The Mechanics of Morality: Why Moral Choices in Video Games Are No Longer Fun

Jonathan McCalmont @ 11-11-2009

Moral ambiguity is an increasingly ubiquitous part of modern computer game character mechanics – so why are the moral elements to gameplay increasingly less enjoyable?

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont

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I remember when having a game take into account the morality of your character was something of an innovation. I remember banging my head against the Eye of the Beholder Dungeons and Dragons games appalled at the fact that something as complex as tabletop role-playing had been reduced to throwing knives at spiders in someone’s basement. The Baldur’s Gate games changed this. Suddenly, if you played an evil character good characters refused to join up with you and if you played a good character then certain solutions to problems were denied you. It was a revelation. Now it all tastes like ashes.

The idea began to take root after it was popularised by RPGs such as Knights of the Old Republic (2003) and Fable (2004). Half a decade later practically every new sandbox game has a variation on the theme : Fallout 3 (2008) has its karma, Mass Effect (2007) has its paragons and renegades, even first person shooters such as BioShock (2007) pay lip service to the idea by allowing you to decide whether or not to sacrifice children in order to harvest their powers. And this is without mentioning all of the planned and released sequels these games have accumulated with the passage of time. The problem is that, as the mechanic has gained popularity, it has also lost its novelty and with each new game to use the mechanic, we are reminded of the fact that, actually, being given moral choices to make is not in the least bit fun.

That which was supposed to grant us the freedom to break the rules of the action/adventure genre by allowing us to play the bad guys has actually served only to deprive us of the fun of breaking those very same rules. In fact, I have recently noticed that my response to being given the permission to be uncontrolled (as the wonderful Rebecca Mayes puts it) is to cling to the rules of the genre like a limpet to a rock. I do not merely play the good guy, I play Action Jesus! The reason for this is what I like to call The Clarkson Effect :

In order to be fun, transgressive behaviour requires the existence of a strong moral code to transgress against. However, when the transgressive opinions and behaviour become an accepted and recognised way of being, the behaviour ceases to be transgressive and thereby ceases to be fun.

I named this phenomenon after the British TV personality Jeremy Clarkson, who takes great pleasure in declaiming against health and safety legislation, public transport and the environment. This posturing has made him hugely popular, hugely wealthy and an author whose books sell by the hundreds of thousands. And therein lies the problem. Far from being contrary to popular or received opinion, the views Clarkson trumpets are actually quite widely held and, in some cases, clearly underpin government policy. This means that, far from being brave and transgressive in his utterances, Clarkson is simply pandering to public opinion. Jeremy Clarkson is not some free-thinking rebel, he is a a pompous and ill-informed right-wing gas bag. According to The Clarkson Effect, if you are playing a game where you are supposed to be a noble Jedi/Knight/Warrior/Pimp/Pope then murdering people and setting fire to orphanages is fun. Because breaking the rules is fun. Once the game tells you that it is okay to be evil, the killing and burning instantly cease to be fun and become obnoxious and childish. This also explains why the destructive mini-games in Saints Row 2 (2008) are much less fun than the free-form mayhem you create in between missions.

Looking back at the beginnings of the trend in Baldur’s Gate (1998), it seems genuinely tragic that such an inspired and liberating mechanic should have become little more than an irritation – an irritation that serves to deprive you either of the joys of in-game destruction or of content you should have been able to enjoy by virtue of buying the game. Even the trail-blazing classic Deus Ex (2000) managed to shoot itself in the foot by attaching different endings to certain in-game outcomes. This meant that a lot of gamers were forced to replay sections of the game in order to see endings they had paid for.

So what exactly went wrong? How did moral choices become such a chore? I would argue that the problem stems from two basic errors made by game designers.

Firstly, many of the choices that present themselves as moral dilemmas are nothing of the sort.

