Gods from the Machine: Godhood and Morality in Roleplaying Videogames


This dissertation aims to situate moral play under a structure of godhood. This comprise two distinct but intertwining elements: the player-as-god and diegetic gods. The player-as-god is a concept I will outline that describes the player-avatar relationship as a dualistic notion that encompasses the avatar as a distinct, diegetic character, and the player as a controlling being who transcends the gameworld. The two collide in player-avatar relationships to create a ‘fantasy self’, as Katherine Isbister terms, that is neither solely player nor avatar. The player-as-god, as both transcendental but simultaneously native to the gameworld, must forge new moral and social frameworks according to the different ontological and cosmological fundamentals of the created gameworld. These frameworks, I will argue, are predicated on higher diegetic powers that guide and inform the player-as-god. I will examine this topic through four case studies. In Grand Theft Auto V, I will illustrate the player-as-god as part of a player-avatar relationship that involves a pre-characterised avatar, in the form of GTA V’s playable protagonists. In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, I will analyse a more ‘blank slate’ avatar in the player-avatar relationship, and consider how the player-as-god is directed by diegetic gameworld gods and higher powers. In Diablo III, I will explore the highly intertextual nature of its moral framework, as it borrows extensively from Judeo-Christian tradition. Finally, in Dark Souls I will add a moral dimension to Daniel Vella’s notion of the ludic sublime, examine how moral futility is instituted in the game’s lore and mechanics.