“Designing Morality in Games”

There’s an interesting post on designing games with moral choice (and moral ambiguity) over at Gamasutra, which looks at the Bioshock games especially and speculates about the value of moving away from super-simplistic black-and-white good and evil, which is a pet peeve of mine as well.

Something the article doesn’t touch on much, though, is why we are including these moral choices in the first place – something I think we need to know in order to decide what sorts of structure and context should be provided. Are we making a rhetorical point about something we believe? Are we telling the story of how a particular character in a particular context wrestled with moral decision-making? Are we pushing the player to explore his beliefs about a difficult situation (a la The Baron or Fate)?

10 thoughts on ““Designing Morality in Games”

  1. All Fallout’s have a great leap instead of “bad” line of gameplay. In Fallout 1, negative karma is VERY hard to get. You can’t just be the bad guy beacuse all the developers aren’t.

    • In Fallout 1 they let you slaughter every single person in the game. If you don’t have negative karma that just means you probably aren’t actually acting evil.

  2. Interesting article and interesting timing too, as I am at this moment getting to grips with how to implement some moral choices in my current WIP.

    For me it is important not to impose my own moral values on the player, but rather to explore the PC’s morality as a consistent aspect of his or her character.

    The approach I am taking at the moment has the PC’s ‘conscience’ give feedback when the player attempts an action that violates the PC’s ethical sensibilities. However, if the player persists the PC can still carry out that action.

    I’m also trying to avoid a black and white approach to morality, and to simulate a degree of moral ambiguity by designing puzzles and plot points that have multiple possible solutions and outcomes – at least some of which are only available if the PC steps outside the boundaries of his or her ethical code.

    For example – If we have a PC whose ethical code forbids the use of violence, should they go to pick up a large sharp knife, they will get a message from their ‘conscience’ about feeling uncomfortable that the most obvious use of the knife is to stick in people. The player can go ahead and have the PC take the knife. In fact I believe that may have an interesting effect on how the player plays the PC. Now they are aware of the PC’s ethical code; will the player be restrained from using the knife in its most obvious way, or will they at some point give in to the temptation? There may be times when the PC (having made a dubious moral choice in taking the knife in the first place) finds that they can use it in a non-lethal way to solve a puzzle or progress the story. What effect is that ‘success’ likely to have on how the player plays the PC and their future moral choices?

    Sorry to ramble on a bit, but I hope that illustrates something of my thinking around the issue.

    • I know this isn’t at all your main point, but I would really wonder about a PC who thought the primary use of a sharp knife was to stick into people. In real life, many people actually own sharp knives which have never been stuck into anything with more sentience than a pork roast. Whenever I see one in an adventure game, I figure I’m going to be required to cut something non-human, and have no compunctions about taking it (along with absolutely everything else.) Having the game consider this a “dubious moral action” would bother me somewhat.

      On the general subject: Presenting a player with unexpected consequences for their actions can be interesting and powerful, but I’d be careful assigning motivations to a player’s actions, especially in complex scenarios. It’s really hard, if not impossible, to know what a player is thinking when they make a decision. (For example, I had decided that my Echo Bazaar character was someone who believed in true love to the point of being easily suckered, and it was jarring to receive one point of Heartless for acting accordingly, when heartless was the last thing I thought I was being.)

      Also, I’m torn between wanting moral choice to be grayer and more interesting than “cure cancer/rape kittens” (accomplished, perhaps, by adding the option to rape cancer and cure kittens) and wanting to always be the guy who is nice to everybody and saves the world. I’m not sure, though, that they have to be mutually exclusive.

      • It’s really hard, if not impossible, to know what a player is thinking when they make a decision.

        Yeah. This is one reason why I wish there were more games that experimented with asking the player about his motivation, either directly (as The Baron does) or through conversation.

        Of course, then the game author is stuck trying to come up with enough motivation choices. (Blue Lacuna addresses this at one point, quite late in the game, by giving the player a list of motivation options, but also a space where you can say ‘no, it was none of those reasons…’. I forget whether you’re actually allowed to type in something freeform at that point; I think so. If so, it’s obviously limited in that the game doesn’t have a response ready for your freeform remarks — if Aaron had thought of a response then that option would already be built in, presumably — but being able to articulate it even only for your own benefit is still interesting. I certainly was intrigued by the ability to type freeform input at other points in BL.)

