308: Ethics Without a Net

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Ethics Without a Net

Moral choices don't have much bite when you can just reload your game and try again. True moral quandaries happen without a safety net.

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Thinking about this.......

Minecraft doesn't offer any moral choice, but it's nearly impossible to not suffer the consequences of your actions. No matter what, it saves what is going on. You can't quit the game without it saving what you have done up until that point, even if you use task manager to kill it.

In order to undo what you have done, you basically have to start your world from scratch in order to not do what you did.

Games with moral choices could learn from this system.

Heavy Rain's resolutions are much more guarded. Whether or not you get a "good" or "band" ending in that game involves not just the outcome of the various choices you've made, but also on your own definition of what "good" and "bad" mean.

Not to be an ass or anything, but...typo ahoy, Captain!

I don't really agree with the whole 'right and wrong' system that most games have. Like Mass Effect for example. I thought most of my choices were Paragon, but the game gave me Renegade points for pretty much everything I did. (Kill the Geth or reprogram them to help in the coming war against the Reapers who are willing and able to end all life in the universe. NOPE REPROGRAMMING THEM IS SUPER EVIL! Same with the Collector Base. Sure, I could blow it up just to spite TIM, or I could save the Collector Base so that we have a better chance of fighting off the Reapers, who again, want to kill EVERYTHING!)

In Uncharted 2, you kill hundreds of soldiers over the course of the game (I actually bitched about how many there were in Uncharted 1 because why do you need 200 guys just to guard a single camp out in the middle of the jungle? Seriously, there were over 200 guys.) At the end of the game, the antagonist says, "We're not so different, Drake. How many men did you kill? HOW MANY JUST TODAY?"

Because of how terrible the guy in question is, the accusation really seems hollow...but it makes you think. How many people did you kill? Then you realize you have no idea.

What gives them even less bite is the ability to be completely evil for the first half of the game and then simply change your mind and then take all the good choices.

The consequence for any moral choice in a game is that the rest of the game should be coloured by that very choice, if I establish that my character is a total bastard at the start of the game, doing the "right thing" shouldn't even occur to my character to even be a choice later on.

Which brings me to one of the things that really bothered me about Dragon Age. I would lose "friendship points" for any choice a team mate didn't agree with, I found myself reloading whenever this happened and then bringing along specific people and saying specific things at certain times in order to gain more points with that particular person and that's a broken system. I think that the only "moral choice" should have come during the character creation screen or in the prologue where we set our characters to "Lawful Good", "Chaotic Evil" or whatever and then after that, we just sit back and watch our character interact with the game world according to the parameters we have set.

I wasn't aware Heavy Rain had endings that dynamic.

I've got to replay it sometime.

This is why, when I'm playing an RPG, I try to reload as rarely as possible, generally limiting it only to when I die. Regardless of the choice I make, I try to stick with it whatever the outcome, because it feels more fulfilling to me. Even things which I do by accident, I avoid undoing; to use Dragon Age as an example, I had no specific intention as to which character to romance, so when Morrigan mentioned that she wanted to be "more than friends", even though I hadn't intended for it to happen, I went through with it; the ending became that much sadder as a result, which made my character feel more like a character, as opposed to a group of statistics. Also with choices that had results that I hadn't anticipated, I try not to reload; even if I suffer some major disadvantage from doing it. It adds up to a much more rewarding experience, in my opinion. I don't like to undo the things I've done.

Baresark:
Thinking about this.......

Minecraft doesn't offer any moral choice, but it's nearly impossible to not suffer the consequences of your actions. No matter what, it saves what is going on. You can't quit the game without it saving what you have done up until that point, even if you use task manager to kill it.

In order to undo what you have done, you basically have to start your world from scratch in order to not do what you did.

Games with moral choices could learn from this system.

Well, assuming that you don't know where the save file location is and have a constant habit of making back-up copies which is not a bad thing seeing as it's in beta and can get game-breaking buggy.

On-topic: most games today have things called dilemmas, even if you know the consequences of the actions you are still stuck on choosing which one action is equally good/bad as each other.

Regardless, I for one do not want to play a game where it's too realistic, realism is not the point of computer games as that's the job of the simulator and I suppose we can all agree on one thing; Computer games is for escapism and/or entertainment.

You cannot have one and the other without not having to change the whole purpose of the game/software.

So far in my experience, Dragon Age has done a really good job with the issue of morality. You can choose how you act in any given situation (unlike Mass Effect, where some of the Paragon/Renegade options are limited by how much of a good guy/bad guy you were before). It's still sometimes hard to figure out how your choice will play out, but I felt I got a real reaction from my party members during the big decisions, like sacrificing Connor's mother.

