Category Archives: Video game morality

Moral Choice Systems and Their Problems

Moral choice systems are popular, and I do believe there are some fairly reasonable reasons for using them. However, there are also numerous problems with using moral choice systems, sometimes with implementation but often with the very concept itself. The main issue I find is that, for various reasons, the use of moral choice systems winds up creating a state of affairs where, because of the very nature of how moral choice systems and games work a) the players are no longer actually thinking about how moral an act is in any given “instant” of a moral choice system and b) the game essentially forces players to become either cartoonishly evil or good. Both problems serve to destroy a game’s ability to present truly complex moral choices and force players to consider the morality of their actions, an ability that is unique to video games of all media.  In addition, the moral choice systems often create a clash between the narrative and gameplay mechanics.

Inconsistent morality: I’m picking on Knights of the Old Republic a bit here because I’ve played it recently (and I really do like the game!), but, just as an example, why am I getting dark side points for forcing someone to tell the truth but not for stealing $100 from that same person? It kind of defeats the purpose of having such a “system” that’s supposed to monitor the player character’s actions and decide the correct alignment if some obviously good or evil actions don’t count.

Progress bar: There’s an issue wherein many games, such as Mass Effect, will actually inform you when you are receiving good or evil points for an action, how many points you are getting, and tying those points to a little scale that informs you how good or evil you are. I find this the most obnoxious implementation because it destroys any chance for a truly complex, ambiguous choice because the game is always happy to tell you that what you did is either good or evil. At least with tying external consequences to the choices (whether in the form of changes to your character’s appearance or how other characters treat the player character), the consequences for actions seem a bit more organic. For example, I mentioned the household looting in Knights of the Old Republic not having any consequences. However, I did actually get in trouble for that. Once. It wasn’t a little window popping up to tell me that I was doing something “dark” though; it was the actual residents responding with great hostility to my actions, which seems a much more logical and realistic consequence than a little floating number.

There’s also a problem with the bar being so two-dimensional. This measurement doesn’t reflect reality particularly well since many actions aren’t defined as simply “good” or “evil”. For example, lying is immoral, but so is hurting someone, so should you still tell the truth if the other person might find it painful? Such a problem can be easily answered by a game with a moral choice system, which will helpfully inform you which is the right choice. There’s something very irritating about being told whether a character or your own actions are good or evil rather than the game letting you figure that out for yourself.

In addition, and I believe it’s Miguel Sicart I’m paraphrasing when I say that if you tie moral choices to a statistic, the player stops thinking morally and starts thinking statistically. It no longer matters to the player which action in a given situation is right or wrong except to try to figure out how to “level up” in either good or evil along the progress bar.

Sluggish gradient:  Another issue with progress bar is that the player character can act very good or very evil in any given situation, but this action might only make the character slightly more moral or slightly less moral overall, which doesn’t really reflect reality particularly well. This may be one of the few occasions that I stick up for Bioshock’s moral choice “system”, but I like that killing a child leads automatically to the “bad” ending. I’ve seen some complaints about this, and I realize why it might seem counter-intuitive to let one action in the entire game decide the ultimate ending even if you don’t repeat that action given how familiar the progress bar morality mechanic has become. However, you can’t pretend the character is a good person because, well, gee, he only killed one small child in cold blood.

Just for another example, in Knights of the Old Republic I’ve killed at least a half dozen innocent people by this point, but the character is only slightly in the red:

And again, this oddity occurs because of the nature of the video game being a video game. If a player could rocket back and forth along the scale, or if one deed sets a player’s alignment for the entire game, this could break the game’s balance in the former case and anger the player in the latter. However, at the same time, now there’s a situation where a character can kill a half dozen people for fun and profit and still be mostly neutral.

Equal options: In most cases, the player receives essentially the same reward (more points up and down a morality bar, usually) for essentially the same amount of effort/sacrifice (none, usually); basically there’s no reason not to be a good person, so the only reason to pick an evil choice is because it’s an evil choice. Again, this equality is not reflective of reality. It removes an excellent opportunity for allowing players to consider, for instance, how much they are willing to sacrifice in order to do the right thing or whether they would rather make the easier, but perhaps more selfish or callous, choice.

Of course, making the player sacrifice anything in order to be a good person might inhibit his or her ability to complete the game, so this situation is almost unavoidable in video games, once again because of their very nature. Similarly, the player is rarely punished for taking the evil option in any meaningful way. Off the top of my head, there’s only one series I can think of that will punish players for unnecessary cruelty in ways that can actually prevent them from finishing the game, and those games don’t really use a “morality system” anything like the ones I’ve previously discussed.

