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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