Ethical Choices in Videogames: Lessons from Moral Psychology

 In Books, Ethics, Uncategorized

[NOTE: This is the full text of a paper we submitted to FDG’11. It was rejected for being too subjective and not citing enough other work. Fair enough. But poorly referenced subjective rants are just what blogs are for, right? So here it is.]

Ethical Choices in Videogames: Lessons from Moral Psychology

By Dan Staines and Malcolm Ryan

Abstract

How do we create engaging ethical scenarios in games? This question has been taken up with seriousness by many designers, wanting to see their work grow beyond pure action and address deeper aspects of our lives. We are making progress, but existing designs are still too simplistic. They neither engage us as strategic gameplay nor as meaningful stories. To answer the question we must look deeper into moral reasoning itself to learn the skills it involves and how to engage them. In this paper we investigate the Four Component model of moral psychology to see what light it can shine on the problem. The result is a pattern for a holistic system of ethical gameplay, incorporating ethical identity, investigation, choices and challenges.

1. Introduction

In recent years there has been a surge of interest in ethical decision making in computer games. A few stand-out titles (Mass Effect, Fallout 3, BioShock) have shown us the potential narrative power of placing the player in a morally challenging situation requiring them to make a difficult choice. These kinds of scenarios have been the stock and trade of storytelling for millennia, but we are only beginning to understand how to make them work in an interactive context. There is potential for great narrative power to be had in such interaction but sadly so far we have typically squandered this power on choices that are obvious, over-wrought and ultimately insignificant.

Part of the solution lies in gaining a better understanding of the processes of moral decision making itself. In this paper we look to the cognitive-developmental psychology of the ”Neo-Kohlbergian” school of researchers to gain insight into the variety of skills that comprise ethical reasoning. The Four Component Model of James Rest and colleagues will help us to think more broadly about the entire process of recognising an ethical problem, solving it and enacting the solution. We then consider how this understanding can help us to improve the way we represent ethics in our games, n terms of both strategy and narrative.

2. Moral Psychology: The Four Component Model

The Four Component Model is a cognitive-developmental approach to moral psychology, developed by James Rest and colleagues and expanding on the work of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, but diverging from its predecessors in terms of their emphasis on rationality. Where Kohlberg saw the capacity to make rational moral judgements as the basis of moral maturity, Neo-Kohlbergians such as Rest contend that it is merely part of a much larger and more complex cognitive apparatus. According to their model, there are in fact four key psychological components that comprise the complete moral agent:

  1. moral motivation – the desire to act on moral decisions and focus on them to the exclusion of other concerns,
  2. moral sensitivity – the ability to recognise and respond to moral phenomena,
  3. moral judgement – the capacity to engage in moral reasoning and make moral choices,
  4. moral action – the ability to act on moral decisions and see them through.

Taken together, these form the Four Component Model of moral functioning.

When we think about designing ethical scenarios in our games, it is normal to focus on moral judgement – deciding the right thing to do in a presented situation – but if we do so we are only engaging a fraction of our player’s moral faculties. So lets look in more detail at each of the four components before investigating how they might influence our design choices. In what follows we draw on the elaborations of Narvaez and Lapsley to the Four Component model.

2.1 Moral Motivation

Moral motivation is the impetus to act on our judgement, the desire to do the right thing. It is about cultivating an ethical identity which values courtesy, honour, generosity and fairness. Without these qualities, judgement lacks motivational force and will seldom result in action.

2.2 Moral Sensitivity

Moral sensitivity is the ability to discern that an issue is moral in the first place and recognise how it might be interpreted by different participants. It involves a number of skills including the ability to connect to others and understand their perspectives. Communication (both speaking and listening) is a key skill of moral sensitivity, as is the ability to recognise and control one’s own social bias.

2.3 Moral Judgement

Moral judgement is the act of determining a proper course of action in a moral situation. This is the component that we are most familiar with. It requires skilled reasoning and the ability to identify and employ different judgement criteria. It also requires the ability to predict and evaluate the possible outcomes of our actions to plan our behaviour.

2.4 Moral Action

Moral action is employing the skills to carry out the solution. Skills of moral action include the ability to negotiate, to solve interpersonal problems, to take initiative for action, and to show courage to persevere in the face of obstacles.

