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Moral Choices in Gaming

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It didn't really seem to say much about moral choices or even critically analyze them, preferring to simply summarize games with moral choices. Here's some of my thoughts on moral choices.

I'm not sure if I'd call Bioshock the epitome of moral choices, since the choice there actually has little overall impact on the game, given that the Little Sisters give you extra goodies to make up for the immediate loss you take on. The only real difference is the ending, and the game will play out pretty much the same way until the end.

On the other hand, I just got done with inFamous, and was quite annoyed that the developers hit my character with the nerf-stick since I didn't go evil, so there's something to be said for Bioshock's approach. inFamous, story-wise, happens to follow Bioshock's approach, where choosing good or evil means nothing to the way the story plays out.

Also, it would be nice if "moral choices" was something more realistic. It seems like games go out of the way to make your choices boil down to Nun/Hitler 2. Maybe a bit more subtlety or, *gasp*, a situation where its not obvious what the "wrong" choice is.

Are there any games that do the moral choices thing well?

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The problem with moral choices is that two different people can look at the exact same situation, and the exact same actions done in that situation, and come to two completely different moral conclusions.

A man is going to kill hundreds of others, unless you stop him!

1. A: You kill him, you've saved hundreds: Morally Good.
B: You don't kill him, you've allowed hundreds to die!: Morally Evil.

2. A: You kill him, you've murdered someone!: Morally Evil!
B: You don't kill him, you have no blood on your hands: Morally good.

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Original post by Talroth
The problem with moral choices is that two different people can look at the exact same situation, and the exact same actions done in that situation, and come to two completely different moral conclusions.

A man is going to kill hundreds of others, unless you stop him!

1. A: You kill him, you've saved hundreds: Morally Good.
B: You don't kill him, you've allowed hundreds to die!: Morally Evil.

2. A: You kill him, you've murdered someone!: Morally Evil!
B: You don't kill him, you have no blood on your hands: Morally good.


If that were the case it would be nice, but games usually cop-out and go for the clear-cut good/evil dichotomy. In the case of inFamous, for example you're given choices like "Beat up a guy you just saved and take X > 1 items, or accept his reward of X = 1 items," "Deactivate the bomb, or just ignore it and let the bystanders die," or "Let people have the aid-food or chase away the crowd and take it all for yourself." That is, there's no possibility of justifying the other side, really. And I find that this is typical for game writing, really.

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I tend to agree with Rycross here. Most games with "moral choices" insist on you being good or evil, which *activate understatement mode* lacks depth */understatement*.

Even then, these aren't moral choices, they are almost always tactical choices of the form: which ending do you want to see and how hard are you willing to make the game to see it?

I believe its fundamentally impossible to have difficult moral choices in the kind of games we are talking about. You have to know that the enemies you are shooting are simply pixels and algorithms to enjoy the game (most people do, anyway), but you have to believe that the characters in a story are real for any moral decisions to matter.

I don't want to sound too pessimistic here, I think that games can offer moral choices that are far more powerful than in any other type of story. After all, in a game its the player making decisions, not the character. I just don't think we know how to do it properly yet. I'm sure we'll get there though.

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Even then, these aren't moral choices, they are almost always tactical choices of the form: which ending do you want to see and how hard are you willing to make the game to see it?


Excellent point!

Another point to consider is that pretty much everything we do can be considered an ethical decision. I choose to be productive. I choose to ignore my neighbor's loud children instead of killing them.

That's an ethical decision, but it's not interesting because no one would really make a choice to kill a kid for playing in his yard. Most ethical decisions in games are like that though... they are brain dead questions that ask you to choose between the obvious thing and some evil alternative.

The INTERESTING decisions are dilemmas--the kind of question that you're really not sure about because both choices have pros and cons. I think the trick to making them have some emotional impact is not providing a material advantage one way or the other--that way, it's not a tactical decision, but an emotional one.

1) Ethical questions need to be debatable to be interesting
2) The answer to the question shouldn't give any gameplay advantage

The artistry, I guess, in putting the choice in an emotionally meaningful context, and communicating to the player that there will be no gameplay advantage either way.

