Throughout my life, morality in media has been an issue. Well, somebody else's issue, not mine. When I was young, Jack Chick led a morality crusade against Dungeons & Dragons that struck terror into the hearts of parents of nerds everywhere. Later in life, it was heavy metal (the music, not the magazine. The magazine was responsible for something else but was fortunately below most parents' radars.) When I was in the army, Beavis and Butthead supposedly single handedly caused every act of juvinle delinquency in the country. These are just the well known scapegoats.
And then, starting with the Columbine tragedy, videogames stepped up to the plate. The shooters were fond of Doom and Quake, therefore first-person-shooters were responsible. Gamers still giggle over Cooper Lawrence's live tirade over the sexual content in Mass Effect when she was forced to admit that she never actually played the game. When she finally did, she admitted that the sexual content was less than what was seen on late-night television. Grand Theft Auto showed us that society is fine with beating hookers over the head with a two-by-four for cash, but showing puppet-looking sex with them would trigger the Apocalypse.
I recently played Fallout: New Vegas. It's a spin-off (rather than a sequel) of Fallout 3. If you click on the trailer, you can see it's full of limb-dismembering fun, set to toe-tapping tunes of the forties. But during game-play, you make choices. Every choice gives or takes away karma. You can be a hero or a villain. The difference with other games that allow you to play the bad guy (The GTA series for example.) is that characters in the game treat you accordingly. If you help people, Elvis impersonators will run up to you randomly, thank you for being kind, and give you gifts. If you've hurt and killed innocent people, passerbys will tell you to get the fuck out of their faces. As with Fallout 3, I have to admit that the effect works on me. Even though it's just a video game, my natural instinct is to do good. I've played it a second time as bad to see what the difference is, and I found that the guilt takes the fun away.
The same goes for the Bioshock series. There are "Little Sisters" whose bodies contain a life-force called Eve. You can either free them of it which gives you half the Eve, or kill them for the full content. Freeing them of it results in a thank you. Killing them results in agonized screams. It's just a game, but guess which one you're more likely to choose.
Portal plays a wonderful psychological trick on you with its Weighted Companion Cube. It's just a box with a heart on it. That's all. It doesn't talk, it doesn't move, it's just a box like any other. However, you're told at the beginning of the level that it contains a rudimentary artificial intelligence, and you must protect it. Here's the kicker: At the end of the level, you can't progress unless you incinerate it. No screams of agony when you do, but GlaDOS (the antagonist) congratulates you, that of all the test subjects, you killed your Weighted Companion Cube the quickest. The guilt haunted me for... ok... five minutes, but still, it's just a box in a game. Why care at all?
I guess all in all it's not that hard to understand. People have become emotionally involved with characters in fiction for centuries - why should video games be any different? Portal 2 comes out tomorrow - I'll let you know how it messes with my mind.