3. Game Design: Mechanics and Metaphor

Every game is the interplay of two systems: the mechanical system of the rules and goals (the ‘mechanics’) and the narrative meaning attached to those mechanics (the ‘metaphor’). Thus for example, chess’ mechanics describe the movement of various pieces and the victory condition, but its metaphor is one of battle between ‘pawns’ and ‘knights’ concluded by ‘capturing the king’. In chess the metaphor is very loose, in other more abstract games (such as tic-tac-toe) it is completely absent, but in most computer games it is a very important part of the game.

The mechanics and the metaphor both give meaning to events and objects in the game. The mechanical meaning of an event is its strategic importance. An event that advances progress towards the goal is positive, an event that obstructs process is negative. The narrative importance of an event, on the other hand, depends on the significance given to it by the metaphor. To return to chess. the strategic significance of check is that it forces the player to defend the king, the narrative significance is that the monarch is in danger and one of his servants must urgently act to defend him. In designing a game with a significant metaphor, care must be taken to make the ‘intrinsic narrative’ of the mechanics and the ‘extrinsic narrative’ of the metaphor coincide, else the player may experience dissonance.

Ethical decisions are intrinsically decisions about other people and how they are affected by our actions. An abstract game is amoral, there is nothing good nor evil about capturing an opponent’s knight or threatening his bishop – it is ‘just a game’. It is only through metaphor that we can bring the player to regard these actions ethically. Thus maintaining narrative immersion is important. Dissonance between the mechanics and the metaphor is a threat to this immersion. It takes the player out of the story and reminds them they are playing a game.

We contend that ethical systems in most existing games are dull, both strategically and narratively. They are over-simplified and engage the player’s ethical skill set in a very shallow fashion. They are also regular sources of dissonance, as the narrative meaning of a moral event has little connection to its strategic importance. Let us consider the Karma system of Fallout 3 as a particular example.

3.1 Karma in Fallout 3

The Karma game mechanic in Fallout 3 has been praised as a victory of Utilitarian ethics but we see little reason to praise it as good game design. It consists of a single axis variable, ranging from +1000 to -1000, representing how ‘good’ or ‘evil’ the player character (PC) is. It starts out at zero representing an ambivalent ‘neutral’ character and is affected by certain player choices throughout the game. The list of actions which affect your Karma shows a certain perverseness and inconsistency. For example, you lose 100 Karma for killing a ‘non-evil’ towns-person but nothing for devastating a raider base (as raiders are automatically deemed ’evil’). Furthermore, you can earn back that Karma by giving away two bottles of water to beggars.

The consequences of Karma are limited. Some companions will require a particular level of Karma (good, bad or neutral) before they agree to accompany you. If your Karma is very high or very low you will begin to randomly encounter powerful enemies sent to kill you. So for early, weak characters there is a strategic incentive not to act too moral or immoral to avoid danger.

The mechanics of Karma are not strategically interesting. It is easy to adjust your Karma to whatever setting you desire, with relatively little sacrifice. We suspect that this is deliberate, that the designers wanted to treat Karma as a largely cosmetic attribute that had no major strategic importance giving the player the freedom to play whatever morality they wanted without endangering the outcome of the game. However, in doing so they have actually weakened its narrative significance, as the dissonance between mechanic and metaphor destroys the player’s suspension of disbelief.

The Karma system aside, Fallout 3 is known for presenting the player with a number of moral problems. These range in sophistication from the farcical (the Power of the Atom quest which invites the player to detonate a nuclear bomb in the middle of an innocent town – in return for a handful of currency) to the clever (the Oasis quest which asks the player to assist in the euthanasia of a person in a paralysed state). It is interesting to note that this latter decision, which is by far the most ethically sophisticated in the game, has no Karmic consequence, unless the player chooses the outright evil option (deliberately causing the victim to die in extreme pain).

This disconnect is informative: a single Karma scale can only represent characters who are cartoonishly heroic or villainous; real moral character is sophisticated. This realisation is useful; it means that there is room to create an ethical system that is both strategically rich and narratively subtle. We will next look at each of the four components and consider how they can help us build such a system.

