Point of Contention: Morality as Told by Games

This week, as we honor the past, look to the future, and operate in the present, I thought it appropriate to discuss the validity of moral systems in games. No, this post will not argue that games and the act of playing are inherently moral or immoral. Let’s instead look into games themselves, taking an in-depth view into developer intention and what can be changed to encourage stronger moral relevance in those games we love so much.

Whenever presented with a binary moral system in a video game, I have always (and I really mean always) picked the options to side with the defined “good” path. If this meant maxing out paragon points in Mass Effect or becoming the “Last, Best Hope for Humanity” in Fallout 3, I would do everything in my power to be the pinnacle of “good”, which the games were nice enough to cleanly present the prerequisites for. I didn’t always agree with the decisions that were defined as “good” and I certainly don’t always play as the nice guy in games where no moral system is set in place. My GTA4 game experience is rife with civilian slaying, although interestingly enough my experience with Red Dead Redemption, a game with an honor system that becomes tarnished with such bad behavior, has none. Clearly, making this decision for me is more about record cleanliness than actual moral behavior, as I really only tend to care about the choices I make when they stack into a comprehensive pile. I want that to change, but it’ll require something on the part of the games themselves.

This kind of binary moral system is common in today’s games. Most Western RPGs, as well as a growing number of action games, allow for moral choice between what is usually a straightforward set of obvious choices. Often the varying degrees of “moral” between the options can be staggering. Middle ground seems to be slowly disappearing from our games, as they seem to assume that most are like me, in that they have a clear concept of what kind of story they wish to be presented: either very good or very evil. And no, I do not consider balancing out good and bad choices to be a middle ground. What we need more of now are vague, misleading, and/or challenging answers to moral questions. Essentially, I’m here today to argue for ambiguity in our games’ moral systems.

I’m sad to say that even my favorite game of all time is guilty of this simplistic moral reasoning.

Suppose you were given a choice in a game to kill one character to save two others, or let the wheels of fate run their course, not preventing the two deaths in the meantime. In today’s games, the developers creating this decision would have to assign a good and bad label to either option in order to have the decision weigh in on the overall morality score of the character (which, if its defined, must be subjectively connected to the morality of the game’s designer). In that case, those who wish to view a story revolving around a defined “good guy” would pick the option that is defined as being in line with “good.” For the sake of convenience, let’s say the developer chooses the option to kill the character to save two others gains the player “good” points and the reluctance to kill in order to save grants points in “evil.”

Suddenly, the answer has little bearing over the morality of the question. Ultimately, the answer most players will choose depends on the “good” or “evil” overall outcome that the player is aiming for. This is thus the illusion of morality, as the rules and regulations fit into a set system devised by the creator with specifically drawn, opposing end goal boundaries. There is no room for deliberation or debate, just following predetermined paths. There are many that would argue that such utilitarian logic in choosing to kill one to save two is, in fact, very immoral. But in a game with the good and the bad already presented with reward and punishment for the player choice, no dialogue between player and game can happen.

In the real world, there is no chart on which to rank our current moral standing. Conversation choices are not highlighted red or blue to enlighten us on their moral leaning. Debates over the “correct” or indeed wether there is such a concrete thing as “correct” have pervaded human society since we first rose the ladder of self awareness and collective thought. Imagine then, if you will, the egregiously unrealistic nature of using such a binary system in our representations and interpretations of reality.

Sometimes good and evil choices are painfully obvious so as to limit any potential debate. Why not make them ambiguous to encourage strong player deliberation? Is that so hard?

I propose that it would be far better if video games could challenge our own developed understanding of right and wrong, instead of being forced to conform to an already defined one. Suppose choices we are given are not laid out with labeled options. Sure, the outcomes of making different choices should be vastly different, perhaps extremely so, but the player should be the one to understand and judge the morality of his or her own choices. In my previous theoretical example involving sacrificing one to save two, neither response to the dilemma should produce a moral score reward. The player should be forced to live with his or her choice, consequences and all, and be as haunted by moral questions or as confident in the strength of his or her judgement as befitting the situation.

To be fair, there are already plenty of examples in games that show this kind of moral development strategy in place. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a recent one that comes to mind. And although its moral leniency is only brought to light at its conclusion, it makes no assumptions as to the validity or righteousness of any of the answers to its supreme question. We are simply left with thoughts on what the outcome may be in a world influenced by this very decision. A step in the right direction, but there’s still so much room for video games as a whole to grow and develop their philosophic value. For the games in which moral choice is appropriate, all we game enthusiasts can do now is hope for thoughtful growth in this permeating element of game design.

And thus I leave you for another week. As the days pass, consider the profound strength the medium would develop if it were to adopt such an interaction between player and game. We would be even more intimately connected to the main character than we already are. Consequences to our actions would have weight, and we’d have nothing to blame but our own understanding of morality for their implications and effects. After all, shouldn’t fulfilling our own ego ideal be its own reward, just as guilt in our seemingly immoral choices should be its own punishment? This writer thinks so, and we would be richer to have such personal dialogue with our games.

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  1. I agree with you to a great extent. Moral choices in games are often way too binary, where the good option makes you seem like a saint, and the bad option makes you seem like a mustache twirling villain who can only aspire to kick the puppy. I wrote about how this ultimately soured my overall experience with Infamous 2. Interestingly though, the last choice was a very nice reversal, but in hindsight, it only served to illustrate how arbitrary binary morality systems are. I can argue how the ultimate evil choice has its upsides, and the good ending's downsides are already pretty obvious. I know Mass Effect also attempted the morality in a different way, by adding in two sliding scales. While they were supposed to represent how diplomatic or aggressive Shepard was, this system soon became no better than the standard binary morality system (and in some ways worse).

    As I pointed out in my Baldur's Gate review, I kind of like how the reputation system worked. You picked your character's alignment when you created him, and choices would either increase or decrease your reputation. Of course, it didn't affect the game much: prices would become lower if you had higher reputation, and guards would start attacking you if you had very low reputation. Whether a party member stayed in your party or not depended on your reputation, but I think one single reputation value is a bit silly.

    Dragon Age: Origins rectified that to make it reputation with party members. I think that's a novel idea, because it all depends on how other human beings think of you. Granted, this system is easily abusable in Dragon Age (what with giving gifts), and I suppose quantifying how other human beings regard you is kind of silly, but I think this is the way to go.

    Alpha Protocol, in that respect, does this system really well. There isn't a single morality system in place. You only have to worry about how other people regard you. Interestingly though, you have relationships with literally every character in the game, and the way other people treat you actually vary how the story plays out. Granted, it still quantifies relationships, but few games handle how you can treat characters better than Alpha Protocol.

    Of course, there are also the Witcher games, which doesn't quantify or make a system out of morality and choices, it just presents you with choices. These choices play out in various ways, and change how the story plays out here and there. There is absolutely nothing to track, so all players can worry about are the choices they have to make, and the aftermaths of their choices, which only seldom play out immediately.

    I've strayed quite a bit from morality (and moved into talking about choices), but I feel like these systems above represent much better ways of handling player input. Binary morality is a system that quite frankly has to go.

  2. I can actually relate to this as well but I would like to offer a counter example. One series that I think employed a decent moral system was MegaTen’s Devil Survivors, especially the 2nd one. No matter how it played out, the ideal with which you sided ultimately works out. But then, the endings were more up to your own interpretation. Because all of the endings were potential good ends, I ended up playing more based on what I felt should be right rather than just following the “righteous” route (at least during the first playthrough, before I went on my spree for completion.)

  3. Pingback: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor: Overclocked Review | Moar Powah!

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