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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.

Thanks for reading, we hope you enjoyed the article! If you’d like to see some related content, and support Exclusively Games in the process, click on our Amazon Affiliate links listed below to find related products. – EG Staff

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  1. The aspect that draws me in the most is when characters aren’t simply a fact by the plot, which poorly written anti-heroes fall into and never escape from, but as you play the game and learn more about the world and the other entities within it, you discover that your characters actions are necessary and justified.

    Garrett is a fine example, as you slowly discover he’s a noted, prophetic entity which, in his simple life of paying rent and keeping food in his belly, he’s developed skills necessary to succeed in his labours, and a network of gritted-teeth, arms reach associates who know the real stakes and push him into the misadventures necessary to push him from his fairly well justified skepticism over his own importance.

    Through these numerous people he has the plot excuse to get into trouble (the games always did a fine job of foreshadowing the main story in the otherwise unrelated first few missions which were usually the breadwinning, cash grabbing raids on unimportant groups) and Garrett eventually drags his heels into ultimately doing the right thing. He detests the onus put upon him, dryly mocking those that try and push him to greatness when all he wants is basic comforts living the only life he’s ever known.

    Of course, the right thing, you discover, ultimately also allows Garrett to return to his basic existence of thieving his way through next months bills, and you learn he’s saved the lives of so many and you’re never entirely sure where the heroics end and the desire for normality begins. He simply is, and without him, heavier coin purses besides, the City would be a worse off place, if not wiped out entirely.

  2. Luesatora on April 26, 2019 at 1:02 pm said

    An interesting concept to be sure. But perhaps even less common than anti-heroes, there are some games that allow players to become the actual villain. In some games, being the villain is the whole point of the entire game. In others, the player is given a choice (usually early on) To be the hero, or the villain. There is no moral dilemma, no question of ethics. You are villain, the antagonist of the story, the bad guy that the heroes are trying to defeat.

    Sometimes there is some kind of justification, or at least an explanation, other times it is about being a bad guy taking over the world just because you can. Either way you may find yourself doing things that are so deplorable and morally reprehensible that no sane person would ever even consider doing in real life.

    But many people still love playing those kind of games and enjoy filling the role of the villain. Because sometimes, it is just fun the be the bad guy.

  3. LowSanity on April 26, 2019 at 3:00 pm said

    I would just say that aren’t most of us in the grey moral area? Politicians on one hand are working to make our lives better but on the other take cash from all sort of organizations/corporations for their votes. There was an influential and wealthy couple in my area, they were well respected and their medium scale business was employing loads of locals. After many years they had some sort of break down that resulted in court divorce case. One day a full squad of SPAP(something like SWAT but in my country) with sappers barge into both their house and the business grounds. We don’t know the full story as the court papers are secret but some info have leaked out to the public. One of them have planted explosives ’cause the divorce case was going bad for that person and he/she decided to blew it all up.

  4. In games I still play with a moral sense even if I don’t have too or its not rewarded. I hate games that grade me or guide on moral paths. Its like, game, you have no idea the rationale I have for the choices I’m making, stop telling me if it was good or bad.

  5. VoteableCupid75 on May 8, 2019 at 4:43 am said

    To be honest, I would rather prefer an MC who’s actions aren’t justified. They’re evil and there’s no changing that. They don’t get a second chance or any of that. I feel like that type of plot would be amazing because everyone you think you’re playing the bad guy it turns out that your either fighting some evil corporation or someone you love is sick and dying. I want a character who is driven by their own selfish desires.

  6. Wootman77 on May 8, 2019 at 4:28 pm said

    The world needs an OVERLORD video game(the anime/light novel). Almost all of the main cast in OVERLORD are villains.

  7. My favorite is Kain from Blood Omen Legacy of Kain / Soul Reaver series. His story goes all over the place. First he wants revenge for being murdered, then he ends up kind of fixing things in the world when it came down to sacrificing himself he just says screw it. Then he is a bad guy, then he tries to finds what was pulling all the strings which was way worse than he was in the LoK Defiance.

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