Opinion: Meaningful Moral Choice in Games

Posted On: 2019-02-11

By Mark

Today's post will be an opinion piece, which is a bit of a departure from my other blog posts (as promised in the previous post.) I've been reading other opinion pieces about morality systems in games, and after reflection on the topic, I think I have something to contribute to the topic. To make sure everyone's on the same page, I'll cover some background about morality and morality systems first, before diving into what I think is a bit of a different perspective.

Background

Defining morality is a bit tricky, as it is a multi-purpose word that covers a wide variety of cases. Most generally, it is specifying the topic of "evilness" or "goodness". In that sense, a moral judgment is a judgment about evilness/goodness. Likewise, a morality system is a set of rules regarding "evilness" and "goodness". Many social institutions (governments and religions are the most obvious examples, but this also applies to smaller groups such as individual families) have written or unwritten rules regarding morality. Lastly (and perhaps most importantly) many individuals have beliefs about the morality of actions or individuals (moral intuitions) and there are often differences between different individuals' intuitions.

Stories have a long history of being a medium for communicating morality systems (or, perhaps less charitably, they have a history of being used to influence others' moral intuitions.) Many children's stories and fables are attributed with having a "moral to the story", which is the intended lesson that is being communicated using the story (though, interestingly, only some of these lessons are about morality - many others are best practices for effectively operating in society, not necessarily related to "evil" or "good".) Some stories aimed at adults are also being used communicate about morality, although such stories are often less obvious about it. As an example, stories that are aimed to make people empathize with individuals that are disadvantaged (or outright harmed) by existing systems are often a way of critiquing the morality of such systems.

Games have a particularly interesting place with regard to morality: since many games are both systems and stories interwoven, they often feature morality both as an aspect of the story and as a system within the game (often with game-play consequences.) Additionally, games are often viewed as being about choice (player choice is pretty unique to games, when compared with other media) and a moral choice is a particularly complex kind of choice. In light of this, it makes sense that many people have opinions about how games approach moral choice.

Regarding moral choice itself, one might be tempted to define it as any choice where "evilness" and "goodness" are the primary factors relevant to that choice. Unfortunately, this is subject to a number of problems, most notably that many choices that could be defined as "moral choice" are not interesting. Based on opinions I have read and people I've talked to on the matter, I think that "moral choice" is often used as a shorthand for "meaningful moral choice"- much the way "choice" is often a short-hand for "meaningful choice" when discussing game design. What makes a choice meaningful is still up for debate, but one criteria that is considered necessary (though whether or not it is sufficient is still contentious) is that the choice must have consequences. Regarding specifically a meaningful moral choice - I have my own opinion on what this is, but I think it's most clear by looking at some common counter-examples.

As a brief aside, I would like to specify that a moral choice not being meaningful is not a bad thing. Games are made up of many choices (that is an extreme understatement) and it is up to the designer(s) to carefully decide which choices should be meaningful and which should not.

Commonly Cited Examples

There are some games that use a morality system as a way of metering out power-ups to the player. As this can be a bit abstract, I will do my best to provide hypothetical examples, where possible, to illustrate how this works (hypothetical examples have the benefit of being spoiler-free, and also not containing any intentional subversion of expectations- which is something that happens in many of the more recently developed games of this kind.) Games that use morality to regulate metering out power to the the player often do so to give consequences to the various choices (both dialogue and in-engine choices) that a player makes throughout the game, and these consequences often include becoming more powerful by gaining new abilities. Assuming the game is some kind of power fantasy (these are extremely common,) it is likely that this means that making "good" or "evil" choices at the start of the game give simple, low-power rewards (like a basic attack or jump) while at the end of the game they provide much more powerful rewards (like throwing buildings or being able to fly.) Typically, moral choices in these games accrue over time and are measured on a single axis (for example, -100 being the most evil, 100 being the most good, and 0 being completely neutral - the starting place for the character.) The mechanical result of these two is that the most powerful powers ("throw building") requires that the player pick only one way (ie. if the player starts picking "good" options, then they must continue picking "good, since any option that gives "evil" points effectively makes them weaker.) The issues with this can become aggravated further if those high-power abilities require a large commitment (as an extreme example, if a player makes a single mistake, they they could be set back so that they can never get enough "good" points to throw buildings.) By connecting a morality system to the game's pacing means that players are incentivized to view choices through the lens of the game-play benefits, rather than the content of the choice itself. Those who do not think this is a (meaningful) moral choice typically cite the fact that the player's motivations are not related to the content of the choice but rather the extrinsic rewards. (In some ways, it might be said that the only moral choice is at the start of the game, where the player chooses "good" or "evil", and then all future decisions are merely tests of whether the player can pick the option that matches their original choice.)