4. Designing ethical games

Designing a meaningful ethical game is more than just creating ‘moral choices’; it is about creating an entire system that engages the skills of moral sensitivity, judgement, motivation and action. As a strategic system it should reward exploration, offer interesting choices and challenging obstacles. As a narrative system is should present a world populated with engaging characters, a dramatic plot and room for self-expression through role-play. Let us now look at each of the Four Component in turn and consider how it might inform this design.

4.1 Moral motivation

The key game dynamic of moral motivation is identity construction, that is giving the player the ability to decide who they are. From a narrative point of view, this requires provision for a diversity of moral character beyond just ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Ultima IV took a step in this direction, representing eight different virtues: honesty, compassion, valour, justice, honour, sacrifice, spirituality and humility (although by requiring the player to optimise all eight, it ultimately homogenised the character and suppressed self-expression). There are also a variety of ways that a character can be evil; consider the seven deadly sins for example. An interesting character is not ‘good’ or ‘evil’; she has a mixture of virtues and sins, even existing at times in opposition. If we are want moral content in our games, we need to start by allowing complexity in their character.
Narrative also requires a href=”http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1592003532/ref=as_li_tf_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=woonpl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=217145&creative=399353&creativeASIN=1592003532″>character growth. The character’s moral identity should change over time as she interacts with the world. This growth should drive towards establishing the uniqueness of that character, in the same way that the sun and the wind decide the particular shape of a tree as it grows. Looking at the character one should see the scars of the history that shaped her: the humiliating moment that made her humble or perhaps spiteful, the praise that fueled her honour and her pride.

Strategically this means a constructing multivariate representation of ethical identity. The system should be an interesting construction toy, allowing multiple affordances through different combinations of identity choices, but with constraints that create a dynamic feedback system rather than allowing unfettered growth in any direction.

A richly interactive toy such as this allows the player to express himself by setting his own goals for his character. One possibility might be for the player to select a ‘self-image’ at the outset of the game and then measure their progress against that image. The cost of an action that violated this image would be a loss of self-approval, hindering the player’s progress until it was remedied.

4.2 Moral sensitivity

The key game dynamic of moral motivation is investigation. A typical ethical conundrum in a game lays out the facts and then presents us with a set of choices; in the real world things are not presented so neatly. Moral sensitivity is the skill of being able to discern the importance of a situation in the first place, and one of its essential components is the ability to identify and express emotions. The extent to which one can practice this skill in a game depends largely on the emotional complexity of the characters the player encounters. A character possessed of complex emotions invites scrutiny and empathy, encouraging the player to recognise the role emotional states play in motivating their behaviour. A one dimensional caricature, as many of our NPCs are, does not invite emotional scrutiny before it doesn’t have any emotions worthy of scrutiny.

Moral sensitivity also requires recognising diverse moral stand-points. As with the PC, we tend to give our NPCs simplistic labels as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ rather than give them depth of moral character. The Megaton quest in Fallout 3 is again a rather egregious example. Sheriff Simms is an affable, fatherly stereotype of ‘goodness’; Mr Burke is a scheming villain. These kinds of caricatures deny ethical engagement. More interesting characters need more complex moral stand-points and internal complexity. Simms could be scrupulously upright and hostile to strangers, but with a genuine love for his son and a blind spot when it comes to pleasing him. Burke could be an outcast with a grudge, a proud man who has faced discrimination (warranted or not) on the basis of his connections. Such characters would provide much more material to engage the player’s moral sensitivity.

To establish this depth, we must give the the player time to explore, to get to know the characters, build relationships with them and uncover their problems. Far too often we encounter scenes in RPGs which begin with “Welcome stranger! Please help us answer our ethical problem…”. Such an abrupt introduction prevents exploration. The ‘show; don’t tell’ mantra applies here. Rather than front-loading all the characters’ motivations in introductory dialogue, the designer should reveal them slowly through ongoing interaction with the player. This also gives the player time to form attachments that can later be tested when conflict arises.

4.3 Moral judgement

The key game dynamic of moral judgement is interesting choice. A binary choice between the ‘good’ or ‘evil’ outcome is rarely interesting. Once the player has determined their desired moral direction such choices are usually obvious. A diversity of moral criteria helps here: choices can become genuine moral dilemmas, tradeoffs between different virtues and vices, informed through investigation and dramatic in terms of their effect on characters.

