eager to amplify the conflict. As players, we are deliberately encouraged (though not forced) to ‘feed’ on NPCs as a means of acquiring a huge XP boost.

Unsurprisingly, the Life is Strange developers include story-altering consequences for succumbing to temptation, but humor players by leaving enough room for justification: vampires kill to survive. It is in their nature, just as it is the nature of the scorpion to sting. What ultimately draws us to Dr. Reid is his paradoxical existence—he is both sinner and saint—one step shy of villain, yet not pure enough to be a champion of good. A depraved beast that clings desperately to the last embers of its humanity. Were he a typical hero—one whose morals never stray from the boulevard of integrity—the personal struggle to resist evil would be comparatively nonexistent.

The Appeal of Redemption

“I am no longer worthy of being an orc. May my ancestors forgive me.”

Arrogant, sarcastic, and selfish—they’re probably not the first qualities that spring to mind when envisioning a desirable character.

It turns out, however, that we are more likely to pardon the questionable behavior of such characters, also referred to as moral disengagement, if it’s underpinned by an altruistic motive.

In their 2013 paper published in the journal Mass Communication & Society,  Drs. K. Maja Krakowiak and Mina Tsay Vogel indicate that selfless motivation has even more weight on our perception of the anti-hero than whether the outcome of their actions is negative.

Cyanide’s Styx: Master of Shadows is ripe for analysis here. Its central character, Styx, shamelessly slits throats, snaps necks, poisons guards, and causes catastrophic environmental accidents, but we still love the little bastard. We take solace in the fact his efforts prevent a more evil scheme from achieving fruition, and in a way, this tells players they are still a moral octave above the real villains.

The Shock of Role-Reversal

“Be ever diligent, for thine enemies are a multitude, and sin never sleeps.”

Another interesting phenomenon which occurs whenever we play as an anti-hero is the moral 180. By viewing the world from their perspective, it is not us who is “bad,” but anybody around us who attempts to derail our objectives. When Garrett is creeping through Saint Edgar’s Church, every single Hammerite guard becomes the villain. He is simply on a mission to “acquire” a holy relic for the Keepers.

Visiting the Dark Side

Games which let us play as a character who isn’t required to uphold the laws of heroism are scarce. It is far more common to install a hero like Link, who we all know is in opposition to Ganon, or Lara Croft, arbiter of justice in a world consumed by treacherous hearts and mythological impossibilities.

But when anti-heroes enter the fray, they blur the schism, leading us to question whether they are just villains or heroes in limbo. They slowly twist our moral compass as we inhabit them, inviting us to participate in the anarchic joy of lawlessness, and urge us to reexamine a quote as old as time—we’re not so different, you and I.

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