I remember the long years of hype prior to the release of Fable. Fable sold itself as a game of consequences. What you did impacted the world and it impacted your character. I remember the concept art for evil characters who travelled only by night: pale creatures with red eyes, scars and masked faces. At a time when character customisation, even in RPGs was still minimal. Fable’s problem is that, despite one existing sequel (and a second one due next year), the concept of character individuation never progressed beyond those pieces of concept art. In Fable supposedly moral choices have aesthetic consequences. At the beginning of Fable II (2008), when you decide whether or not to cut corners in your missions, you are not making a moral choice but an aesthetic one. Do you want to return to a bustling happy town or a shadowy and sinister town where property is cheap and human life is doubly so? The same problem is present in Knights of the Old Republic. Whether you are good or evil is not a question of morality but of strategic character building. If you want to be a healer then do good things. If you want the cool force lightning power then do evil things. It is not a game that prods your conscience.

As well as aesthetic and strategic choices, tactical choices can also masquerade as moral ones. In many games, morality expresses itself as a simple choice between killing and talking. Early on in Mass Effect, you can either shoot your way into a bar or you can recruit some friends and talk your way in. You do not make this decision on the basis of your moral principles. You do so on the basis of what strikes you as more fun. In games where most of the game-play involves killing, the more roundabout challenges provided by ‘ethical’ means of problem solving offer up an interesting change of pace and are frequently more satisfying. This is also true of games without morality mechanics. For example, in the Metal Gear Solid games you can either sneak and tranquillise your way through the levels or strap on your assault rifle and gun down the enemy. The same is true of the Hitman series, in which you could either murder your way through the levels or engage with them as gigantic Rube Goldberg contraptions, carefully setting up the murder of your target with minimal bloodshed.

Sometimes, moral choices are effectively meaningless. For example, in BioShock, a lot is made of the dilemma of whether to sacrifice captured children or set them free. Initially, the choice appears to be between power and principle but even if you choose to set the children free, someone turns up and gives you everything you would have gained by killing the children. The only difference between the two paths is some animation and when you get the powers.

Secondly, the moralities of many games do not resemble real world morality in the slightest.

Real world moral dilemmas are characterised by a degree of uncertainty. People without a clear religious or political belief system will frequently struggle to make real decisions as they can see all different sides. Even people who do subscribe to a clear set of external moral principles will still be assailed by doubts. Moral commandments are never so fine-grained as to eliminate individual choice and ethical wiggle-room. For example, it is all very well declaring Thou Shalt Not Kill and Never Tell A Lie, but what happens when a murderer knocks at your door asking whether your neighbour is in because he plans to murder them and their family? All of a sudden killing the murderer in order to protect your neighbour’s family or telling him that your neighbour moved to another country start to look like surprisingly moral courses of action. Even religions acknowledge the limitations of moral codes by continually re-working and re-interpreting their moral precepts to suit the needs of the times. If Christianity actually made sense then there would be no need for priests. By contrast, moral decisions in games are always obvious.

Most of the moral dilemmas offered to us in games are simplistic to the point of absurdity. Do you save the children or rape and eat them? There is no uncertainty there. There is no taxing of the conscience or room for guilt and self-doubt. Even assuming that these kinds of decisions actually exist, they are not the standard moral decision that people face every day. Furthermore, most games give you immediate feedback as to the morality of your actions when the game flashes up your gains and losses of karma points. Real world moral judgements are never so obvious.

Despite tending towards the simplistic morality of Saturday morning cartoons, video games can sometimes display astonishing lapses in moral judgement. For example, in Fable II, you can swing towards the dark side if you eat the wrong thing. However, if you are waylaid by bandits whilst travelling, the game allows you to mutilate them with a gigantic sword without a stain on your conscience. It is one thing to sanction capital punishment for petty theft but it is quite another to suggest that that kind of justice should be meted out by private citizens armed with machetes.

This strange zigzagging between obvious choices and an obvious lack of choices results in a set of mechanics that simply do not feel like moral judgements. They are completely at odds with moral psychology, and because they feel so artificial, they are not only no fun to make, they also invite us to make the decisions on non-moral grounds. If a game wants to give us the chance to play someone who frightens people or who shoots force lightening then it should give us those options immediately. Embedding them in an utterly misguided morality mini-game is just annoying.

But is there a way in which moral choices could be made fun?