Strategically, these choices need to balance risks and rewards, offering what Schell terms ‘triangularity’. They should be informed through investigation, but not obvious, and they should be consequential, having long term impact on the game and feeding back on future choices. It is through these choices that the player constructs their character and they need to provide a complex strategic space.

Narratively, choice should be be dramatic. That is, it should address conflict between characters or conflict within characters (such as a character fighting a drug problem). To avoid being over-wrought, conflict should be personal. That is, it should deal with characters the player knows, rather than the anonymous masses. A good story is less about saving the world and more about saving just one person or saving yourself. Again, the ‘show; don’t tell’ mantra applies. The consequences of a choice should be reflected in ongoing changes to the player’s relationships. A one-off judgement affecting an anonymous character who will never be encountered again is not drama. We must give narrative context and consequences to our choices.

4.4 Moral action

The key game dynamic of moral action is challenge. Making a moral judgement may be easy, but carrying it out should be difficult, requiring courage and perseverance. This implies an ongoing and possibly costly commitment. Mechanically, ethical action should be balanced against risk of failure and some kind of material cost. Choices should not be resolved instantaneously, but should require action over time with potentially mounting costs and opportunities to abandon the choice. This provides long-term vs short-term tradeoffs and enriches the strategic space. In terms of narrative, ongoing action provides drama by allowing us to place obstacles in the player’s path, threatening the goal.

The most challenging problem for game design is to allow moral action with subtlety. In purely physical systems like combat we have a continuous space of action with emergent gameplay that permits the player to act with a high degree of subtlety once they master the controls. Our ability to implement social interaction (usually dialogue) falls far short of this mark. Real moral action often requires careful employment of interpersonal skills. This kind of care does not translate well to selecting from discrete dialogue choices. While we could simulate social interaction with continuous combat-like mechanics, representing that simulation with a convincing metaphor would be very difficult. We simply lack the emotional and linguistic AI to do so.

5. Conclusions

Making our games ethically engaging calls for more than just cribbing moral dilemmas from an ethics textbook; it requires the construction of a narrative world with meaningful characters and a diversity of moral perspectives. It requires space for the player to form a detailed ethical identity and to explore and grow that identity through meaningful choices and challenging gameplay. In short, it requires morality to be the heart of the game rather than a cosmetic feature.
Our next plan is to put our money where our mouth is and attempt to implement such a game. We intend to reimplement the Megaton scenario from Fallout 3 in an interactive fiction engine such as Inform and then modify it along the lines suggested in this paper. We do not expect this to be easy. Designing such a game will be challenging but we hope we have shown how the insights of moral psychology can help guide the way.

6. References

  • T. Hartmanna, E. Toza, and M. Brandona. Just a game? unjustified virtual violence produces guilt in empathetic players. Media Psychology, 13(4):339–363, 2010.
  • L. Kohlberg. Essays on Moral Development – Vol. 1. Harper and Row Publishers, San Francisco, 1981.
  • D. Narvaez and D. K. Lapsley. The psychological foundations of everyday morality and moral expertise. In D. Lapsley and C. Power, editors, Character Psychology and Character Education, pages 140–165. University of Notre Dame Press, 2005.
  • J. Piaget. The Moral Judgement of the Child. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London, 1932.
  • J. R. Rest, D. Narvaez, M. J. Bebeau, and S. J. Thoma. Postconventional moral thinking: A Neo-Kohlbergian Approach. Psychology Press, 1999.
  • J. Schell. The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses. Morgan Kaufmann, 2008.
  • Schreiber, L. Hughes, C. Seifert, B. Cash, C. Pineda, T. Robertson, J. Preston, and L. Law. Choosing between right and right: Creating meaningful ethical dilemmas in games [online]. 2009.
  • M. Schulzke. Moral decision making in fallout. Game Studies, 9(2), 2009. Available from: http://gamestudies.org/0902/articles/schulzke.
  • L. Sheldon. Character Development and Storytelling for Games. Course Technology PTR, 2004.
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Showing 22 comments
  • Max Pfennighaus
    Reply

    Great post (I found this via Emily Short’s blog).

