On designing meaningful moral dilemmas in video games

Here’s a quote to get us started:

“…when we looked at the actual stats for Fallout 3 we learned that a really staggering majority of people chose to play the game as the good guy,” says Pagliarulo. “So it’s really interesting to me that even though we gave players the choice to be evil, to be the jerk — most of them chose not to.” – from Ethics 101: Designing Morality in Game by J. Matthew Zoss on Gamasutra (2010)

People prefer to be good in video games almost always over being bad, when there is a choice. How about you? Do you prefer to choose to be a good person or a bad person according to a game’s morality system? I know that I’ve always liked to be good and even today I still can’t stand being the bad guy. It’s a gut reaction and there isn’t any choice in my gut, it just says NO! If I don’t listen to my gut, I will not be able to enjoy the game for long. My gut will make me feel dirty no matter how innovative the game is, no matter how truthful the fact is that it’s just a game and these are rendered non-people. What I want to get at here in this post is what moral reactions are and ways of thinking about designing deeper and more challenging moral reactions. But first, some examples.

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Poor Bioshock often gets pinned as having meaningless moral choices. To kill or rescue a helpless child, that just ain’t the question.

My first memorable experience with a scenario in a video game that got me thinking was in Final Fantasy II (FF4 if you didn’t grow up in my time). The situation was that the main character had to face his past in a cave on the top of this place called Mt. Ordeals. The cave had a big ice wall that reflected him to himself which then turned into a battle. To child me it just looked like another match where I had to fight a copy of me that was trying to kill me. Totally normal. He did beat me, but then my character suddenly changed from being a ‘Dark Knight’ to become a good guy, all gleaming and bright and stuff. He learned something apparently, but I hadn’t yet. The battle then continued and no matter what I did to defeat my dark self, I couldn’t do it. It took me too long to figure out that all I was supposed to do was survive for a certain amount of rounds before the bad self gave up. I mean, it tells you not to fight, but I had the message speed on too fast and didn’t get the memo. If you choose to fight, the dark self will just kill you and you’ll have to restart where you last saved.

Eventually, I learned that winning required I just not fight (BTW there was no Internet to consult at that time, young readers) This scenario blew my mind as a kid. The lesson in Return of the Jedi, of not fighting evil with violence and Final Fantasy’s Mt. Ordeals lesson of winning through non-violence made a glorious parallel in my heart. When I made it through this fight, I thought video games were quite possibly the most amazing thing ever.

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What are some other examples that got me all riled up? There was a particular game that of recent I thought was pretty creative and interesting. I couldn’t keep playing it because it just made me feel in the end, for a lack of a better word, gross. But that’s kind of a good thing. Many of the mechanics of the game are fascinating, so it’s all the more memorable for me that I had to put it down. The game is Darkest Dungeon. One moral mechanic in particular was the culprit.  You have to treat your people ruthlessly to progress in the game. It’s a grueling lesson is of what it takes to be a savage greedy overlord. If you treat your people as precious, you will not make progress in the game. It’s an important moral lesson, but one that ultimately turns me away. I mean, I got probably at least 20 hours out of the game in early access which is well worth it.

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Darkest Dungeon easily gets my recommendation for being thought-provoking

Ultimately I felt too guilty for being unable to save my soldiers, to rid them of their afflictions, or to be able to retire them instead of bury them. Apparently, I have a deep-seated need to protect those in my charge, so much so that in a video game I cannot (for long) keep myself motivated to play. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great game, it’s just one I can’t play without feel anxious and guilty the whole way through. As a first, there is something amazing in a game that makes me feel too much of something.

Alright, enough examples. So what is this phenomenon? These are moral reactions, almost in the same way that we might react to a pleasant smell of a bakery as we walk by one in town. It’s not quite that simple, but it just happens, it’s a non-rational reaction. And this non-rational morality is something that I want to point to as an example of a broader point that I want to make in this post. Moral reactions are not conscious choices, they are gut reactions to a situation that are being presented, and these are targets we are aiming for when creating moral dilemmas. So when someone has only a choice between doing good and doing bad, there really isn’t any struggle in the matter because the choice is often times just doing what is good. Easy choice, because people already on a fundamental level need to be good. Yet, there are games that get what it takes to create a challenging moral dilemma…

