About 30 minutes or so into Bioshock Infinite, you are given the choice as to whether or not you want to stone an interracial couple.
Up until that point the game is very careful about the atmosphere it gives; The steampunk air city Columbia where the game takes place is projected to be a utopia built to embody the ideas of American exceptionalism, and it is only when the player wins a lottery during a stage show and learns that his prize is first throw at a tied up white man and black woman do you realize that not all is right beneath the surface.
Whether you choose to throw the stone at the couple or the show host is ultimately irrelevant as you're interrupted before the throwing, but the choice as to whether or not to do it is one that can give even hardened gamers pause. It is moments like that which tell you that you have a king hell bastard of a game on your hands.
Everyone has watched a movie or TV show or read a book that has given similar feelings, but only in video games do you get a choice about what happens in these situations. Many games, primarily those in the Role Playing and Action Role Playing genre (And especially in any game with an alignment system), base their entire plots on moments like this with the decision having far reaching consequences that may even lead you to an unhappy game over. Not all games make decisions like this a big issue though. Take the Grand Theft Auto series, where you're quite free to be selective about who you kill without any kind of game changing penalty whatsoever. In the end it comes down to the gamer and their in-game goals and intentions, and thus does today's lesson on Video Game Ethics begin.
For the sake of this article we’ll focus on games where the decisions you make affect the plot and player character (Which is to say RPGs and ARPGs), and before anyone even mentions it I'll begin this lesson with a shameless self-promoting plug in the form of this article I wrote a week ago concerning video games and how they don't turn children into angry trench coat wearing monsters who make dark jokes about pipe bombs. In-game ethics can vary wildly from whether or not to kill a harmless critter in World of Warcraft to whether or not to carry out full blown genocide by razing an enemy country to the ground in Sid Meier's Civilization (The genocide is implied, though there are only so many ends a people with no civilization can meet).
A player like myself won't give too much thought to it. They're just pixels and I have a solid enough ability to differentiate between fantasy and reality that whatever monster act I might commit in a game is something I wouldn't do in real life. The in-game decisions I make are decided by what in-game benefit they will bring and whether I want the player character to be a saint or a sinner. Games with multiple endings are a replay enticement, and in-game I will purposely be as great a monster as need be to see that ending. My real life ethics and morals, which are (probably) Chaotic Neutral at worst, don’t factor into the equation since the game is not real life.
Let’s jump to the other side of the spectrum, to the players who take their real world morals and ethics into the game. In a multiple ending scenario they will carry whatever morals they have in the real world with them and not even consider the choices that run counter to those morals irrelevant of plot distinctions or in-game benefits. You can usually tell a good deal about these gamers from the choices they make in game, for good or ill, though of course nothing is definite. Truthfully I find it hard to write about this side of the spectrum since I’ve never shared its sentiments, but suffice to say the line between pixel and reality is blurred at best and nonexistent at worst.
So what does this ultimately say about gamers? Not much that isn’t already being said about the rest of humanity; In some individuals it will be blatantly obvious which moral choice they will make, and in some it won’t. In the end it all comes down to the person who is playing it as to whether or not they will decide to throw that stone at the interracial couple. The topic of video game ethics goes much deeper than I touch on here, with this article forming only the basis of deeper consideration on the subject. For my part though? When I play the game through and want to make the player character a total bastard, I’ll do it without hesitation. I know where the line is drawn, and so do most gamers.