The game designer James Portnow wrote a piece in July 2009 presenting some of the conceptual framework for a game based upon ambiguous moral decision-making. Portnow suggests that, rather than transparently embedding morality in the framework of the world in a way that allows players to track their morality by looking at their karma score, it would be more interesting to embed the morality of the characters’ actions in the perceptions of non-player characters. This would mean that, were you to burn down an orphanage, you would not get 200 points of negative karma or grow horns, you would instead find it harder to do business with the people who disapprove of orphan burning. Because there would be no obvious feedback to your actions, their consequences would come as a surprise. This mechanic actually exists in games such as Everquest (1999) and Grand Theft Auto 2 (1999).

What Portnow is talking about is replacing morality mechanics with a set of political mechanics. But this is a slightly different kettle of fish that invites its own kind of system gaming. For example, in Grand Theft Auto 2 you began each level with equal standing in the eyes of a number of gangs. As you carried out missions for one gang, your standing rose with them but fell with the others. The problem was that, if you did a drive-by shooting on the gang you worked for, your standing with the other gangs immediately leapt up. So you progressed through the game by taking on missions and then going on killing sprees, playing the different gangs against each other until you made enough money to move to the next level. Now, in some respects, this is pleasingly reminiscent of the plot to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) and its unofficial ‘remake’ by Sergio Leone A Fistful of Dollars (1964) but as in the Fable II example above, the player’s tendency to periodically murder the people he works with in no way counts against him. Nor does his tendency to flip sides whenever he gets stuck or bored. I would argue that any political or moral decision that can be reversed by a mass killing is in fact not a political or moral decision at all.

Another failure of reputation mechanics can be found in the otherwise excellent Elder Scrolls IV : Oblivion (2006). In Oblivion, your relationships with factions and individuals are affected by your reputation and your actions. However, the characters in Oblivion were all entirely lacking in principle. You could murder someone’s family and steal from their shop and then give them a load of cash and they would treat you as a long-lost friend. Again, real people do not behave in this way.

The real challenge facing morality mechanics is realism. Because in-game moral decisions have no real-world consequences, it is all too easy for moral choices to become tactical or aesthetic ones. It is precisely because these decisions are not real that it is vital to make them feel real. They must be based not only in a real understanding of the psychology of moral decision making but also a grasp of how people react to the people they disagree with and disapprove of. It is not until gamers feel as though they are making real moral choices that moral choices will become fun again and no amount of force lightning can change that.

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Jonathan McCalmontJonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.

Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.

[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]

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15 Responses to “The Mechanics of Morality: Why Moral Choices in Video Games Are No Longer Fun”

  1. Kian says:

    It’s true with the advent of moral choices littered throughout the game the effect of choosing evil no longer is as amusing as it once was. I think I’ve very much taken the same route as you have with games such as these, in that I will now deliberately play the good guy, accepting all the pitfalls that you entail by doing so. By doing so it gives me a good piece of structure for the character I play and such was the case in Fallout 3 when an NPC made one snide comment to many, go on an enjoyable rampage in which I began to test each an every town to find out which NPCs were immortal ^_^. (Then probably going back to an earlier save so the game is playable one again).
    However I do tend to find that it doesn’t work the other way. If I play through a game being evil then occasionally saving a child does nothing bar break the monotony of choosing the same choices.

    On the line of Deus Ex I personally rather liked the three ending model. Its a game that I’ve played through multiple times however on my first way through I simply went back to an earlier save so I could check out each of the different endings, only having to expend an extra 20 minutes to see each one.

    As you well stated one of the major problems with the moral compass is accountability in that often enough you don’t have any (or at least any thats lasting). Mass Effect being a prime example, where the moral system makes no difference to the ending at all. I can understand the reason for leaving this out, since after playing a game for 30+ hrs the last thing you want is for a mistake to come back and bite you, you also have the completionist factor to consider. Though this would make it more realistic, I would find it more irritating than fun. I think it would work with shorter games where you are expected to replay it and each choice you make will thus open up a whole realm of different scenario’s choices and perceptions.

    The problem with a moral compass is that it very much broaches the question of why people play computer games. If its to live a different life than an exact and precise moral compass would suit such a player. If its for pure escapism then having such unrealistic moral choices, provides easy dissociation with the real world. There are many more reasons people play and what they may look for and it’s never going to be a black and white reason which leaves games developers in an awkward position. Generally I don’t find moral systems that fun (though there are some moments of greatness), however I think I would prefer to have them than not to.