Bioshock is another interesting case. Lars Konzack argues that the ending of Bioshock is a statement that “greed is not good” (40), with the good ending resulting from saving all the Little Sisters (and requires reducing the amount of ADAM the player character earns) whereas the player character achieves the bad ending by killing at least one Little Sister (but getting a lot more ADAM). However, savvy players will realize that a) they get small rewards for saving the Little Sisters throughout the game and b) the amount of ADAM that they sacrifice is pretty much negligible, which means that the player is actually learning a different lesson along the lines of “greed is good if you’re smart about it”. Once again, an interesting attempt at a moral choice, one in which the choice is actually quite clear but doing the right thing requires a sacrifice, is hobbled by the fact that it occurs in a video game, as Bioshock must balance itself to allow the moral player to actually complete the game.

Simple choices: If I may pick on the Wired article and Bioshock again, to kill or not to kill a helpless child is not a “moral conundrum”. Additionally, even if the choices manage to be less extreme, they’re still frequently very simple and shallow; to quote James Portnow, “If you peg morality in your mechanics to a 2d bar, your moral choices will be 2 dimensional. No writer can write around this, no level of voice acting is going to save you.”

Extreme ends: In many games, moral choice is often tied to particular powers, and often the best powers for either the good or evil alignment require being the best or worst possible person. As a result, the player will no longer be making some good and some evil choices, but just decide to be either extremely moral or extremely immoral in order to earn the better prizes.

Anthony Burch, former features editor for Destructoid, rants briefly on a few other problems that occur as a result of moral choice systems forcing players to opt for moral extremes.

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Moral Choice Systems, Some Examples of

I’m still having trouble finding any sort of authority I can fall back on for a definition of a “moral choice system”, and I’m not being helped by the fact that different games call them by different names, so how about a few examples? This way we can all be on the same page about what I’m railing against.

Just to expand a little on what I said in my first post, I group together under the heading of “moral choice system” any system in a video game that tracks the main character’s moral behavior (almost invariably in the form of a very obvious choice between several clear options), quantifies it, and ties it to some sort of consequence for the player character. The consequences are generally

  • changes in the character’s statistics, such as what powers are available to them
  • changes in the character’s appearance
  • changes to the world around the character, such as interactions with non-player characters or changes to the narrative or environment

Games employing such a system include

  • Knights of the Old Republic (“alignment” along one spectrum of light-dark)
  • Infamous (“karma”)
  • Fallout (“karma/reputation”)
  • Fable (“alignment” along two spectrums of good-evil and pure-corrupt)

In Knights of the Old Republic, for instance, players are given one scale of alignment scaling from good to evil (or “light” to “to dark”).

The character’s statistics screen in Knights of the Old Republic. The alignment meter (currently neutral) is to the left of the character’s portrait.

As players go through the game, they are presented with scenarios with several options they could take, usually one that will give light side points, one that is neutral, and one that gives dark side points. The results of these choices will send the player up or down the light-dark spectrum, resulting in different powers and changed appearances although, oddly, the ending is decided solely by end-game choices as opposed to the player’s behavior throughout the game, which can be just a bit inconsistent.

A scenario in which the player’s options range from helping someone out to threatening him for money.

The player chooses option #3. Dark side points obtained! It’s worth noting that the game doesn’t seem to give dark side points for looting the dead, breaking and entering, burglary, or terrifying a households’s residents–just for the choices made in scenarios very obviously set up for determining the player’s alignment.

In addition to the moral choice systems directly tied to a character’s statistics, I’m also going to be talking a bit about games that implement moral choices differently, such as by punishing or rewarding players for their behaviour. For example, in Bioshock there’s only one choice that occurs repeatedly through the game. If the player makes the wrong choice, a bad ending will result, and the choice also affects the resources available to the player instead of changes in the player character’s statistics.

In general, I’m hoping to use these and other examples in order to discuss the various ways morality and choices in video games are used and the advantages and disadvantages of the concepts and implementation involved in creating and using these systems.


Moral Choice Systems and Their Merits

In which I present my theories on why I think developers have such an interest in adding moral choice systems to their video games:

 A.  Why moral choice systems?

While moral choice systems make a nice feature to mention on the back of the box, and can net you some glowing reviews, but they’re probably quite expensive and time consuming to create, and goodness knows I’m hardly the first to complain about them, so why do developers consider them a good idea? Here are my thoughts:

Character development

It can be very hard mix the usual power fantasy narrative that most games present, in which the player character is always an unstoppable one-man-army badass, with actual character development, and it can be especially difficult to manage this as part of gameplay. Having a moral choice system where the player’s actions change the character creates a sense of progression for the character, and allows the player to maintain control over this process.

