Dragon Age and moral formation

Ok, so everyone who talks to me for more than 5 seconds about video games probably knows that I ❤ the Dragon Age games with an unbridled passion. I have 3 Dragon Age-related t-shirts, and a water bottle that designates me as the Hero of Ferelden. I am the girl who modded the game to make my not only my character look more attractive, but to make my in-game romantic interest look more attractive. I frequently (sort-of) jokingly say that I wish I could be a mage in real life and shoot fire out of my hands or call down a blizzard (especially during winter, like the non-existent one we just had). I want to go on an epic journey to save the world from destruction, using my wits and skills, and magical abilities. Darick rolls his eyes at me when I say that I am getting ready to do yet another play-through of Dragon Age: Origins and tells me that I need to branch out and try something new. My response: “But I loooove this game!” (See my much earlier post about Dragon Age: Origins) Clearly, I have an obsession. Needless to say, when I discovered that the featured article in the most recent issue of The Christian Century was not only about moral formation and video games, but featured the Dragon Age series prominently, I was super excited. In this article, Scott Paeth explores how certain types of video games can actually play a positive role in moral formation. For years, I have been hearing (and in many instances, agree with) the criticism that video games can have damaging effects due to immersion in worlds of simulated violence. And while there are certainly games that deserve this criticism, not all fall into this category. In my experience, some video games actually play just like you are reading a good book. The author uses Dragon Age as a prime example of a game that does not fall into the category of having damaging effects, and in fact provides a space for ethical exploration and moral formation. Games like Dragon Age fall into the category of embodied games:

 In embodied games, players exercise considerable freedom to order their character’s actions, relationships and even physical appearance. Depending on the game and genre, players can customize their play experience in any number of different ways, which creates a greater degree of identification with the protagonist. While these games have a main narrative thread that the player is expected to follow, their open world design allows the characters to explore the virtual world, acquire skills and powers, attract companions and build relationships. The main plot is the scaffolding on which all the action is hung, but the richness of the game lies in the way the player experiences these other dimensions.

Games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect immerse you into a story, where you find yourself in the world of your character, identifying with the struggles and decisions your character has to make. I get excited every time I get to create a new character, even though I play them the same way every time. I try to play them as if I were in their shoes. How would I deal with this situation? What would my choice be? As Paeth says,

Reflection is the key component. That happens when the game asks you to make a hard choice and then shows you the consequences of your actions. In this sense, a well-constructed video game offers the players the same moral opportunities to reflect on action and its consequences that a good novel or movie does. Like a good novel or a movie, a good video game tells a great story without being overly didactic. Video games are at their best when they raise moral issues without providing ready-made answers.

I often think that going into playing a video game, I might want to explore the darker side, and make decisions based upon self-interest or sheer curiosity of what might happen if I make a particular decision that I know is not one I would make in real life. Yet somehow, I never quite find myself being able to do that because when I play a video game like Dragon Age, I immerse myself in that world, and therefore, I feel like every decision I make in-game, is actually reflective of who I am (or who I want to be), and I don’t want to be someone in-game that I would not strive to be in real life. Not everyone does this when playing video games, but embodied games certainly make this much easier.

So what is my point? Why am I sharing this? Much like the author of this particular article, I believe that certain video games do actually have potential in helping one learn and make moral decisions on some level. To demonize video games on a whole is to dismiss the possibilities that doactually exist within the gamer world to bolster both imagination, but also moral formation. One final word from Paeth:

Video games have the potential to create provocative and transformative stories through which players might come to a deeper level of moral self-understanding. At this stage of their evolution, however, they are a long way from offering the tools of moral reflection necessary for understanding the implications of in-game actions for life in the real world.

Nonetheless, embodied games invite the kind of participation that can, on some level, provide a platform for reflection on who we are and the choices we make. As for me, I am happy to keep finding myself in the world of Ferelden, fighting to save humanity from the ensuing blight and destruction. I am happy to find myself in a story that calls for self-sacrifice, perseverance, and overcoming obstacles with tough decisions. And as I immerse myself in this story, it is my hope that as I take this path through a fantasy world, that these attributes and character traits may work their way into me, as I take my path through the real world.

I want to live in the age of dragons…

…or in other words, I am absolutely hooked on Dragon Age: Origins (referred to as DA:O from here on out). Never before have I played a game where I have so entirely been sucked into the game play, the plot, and the character dynamics. Darick will tell you, in all of my free moments I have been at my computer playing this game. In fact, Sunday night I stayed up super late (a time which will remain undisclosed. Let’s just say I got about 3 hours of sleep before I needed to go in to the church to get some work done). I haven’t finished the game yet. I am about halfway through the second-to-last major questline, so I can’t speak for the entirety of the game quite yet, but I have a feeling what I say now I will still think once I have finished it.