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The points brought up that most game decisions made by the player end up being tactical ones, and that the morality presented is rarely ambiguous are spot on. Even some excellently-written choices with the power to make the player feel a bit guilty for power/meta-gaming--exploiting Dak'kon's ignorance and loyalty in Planescape:Torment for example--ultimately devolve into tactical decisions.

Still, I'm sure there are games that present interesting moral choices that add to the gamer's experience without falling into either of the two traps mentioned above. Off the top of my head, the Sunry trial in Bioware's KotOR is one of those rare occasions.

While it is certainly the case that a decision made in a game has no actual repercussions for the player, moral choices done right can prompt discussions among players over questions such as "What do YOU think is the right path?" rather than "Which path should I choose?" because they are ultimately about the player's own beliefs and value system and not what is best for the character he or she is playing. Inspiring that kind of introspection should be one of the goals of rpg design and storytelling IMO.

Of course, there will always be gamers who care nothing for philosophical discussion and just want whatever will get them the most loot, skills, xp, etc. for their time. To them, something like the Sunry trial mentioned above just get in the way and/or are better off being skipped completely. Ultimately, a commercially successful approach would probably balance superficial morality with some more...interesting options for players who are looking for something a bit more intellectually inspiring.

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...they are ultimately about the player's own beliefs and value system and not what is best for the character he or she is playing. Inspiring that kind of introspection should be one of the goals of rpg design and storytelling IMO.


Sounds like something Kellee Santiago would say. In order to accomplish this, you just need immersion in any direction. Doing what is best for your character does not hurt immersion at all, IMAO. We still like to think of ourselves as a sprite or collection of polygons on screen. I always marvel at how much our speech changed since video games came to be.

Ever see someone play a game, get killed and say "I died"? They didn't, but they believe they did for a split second. With that comes frustration, which shows even with an obvious contrast of real and imaginary, there exists an emotional attachment that allows you to actually forget who you are. This is evident in our speech. I laughed when I heard my classmate tell someone that he killed a bunch of hostages like it was routine. I never even heard him mention a game, but I knew he had to be talking about one. (Right?...)

I never understood the Good/Evil deal. Whether you get instant gratification at the expense of virtual people or not, you still end up satisfying this almost biblical need to stay true to your personality. I remember feeling my conscience on my case when I made a girl in a game sad. There's no real emotion going on in the game, but I felt like reassuring her. It's not like I'd get laid out of it, but there was a metaphysical effect. Regardless of what my character ended up doing, I was affected. Over time, I lost this need to have such empathy and now I end up doing the opposite of what I do in the real world in games simply to desensitize myself and to release suppressed desires. I don't "feel" when I play games in the feminist context anymore. Now when I come across a crying little virtual girl, I eat her.

My point is that I still play the game with my own experience backing the protagonist. It was never the other way around for any game or any player, ever.
Whether you like it or not, you are a puppeteer and the developers may likely decide certain morals you may happen to have should not even be in the game.
Knowing this, we just need OTHER characters to have values for the sake of immersion. However, when you are asked to make a choice, you are brought to the level of the game: A linear sequence of instructions that can't hope to rival the complexity of the human brain. In order to make these questions work, you must foreshadow emotional sacrifice. The bigger, the better.

Dragon Age: Origins did this well. The decisions you make in that game have religious and political undertones that make you fully aware that you are sacrificing more than just numbers in your inventory. This was only because other characters had such well-developed values that you feel obligated to conform to them. BioWare pretty much took characters that you feel you really "know" and made them all glare at you, and even disapprove of your actions! You are still doing what is best for your character, and you know it. You just find yourself actually longing for the "approval" of some of the characters, because if they yell at the character, they yell at you. This also shouldn't be overdone, though. Folks in DA Origins pretty much end up saying things like: "I've been a king for 72 years and have seen my people through 44 wars, but I'll be damned if I can decide whether or not to let your homicidal distant cousin out of her cell. Your call, guy that just showed up yesterday." Seriously, cut that out.

Unfortunately, as mentioned, the finer examples are indeed rare. Developers use a stock representation of moral stances. This is an oversimplification, but evil people don't think what they are doing is evil, so games shouldn't brand certain actions as such. It implies the developers take a purist approach to moral values when we already had an existentialist system.