        I’m torn between wanting moral choice to be grayer and more interesting than “cure cancer/rape kittens” (accomplished, perhaps, by adding the option to rape cancer and cure kittens)

        Speaking of that, there’re at least two opportunities in Echo Bazaar where you can do a mean thing, a nice thing, or a nice/mean combo (help someone who’s hurt but rob them at the same time, for instance). Which I liked.

      • I think the point I was making, though not perhaps very clearly is that a morally ambiguous action can be given an ethical slant when the context is taken into account alongside the PC’s ethical predispositoon.

        If the sharp knife in question is picked up in a game set at a hog roast, no one will bat an eyelid. If, on the other hand the PC is visited by members of a shadowy government agency who give him/her 2 minutes to pack their things before being taken away to an undisclosed location; we can be forgiven for inferring that the PC may not be thinking of slicing out cold cuts when they take the 14 inch chef’s knife.

      • If, on the other hand the PC is visited by members of a shadowy government agency who give him/her 2 minutes to pack their things before being taken away to an undisclosed location; we can be forgiven for inferring that the PC may not be thinking of slicing out cold cuts when they take the 14 inch chef’s knife.

        Yeah, fair enough. I’d go off on a tangent here about differing moral values as a source of player-PC disconnect, but we’re already thighs-deep in a pool of Jenni Can’t Shut Up.

  3. Speaking of that, there’re at least two opportunities in Echo Bazaar where you can do a mean thing, a nice thing, or a nice/mean combo (help someone who’s hurt but rob them at the same time, for instance). Which I liked.

    I enjoyed that too. And I liked that quite often the altruistic choice was harder (required more points in a stat) than the easy, self-interested choice. Having to make the small sacrifice of sitting on a card until I was able to come back and do the right thing made it feel more meaningful.

    The sacrifice angle seems to be missing from most games, actually. I know designers are concerned that players will choose the most mechanically rewarding path, morality be damned, and they’re probably right. Still, a large part of the warm glow you get from returning a wallet comes from knowing that keeping it and spending the money would have been easier, and more fun, and you could have, but you didn’t. You don’t feel any of that when “doing the right thing” simply means picking the top option on the menu without any particular temptation to choose the bottom one.

    Blue Lacuna addresses this at one point, quite late in the game, by giving the player a list of motivation options, but also a space where you can say ‘no, it was none of those reasons…’.

    Yeah, I feel like I’m selling human ingenuity and problem-solving short, but it seems like the best we’re gonna get here is (as with gender and political party affiliation) a list of the most likely suspects topped off with “Other.” There’s always going to be that one person who says “No, stupid game, clearly I sent him off to the murder camp because I know that is where they are keeping the time machine, and he can find it and go back and stop the murder camp from ever having been built. What do you mean, there’s not a time machine in this game? Don’t tell me you swallowed their murderganda!” I feel like that one person might just have to learn to live with a vague sense of dissatisfaction every time he consumes media.

  4. I don’t believe there can ever be a true moral choice in games that makes any difference to the player. One of the aspects of games that has always been enchanting is the “do-over” aspect! If we make a stupid error and Pac-Man dies we can start afresh. Without real consequences, a choice becomes a “game”. That is, choices just add a novelty aspect to a game, so when we play through to the end we can start over making different choices, and see what happens.

  5. Just an observation from the peanut gallery, but I can’t remember playing a game where the reward/ending for being a little good or a little bad was preferable to being a paragon of virtue / satan incarnate.

    Take Bioshock, if you are going to make the “bad” decision, even once, the “good” end is sealed off and vice versa. In fact, waffling back and forth quickly costs you the best items in game while limiting the usefulness of being bad.

    Games that reward staying neutral usually are both silly (Feeding 3 orphans offsets killing the fourth) and require a suspension-of-disbelief breaking amount of effort to maintain.

    The problem is short term vs. long term rewards. If LT goals are present, players will ignore the ST to get the LT result desired or, if no LT goals are present, players act in an erratic manner to maximize the benefit of ST effects.

    The only “solution” to this situation that I have ever seen work is to hide the possibility of LT effects from decisions.

    Using the example above, if I am stopped when I move to pick up the knife, it forces a moral decision, but most gamers will just assume the act of asking is a Chekov’s gun and the decision to take or not take the knife will come into play in the third act, a tacit acknowledgement that the game has LT effects, and the gamer will adapt their play accordingly. An alternate solution would be to comment as the player reaches for the knife and use that as an excuse to end the scene before they can pick it up (the MiBs grumble at you for wasting their time and that you won’t need to cook for yourself where they’re going). That way the player is tipped off that a moral choice has been made, but not in such a manner that their nose is rubbed in it.

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