Today’s Twitter feed involved a post from Felicia Day which linked to the article “Psych Study Finds Gamers Play Their ‘Ideal Selves.'” It’s not a bad article, and has the virtue of being short (which I often lack). It also touches on something I’ve mentioned before in the article, “A Philosopher and a Witcher… in Spaaaaaaaaace,” and in a roundabout way touched on in “‘This is how the world ends…’“. Namely, that systems of ethics as depicted in most games are crap. This isn’t to say that the games themselves are bad, just that this particular aspect is often a sour note in an otherwise good game.
I tend to use the phrases “hugging puppies for Jesus,” and “killing puppies for Satan*,” because that’s more or less what the moral choices presented in most games break down as; you either behave like a saint or an utter bastard. Sometimes there are one or more neutral options presented, but these are often specifically weighed to avoid having a meaningful impact on the experience of game play (Mass Effect in particular comes to mind in this regard). I can understand the desire some players might have for this neutrality option; they just want to experience the game without having that experience become “complicated.” I, on the other hand, dislike this option because it’s even less realistic than the hugging puppies for Jesus and killing puppies for Satan model.
Some games have done it slightly better. As I mentioned before I think that The Witcher is a game that mostly pulls this off. I think one of the ways it pulls this off is it that there is no “morality meter,” or something like the ridiculous, and blatantly obvious, change of appearance that takes place in the Fable games. In real life we don’t always have a clear indicator of the morality of certain behaviors. Certainly, we might behave in a manner that we believe is good, or that we are told is good (even if the view from an outside observer that doesn’t share our beliefs suggests what we’re doing is in fact a hideously cruel and evil thing), but we have no way of knowing that what we are doing is a good thing. We can’t just open a stats screen and go, “Ah yes, I see my handy alignment gauge has moved by X points as a result of making that choice.” There’s also the fact that a choice I might perceive as moral, and that might somehow, magically, be perceived by most reasonable persons as being the “good” thing to do will not be perceived as the recipient of that action as being the moral choice. And I’m not just talking about, say shooting members of Caesar’s Legion or Powder Gangers in the head, because that’s obviously going to piss them off, as they most likely don’t want to be shot in the head. What if I were to do something to help a person in need? That’s a good thing, right? But what if this hypothetical person resents my “interference,” and feels that I’m undermining her autonomy? Did I still make the moral decision in this case? How can I know?
Morality isn’t transcendent, but a negotiated web, so one of the ways I can know is by the responses to my actions. Obviously not a perfect solution in that it is incomplete, but it is a way of modelling ethics and morality in a closed system. However, the responses need to be realistic; for example in my above moral quandy, some people might like what I’ve done, while other people (including the benefit of my generosity) might not. Some games, including The Witcher incorporate this, or elements of this already; it’s also a huge step above from having everyone, even if they’re in the same area, respond to your actions in the same way.
Just as we need to take away the crutch of morality meters, game benefits, or at least obvious game benefits need to be done away with. If the player can simply look at things and say, “Hey, I can get this cool buff if I hug puppies for Jesus,” there’s really no reason for the player to act in a way so as not to get that benefit; particularly if the other gameplay consequences are relatively innocuous. While this might make sense from a, “Give them phat lewts to keep them playing view,” it’s harmful to the immersive experience. I have absolutely no reason to engage with the story, or to consider the choices and their consequences, if the only reason I am making certain choices is to receive an immediately tangible benefit. If anything it should be something akin to the other way around. If I choose to embrace the power of blood magic because it will let me kick some ass, yet everyone in the world thinks blood magic is evil, that’s something I’m going to have to deal with even if all my other decisions have involved hugging puppies for Jesus. Would that likely alienate some players? Sure, but someone’s likely to disagree with the decision no matter what you choose.
I suspect that part of the problem is that much of the material that games draw their inspiration from, be that films, literature, or other (successful) games, is that so many of them fall into the trap of hugging puppies for Jesus and killing puppies for Satan. Addressing this issue is going to involve a lot of thinking, and a lot of work. It will also likely mean drawing on the services of people who are knowledge and experienced with ethics and considering ethical issues (why yes, that is me blatantly stating that I’m a good candidate, thank you for noticing). It’s going to involve rethinking some design principles, and working with programmers so that these rethought principles can be brought to (virtual) life. I for one think it’s a worthwhile task, but then again I do have an agenda; I freely admit that I’m for engaging people philosophically through “unconventional” methods, that’s one of the purposes of this blog, after all.
However, I think the effort would be worth the reward, both for the video game industry, and for the consumers of said industry’s products. (Also, since Marvel still hasn’t hired me to write Deadpool I could use the work.)
*I will confess to stealing the phrase from the title of Lumpley Games’ rpg Kill Puppies for Satan (An Unfunny Roleplaying Game).