Morality in games (part 3: another way)

[Games,General] (01.24.08, 12:11 pm)

Continuing to the third part in this series, I want to introduce a system for handling morality that makes sense for complex situations. My goal is to come up with something procedural, intuitive enough to design for, and something that can handle even the most perverse of moral situations. Because every domain is different and has different moral and value systems, it makes sense that each game or story world will have a different set of statistics and parameters.

The reward for this is an analysis (keeping up with contemporary film and theatre) of Sweeney Todd, to be covered in the next post. The analysis will break down the cast into a spectrum of dimensions that demonstrates quite clearly that, far from being poles, good and evil are spread and intermingle in a complex swamp and neither is really possible to achieve without a helping of the other. Special thanks to Audrey , the domain expert, who helped me get this system and the analysis worked out.

Okay, so what really makes up a moral system? The question may be pretty tricky in pinning it down. If Wikipedia is to believed, morality is the practice of ethics. Again, this doesn’t offer much in the means of answers. It may be possible to wax philosophical about being and ideals, going from classical philosophers through the enlightenment and on, but that really distracts us from the matter of games and what they entail.

So, let’s look at the situation from another angle. What is it like to be in a game that has its own moral universe? This clearly hearkens back to the notion of immersion and that feeling of “being there” that, whether successfully or unsuccessfully, many games aspire to evoke. If you don’t think that such things are possible, imagine what it is like to read an engrossing novel in which the questions of right and wrong get very blurry. When done well, these fictional worlds have a few features that are interesting to consider. One is self consistency: moral positions available in the text fit in with the world setting, and the system is what we mathematicians might call “complete”, that is, every moral position that a character can take fits into the moral system of the world. It may seem obvious, but there is some nuance here. It means that there are severe limits to character action that make sure characters cannot overstep the boundaries of the system.

A second thing to note is that characters take moral positions. Whether through actions, speech, or thoughts (positions espoused by each can be different), all characters must in some manner take a stand in this morality. One character may believe that it is okay to lie to save a hundred, another might believe that a truth is worth a hundred lives. In that spectrum, a character who believes in the absolute sanctity of both life and the truth may find that position very difficult to hold.

A third feature is that positions are taken on certain points. What points these might be is drastically different from world to world, but they must be concrete, atomic issues that characters may disagree on. Is it okay to harm an innocent? Is it okay to harm someone who is not so innocent? To what extent should the guilty be punished? Is a theft of bread to feed another a crime? Do those in power owe something to the powerless? Each of these questions can usually be answered yes or no by a reader, but nestled deep within the questions are scales and extremes. A character who believes that it is okay to steal a loaf of bread to feed one’s family may not agree when the theft ruins a shopkeeper and the family consists of a large number of friends and acquaintances. Or maybe the theft is only okay if the family in question is small and starving. What if they are not starving, but merely poor and struggling? While this example may be slightly silly, it is clear that in it and many other questions have a great deal of depth and options to explore. Furthermore, this depth and exploration opens the way for a great deal of subtlety and variance, which is one of the things that makes characters in these worlds interesting.

Finally, characters also have state in the world. Generally, state reflects very sharply on moral position. A rich man will probably not think to highly of the redistribution of wealth, and someone who has been the victim of corruption may not think to well of the sanctity of authority. State plays a factor in moral systems very strongly, but it can be thought of as a part of a character’s moral position. A character may decide her own moral stance, but her state is not hers to decide. As her state changes over the course of a story or game, she may change her stance.

So, summarizing: we know that One) moral systems are complete. Two) characters take positions within those systems. Three) positions are expressed by stances and states on one or more moral questions pertinent to the domain or world. And Four) State is determined by circumstance, whereas stance is up to the character to decide. Were this logic to be proceduralized, I think we would find that a moral system would consist of several numeric attributes, each for elements of moral positions. A scale might range from 0 to 100, but that is up to the designer. Every character would have a set of moral attributes. Over the course of the experience, a character’s actions may cause one or more of these attributes to change, and more gradually, the character’s state will change. Decisions should be highly atomic, and as invisible as possible, and there should be enough of them to explore as many of the dimensions of the moral issue as possible.

Generally, there will be multiple dimensions to a moral system, and most of the issues should be made as orthogonal as possible. This is not necessarily going to be the case with everything, many questions are necessarily codependent. Nonetheless, if we see moral questions as independent variables, our work is simplified tremendously. Borrowing from the noir tradition: Consider the questions of justice versus authority. A character who believes in both sees the law as the way to enforce justice, a character who believes in neither sees the world as a vicious, cutthroat place, the character who believes in authority without justice cares not for the plight of the oppressed, and the character who believes in justice without authority is liable to take the law into his own hands. That spectrum is highly orthogonal. Characters may take any position in the system and have it make sense. Other dimensions, such as justice and punishment are codependent. The value of punishment is dependent on ones understanding of justice. Punishment without a cause is not really punishment, it’s merely cruelty. Whereas excessive punishment for a small crime indicates a small belief in justice, but it is superseded by the value of punishment. In a situation like this it may be better to split the axes into justice and violence, but for others it may be more difficult.

Hmm, justice, authority, and violence. I think that spectrum contains the moral universes of a lot of popular comic books out there today.

Next time, I’m really doing Sweeney. Stay tuned.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.