  2. Jonathan M says:

    Hi Kian :-)

    I think everyone who played Deus Ex did that. I remember even looking up HOW to get the other endings in order to make sure I got to see them. I’m guessing I had quite a bit of free time on my hands in those days.

    Interestingly, the only game in which I’ve had a really strong desire to jump the fence and play the ‘bad guys’ was when I played the first Modern Warfare game. Though the fact that the game bored the pants off of me might well had something to do with it and besides, I’ve written before about the lure of virtual suicide bombing…

    I think you’re right that different people want different things out of games and you’re probably correct to suggest that the current approach to moral choices is born out of a compromise between the people who want immersion and those who don’t. But Surely that’s a creative decision you have to make? By not being a sports game your first person shooter is going to alienate some people. I think most gamers would play a game with a properly immersive and responsive moral architecture. They can go back to shooting arabs in the head and spraying poo after they’ve played it. Not all games need to be the same and I think the desire for compromise is forcing designers into a bland and un-fun middle of the road.

  3. Kian says:

    *Interestingly, the only game in which I’ve had a really strong desire to jump the fence and play the ‘bad guys’ was when I played the first Modern Warfare game. *
    Love the irony :)

    “But Surely that’s a creative decision you have to make?”
    It’s true and I would love to see a fully formed moral system in a handful of games. I think the problem was as you stated later ” I think the desire for compromise is forcing designers into a bland and un-fun middle of the road”, which is driven by the cost of development now. Its an interesting scenario we have walked into. With improvements in technology the amount we can do with it has increased to stretch the imagination to its limits, however with that improvement so to has the cost increased and thus the imagination must be reared back to ensure profits. Personally I would perhaps now maybe be looking more towards Indie games designers and modders for the more outrageous and innovative leaps such as “The Path”, “Dear Esther” (which was mentioned on this blog a while ago) and even “Natural Selection 2″ which combines multiplayer FPS with sections of RTS for side playing humans.

    Look forward to reading your next set.

  4. Karen Burnham says:

    Money quote: “I would argue that any political or moral decision that can be reversed by a mass killing is in fact not a political or moral decision at all.”

    Oh mass killing…. is there any problem you *can’t* solve?

  5. Alexander says:

    “Because in-game moral decisions have no real-world consequences, it is all too easy for moral choices to become tactical or aesthetic ones. It is precisely because these decisions are not real that it is vital to make them feel real.”

    My thoughts exactly. And btw, I think Bioware has been using a sort of political mechanics to make it work as early as Baldur’s Gate. For instance, both BG2 and Knights of the Old Republic had romance sub-plots, which could be messed up severely by main character making “wrong” moral decisions.

    So the question is if the player percieves the sub-plots as artificial and made up or as something serious and valuable. Lately, most in-game characters resemble a bunch of driveling zombie-robots reading from the same old script. “Moral patterns” have become a common place, predictable, recognizable and excruciatingly boring.

  6. Victor Gijsbers says:

    An interesting read! However, I wonder why, among all those big RPGs, The Witcher was never mentioned? Moral choices are central to the plot of The Witcher, but they are never of the good/evil kind and one very often cannot gauge the result of one’s choices beforehand. It is a pretty good test case for the claim that moral decisions become more fun when they’re more like real-world moral decisions.

    I do wonder what you want moral choices to accomplish, though. There seem to be two strands of thought in your artcile:

    * Moral transgression is fun.
    * Serious moral dillema’s are fun.

    For the first, you need a game with an obvious moral system and the ability to break it without the game telling you that it’s okay to break it. I doubt whether this has a lot to do woth morality–it’s the same thing as turning your race car around on the circuit and causing as much mayhem as possible. The fun thing is that you are breaking with the intended meaning of the game in a spectacular way, but nothing is added if the meaning is moral.

    The second possibility is that true-to-life moral decisions make games fun. But is “fun” the right word here? Shouldn’t we be talking about “interesting” or “deep”? The decision points in The Witcher were often uncomfortable, and I know those in my own “moral decision game” Fate were meant to be so as well. Real moral dilemma’s are not entertainment.

