Choice and Morality, Part Three

So how can we fix or, with more mod­est ambi­tion, improve moral choic­es in games? My goal would be to encour­age play­ers to treat moral deci­sions as any oth­er game deci­sion, instead of oppor­tu­ni­ty to slide a progress bar. Choice gets more inter­est­ing when dif­fer­ent choic­es have things to rec­om­mend them. There’s val­ue in the play­er weigh­ing long-term vs short-term advan­tage, or con­sid­er­ing how to deal with a sit­u­a­tion in more than one way, or bet­ter yet more than the obvi­ous, habit­u­al, or direct way.

Adam & Eve

Where would we be with­out temp­ta­tion?

Improve What We’ve Got
Let’s start with the least rad­i­cal of changes to the cur­rent ecol­o­gy. Keep the exist­ing bina­ry moral sys­tem. Accept that play­ers will always iden­ti­fy the good moral choice. For­tu­nate­ly, eth­i­cal fail­ures of men and women in the real world aren’t fail­ures of knowl­edge either. They are fail­ures of will. We fail because we give into temp­ta­tion. If you want a ref­er­ence look up dead­ly sins.

If evil choic­es embody self­ish­ness, then why aren’t we manip­u­lat­ing the player’s greed, ambi­tion, and attach­ment to his char­ac­ter? Con­sid­er the recent exam­ple adver­tis­ing “ratio­nal self-inter­est” phi­los­o­phy. Har­vest Lit­tle Sis­ters instead of sav­ing them, and get a big­ger reward. Or do you? Bioshock’s design­ers exe­cute a sad retreat by com­pen­sat­ing the good play­er with gifts from the Lit­tle Sis­ters. The self­ish choice doesn’t actu­al­ly pay off. So instead of involv­ing the play­er in this test of the human spir­it, the game has rigged the game against Rapture’s ethics.

Put it in micro­eco­nom­ic terms: there is some reward that would tempt my char­ac­ter to engage in an evil act in a game, even when I’m play­ing a char­ac­ter that’s nom­i­nal­ly good. If not game mon­ey, then a suf­fi­cient­ly awe­some weapon, piece of armor, new super­pow­er, or the like. At some lev­el of reward, I’m going to con­sid­er, and prob­a­bly even com­mit, an evil act. Once we get that estab­lished, to para­phrase the Shaw quote, all that’s left for design­ers is to hag­gle with the play­er over the price. Evil choic­es should be tempt­ing: not adver­tis­ing that you can role­play a deranged social­ly mal­ad­just­ed psy­chopath.

Con­verse­ly, stop por­tray­ing every benev­o­lent deci­sions as low cost and high reward. That’s well and good if want to con­struct Dis­ney-esque fairy­tale uni­vers­es, but how about using these M rat­ings to show off a world where good­will isn’t always so prof­itable?

Sys­tems-Con­tent Divorce
The next step? Get rid of the moral­i­ty meter. Let the play­er make choic­es in the moment, with­out the need to rein­force rigid, inhu­man car­i­ca­tures. With­out the mon­i­tor over­head or the incen­tive (see below), the play­er is more like­ly to make choice based on cir­cum­stances, not on inten­tions set before the game loaded. Then let the dice fall where they may. Con­se­quences fall in as the game needs, prefer­ably with some sense of bal­ance to allow for choic­es on either side. AI char­ac­ters can react appro­pri­ate­ly to what they see the play­er do, or what they’ve heard of him doing.
Luke, misusing the Force?
This means that advance­ment sys­tems need to sit in igno­rance of the player’s moral choic­es. Aban­don unlock­ing of abil­i­ties based on the good-evil meter. This means that even your Light-side Jedi can pur­chase the Force light­ning abil­i­ty. Or the equiv­a­lent. Is that so bad? Obvi­ous­ly, if you’re devel­op­ing your con­tent and sys­tems togeth­er for a new IP, it’s eas­i­er than retro­fitting it in. Though in the case of Star Wars, I’m sure some­one in the expand­ed uni­verse has man­aged the trick.

Beyond Good & Evil
At times, games have shown desire to inno­vate and devi­ate from com­ic book arche­types of good and evil. For exam­ple, Mass Effect draws lines between paragon and rene­gade. The idea, I think, was to ques­tion the means we accept. What are you will­ing to do in the name of a greater good? The paragon always does the right thing, but the rene­gade does what­ev­er it takes to get the job done. Put it that way, it doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Sad­ly, the writ­ing in Mass Effect quick­ly falls back into a famil­iar pat­tern of the polite, self-sac­ri­fic­ing good guy ver­sus the self-cen­tered, self­ish ass­hole.