I can’t say enough good stuff about DA:O, but here are at least a few of those good things:

Gameplay: I am someone who has really enjoyed (and continues to enjoy) playing World of Warcraft. I very much like running instances in WoW with others, but sometimes I get kind of annoyed when the group of people I am playing with doesn’t mesh well together. Sometimes I find a great group, but other times I get more frustrated. I really enjoy DA:O because I get the feel of playing with a party, but I am the one in control of all of the party members. That way I can make sure my tank is being a good tank and holding the aggro and my healer is prioritizing healing correctly and I don’t have to worry about people not doing their jobs. I also really like the feel of being able to control more than one role. I naturally tend to pick roles for myself that are ranged DPS, but with DA:O I get to do it all if I want to. This isn’t an entirely new thing for me, having played other more classic RPG’s (ie a couple of the older Final Fantasy games for Gameboy/DS), but the thing that I like the most about DA:O’s game play is that you can pause the game, set up your next set of tactical moves, and then un-pause it to see those actions play out in real time live action. I should mention that I am playing the PC version, which is much better for this, apparently. I know that this is not unique to DA:O, but this is the first time I have played a game that does this. (I’ll probably have to try Knights of the Old Republic after I do the expansion to DA:O). While I am still getting used to the tactical slots that allow me to determine party members’ behavior when I don’t manually direct their actions, it is nice to know that you can set them on auto-pilot and that they will react in particular ways under particular conditions. I really love playing this game.

Plot: The story line has sucked me in. I love a good fantasy story, especially one that is in a setting somewhat akin to the Middle Ages. I enjoy the overall quest of trying to unite Ferelden in order to fight the impending Darkspawn invasion. I like that the quest lines are clearly moving towards this particular end, so it feels very cohesive to me. I also love how the choices your character makes effects the plot line. Granted, the overall plot line remains the same, but the outcome for your character and the NPC’s can be drastically effected by the choices you make. One example (which reveals my own mistake): I started the quest line in Redcliffe before I went to the Circle of Magi to pick up Wynne as my healer. I realized that I really needed her for my party, so I made the mistake of leaving Redcliffe after I had spoken with Tomas. Long story short, because I left, the Darkspawn attacked Redcliffe while I was gone, and when I returned, practically the whole village was dead and I missed out on a piece of that whole experience, and the few survivors were pretty upset with me for abandoning them. I really like the ability to have your choices lead to different consequences and different options. I know once I get to the Landsmeet portion of the game I will have a lot of choices to make. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Character Dynamics: I enjoy the interaction between my character and the other characters in my party. I like getting to have dialogue with them and learning their stories, and also the occasional quips. I also like how dialogue choices can influence the relationship between characters and the type of response you give very much matters depending upon the character you are talking to. Morrigan, for instance, likes it when you tend to agree with her more cynical and sarcastic worldview. Wynne will like you more if you let her counsel you. Alistair doesn’t mind joking responses as long as they aren’t mocking him, and prefers responses that show you are listening to him and are empathetic. The character dynamics are great between the NPC’s themselves also. For instance, while I was just running around Denerin one day with my party, Alistair and Morrigan (who are not very big fans of one another) decide to have this little exchange:

  • Alistair: So let’s talk about your mother, for a moment.
  • Morrigan: I’d rather talk about your mother.
  • Alistair: There’s nothing to talk about. And besides, isn’t your mother a scary witch who lives in the middle of a forest? Much more interesting.
  • Morrigan: To you, perhaps. You would find the moss growing upon a stone interesting.
  • Alistair: You know what’s more interesting than that? Apostates. Mages outside of the Tower. That’s illegal, you know.
  • Morrigan: You did not read that in a book somewhere, did you? I hope the small letters did not strain you overmuch.
  • Alistair: Or we could not talk about your mother. That works for me.

I find little exchanges like that to be icing on the cake.

Romance: I love (no pun intended) the fact that there are romance options. It has been really fun having Alistair fall in love with my character. The way that the dialogue progresses between him and my character as the romance develops has a pretty natural flow to it, along with some pretty awkward but cute moments.  It just appeals to my romantic, girlie side and has made the plot even more enjoyable. I am still debating how I want to make things turn out with Alistair at the Landsmeet though. So many choices… I didn’t feel like the romance was too sappy though, but a relatively realistic progression of two characters coming together in the midst of the larger trials and quest of trying to save Ferelden. I’m looking forward to other play-throughs with new characters in the future where I can explore the other romance options. My character decided to show no mercy and kill Zevran this time (it just seemed like something she would do) so perhaps my next character will be more merciful and see what that progression is like.

As I said, I can’t write enough good stuff about this game, but I’ll stop for now. So there you have it, I absolutely love Dragon Age: Origins!

Rating: 10/10

My character, Vashet, with Alistair