Another kind of game that is often decried for lacking (meaningful) moral choice is something you could call a "moral fantasy" game. Typically these games feature moral choices that are extremely obvious, such as choosing between saving innocent people or killing them. It is my understanding (based on hearing the opinions of people who love these games) that the purpose of the game is to feel like a "good" or "evil" person: the game is about living out a fantasy of being perfect (either perfectly "good" or perfectly "evil"). Perhaps most notably, if a player does not feel that the morality associated with a particular choice is correct, the player will feel betrayed by the game (as a quick example, if the game makes harming a certain group of people the "evil" choice, but the player thinks such people are irredeemable, the player may feel that the game is "wrong" or "broken".) I believe this is likely a significant factor regarding why these games seem to have as non-confrontational moral choices as possible: in order to match as many different people's moral intuitions as possible, the game forsakes the ability to cover anything remotely controversial. Considering this, I think it is reasonable to say that a meaningful moral choice must not be one that is designed to only conform to universal moral norms. Additionally, I would like to reach a bit, and claim that a meaningful moral choice is not one that is designed to automatically conform to one's existing norms.

The last category is morally grey games. These are games where nobody is "good" and nothing is "good". Unfortunately, this same treatment is often not applied to "evil", so a lot of the time this turns into "everything is evil". Interestingly, I haven't read quite as many articles citing that these games do not contain (meaningful) moral choices, but I'd like to give a straw-man example that demonstrate that greyness alone is inadequate for meaningful moral choice: Imagine a game that features two warring groups: both are intentionally reprehensible with no redeeming factors (let's call them the "Baddies" and the "No-goods"). In order for the game to progress, the player has to choose to side with one of them and kill the other. Disregarding players genuinely who want to help reprehensible characters, I think that this choice is more about the acceptance of a lack of autonomy rather than morality itself. Even if the game has consequences or different endings as a result of this choice (ie. the Baddies blow up Earth when they win or the No-Goods blow up the Sun when they win) I think it's safe to say that this is not a choice about morality.

What is a Meaningful Moral Choice?

Now that we've worked through examples of what are not meaningful moral choices, I think we have a good foundation to speculate on what one is. As we learned from the mechanics-driven moral systems, meaningful moral choices appear to require that the content of the choice impact the player's decision-making process. As we learned from moral fantasy games, a meaningful moral choice should not be constrained to only conform to the player's existing moral standards. As we learned from morally grey games, a meaningful moral choice should afford the player some sense of ownership over the moral content of the choice. Now, for a bit of a logical leap - I can think of one kind of moral choice that fits all three of these criteria, and also comes with some important baggage of its own: a moral choice that can cause the chooser to change their moral viewpoint.

If one accepts this idea, that a moral choice is meaningful if it is capable of changing the player's moral viewpoint, there are a number of ramifications of this. Firstly, it means that the scale of the choice doesn't have to be limited to a single choice instance: there are many games that rely on players becoming comfortable making a particular choice before subverting the player's expectation about that choice (imagine saving someone from pursuers multiple times, only to later find out that character is actually a murderer.) Secondly, it appears that choosing something that is morally controversial makes it more likely to be effective for this purpose (though perhaps the best chance would be to choose a topic that is not yet controversial, and then expose why it should be.) Thirdly, it appears to depend upon the audience playing the game: if the game intends to change players to have a certain moral view, but the players already have that view, then it wouldn't count as meaningful (this is, I think, a conundrum for games advocating for certain civil rights: if they are marketed to appeal to people who already believe those civil rights are warranted, that would subvert the ability to make the moral choices meaningful.) Lastly, if this is taken to be the only definition of a meaningful moral choice, then some other kinds of very interesting moral choices (such as choosing to sacrifice a mechanical benefit for the sake of doing the "right" thing) would not count as "meaningful". There may be some hand-wavy solutions to this particular problem (for example, one could argue for including "how much would you sacrifice to do the right thing" is a way of trying to push a player's moral viewpoint away from absolutism) but I think that this last ramification has the highest chance of being unacceptable, so it's definitely worth spending more time thinking on.

Why does this matter?

Knowing what makes a moral choice meaningful is useful both for designers and players. For players, it helps them more clearly express what they want when they want a game with "more moral choices." Asking for more "moral fantasy" games is completely different from asking for morally grey games, which is also different from asking for games with the power to change your moral viewpoint. As a designer, knowing which kind of experience you are trying to create, and which other games do something similar, can be useful both for creating the game and also gathering the right kinds of playtester feedback.

Wrap-up

That concludes my opinion piece on meaningful moral choices. I hope you enjoyed the change of pace, and if you'd like to see more opinion pieces like this, please let me know.