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Going Back: When Gaming Makes You Question Ethics

The atmosphere around the table was tense. My girlfriend has decided to go exploring on her own and fallen victim to a cave-in. She was buried, and stuck there until one of us dug her out. She gave me that look…the look of “I swear Luke, I know this is just a game, but unless you come back for me I’m going to leave you” across the table, her fist slowly opening and closing as we discussed her fate.

“I say we leave her,” one gamer said, already plotting his move to explore more spaces and hopefully find the exit, “there is no way we can go back for her and survive – it can’t be done.”

“I say we go back, getting five out is better than four,” another interjected, “she’s not that far behind.”

“Yes, but we only need three out to beat the game, and look at her – there’s two horrors, gas, three cave-ins, a slide, and a flood between us and her!”

She looked at me and it all went quiet.

I mean…she had got herself into that mess…and Sub Terra is no easy game…

Not too long ago I saw a video online that offered evidence that board games make you a nicer person. Apparently, according to the video (which was produced by Did You Know on Facebook), board games encourage social interaction and force you to think of different ways around conflict. They help with problem-solving and human interaction. There would be few readers of this blog who would argue with that notion. I mean, read the comment section – we’re all bloody delightful.

That being said, occasionally those games come along that really make us question ourselves and where we stand. A few months ago I wrote about Dead of Winter in particular and how real horror was introduced in games. Dead of Winter as a game, does a superb job of making us question our own ethics from a “this is the situation, how do you react” kind of way. It presents some really difficult questions, poses some almost impossible conundrums, all for the gamers to unravel and unpick. These are game-made problems. They are problems designed within the mechanics of the game.

That being said, there is a different form of moral dilemma that can come up when playing board games (or any form of game, coming to think of it) that sits alongside game-made problems. It seems so simple, and yet it is so worth commenting on – those problems that are created by the players. The above, which cropped up when playing Sub Terra, is a prime example of a time when gamers created their own moral dilemma within a game. It made us stop and debate what we needed to do in order to survive within the confines of the game, leading to a much wider debate about what we would do if stuck in the real-life situation.

The solution we came up with, in the end, was to put it to a vote. We did end up going back, but half-way there we ran into a lot of trouble. Ever the scientists, we worked out the maths and realised that we couldn’t save my girlfriend and win the game. We still needed to get three people out. This lead to my favourite line uttered around a gaming table –

“Well…in real life…there’s no win conditions.”

Brutal. True, but brutal.

Games have an amazing ability to open our eyes and our minds to situations, by forcing us to interact within high-conflict scenarios without any real danger, and this is one of the true values of playing board games, miniature games, RPGs, and even video games as hobbies. They force us out of our comfort zones whilst keeping us with one foot firmly within the realms of comfort. It sounds like a contradiction, but it actually makes perfect sense. Games offer us a paradoxical environment to fully explore where we stand on important issues.

So on one side of things, it is a good thing that we have games to offer us entertainment or even escapism, that let us be or do something completely different for an evening – however, we also need games that force us to make difficult decisions, no matter how weird or trivial those decisions may be within the context of the game.

The fact that we managed to have a conversation about the importance of friendship and mortality within the context of Sub Terra is a testament to that.

I feel that was an important comment to make – that games, like so many of us already know, offer us more than just a game. They let us evaluate our moral standing on certain issues without having to face those issues within a real-life environment. For that, and many (many) other reasons, games are kind of beautiful.

SIMILAR ARTICLE: How To Win In Sub Terra

SIMILAR ARTICLE: The Horror Genre and Extreme Themes in Gaming



  1. We have had similar happen in games of Zombicide. While we do always try to get all of us out, my group are still aware that we are playing a board game and so we go with win conditions. This can actually make a game seem more cinematic because it leads to the Noble heroic sacrifice trope that is such a staple of cinema and other media. I guess mentally you could view it as the difference between role playing a character that is not you and playing a game where you project yourself into the situation. Anyway interesting post again!

    Liked by 1 person

    • A very fair point. It can be a difficult choice to make, but yes, there is that heroic moment of deciding to go back. A great point in regards to character vs projection. Great definition.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Reminds me of a game of Zombicide: Black Plague we had a while back. We were pretty close to completing the mission but one of the party was in pretty bad shape. After some discussion we convinced one of the guys to give her the shield he was using as we wanted to save everyone. Next turn he got ripped apart by zombies and just looked at us as if to say “seriously, this is what I get for helping!”

    Liked by 1 person

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