I'm also of the mind that I try to reload the game after I make decisions as little as possible, so that I have to live with my choices. It adds weight and there are times that I've sat and pondered which choice I would make for over 10 minutes, not because I was worried about what I would gain out of it, but what I thought I would lose. The best example of this was Virmire in Mass Effect. I paused the game and tried to decide which squadmate I would leave to die. In the end, I chose Ashley partially because she was guarding the bomb and because she was my love interest. The choice had personal weight for me and I actually felt bad about leaving Kaiden behind to die.

I have yet to finish Dragon Age though, so I might not yet realize just how far my choices will take me. I may update this once I finish.

Hey, your three minute mage link goes to J.C. Denton.

My problem with moral responses are that they arn't always as they appear so as soon as the clear this up the safety net can be removed, Look a mass effect an answer can be "do you ever feel guilt?" and the response is actually "you murdering lunatic you should feel awful about what you did"

A four page story on moral choices in games and not one mention of either Witcher game?

A lot of the choices in The Witcher games can be morally defended from both choices (or all three+). Yeah, you can reload a save to see what the other immediate effect(s) might be, but you could find the important differences hours down the line (from page 3: "Some gamers might find it unfair, but in a way, having the results of your decisions come back to haunt you much later in a game would force players to live with the consequences of their decisions rather than simply reload the game to try another approach."). And how about little things? --like talking to Alvin. I'd guess a lot of people didn't even notice where that came back into play.

In The Witcher 2, I've come across at least a couple side-quests where I had to stand between two parties and pick between believing a claim of innocence or an accusation of guilt.

If you only play them through once, that's your choice to make, but Witcher 1 offers three paths through the ending, choices that you can hear about again in Witcher 2, which CD Projekt RED boasted about for having four starts and sixteen endings. Whether it's a Witcher game, Heavy Rain, or anything else with differing paths, in order to get the best of the experience, you really need to stick with your choices, so you can play again and make different ones and find out what changes.

From page 4: "Many gamers are driven more by utility than context, so if there are multiple endings, they're going to do what they can to see all of them, regardless of whether or not that breaks the context of the story. Without a sense of lasting consequence or finality, a story element is still optional." True enough, especially for completionists, but at the same time, replaying and trying to take a different path also gives your first choices meaning. Seeing differences on a second playthrough shows you the weight of your original choices and allow you to contrast them to your second, and even give you ideas, hopes, or expectations for a third (if applicable).

Great article as usual Steve. I remember you talking about this topic when you were over at IGN on the Command Prompt podcast so its cool to see your thoughts laid out in this article.

Personally I would love to see a game that didn't let you reload any of the decision you make thereby forcing you to live with whatever choices you made, although I doubt many people would be happy with that. Hopefully moral choices will be played out better in future games and your decisions will be less about what stat benefit you get and more about the actual consequences.

Obito:
Personally I would love to see a game that didn't let you reload any of the decision you make thereby forcing you to live with whatever choices you made, although I doubt many people would be happy with that. Hopefully moral choices will be played out better in future games and your decisions will be less about what stat benefit you get and more about the actual consequences.

Might work if developers were to assign a playthrough value to saves and then retroactively edit saves of that playthrough as you progress through the game. It'd be a lot harder when the choice is made in gameplay, but in games where the big choice is made by selecting dialogues or actions, developers could make it so you reload a save and when you get to a choice you'd already made, it pre-selects it for you, essentially making it a seemless part of a conversation or cutscene.

what people said in FB chat: the paragon and renegade at least has effects on shepard. I hate the inexcusable unrealistic systems that have the world as some monolithic entity that only exists to know everything about the player.

Steve Butts:
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 think a good game will need to include both. One that has started to is the Fallout series (at least the last two entries): separating "karma" from "reputation." Karma is based on the morality of a particular action--taking something that doesn't belong to you is stealing, whether it's for noble or ignoble causes. This even applies if someone isn't looking. Reputation is how others view your actions... though not necessarily from a moral standpoint.

It doesn't go far enough in any direction to really be stellar, but it's the start of a decent system. Your karma is similar to your internal or guilt-based morality--though it is a bit more objective, not allowing you to justify a typically immoral action. Stealing to feed your starving children is still stealing, after all (and what about the people you're stealing from, and their children?)

Reputation is a more honest look at external morality (or the shame-based system). If you kill someone I like, I hate you. If you kill someone I hate? You're my best bud! The morality of your actions, as I perceive it, has to do with whether or not you're working in my interests. And the same action can be seen as heroic or villainous by two different groups.

