Like many gamers who grew up in the '70s and '80s, my formative gaming experiences came not on the computer or the console, but on pen-and-paper, in the basement of a friend's house playing whatever RPG we happened to be into at the time. It was during one such session that my brother, the game master, confronted my character with a very carefully crafted encounter. Below, in a small valley, lay a group of centaurs who were preparing to burn a small halfling at the stake. Now, I had no notion of this person's guilt or innocence, and I had no idea if the centaurs were administering justice or just being cruel. But instead of riding down into the valley on horseback and demanding an explanation as my brother had expected, my character instead quietly dismounted his steed, carefully got into a protected position in the hills above, and began to rain down missile attacks on the unsuspecting centaurs.
I thought nothing of the moral implications of such a decision: I had the tactical high ground! Charging down into a pack of potentially hostile centaurs would not only have meant giving up the combat advantages of both height and surprise, but could also very well have been suicide! I had already learned by the tender age of 10 that the background story of what was happening down below mattered little; the GM had presented me with an obstacle to overcome, and my skill lay in accomplishing that task in the most efficient manner possible. Why risk a long parlay that could result in close combat? Better to simply deal with the centaurs in the safest and most expedient manner possible. Obviously, he didn't intend for me to just let the poor halfling burn, guilty or not, or else he wouldn't have created this situation in the first place.
The issue of morality in games has been with us for a long time and will be with us for a long time to come. Of course, it wasn't always thus when it came to videogames. In 1978, no one really questioned the fact that one of the neatest ways to shoot aliens in Space Invaders was to shoot through your own cities, presumably killing thousands of innocent civilians. I did not ask myself if the UFO shooting at me in Asteroids was really a bad guy or just trying to protect his planet from all the rogue space debris I was generating. And computer games were no exception either: Most of them expected you to kill just about anything that moved and/or pick up everything you could find that wasn't nailed down. If the plot featured a bad guy like Mondain or Mangar the Dark, there was no question that he was pure evil and must be destroyed at all costs.
All of that changed in 1985 with the arrival of Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. Still hailed today as a landmark event in computer gaming, Ultima IV introduced the player to a system of morality that was an essential element to the game. At the very start of the game, the player was required to answer a series of questions that posed various ethical dilemmas, which in turn determined their character's starting class. In order to win the game, the player had to not just overcome digital obstacles, but to conduct his character in a manner consistent with eight virtues: Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Sacrifice, Honor, Spirituality and Humility. While the true moral value of such a system has been debated frequently over the years, the virtues and principles they were founded on continued to play important roles in the rest of the Ultima series, right up to the present day.