Moral Choices in Video Games: “A Matter of Time”

In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “A Matter of Time,” Rasmussen, a time-traveling historian from the future, visits the Starship Enterprise. His goal is to relive the Enterprise’s “history-changing” attempts to help a dying planet full of innocent lives, but he is bound by a moral code that forbids him from revealing the outcome of the ship’s efforts to its crew.

In a critical moment, Geordi LaForge, the engineer of the Enterprise, asks Captain Picard if he can remain on the planet to help guide the recovery attempt. Picard turns to look at Rasmussen, who knows whether Picard’s trusted officer and close friend will die because of his decision. Picard reluctantly gives LaForge permission to help, while Rasmussen smiles, casually intrigued, and comments to himself, “LaForge remained below.”

Upon hearing Rasmussen’s line, I was immediately reminded of a certain type of YouTube video title. “Mass Effect: Ashley stays behind,” “Mass Effect 3: The Quarians Loose,” and “Infamous 2: Zeke Dies” are all examples. Similar to Rasmussen’s statement, all of these titles give brief, after-the-fact labels to video game choices that, in the moment, are meant to have emotional and moral impact.

The moral problem Picard faces in “A Matter of Time” can be paralleled with video game morality in more ways than one. The best place to start is a scene where Picard calls Rasmussen to his personal office. He is presented with a decision not unlike the moral choices in many story-driven games:

“I imagine you know why I’ve asked you here.”

“Yeah, I have a fairly good idea,” responds Rasmussen.

“I’m faced with a dilemma. There is a planet beneath us which is slowly turning to ice, and unless we do something about it, I’m told that in a matter of weeks, thousands, maybe tens of thousands, will die.”

“So, what’s your dilemma?”

“Commander La Forge has a possible solution. The margins of error are extremely critical, but if successful, there’ll be no more threat.”

“And if it’s not successful?”

“Every living thing on the planet will perish.”

“So do nothing and thousands will die. Do something and millions could die. That’s a tough choice.”

“Not if you were to help me.”

Consider Picard’s request as an analogue to the moment when an RPG player faces a choice that could cause the death of his favorite character. Fearing this, he goes to YouTube or a wiki guide to find a way to keep the character alive. The scene addresses this urge as it continues:

“There are twenty million lives down there, and you know what happened to them. What will happen to them,” Picard emphasizes.

Rasmussen pauses for a moment, then responds, “And why did you ask to see me?”

“Because your presence gives me potential access to a kind of information that I’ve never had available to me before.”

The “kind of information” that Picard refers to is knowledge of the path that directly connects his actions to their outcomes. Only Rasmussen can see this path, but his presence means that it exists.

In many video games, developers create a system that determines exactly how player choices lead to outcomes. Whether the player directly sees it or not, it is out there somewhere, transcribed in an online guide, or hidden deep in the game’s code.

In either case, the mere presence of this knowledge transforms choices into acts of self-denial. When an established, simple system for determining the best decisions exists, making moral choices based solely on personal feelings and opinions becomes illogical. Regardless of the strength of the player’s convictions or confidence, the system will work as it was designed, and one option will always lead to the same outcome.

In “A Matter of Time,” Picard faces the same issue. As he states, “I have two choices, but either way, one version of history or another will wend its way forward.” Picard realizes that with knowledge of fate essentially accessible, the only “right thing to do” is to choose the best outcome for the planet, and to guide his decisions by picking apart the path leading to it. Picard explains to Rasmussen, “I must take advantage of every possible asset. It would be irresponsible of me not to ask you here.”

As long as a process for directly connecting choices to results exists, people’s thoughts will always be tempted to wander in the direction of figuring out the process, towards second-guessing their instincts in order to decide the best fate for their personal world.

Rasmussen’s next reaction reveals the problem with this line of thinking. Put off by Picard’s request, he responds “We’re not just talking about a choice. It sounds to me like you’re trying to manipulate the future.”

This is the main message of “A Matter of Time.” There is a difference between choosing and manipulating. Even though there is a path that connects a person’s choices to their outcomes, it can only be seen from the future. In the present, human perception is far too limited to imagine every possible factor that could affect a decision. “Making a choice” describes a moment where, amidst this chaos and uncertainty, we place significance on our actions. Only because there is no way to determine how our choices fit into fate can we confidently focus on our own opinions, feelings, and consciences when making them.

After Rasmussen refuses to help, Picard describes this more personal morality: “By refusing to assist me, you left me with the same choice I had to began with. To try or not to try, to take a risk or to play it safe. Your arguments have reminded me how precious the right to choose is. And because I’ve never been one to play it safe, I choose to try.”

The right to choose does not come from having complete control over the future. It depends on uncertainty. Whether by creating random, uncontrollable factors that influence a choice’s outcome, or by not showing the precise outcome of every choice, developers can break the path that connects choices to outcomes. As Picard states, it is the lack of complete control that gives choices their beauty.

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