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…Gravitation is one of them 

Jason Rohrer’s game Gravitation is a much richer moral situation than most of Fallout 3‘s. That’s because the game makes you choose between two good things that players have strong moral reactions to: your “career” and your family. I put quotes around career because it’s just my interpretation of the game. You can spend time with “your daughter”, playing ball, or you can go get stars up and away from her. Collecting stars and bringing them down keep the fire on for the home. The more you spend time collecting stars, the less the girl is getting attention from her parent and might disappear. The more you spend time with the girl, the colder the house gets and you might lose her this way too. With a simple, but meaningful consequential trade-off mechanic that gets you in your gut, this game compels you to make a choice between two uniquely necessary things. It makes you feel stretched, fatigued and morally challenged in a manner of minutes. Much like life, the challenge is about how to make deeply felt choices in world of limited time and energy. My next question is: Could this mechanic have more pull if designed a little differently? Before I get to that I want to clear up something about moral reactions…

Moral reactions aren’t simply biological, contrary to much of the dominant discourse we hear in mainstream psychology/philosophy. Reactions are clearly different for people belonging to a diversity of traditions. This leads to my second point I want to make in this blog post: in order to design even greater moral dilemmas and situations in video games (or anywhere really), we must have a richer understanding of human morality. Moral reactions are not simply biological reactions, like when the doctor hits that funny spot on your knee. They are indeed reactions, but reactions that have been instilled in us by our social environment and experiences. We have diverse moral reactions across time and place, because time and place is, y’know, kinda big. In order to get at this diversity and to get people thinking, one must craft a game that engages players at moral reaction level, not the rational calculating level that most games emphasize. The reason why there wasn’t diversity in player choice in Fallout 3 player’s reactions wasn’t necessarily because the players are simpletons, but because the game itself didn’t really present challenges that made players struggle on a moral reaction level.

Now most people will be able to relate to Gravitation. It was designed to be interpretive, so most people can fill in the details themselves. The stars could be anything, I chose to think of the finding of them as going to work. Regardless of how you interpret it, this trade-off between the home and the outside world is a meaningful dilemma that gets us on a gut level. Can we dig deeper using this mechanic though? I believe so.

Let’s take it just a step further and by making slightly more context-bound. Instead of making the player choose between work and family, you could make it between three things, their country’s safety, their community’s prosperity and their family’s stability. Instead of just  being a choice of home or outside, ours is a little more complicated. If done right, rather than pitting two clearly right choices against the player, this pits three good things against the player, two of which might be emphasized by the game story as ideals of the good life. The two being the ‘warrior ethic’and the ‘ordinary life ethic’. Some people are strongly against modern war, while others can’t bear the thought of not fighting for a greater cause, but most of us love both our family and our country and that’s where the real challenge is in designing meaningful choices. I want to throw out Papers Please as an example of this, but I still haven’t gotten to it.

At it’s base, Gravitation emphasizes the base mechanic of  making choices meaningful: a trade-off between moral goods that create strong gut-level reactions in the player. I’m simply adding onto it in my example by making a trade-off between ideals of the good life. There really are an infinite variety of trade-offs you could emphasize in your game. If we looked at this in a biological manner though, thinking that humans simply have universal reactions to moral situations, things like the diversity of moral reactions, ideals of the good life, can easily be marginalized. What a pity! Taking all this a step further, you could make a game with a ton of moral trade-offs with varying degrees of consequence, but it’s best to understand the basic mechanic that’s working here before trying to make the most morally challenging work of game art anybody has ever wanted to throw money at you for.

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Undertale should have been around for Cobra Kai students to play

Speaking of money, the closest video game that I can think of recently that is not only evocative of moral reflection through its mechanics, but is also a commercial hit, is Undertale. The gut-level moral dilemma enshrined in its cute idiosyncratic story, is managing the important trade-offs of using hard power vs soft power in a consequential world. Although I still find it wanting in some respects, it’s another excellent game. I just want to see more… and better! I want more meaningfully controversial and challenging ethical dilemmas in commercially viable video games!

Creating games that are have both meaningful moral dilemmas and mass appeal will forever remain an elusive goal, but by writing this I want to hone in on the aspects I see as being crucial to making them.  Raising consciousnesses ain’t easy, but it’s a worthy cause and I believe video games are a unique medium in their capacity to create powerful moral reactions and interactions. More depth in understanding of human nature will lead to being able to design greater meaning in games. Some games focus on mainly on creating stories with compelling characters, but I’m of the philosophy that creating rich situations for powerful moral reactions is where games excel in creating meaning. The rest is the carrot.



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