Making Morality Matter

Making Morality Matter
Ethics Without a Net

Steve Butts | 31 May 2011 13:02
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There are two fundamental perspectives of morality. The first and more basic perspective relies on Shame. In a shame-based system, the society's perception of a person's actions is more important than the person's own reality. The more advanced perspective relies on Guilt. In a guilt-based system, what the individual feels about their own intentions is more important than society's opinions. The disconnect for most games with a moral element is that the game invariably views morality in terms of shame, while the player views it in terms of guilt. The developer focuses too much on the former, and too little on the latter.


I admit I've shot the occasional Soiled Dove in Red Dead Redemption while trying to save her from a knife attack, but the authorities don't seem to care about those extenuating circumstances. The shame-based morality system within the game penalizes me regardless, even though my own guilt-based perspective outside of the game justifies it as an accident. The morality system in the game, which is so rigid that it immediately tells everyone everywhere whether or not the person I just gunned down in the street deserved it, also enforces a bit of guilt-based judgment by removing my honor whenever I tie up a prospector and toss him off a cliff, even if no one is around to see it. Still, it's a fundamentally shame-based system. You may feel like a complete psychopath for wandering around the countryside viciously murdering every criminal you find, but the rest of the world not only sees you as a hero, but is glad to pay you money for the blood-stained jerkins you keep bringing back to town.

In today's games, what you do is more important than why you do it. In a way, that's not very different than how our own world works. After all, as individual human beings with no special insight into the hearts or minds of others, actions are about all we can judge of another person. But actions aren't necessarily as important as intentions as an indicator of morality, which is how we judge ourselves. After all, someone who accidentally sets your house on fire may not be immoral, but someone who tries to set your house on fire surely is, even if he or she fails. Since actions are merely the outer result of moral decisions, maybe it's possible that moral decisions can't yet exist within the world of games, at least not as part of any designed system.

Perhaps that's why the industry's early attempts to make morality matter have been so binary. Peter Molyneux's Black & White sums up the whole experience right in the title. That's basically the entire question of most of these games and it leaves little room for the ambiguous grey areas that might otherwise make moral considerations more compelling. Are you going to stroke your pet or beat it? Are you going to feed the orphans or feed upon them? You might as well just give us one button that says "good" and another that says "evil."

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