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”.

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Weekly Reading Response: Critical Play I

I’ve decided that, in addition to the regular posts focused on morality, I would also post shorter weekly reading responses, in which I quickly summarize a few comments or thoughts I might have on this week’s readings and games and try to link them to the subject of this blog.

Readings:

Coulter, Gerry. “Jean Beaudrillard and the Definitive Ambivalence of Gaming,” Games and Culture (2007)

Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play. MIT Press, 2009 (Chapters 1, 2, and 3)

Lindley, Craig A. “The Semiotics of Time Structure in Ludic Space As a Foundation for Analysis and Design,” Game Studies 5:1 (2005)

First, as for connections between the readings and the theme of my blog, I’d like to call attention to the Lindley reading. In discussing the narrative layer of ludic structures, Lindley mentions that “A strong sense of dramatic characterization requires ongoing character development at the interactive focus of play” and later states that “Choosing to play the game with [a] focus on characterization and identity is to follow classical dramatic paths of character development. In this case repetitive combat-oriented play becomes a secondary consideration after identity formation…An ongoing challenge for computer game design is to achieve a strong sense of dramatic play as a game character using games moves that do not rely so heavily upon text”.

I highlight these two sections because I think that the issues that Lindley mentions have helped to lead to the classic “morality system”, especially the type of system in which moral decisions are a) quantified and b) shown to the player. By using a morality system that the player can see, the player can see the character develop (become more good or more evil) as a direct result of his or her actions. It also provides a greater sense of gameplay and narrative integration to have the character’s development be a direct result of me, the player, saving/killing a little girl, as opposed to it being something that happens to the character outside of gameplay (such as in a cutscene, for example). It also avoids needing a lot of text to get the message across since a player can immediately gauge how good/evil the character is becoming by checking a scale or even the character’s physical appearance.


As for other comments, I found myself thinking the most about Critical Play’s first three chapters (“Introduction to Critical Play,” “Playing House,” and “Board Games”). I’ll probably dedicate another post to just critical play and activist games, but there were a few comments I wanted to make about “Playing House”—specifically, the subject of the gendering of domesticity and the household space in video games.

First of all, “As many scholars have argued, domestic spaces continue to be associated with the feminine in television, film, and other media” (54). However, video games are very much a masculinized medium, and I think this actually creates a situation similar to the change in doll production mentioned in the book:

“once doll making entered the phase of mass production, it became a male-dominated business…dolls soon emerged as products of clockmakers and machinists…Locomotion was a special source of fascination…In parallel to an industrial revolution that brought mechanical gadgets to the center of everyday life and promoted the idea that pleasure could be derived from mechanical devices, the culture of technology collided with more traditional forms of doll making” (37).

Something similar might be happening with the domestic space in video games, in which a traditionally feminized space is masculinized to appeal to a largely male audience, such as in the game Dwarf Fortress. The game is basically about managing dwarves as they get drunk, wage war on goblins, take on manly jobs like being in the military, farming, mining,  weapon crafting, hunting, and occasionally fighting off the local fauna (ranging from carp to demons to elephants). It’s also a game where you design a fortress from the bottom up (or rather, top down—these are dwarves), furnish it with the prettiest furniture you can create, and decorate it all with gold and precious gems. Also, while having less direct control over your dwarves than sims, players are still in charge of keeping the dwarges happy and healthy. At the same time, the game focuses a great deal on creating mechanical creations such as drawbridges, intricate traps, and lava moats.


Lastly, two quibbles with the Critical Play text:

I question how “subversive” the killing of sims actually is, since the game designs those opportunities and the amusing death scenes, meaning that the player is just doing one of the many things the game wants you to do.

I also argue against the assumption that the “wide appeal” of games like The Sims is because “Rarely if ever do players feel disempowered in domestic game scenarios” (56). Players rarely if ever feel disempowered in any scenario in any video game. The only genre I can think of where that’s even attempted is the horror genre. I think it would be more accurate (though perhaps still not accurate) to say that the empowerment is what appealed to an unusually high number of women. After all, video games provide plenty of male empowerment fantasies played out by male avatars in almost exclusively male environments and meant to appeal to a male audience, but, especially at the time when The Sims was first published, exactly how many video games were there that involved a female avatar in a female environment acting out female empowerment fantasies in order to appeal to a female audience?

I was also interested in how some of the issues raised in the “Playing House” chapter might relate to the haunted house genre in video games (“The house has shifted from being a place of comfort to a site for defense” (53) and its relation to the uncanny) and the “escape the room” genre, which often takes place, unsurprisingly, in a house, but this post was only meant to be a few hundred words long, not 1000, so let’s wrap up here.


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).