It would be nice if games could reliably predict what would or would not make a player feel "guilty," but that's just too personal a metric, I think. Instead, systems like "karma" rely on a more external, objective morality. "Stealing is bad. Lying is bad. Killing is bad." You know, basic Ten Commandments type stuff. In the end, though, isn't that kind of where we learn guilt? Some external set of rules, whatever the source, and the consequences for breaking them? It's an imperfect solution, sure, but it's at least understandable.

Separating a character's overall morality along these two axes opens up a lot of possibilities. Fallout doesn't really explore them in any meaningful way (karma is basically meaningless in New Vegas, and really only impacts companion options in Fallout 3)... but it's the raw materials I'm recognizing here.

Let's say they expand on this idea. Now, your karma and reputation both matter a bit more. If you're helping a group of people, they'll see you as good. If you're helping them by doing bad things (like theft or genocide) they might still be happy to hire you... but perhaps not really trust you. Maybe only half of that group likes you, while the other thinks you're a loose cannon just looking to turn your guns their way. Find ways to implement complex relationships like this, and you're really in business.

But all of this just sets up the "points system" within a morality engine. It still doesn't make choices particularly meaningful or weighty. That can only come through mature writing.

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

And that's exactly where most writing goes wrong. Assigning consequences to actions is a necessary part of the process... but assigning value to those consequences is not. Let the player decide whether or not it was a good or bad thing that event X happened, or whether side effect Y outweighs the benefit of event X.

Too often, the game pops up some math that tells you, "You were naughty just then," or "This is a really sad/bad thing that just happened." Other games do the same thing via all the other characters unanimously declaring it so, thus telling you what you should be feeling.

I think it's an issue of the writers not stopping long enough to really create weighty consequences, so instead they just have other people or systems tell you that the consequences are weighty, in hopes that you'll just play along. It doesn't require a total overhaul of the game mechanics to make this work, though. The consequences can be entirely based in the characters and the story, rather than in the mechanics of what spells or items you'll have access to.

And let's face it, if you really don't give a rat's ass about the story in a game, you're not going to get too wrapped up in a morality system, either, so it would be foolish to design a morality system around that sort of player.

Shame and guilt is a very good way of putting it I think. If I can think of the most apparent failure of Shame-based morality, then for me it would be accidentally picking up a cup from a table in Oblivion, while trying to talk to the NPC behind the counter, and the next second hearing...

"STOP RIGHT THERE CRIMINAL SCUM!!!" :D

As for no savegame button...you know that was without a doubt one of the things that immediately drew my attention to SWTOR, where in their first press release they mentioned there would be no way to change your choice once you made it, since it's an MMO.

Then I thought to myself: "Yeah, sure, but it's still Star Wars - there'll be obvious light and dark side choices still." and the funny thing is, I recently learned that you'd get the heads-up on that only if you mouseover your choice. But if you don't want to have it spoiled, you can press the number keys and only after the choice is made does light or dark side become apparent...and even moreso, certain people that got hands on with the game in its infant stage also said it won't *always* be that clear cut, if you decide to make your choices without the mouse.

Sorry if this sounds like too much of a fan post again, but - I can't wait to play that sort of RPG without a save button...even if you'll still have light and dark side points (though the actual morality of light and dark side happens to be a whole 'nother can of worms I won't open and I find myself disagreeing on with the established thoughts on it).

But yeah. Shame doesn't work when it is laid onto you by what you can percieve as nothing more than computer-generated pixels. Guilt, on the other hand, that comes from you starting to become genuinely immersed in this fictional world or its characters - that's a lot trickier. For all the troubles DA2 had as a game, I gotta say romancing Anders and then seeing that my support of him contributed to the death of the other character I admired in that game...was one of the most guilt-induced moments I've ever experienced in an RPG up till now.

I finally discovered why I enjoy being a prick in Morrowind so much. Thanks Steve! :D

I'll never forget the time I played Fable 1 and thought "Hey, if you do bad things, you get some badass horns and stuff. Let's go with that" and proceeded to raid a farm with some bandits. Upon my success, I was greeted by the farmer, who seemed to be on the verge of tears, saying "Go on! Haven't you done enough?" I cleaned up my act in a heartbeat.

Now, perhaps my recollection of the event is exaggerated, but even years later, this is still exactly how I remember it. My guilt amplified the impact of this one insignificant NPC's words to the point that I've played the good guy by default in every single game with a good-bad moral dichotomy since for fear of encountering another such farmer.

My friend mocked me for feeling sympathy for a 3D model of a minor character in some game I never even finished.

Kopikatsu:
Kill the Geth or reprogram them to help in the coming war against the Reapers who are willing and able to end all life in the universe. NOPE REPROGRAMMING THEM IS SUPER EVIL!

I thought reprogramming them was the paragon option.

Actually, yeah, I just looked it up on the wiki and that's the paragon option.