    I love the four component model, particularly the “Moral Sensitivity” metric. I think that one trumps all the others. It sits right smack at the core of the problem: players simply don’t (typically) care about people/characters in games the way they care about flesh blood beings. Morality serves to keep groups of people living harmoniously with each other (and themselves) using supernatural and practical imperatives. So in order to be a successful moralist (in a nutshell), one must be empathetic to well-being of their fellow beings.

    Take the Companion Cube from Portal. The writers took great care here to try and create a narrative that generated a real sense of emotional connection to the cubes. So when the time comes to take action to determine the cube’s fate, the decision becomes emotionally and ethically charged.

    In short: Less explosions! Better writing! Make us care! And good luck with your Fallout mod.

    • Alexander
      Reply

      >> players simply don’t (typically) care about people/characters in games the way they care about flesh blood beings.

      I am not sure this is possible at all (for the majority of players, anyway). The right goal, it seems, is to create games that would make people care and feel involved at least as much as good literary works. From logical viewpoint, the task seems trivial, since a traditional “non-interactive” piece is a singular case of an interactive game 🙂

      Actually, when I think about it, it’s probably better to compare mainstream games with cinema rather than books, due to use of “motion pictures” as a predominant way of expression. Again, there are movies and movies. Making a game that would be as compelling as Star Wars or Indiana Jones, or X-Files seems perfectly feasible (and I think we’ve seen good attempts at that). What about a game that would feel like David Lynch movie?

      More realistically, I’d like to see mainstream games (RPGs preferably) that wouldn’t simply require you to identify and empathize with a protagonist, but rather feature a hero who is morally flawed or misled in their judgement and choices. Examples are abundant in marginal areas (IF for example), but I can’t remember even one example of a mainstream product.

      • Max
        Reply

        Good thoughts. Completely agree about the cinematic connection. And holy crap, I would LOVE a David Lynch game.

    • Alexander
      Reply

      Speaking about Portal, I think it’s an execellent example of a compelling game. But I doubt that its success comes primarily from emotional attachment. The game actually breaks a few rules of storytelling and gets away with it. For one, it doesn’t have any premise to establish connection with the protagonist (same flaw is mentioned in other post on this blog regarding Fallout: New Vegas).

      What it succeeds in is using the FPS-like medium to create a “parallel world” (sounds silly, but I don’t know how to put it better) consisting of the artificial surroundings of a test-lab slowly falling into disrepair, deadly robots with strange voices, mysterious graffiti, convoluted puzzles and (last, but not the least) GlaDOS voice. It’s a self-sufficient logically complete reality of clear (though convoluted) purpose and back-of-your-mind feeling of something sinister afoot.

      In short, I can’t really put my finger on what makes this game tick. But somehow all pieces fit together to create a reality that one enjoys not only to experience but to remember. It’s somewhat akin to the phenomenon of a good poem, or rather a single perfect line: you are familiar with all these words, but when you see them in this particular order, you get an overwhelming feeling of discovery which is so hard to explain.

      • starwed
        Reply

        “it doesn’t have any premise to establish connection with the protagonist ”

        You’re conflating the agent with the protagonist. Is Portal a story about Chell, or about GladOS?

    • Dan Hemmens
      Reply

      Actually, when I think about it, it’s probably better to compare mainstream games with cinema rather than books, due to use of “motion pictures” as a predominant way of expression

      I’m increasingly of the opinion that if games are similar to any other medium it’s theatre (although installation would be even better). Films and books are entities which (for want of a better term) persist once created – two copies of a book are really the same book. Plays, on the other hand, are continually recreated by new people – two productions of Hamlet by two different companies can be very different plays.

  • Oreolek
    Reply

    You should play The Witcher or Fallout: New Vegas. Don’t take Fallout 3 seriously.

  • Alexander
    Reply

    Very interesting reading. Thank you.

