Choice and Morality, Part One

I want to talk about moral choic­es in games, but before I get there, I need to take apart choice in gen­er­al. Don’t wor­ry, we won’t get bur­dened with issues of free will or invent ter­mi­nol­o­gy for ludoethics. Metaethics would be a dif­fer­ent blog.

Games demand deci­sions. Every act of the play­er, every input and every but­ton press, is an act of choice. With­out choice — and action to com­mu­ni­cate that choice — there is no play­er. Only audi­ence.

I always rescue Zoey, unless Heather needs to some chores.

I always res­cue Zoey, unless Heather has chores to do.

Of course, game choic­es can fre­quent­ly be reduced to “per­form this action or stop play­ing.” In a lin­ear game, the play­er must con­tin­u­ing mov­ing for­ward. If Mario doesn’t keep run­ning and jump­ing, the game is sus­pend­ed. Or put anoth­er way, a play­er isn’t tech­ni­cal­ly forced to use a gun. How­ev­er, if Zoey doesn’t shoot the zom­bies, the play­er wit­ness­es a bloody end­ing.

As design­ers, we have means to guide play­ers or force them down a path in order to form a nar­ra­tive. In the final analy­sis, though, these are false choic­es. The game that hap­pens around these auto­mat­ic, tac­ti­cal choic­es can be fun, but the enjoy­ment derived is a result of exe­cu­tion or chal­lenge of skill, not because of the choic­es made.

To be hon­est, you should stop me there. I’m over­sim­pli­fy­ing. There can be a lot of tac­ti­cal choic­es that get tied up with game exe­cu­tion. Tetris deci­sions are cer­tain­ly tac­ti­cal, but they can also dis­play plan­ning and risk-tak­ing that goes beyond the moment. In a dif­fer­ent exam­ple, when the play­er guides Sam Fish­er to take out (or not take out) a bad guy, a series of inter­est­ing choic­es can be the result.

Today, though, if a design­er speaks of a game cen­tered on play­er choice, he or she is prob­a­bly refer­ring to choic­es that are more strate­gic in nature. Deci­sions that come about in calmer moments, moments of intro­spec­tion. Let’s look at some of these strate­gic choic­es, and what val­ue they add.

Mis­sion choic­es. This means we’re talk­ing about a game that has non­lin­ear ele­ments, per­haps tru­ly open world. The game offers mul­ti­ple direc­tions or objec­tives for the play­er to pur­sue. Selec­tion could be geo­graph­ic, result from AI inter­ac­tion, a direct­ed inter­face, or oth­er means.

The val­ue of mis­sion choice seems obvi­ous. The play­er can eval­u­ate risk and reward, deter­mine which facets of the game he or she wants to empha­size or ignore, and decide to pur­sue a game’s pri­ma­ry sto­ry arc (assum­ing it has one) or instead explore side mis­sions and oth­er con­tent.

Advance­ment choic­es. The play­er can improve and cus­tomize the char­ac­ter or even the world, boost­ing skills, build­ing options, or acquir­ing new abil­i­ties. Since choice is involved, this occurs not mere­ly through a lin­ear or auto­mat­ed pro­gres­sion, but through the selec­tion of pow­er-ups, the con­struc­tion of a base, etc. One or more forms of resources get involved–experience points, time, mon­ey, or some oth­er form of game cur­ren­cy.

Speak­ing of cur­ren­cy, one form of advance­ment is pure­ly eco­nom­ic, involv­ing the buy­ing and sell­ing of equip­ment, prop­er­ty, or ser­vices. Advance­ment and eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment may be one in the same, espe­cial­ly in the sim or real-time strat­e­gy genre.

Ben­e­fits of advance­ment include game­play vari­a­tion, increased replaya­bil­i­ty, empow­er­ment, and a grow­ing attach­ment between play­er and character(s). Even more impor­tant­ly, advance­ment ful­fills desires for self-improve­ment and growth that are more dif­fi­cult to attain in real life. Depend­ing on how the game devel­ops, advance­ment could man­i­fest as wish ful­fill­ment, pow­er fan­ta­sy, or some­thing more mature.

Moral choic­es. Choic­es made with a moral intent sup­port the play­er tak­ing own­er­ship of his or her character’s fun­da­men­tal nature. The play­er is like­ly to act in accord with his or her desire to have the char­ac­ter attain a cer­tain moral stand­ing. Advance­ment sys­tems tie in, unlock­ing new abil­i­ties or bonus­es once the char­ac­ter has com­plet­ed suf­fi­cient moral or immoral acts. These choic­es invoke their own econ­o­my, even if they tracked with­out being spent.

It takes a number of bad decisions, and one good one, to reach this ending.

It takes a num­ber of bad deci­sions, and one good one, to reach this end­ing.

Pre­sen­ta­tion is often overt and bina­ry. Overt: tak­ing place dur­ing non-active game­play, dur­ing con­ver­sa­tion or some form of action cin­e­mat­ic. Bina­ry: only two script­ed choic­es are avail­able, usu­al­ly mes­saged as good or evil action. The prover­bial ridicu­lous exam­ple: do you feed the pup­py or kick the pup­py?

Moral­i­ty sys­tems com­bine, at least poten­tial­ly, the val­ue of mis­sion and advance­ment choice. Like advance­ment choic­es, moral choic­es offer replaya­bil­i­ty, empow­er­ment, and that increased emo­tion­al con­nec­tion between play­er and char­ac­ter. They rep­re­sent an advance­ment lad­der of their own. Like mis­sion choic­es, moral choic­es offer play­er con­trol over game direc­tion and activ­i­ty. As moral choic­es can have effect on the exter­nal game world, they stand out as fun­da­men­tal­ly more pow­er­ful than char­ac­ter-based advance­ment choic­es. The play­er choos­es between actions, not poten­tial abil­i­ties. As a result, moral choic­es rep­re­sent the most inter­est­ing and game-effect­ing sort of a choic­es a play­er can make.

At least, in the­o­ry. More soon.

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