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If You Didn’t Kill That Zombie, Maybe I Won’t Either

The first time I played the “Walking Dead” video game, I killed an elderly man. It seemed like the right thing to do.

I had stepped into the shoes of Lee, a black man from Georgia trying to survive the zombie apocalypse. I found myself trapped in a meat locker with Larry, a surly, racist old man who had previously left me for dead, as he began to suffer a potentially fatal heart attack. I knew that if Larry died naturally, he would instantly return as a zombie and try to kill me. My choice seemed clear. I picked up a heavy object from the corner of the room and used it to crush his skull.

Later, some unnerving statistics appeared on the screen: how my choices compared to everyone else who had played the game. I saw a long, red bar of discord stretch out next to my decision to kill Larry. Over 68 percent of players had disagreed and refused to take his life. I gulped. Until that moment, I’d felt certain I made the right decision. Now I wasn’t so sure.

Using data to create moral complexity in video games has become a specialty for Telltale Games, a studio whose titles — including adaptations of both “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” — focus not on battering enemies with weapons, but on asking players to make difficult ethical choices. Their interactive stories are a sandbox of morality, one where we’re able to glimpse not just how we might respond in life-or-death scenarios, but also how we stack up against everyone else. Are we braver? Less loyal? More pragmatic? And how do we feel when our moral decisions are measured by the yardstick of our peers?

“We definitely wanted people to do a comparative analysis of the way they reacted in difficult moral situations versus the way other people did,” said Telltale CEO Kevin Bruner. “It reinforces the commitment that you made. It might make you ask yourself, why did I choose that in the moment? What was I thinking? What was someone else thinking?”

The data doesn’t just influence players, it’s also an important tool that allows developers to tailor the game as they’re making it. In every episode, there are decision points designed as narrative barometers, opportunities to gauge how the audience feels — and whether they’re having the reactions Telltale hoped for.

Telltale’s games usually offer no obvious “good” and “bad” options. Indeed, if the results for any choice are too lopsided — if the decision is too easy to make — they tend to count it as a swing and a miss.

In “The Wolf Among Us,” a Telltale game about mythological characters living in New York City, Bruner says they worried that the immense strength of the main character might make it too easy to commit violence. So they tweaked the game, encouraging players to be more conscientious about their use of violent force.

“We’d have [characters] in the world push back and say, ‘C’mon, we all know you can do this, but it’s not really helping,'” said Bruner. After looking at the data, they could tell it worked: In the second episode, when faced with an attack from a weaker character, 78 percent of players subdued their foe but chose not to hit him a second time. “We got people to this place where they were a very powerful character, but they were concerned about the way they were wielding that power.”

That sort of moral complexity is exactly what prompted Tobias Staaby, a high school teacher in Norway, to integrate the “Walking Dead” video game into the curriculum for his ethics class. Before each significant decision, he discusses various ethical frameworks with his students — including relational ethics, consequential ethics, and ethics of duty or virtue — and asks them to debate each choice before voting as a class on which way to go.

“Depending on what kind of ethics you base your arguments on, there are no evil decisions in ‘The Walking Dead,’” says Staaby. “Rather, are you making decisions [to create] the best consequences or making sure that the action itself is a good deed?”

These morally ambiguous forks in the road have prompted passionate debates both online and offline about which choices players believe are “right,” “wrong,” or even “unforgivable.” And of course, the comparative data that appears at the end of each episode feels like a conversation all its own, a digital expression of social norms that can leave players feeling justified — or judged — by the decisions of their peers.

In his classes, Staaby observed a tendency for students in the same session to lean in a similar ethical direction over the course of the game as they debated and observed the opinions of their peers. “There’s a culture that solidifies during gameplay,” says Staaby. “The voices that are the loudest or most outspoken are often the voices that most students lean towards.”

Dr. Praveen R. Kambam, a psychiatrist who consults with the media analysis group Broadcast Thought, says this tendency to be influenced by social feedback is what’s known as a conformity bias. “In other words, [people] tend to look to the actions of others in deciding how they should behave,” said Kambam. “This bias is stronger when faced with questions that do not have absolute answers, like moral questions.”

The layered nature of identity in video games can complicate matters as well, since players make different decisions depending on whether or not they’re role-playing the characters they inhabit. This gets particularly complicated in the second season of “The Walking Dead,” where you play as an 11-year-old girl named Clementine. When you’re faced with horrifying situations, will you make the decisions that you would make, or the ones you think she would make?

In one particularly disturbing scene, one of your allies announces that he’s going to kill a man who has tortured or murdered several of his friends. You can either leave before he does it or stay and watch the villain die a horrible death — which means Clementine has to watch as well. It’s the sort of question that tests how willing people are to give in to some of our darker, more voyeuristic impulses, and allows us to follow those urges to their logical conclusions. Ultimately, more than 68 percent of players decided to stay and watch the murder — a decision that becomes a consequence unto itself, as it really is horrific to behold.

“We all drive down the freeway and slow down at the accident,” says Bruner. “What if you could get out of your car and really check it out? Is that what you’re really trying to do? In this situation, if you say you want to watch, that means you want to watch. So here it comes.”

Although violent video games are often demonized by critics who claim they desensitize people to violence — or encourage it in real life — Bruner says that Telltale’s games rely fundamentally on the humanity and empathy of their players. “Our games would absolutely not work if players were desensitized to violence, if they didn’t care about other people.”

While “The Walking Dead” can be undeniably upsetting, Staaby calls it “violence with a purpose. I don’t think you’d get quite as interesting dilemmas in nonthreatening or nonviolent situations.” And in his classes, at least, the players are very morally engaged. “A lot of my students feel really responsible, especially towards Clementine. And without that empathy and sympathy, relational ethics is impossible. Even though they’re fictional characters, many of my students argue as if [they] have real feelings.”

His students struggled particularly hard with a scenario where a young woman who has been bitten by a zombie begs to borrow the player’s gun so she can end her own life before she becomes a monster. The decision led to a heated debate, in part because a student at a neighboring school had committed suicide just a few weeks earlier — a tragedy that was still fresh in the minds of his students. “I almost didn’t go through with it because of that,” said Staaby, “but I’m so glad I did, because it turned out to be one of the best discussions that we ever had.”

Staaby thinks games like these provide an important experimental space in which to explore real-life ethics, not only because Telltale’s data-driven tweaking aims them so squarely at moral gray areas, but also because they explore difficult dilemmas through unfamiliar fantasy scenarios that often allow players to see these quandaries with new eyes. “These questions don’t have any ready-made answers,” says Staby. “The zombies, after all, are yet to come.”

Laura Hudson is a freelance writer for WIRED, Slate, and FiveThirtyEight. She lives in Portland, Oregon.