Moral­i­ty can be more inter­est­ing than that. Bioware’s paragons and rene­gades want to see jus­tice done (anoth­er oppor­tu­ni­ty for some debate) and gen­er­al­ly save the galaxy. We don’t need com­ic book vil­lainy to imag­ine one of these char­ac­ters doing ques­tion­able things in the name of a greater good. Lies, deceit? No prob­lem. A heavy-hand­ed approach? Okay. A will­ing­ness to resort to vio­lence? Sure. Tor­ture? Hmm.

Now let’s steal some ideas from a fresh­man ethics course. Would you be will­ing to assas­si­nate the chan­cel­lor of Ger­many in 1933? You would? How about when he’s spout­ing his creed in beer halls a decade ear­li­er? Ear­li­er, when a  failed teenage artist? An infant with five sib­lings? How about his father, before his birth? Or, con­sid­er anoth­er angle: how much “col­lat­er­al dam­age” are you will­ing to accept? Blow up his poor family’s house? The city of Brau­nau am Inn? How about every per­son in Aus­tria-Hun­gary? The account­ing of lives saved comes out ahead, you know…

On the Shoul­ders of Giants
We don’t have to invent the game­play out of noth­ing. Applied ethics has done some of the heavy lift­ing of imag­in­ing our sce­nar­ios for us. In essence, the ques­tion of how far you’re will­ing to go expos­es two kinds of ethics: util­i­tar­i­an­ism and a form of deon­tol­ogy. Do the ends jus­ti­fy the means? Some­times, maybe? Hav­ing a sim­ple under­stand­ing of dif­fer­ent eth­i­cal sys­tems (best link I could find here) doesn’t mean that you have to preach to your play­ers. 

The strengths and weak­ness­es of dif­fer­ent eth­i­cal sys­tems cre­ate oppor­tu­ni­ties. Phi­los­o­phy and ethics texts are full of imag­ined sce­nar­ios jux­ta­pos­ing the choic­es of one eth­i­cal sys­tem against anoth­er. As game design­ers, we don’t have to rely on descrip­tion or judg­ment of text. We can put sit­u­a­tions in front of the play­er and let him work it out. Will the play­er respect cul­tur­al norms? Will he or she bend or break the law in the ser­vice of some­thing greater? When does the play­er stop mak­ing excep­tions? Each eth­i­cal sys­tem places dis­tinct val­ues on results, intents, cul­tures, or the per­sons doing the action.

Leav­ing behind our col­lege text­books, even if you want lim­it your ethics even to D&D stereo­types, play with the oth­er align­ment axis. Set up the rule of law and the needs of soci­ety (law) against per­son­al lib­er­ty and indi­vid­ual rights (chaos). The world around us today seems made for these sorts of ques­tions, as the inter­ests of the state com­pete with the rights of the indi­vid­ual.

Eh, Nev­er­mind
Is this a prob­lem worth invest­ing in, after all this dia­tribe?  This par­a­digm of gross­ly obvi­ous choic­es has been around in games for a while now, and it seems more pop­u­lar than ever. Would com­plex­i­ty or depth actu­al­ly go over well among our play­ers? Do they want more chal­leng­ing choic­es?

It’s rea­son­able to ask whether moral choic­es are loved for what they rep­re­sent. A fan­ta­sy moral­i­ty. In these games, it’s easy to make the right moral choice. We don’t per­son­al­ly have to sac­ri­fice any­thing. We get praised and reward­ed for our benev­o­lence. What could be eas­i­er?


  • While I agree that the Bioshock moral choice los­es sig­nif­i­cance *when* you fig­ure out that the dif­fer­ence between them reward­wise is neg­li­gi­ble. How­ev­er, a bal­ance of the moral theme to fun game­play needs to be main­tained. At least for any high­ly com­mer­cial game.

    Also, play­ers may come across moral choic­es in real life (e.g. grand­pas in a coma on life sup­port, and the insur­ance doesn’t cov­er it all), and may be using games to escape to “Yay, good guys win!” via games.

    You need to hook an indie game devel­op­er for your moral choice game.

  • Please sub­tract the “via games” from my sec­ond point.

  • Pret­ty good post. I just found your site and want­ed to say
    that I have real­ly liked brows­ing your posts. In any case
    I’ll be sub­scrib­ing to your blog and I hope you post again soon!

  • […] At the end of the day, Mass Effect’s sequel is a dis­ap­point­ment. Believe me, I know I’m swim­ming against the cur­rent here. EA/Bioware gets to put a big tro­phy on their man­tle  – a 96% Meta­crit­ic. That’s the fourth high­est score for a 360 title, ever. So am I insane? Maybe. But as I played the game, too many things stood out as “could be bet­ter.” So that’s what this this entry is about: pon­der­ing what keeps an enter­tain­ing game from being what I’d call great.  (One quick note: I’m going to avoid dis­cus­sion of the game’s moral­i­ty sys­tem. Been there, done that, etc.) […]

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.