    While I mostly agree, I’d like to add that poorly implemented or unbalanced ethical choices can be much worse than lack of them whatsoever. One example I saw recently was Bioware’s “Dragon Age: Origins”, which I think is a textbook example of how not to design dialgoues. At first glance, it doesn’t seem that bad. Instead of “good-evil-o-meter” they introduced approval raiting, one per every NPC in your party. This is a bit reminiscent of the Ultima case you’ve mentioned. Each party member can be seen as representing a kind of virtue (honour, or belief, or will to survive, or wisdom, etc.) By making the right choices (in conversations and quests) a player can gain or loose approval points from the party member. However, complete lack of balance entirely screws up the idea. It turns out you can please everybody to 100% just by chatting them up and figuring out “the right” lines to pick. As a result the game proves to be extremely coercive and effectively ruins even those conversations that could be of remote interest otherwise. In short, there is no reason not to suck up
    and there is a tangible benefit in doing so (unlocking some NPC-specific bonuses, etc.) Huge disappointment.

    As a sidenote, lately I’ve been feeling compelled to play extremely “evil” characters in RPGs (mostly Bioware) just as a way to escape the boredom and banality. Doesn’t help much though. Apparently, I can’t become as evil as I’d like to, e.g. in aforementioned DA:O I can’t join the darkspawn and help Archdemon with general killing, looting & pillaging.

  • Dan Hemmens
    Reply

    You raise some interesting points, but I think I disagree with most of your conclusions.

    I absolutely don’t think that the right approach is to track more numbers – behaving morally should not be a question of maxing out your morality points, whether you have one track or seven. It should be about behaving in a manner which you consider to be moral.

    D&D did not get more morally sophisticated when it moved from a straight “good/evil” axis to a “good/evil, law/chaos” binary. Mechanically codified morality is simply not a helpful way to approach a moral question because the game mechanics immediately *answer* the question for the player. It doesn’t matter whether you’re using a straight “good/evil” axis or a more complicated set of virtues and sins – ultimately the game is still deciding for the player what counts as compassionate, virtuous, or humble.

    The only way to include a genuine moral choice in a video game is for the game designer to *genuinely not* have any preconcieved ideas about what is right, not only in the general “good/evil” sense, but in the more specific sense of what is most compassionate, what is most pious, what is most self-sacrificing.

    The problem ultimately comes down to the very first issue – that of moral motivation. Games are generally *not* written with the assumption that the player wants to behave morally, they are written with the assumption that the player wants the option to behave *either morally or immorally*. This effectively precludes games from including real moral choices, because “be moral or don’t” isn’t a moral choice at all.

    A choice only becomes truly moral when the *same* case can be made for *both* choices. It isn’t an accident that the most successful moral choice in /Fallout 3/ was the one that *didn’t* judge your actions

    • Alexander
      Reply

      I am not sure I completely get your point. You wrote:

      Games are generally *not* written with the assumption that the player wants to behave morally, they are written with the assumption that the player wants the option to behave *either morally or immorally*. This effectively precludes games from including real moral choices, because “be moral or don’t” isn’t a moral choice at all.

      Isn’t a choice to “behave morally or immorally” is the whole point of free will, which is a kind of necessary condition for morality per se? Perhaps I misunderstood this paragraph. If you meant that the problem is in preconcieved notions of morality and immorality, then I tend to agree.

      However, I think that the problem goes deeper than just numeric measurement of morality. Though I agree that the concept is inherently flawed: an essential part of moral judgement is doubt (both before and after moral action takes place). By introducing morality points, a game designer imbues morality actions with a sort finality that they can never really have (even if we assume that morality meter is magical in a way that it completely coincides with player’s moral judgement at the point of action). But this is somewhat beside my point.

      As I see it, morality is about 1) player’s actions, 2) how the world reacts to them, and 3) how the player concieves the world’s reaction. In narrative-dominated games, (2) is usually an essential part of the design, i.e. even if designer avoids explicit moral judgement (by assigning morality “scores”), he still has to decide what would be the consequences of player’s actions. My point is that such decisions would inevitably follow and reinforce certain moral values. For example, suppose that player gives some money to a street beggar. Designer may decide that the beggar uses it to buy new clothes, then he finds a new job and lives happily ever after. Alternatively, designer may prescribe that the beggar buys buzz, drinks himself into a stupor and gets hit by a car. I guess what I am trying to say is that morality is largely a function of consequence; if consequences are built into a game, then the designer cannot escape from choosing what’s moral and what’s not for the player.