Replay value

Linear, narrative-focused games tend to have low replay value, and there are different methods for avoiding this issue. Creating a fairly linear game with different endings depending on your in-game actions occurs fairly frequently, and making getting all the different endings depend on different actions that the player takes throughout the game, and framing those actions around morality, makes as much sense as giving you a different ending to a narrative because you happened to pick up some red goo at one point for no real reason.

Roleplaying

Games provide players with opportunities to behave in ways they normally wouldn’t in real life, and so an option to be extremely evil if you so choose, and have the game assure you that you’re evil, and even provide aesthetic upgrades to show how evil you are, can certainly enhance the experience. In addition, for developers, it can provide a way to add RPG elements to an otherwise unRPG-like game, increasing cross-genre audience appeal.

Consequences

There are games in which you play as the “hero”, and are often treated as a person of pure, unsullied virtue all while breaking into people’s homes, stealing their life savings, and destroying their furniture. This oddity, in which doing something bad is never commented on and has no effect on how the player character is perceived by the non-player characters as well as never seeming significant to the character, has been noticeable enough, and strange enough, to become something of a running gag. Implementing a system that actually tracks your activities and lets you know that what the player character does is wrong may be a way to address this issue.

Interactivity

The moral choice system also takes advantage of the interactive nature of the video game: While in other media, the audience can only watch a character develop and has no effect on that development, in a video game the player can make choices for the character, decide the character’s behavior, attitude, and personality, and influence that development over time.

This combines well with the other merits I brought up to give the player the feeling that they have meaningful control over not just the gameplay portions of the game, but also the narrative sections; instead of just watching the plot, the player has the potential to affect how that plot unfolds.

B. Why moral choice systems that are so black & white?

If you are going to implement a moral choice system, if you’re really thinking that they will improve gameplay and deepen the player’s experience, why so frequently make the choices so frequently cartoonish?

Expense

If you’re going to have a moral choice system in which there are actual meaningful consequences for either the player character or the narrative, I imagine this can get expensive fast, especially if you want a grid (a la Dungeons & Dragons). In D&D, you can have good/bad and lawful/chaotic. For every “moral choice” a player character makes, there would need to be four options. Add “neutral” in there and you have nine. That’s probably tough, so it’s easy to see why developers would want to stick to just

Clarity

If there is a particular idea of morality that the developers want to advocate, the moral choice system allows said developers to make a definite point about what behaviours they believe are good or bad, leaving no ambiguity. In addition, the extreme nature of some choices is useful because a) players won’t select one option thinking that it’s the other and b) the difference between the good and evil choice is so obvious and commonly held that players won’t feel they’re being forced to adhere to what the designers think are “good” or “evil” rather than what the player thinks is good or evil. After all, pretty sure most people would agree that “shall I murder this small child or set her free” isn’t actually a “moral conundrum”.


Moral Choice Systems in Video Games

Video games as a medium provide a unique opportunity for creating scenarios for players (who in this medium are in the unique position of being at once both spectator and agent) in which players can behave in moral or immoral ways and observe the consequences of that behaviour. Such an opportunity can create a rich, complex, and meaningful interactions in a fictional world, allowing players to explore different moralities as well as contemplate the morality of their own day-to-day actions, the intricacies of morality, and how they might act in a situation similar to the one they’re playing.

So what does the player in this day and age get instead? A “moral choice system” presenting two extreme good and evil options that basically amount to asking the player how she or he would like to level up. Brilliant. This is a fairly prevalent trend at the moment, and stamping player actions with a giant “good” or “evil” sign or attaching an arbitrary number to moral actions is often marketed as a positive feature that lends depth to gameplay, as opposed to being the exact opposite.

My thesis is, generally, that “moral choice systems” are facile and shallow, and I intend to use this blog over the next few months in order to demonstrate the problems with boiling morality down to a “choice”, discuss how moral choices are presented in video games, show some alternatives to the “moral choice system” taken by other video games (and argue for why they are better), and also talk a bit about some other morality and choice-related problems that can occur in video games (I will try to limit that discussion to problems that can only occur because the subject under discussion is a video game and not part of any other medium). In general, I will only be looking at actual choices that affect how the game progresses, as opposed to situations where the only “choice” is progress/don’t progress, but I might make a post about those types of situations as well or choices that have no meaningful effect on gameplay (probably depends on how desperate I am for material at that point).

I will generally be keeping loosely to the definition of moral as “of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior” (Merriam-Webster). Unfortunately, for all that it gets discussed quite frequently, I couldn’t find a decent definition for “moral choice system”, but it’s essentially a system where the player character must make a decision between (usually two, usually either extremely evil or extremely good) actions, and that’s how I will be treating it.

Also, the argument I am making (that moral choice systems are a detriment to the medium) is by no means an original one, and I will try to link to people making similar arguments when appropriate (My main distinction from the others, I suppose, will be that I will be making a sustained argument over the course of several months).