  7. Thomas Bickley says:

    Nice article. It’s an issue I’ve been think about a lot recently and a lot of what you said reflects my own thoughts on the subject.

    I see Victor has already beaten me to bringing up The Witcher, but I think it’s worth another mention anyway, because it does seem to be the only example of non-trivial moral choices in video games and it mostly does a decent job of it. That said, it does also showcase why non-trivial choices are so problematic, and that is that complex questions require complex answers. For example, there were several points where I wanted an option for “I agree with your position more than the other person’s, but I don’t agree with the methods you’re proposing” or for “I agree with the action you suggest, but not for those reasons” and they just weren’t there, so I was ending up doing things I didn’t want to do for reasons that I didn’t agree with, which was annoying.

    I think ultimately the problem with morality systems in games is that they work in the reverse of reality. In the real world, a person’s morality is not defined by the choices they make; the choices they make are defined by their morality. If you try to define a morality by the choices a person makes, you must either:
    a) allow for horribly inconsistent personalities (e.g. “I risk my life to save people, but I also shoot civilians in the head repeatedly for no reason”)
    or
    b) restrict what people can do based on their previous actions.

    So far every game I have seen has chosen the first option and dealt with it by doing a “good deeds + bad deeds = morality level” simplification, which clearly doesn’t work. I know people are generally going to be opposed to anything restricting what they can do, but I honestly think b is the better option. It does admittedly have more scope for going wrong, but if it’s done right I think it could be a big step forwards.

  8. Jonathan M says:

    Victor — I didn’t mention the Witcher because I haven’t played it. It’s PC only and I’m a mac and console type. I used to have a PC and so I’m familiar with older PC games but the more recent ones pass me by. Also, to be honest, I thought The Witcher was just a Penny Arcade running joke :-)

    Regarding the fun-ness of transgressive behaviour, I disagree. What’s informing my judgement in that matter is the number of times I have been to see a film and I’ve sided against the protagonist. Not only have I sided against the protagonist but I’ve also chosen to interpret the antagonist’s actions as sympathetic. As a result, the things the antagonist does are not merely fun because they’re transgressive, they’re also fun because they’re transgressive against the stifling values of the supposed protagonist. So I don’t think it is the same as turning your car round the wrong way, but I think your challenge is an interesting one thank you.

    On your third point, real moral dilemmas are difficult and unpleasant (I’m facing one myself at the moment) but the unpleasantness is surely reduced to mild irritation by virtue of the fact that it’s a game, no?

    I’m currently playing Dragon Age Origins and that’s a good example of a game with real moral dilemmas in it. Your choices have consequences and you have to watch what you say and what you do as a result. That’s fun. Managing a party and having to keep the sometimes radically different moral personalities together is fun. It’s challenging but also fun.

  9. Jonathan M says:

    Thomas — Hmm… without getting too existential here, I think there is a sense in which real world morality is defined by actions rather than abstract principles. It’s all very well having moral values but if your actions don’t follow from these principles then the principles are empty and pointless.

    The same thing applies to characters in RPG games. If you’re not effectively playing yourself then you might well approach the dilemmas with “what would my character do?” in mind. For example, in Dragon Age I created a character with the idea of his being a kind of rogueish picarro in mind. However, once I started playing, I fell into a pattern of his being quite disrespectful and world-weary but also quite quietly heroic. Now, if you asked me to describe my character I’d say he was a kind of traditional anti-hero rather than a picarro. His principles were defined in action not abstractly.

    I think ‘restricting actions’ is perhaps a bit extreme but you can certainly have it that your character’s actions close off doors to him. So if he does start shooting people in the head then other people will hear about it and treat him differently or he’ll start losing one kind of companion and gaining another.

    But yes, I think that the simplified and easily gamable morality rating really has had its day as a mechanic.

