Morality in games (part 1: griping)

[Games,General] (12.10.07, 7:43 pm)

This has always been something of a pet peeve for me. Many computer roleplaying games have developed a desire recently to employ the computer’s power of logic towards more than just fancy graphics and combat systems to create moral universes in which players make seemingly relevant moral choices in the game world. I got thinking of this when Evan was recently playing Mass Effect, Bioware’s newest extremely high budget sci-fi RPG shooter.

I have not actually played the game, and my gripes with it are not indicative of its quality in gameplay, but rather the disturbing trend in moral choices in a long line of games of which it is merely an example. The issue I have is of the moral systems developed in games stemming from Dungeons and Dragons to Neverwinter Nights, to its many successors, to Bioshock, to Fable, to Mass Effect, and doubtless to many more to come.

The issue I have is with the “Good” to “Evil” alignment system. Moral choices are made on a karmic scale. You start off as “neutral” and doing various “good” things pushes you toward the good side of the spectrum, where doing various “bad” things pushes you toward the evil side of the spectrum. Generally, I really hate karma systems, since they ultimately resolve into nonsensical unrealistic duals and feeble conceptions of the opposing choices. Karma systems generally fail except when they are done well, presenting choices that actually have moral quandaries, where neither choice is good nor evil.

The reason why karmic systems tend to fail (as complex systems) is because of the fact that there is no such thing as an essentially good action or an essentially evil one. This is illustrated in an example Audrey has excellently described as the “eat the baby” versus “don’t eat the baby” moral decision. The essence of this is that at some point, the intrepid player comes across a baby in a basket in his or her travels. The player is faced with the daunting moral dilemma: take the baby to the nearest lost baby depot, or eat said baby. Dilemmas like these simply do not exist in any interesting or realistic moral universe.

The idea of a good/evil scale treats good and evil as concrete absolutes. When was the last time you were faced with a decision in which you were weighing your choices in terms of objective good versus evil? Real moral choices relate to value systems or selfish versus altruistic behavior. These choices are not absolutes, but also are different depending on cultural or social context. No one (realistically) ever sees themselves as intentionally “being evil” but rather everyone operates according to highly rationalized decision making systems. Interesting villains often are sympathetic because their moral systems may resemble our own in all but a few key aspects. Their choices and our choices are informed by similar forces of what is the good or correct or morally just course of action.

Games do have the potential to express deeper quandaries, but they must move beyond karmic axis systems in order for these to express deepĀ  and challenging moral questions.

1 Comment »

  1. […] As has been the case recently, my notes stop a little short. The reason for this is that after the chapter on storytelling, the book discusses characters (the discussion of which is better handled in Isbister), and then gets into technical and gritty issues regarding gameplay. There is a brief discussion on moral challenges which is interesting, but my attitudes on moral systems in games have been firmly established. […]

    Pingback by Icosilune » Andrew Rollings and Earnest Adams on Game Design — March 30, 2009 @ 11:17 pm

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