      Of course this problem is not specific to games. Literature obviously suffers from it as well. But, funny enough, it seems to be getting much worse in interactive medium. I’ll again try to explain my point by example. Suppose that you’re reading about aforemention beggar in a book. The protagonist gives a coin to a beggar and the beggar (eventually) dies in a traffic accident. The reader always can resort to “How could he know?” (coincidence) argument, or “Perhaps the beggar would die anyway” (fate). Thus, the action can still be viewed as moral, even in the face of dire consequences.

      This is not how it works in a game, because you can always replay the episode (eliminating coincidence argument) or try an alternative decision (eliminating fate argument). A game would have to specify what happens when one either gives a coin to the beggar or does not. By providing more information, the designer is bound to reinforce moral judgement, making it more extreme and less open to all kinds of rationalization.

      Does it mean that games by their nature tend be more pre-concieved than other (less interactive) creative mediums?

    • starwed
      Reply

      “D&D did not get more morally sophisticated when it moved from a straight “good/evil” axis to a “good/evil, law/chaos” binary”

      Drive-by pedant: the original D&D alignments were Law/Chaos… Gygax was pretty heavily influenced by Moorcock. 🙂

  • Dan Hemmens
    Reply

    Isn’t a choice to “behave morally or immorally” is the whole point of free will, which is a kind of necessary condition for morality per se? Perhaps I misunderstood this paragraph. If you meant that the problem is in preconcieved notions of morality and immorality, then I tend to agree.

    I think what I mean is that a decision to behave either morally or immorally isn’t really a moral *decision* – if your desire is to behave morally, the choice to behave explicitly immorally isn’t a meaningful option, any more than having different difficulty settings in a game constitutes a strategic decision.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that morality is largely a function of consequence; if consequences are built into a game, then the designer cannot escape from choosing what’s moral and what’s not for the player.

    I think this is often true, but I don’t think that it’s an insurmountable problem – to take your own example, there’s actually no reason at all to show the player what happens to the beggar.

    I think you can also do fairly well by taking a non-consequentialist approach to morality – to allow for the possibility that a course of action can be moral, even if it has terrible consequences. It’s something you reject in the initial article, but a lot of traditional ethical questions and conundrums start with the assumption of particular consequences.

    Since a video game can’t be ambiguous (since as you observe you can always replay and see the other possibility) perhaps the trick is to use clarity.

    • Alexander
      Reply

      > Since a video game can’t be ambiguous (since as you observe you can always replay and see the other possibility) perhaps the trick is to use clarity.

      Hm. Possibly. But I’d love to see an example of that.

      Also (just a random thought), it seems that many of the problems would go away if a player has control over the World rather than the Protagonist, e.g. the player would decide what happens to a beggar after the Protagonist (controlled by the game) decides whether to give or not to give a coin. So the player is a sort of “dungeon master”. While this approach is not novel, I am not sure if it was ever realized with emphasis on moral choices. There is also a problem of player’s identity within a game, i.e. what is he in relation to the game’s World and the Protagonist, what is his place in the story, etc?

  • Dan Hemmens
    Reply

    Hm. Possibly. But I’d love to see an example of that.

    You could do something like you suggest, where in essence the player passes judgement on the actions of a computer controlled protagonist, but more straightforwardly you can simply have a situation in which the consequences of your actions are clearly spelled out beforehand.

    For example, there’s an interesting video which I can’t be bothered to look up right now in which somebody talks about how much they had their mind blown by that bit in Mass Effect 2 where you get the option to either annihilate the Geth who want to kill you, or to reprogram them to bring them in line with the friendly Geth. What’s interesting about this situation is that you can make a strong moral case for *either* decision being unacceptable, and therefore for either being the more moral alternative (although it still falls into the problem of having an excluded middle – you don’t get the option to say that you don’t think either is reasonable). This single choice raises an awful lot of interesting moral questions (as well as related questions about freedom, free will, and the philosophy of identity).

    Of course the game then goes and blows it by labeling one option “Paragon” and the other “Renegade” but prior to that it’s a genuine dilemma which doesn’t seem to have a designer-created answer.

  • Daniel Hemmens
    Reply

    For what it’s worth, I wrote a longish article inspired by/responding to this post here: http://ferretbrain.com/articles/article-766

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