[Edited by - zyrolasting on February 18, 2010 12:41:40 PM]

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Original post by Pete Michaud
1) Ethical questions need to be debatable to be interesting
2) The answer to the question shouldn't give any gameplay advantage


I agree with this, but I don't think it goes far enough, I can see two major problems. The first is permanance, which I'll get to in a bit. The second is that even if none of the options presents a gameplay advantage, it can still become a tactical decision. If the player wants the story to head in a certain direction, they get into a kind of meta-game with the decisions in the game. This could actually be very useful, if you want the player to feel like they are playing a manipulative and distant character. Avoiding this when you don't want it could be tricky, but I would imagine making the effect of a moral decision on the story none-obvious might help.

Quote:
Original post by Crowseye
Still, I'm sure there are games that present interesting moral choices that add to the gamer's experience without falling into either of the two traps mentioned above. Off the top of my head, the Sunry trial in Bioware's KotOR is one of those rare occasions.


Thats a very good example. Its one of the few places where I've felt that a game actually got moral dilemmas close to being done right. A huge part of it was that it didn't confer any (signifacant) advantage whatever you did. I think the other thing that made it interesting was that I genuinely didn't know what I wanted the outcome to be. Also the outcome didn't affect the story going forward, so not only did none of the choices help me to win the game, they didn't help me to get the ending I wanted either, freeing me to do what I thought was right (it seems a little depressing that we only consider whats right after what's most expedient for us, or perhaps thats just me).

This brings me to the point I mentioned earlier, permanance. In theory, if I didn't like the outcome of the trial, I could just have re-loaded and changed it. I started a thread on this a while back. Strangely, Sunry is one of the only places that a decision like this wasn't weakened for me by the knowledge that I could always go back and change it. I'm not sure why, but I suspect it is because all the outcomes are equal(ish), but different.


Quote:
Original post by zyrolasting
Knowing this, we just need OTHER characters to have values for the sake of immersion. However, when you are asked to make a choice, you are brought to the level of the game: A linear sequence of instructions that can't hope to rival the complexity of the human brain.


I may be missing your point entirely, but I tend not to agree, after all a book is just a linear sequence of events, and yet they can explore all the depths of human experience in a way that I have yet to see games achieve.

Quote:
Original post by zyrolasting
Dragon Age: Origins did this well. The decisions you make in that game have religious and political undertones that make you fully aware that you are sacrificing more than just numbers in your inventory. This was only because other characters had such well-developed values that you feel obligated to conform to them. BioWare pretty much took characters that you feel you really "know" and made them all glare at you, and even disapprove of your actions! You are still doing what is best for your character, and you know it. You just find yourself actually longing for the "approval" of some of the characters, because if they yell at the character, they yell at you.


I haven't played it, but thats an interesting point. I suspect that if we can make characters believeable then the validation they give the player for moral decisions could be an incredibly powerful tool. Obviously this is another case where balance is required, one choice would gain approval with some characters and disaproval with others, and vice-versa. The player would also have to not know how specific characters would react before the fact or it just becomes another tactical decision. Making characters' opinions of you based on the net result of a number of decisions should help here too.

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People interested in this should watch Justice Harvard: It's a filmed series of lectures of what appears to be a first year philosophy/ethics course at Harvard, and is very well done.

The key to realize with moral choice is the detachment that video games create. Killing someone in a game does not have the same effect as killing someone in real life (else we'd all be serial killers).

Bioshock doesn't do this. The "moral choice" in the game boils down to a reward system: do I want a small reward now, or a big reward later. This means that purely from a stats point of view, long term doing the good thing is the best. It would have been interesting if they had reversed this, where the best thing to do numerically was the evil thing. As it stands, it makes it easy from an ethics perspective.

Mass Effect has a great moment where you have to choose which one of your teammates dies - there's no way around it, one of them dies, and you have to pick which. Because it's such an expansive game, this captures a feeling of irreversibility, as far as they are concerned, the dead character is gone forever.

Modern Warfare 2's infamous No Russian level was very well done, although they could have done so much more. Although I guess just a PR stunt, the level shouldn't be skippable, and the player really should have been forced to take part in the action - at least shoot, and maybe even do some awful acts - execute a civilian point blank to progress or something like that. Take the player out of their comfort zone.

And a question, after watching the first episode of Justice: if there are five people on each track, does it matter if you turn the wheel or not?

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