  10. Gautham T says:

    You mentioned the first Modern Warfare game – what about the second? There’s a mission [spoiler warning] called “No Russian” where your avatar is undercover with a group of Russian terrorists and is a party to a massacre in an airport. As far as I can tell, your actions make no difference in this scene – you can shoot innocent civilians or not shoot them, you can’t turn your gun on the terrorist group to stop them, and no matter what you do, your player character is murdered at the end of the level. I found it moderately horrifying and not much fun to play. Instead of a morality tracker, Modern Warfare 2 has an incendiary encounter with no opportunity for moral action, positive or negative. Why, I wondered, do you have the ability to shoot unarmed civilians, while your decision to shoot or not to shoot is rendered meaningless by the lack of consequences? I found it to serve as kind of a test or a mirror: how much do you enjoy shooting people in a game, how much do you enjoy simulated death, and how much can you be affected by it?

    It reminded me of Umberto Eco’s complaint about interactivity in literature in his essay on hypertext fiction in On Literature – that by changing the structure of the novel, it tampers with one of its central functions, which is its inevitability. However much I might want “No Russian” to proceed differently, it always ends up the same way, and gives me thus a constructed proposition about the world.

    I think Knights of the Old Republic has used in-game consequences for character actions: who you can and cannot work with is a function of good or evil actions on your part. Since for game balance reasons the benefits turn out to be about the same, the only result is ephemeral: the satisfaction of doing good or doing evil. I’m thinking specifically of KOTOR2, where you have a choice to help touchy-feely Ithorians or the exploitative Czerka corporation. Neither choice gives you more of an in-game benefit, so the game avoids taking a moral stand about which is the “better” course by rewarding one more than the other, but helping one faction means acting against or destroying the other faction, which means your character must take a moral stand to pursue that particular subplot.

    Maybe this is where the dissatisfaction comes in: with a lack of a moral position on the part of the game itself. In many games, breaking codes of behavior – attacking townspeople, for example – carried consequences. You might be attacked by the town guards and eventually killed for the childish satisfaction of killing a few NPCs. If one can play either a good or evil character with equal ease without facing challenges specific to that path (if we’re reducing morality to such a simple polarity as many games do), then the differentiation is indeed meaningless except for whatever statistics, powers, or animations might result. I think all this means is that it’s not a morality rating that’s the problem, but that moral choices in video games are not tied closely enough to narrative meaning.

  11. Jonathan M says:

    Gauthem – I am aware of the mission in MW2. I think everyone is :-) I think you’re right that it’s an example of a game that operates within a moral universe but with no actual agency granted to the players. But that’s true of most twitchy games and the action/adventure genre in general.

    As for KOTOR2, I haven’t played it so I can’t comment upon it but playing Dragon Age Origins I was struck by the fact that relative morality works so much better in games than absolute morality. Games can happily keep track of how much you piss off other characters but they really struggle with morality embedded in the world because, frankly, most systems that do embed morality in the world (i.e. religions) tend to be full of caveats and exceptions that make the rules pretty much unenforceable except in extreme cases :

    Christianity works quite well when you’re butchering innocents. When you’re giving your critically ill child an overdose of his medication in order to end his pain then the system falls apart.

    Games tend to reflect that problem. As a player you are forever going “That’s not why I did it!” or “there are more than two options!”.

  12. Chris Sonjeow says:

    After just finishing Mass Effect 2, I’m finding myself gravitating to these games based on morality choices.

    I believe that the more complex the story lines get, and the more real the characters become, the more effect these types of games will have on fans of the genre.

    I would also take into consideration of the age difference, because gamers are getting older (myself included) my style of play has evolved. When I was younger and graphics and stories were much less sophisticated, I would blast my way thought a scene. Now, I’m cautious, weight out my consequences vs. rewards, then proceed.

    I hope that this trend continues and that games continue to grow more complex.

  13. Babak says:

    I think the reason moral choices are not drawing you (and many other players) in, is the fact that they are in most cases badly done, and we developers might be the main reason for that. I have a longer discussion on my blog @

    http://www.gamedesignideas.com/video-games/morality-in-games-the-developer%E2%80%99s-side-of-the-story.html

    The point is really that developers as a group don’t have enough experience with deep moral choices. The safety of our environment, especially in developed countries, where most games are made, has shielded us from extreme hardships and thus dulled our capability to understand such choices… and if we don’t get it,…how can we make the player get it?

  14. Jon says:

    Fantastic article !

  15. Melvin Lukowski says:

    Im not convinced TBH but interesting comments. Just my opinion, but a few more pics would have been nice.

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