I think that the real problem with morality systems in games is that the developers aren't clear on what they're trying to do with the system.

There are two fundamental types of morality choices in games: Ones that we're supposed to struggle with, and ones that are there to give us freedom.

In Mass Effect 2, I can either reprogram the Geth or destroy them. This is supposed to actually make the player stop and think. There is an excellent Extra Credits video about that one.

In Fable, I can either help bandits kill an old, retired guardsman to take his stuff or I can defend him and kill the bandits. This choice exists to provide agency. It exists so that I can do it two different ways in two different games and how it changes things. It exists so that I can just play a bad guy if I want to.

The problem comes in when developers don't understand which on they're doing. Morality meters are detrimental to the former. A moral quandary that is designed to have no clear answer shouldn't be immediately telling you whether you were right or wrong. Mass Effect's renegade/paragon meter is holding the series back by trying to force a story designed around difficult moral choices into a one-dimensional spectrum.

In Knights of the Old Republic, on the other hand, it made sense. The game was about the light side versus the dark side. It was a genuine binary choice- the story was about whether you would be redeemed or whether you would fall back to the dark side. Difficult moral choices weren't the centerpiece of the story, and so being told that you just got 5 dark side points for force choking that orphan wasn't a problem.

This doesn't mean that you can have both kinds of choices in a game, of course, but the developer needs to be cognizant of what they're trying to accomplish with them. Bioshock is a good example of an offender here- what point is the moral choice supposed to serve? Killing the little sisters or not isn't the kind of moral choice that we should need to stop and think about, so it's not the first kind. There's very little effect on the gameplay or the story (one cutscene at the end), so it's not the later kind. So what's the point of it?

Baresark:
Thinking about this.......

Minecraft doesn't offer any moral choice, but it's nearly impossible to not suffer the consequences of your actions. No matter what, it saves what is going on. You can't quit the game without it saving what you have done up until that point, even if you use task manager to kill it.

In order to undo what you have done, you basically have to start your world from scratch in order to not do what you did.

Games with moral choices could learn from this system.

No, you just copy your save file. Which I do religiously, if just to avoid it being corrupted.

Funny thing utility is mentioned. Ever read Jeremy Bentham or John St. Mill? Utilitarianism is as valid a system to judge morality as any other action based system or intention based system. Maybe the majority of gamers use utilitarianism to determine which action is good. They as a sentient being are the only ones who matter and if they are happy with bigger stats than "impact of emotions" so be it. If you are happier with impact of emotions than bigger stats so be it too. This of course takes the morality system out of the game and into the real world. It does not matter what morale the game world does persue. You are not in the game so stop talking about morale and weight as if it mattered. It is a constructed world that has definite rules and a definite morale. Live with it or do not play the game if you are unhappy because that would be moraly bad (according to utilitarianism, you get the idea and now go read a book (on utilitarianism, because utility matters))

Well, if in mass effect I could pull a massive 100,000cr loan from the Galactic Bank (which I'm sure is only like 1/100th the cost of the Normandy(2)), I wouldn't have need to search every container I come across. Unfortunately, loans are boring and realistic, so why would we want that?

My own argument is invalidated in that mining for minerals is also boring and realistic, which they were oh so happy to include.

Gameplay itself is very hard to connect to a morality system because whatever we've decided rules us morally in our life just doesn't apply. Games are terrible about bringing about the immersion required to start applying your morality system because we are all to aware we are getting a programmed response and our actions have a designed outcome.

So I think, really only games like Heavy Rain will ever work, because the entire game is the story and the immersion and we don't get given the power to break it, whereas the gameplay of a game like GTA is directly at odds with whatever morality system they choose to implement.

So I think you're right that it shouldn't be about the rewards. Doing a good action for a better reward is no different from being bad and making the same choice because the reward is better. Only when the reward is having made the choice and seeing where it takes us can the morality have a meaning.

But even then, too often in becomes a problem with the programmer not being flexible. The natural and correct moral response when put in a difficult solution is to find another way, and you just can't make games work like that. All the moral choices in Mass Effect 2 were ruined, by shoe-horning the decisions into a good/bad system and not allowing us to take middle options which would have solved the system better. Instead of making a genuine moral choice we're just answering a survey the developers have given us that doesn't have enough boxes. That itself breaks from the immersion and turns it back into a game

Great article, really gets to the core of the problem with morality systems in games.

I think games employ morality/choice mechanics in order to make the game feel deeper, more complex, and meaningful, but often times they make the game feel even more artificial and absurd because of the extremely unrealistic manner in which they work.
Certainly something I'd like to see more time and thought put in to before it continues to proliferate.

Loving issue 308!

I think there's one game series that's actually missing, but should be mentioned from this list. That series is Ultima.

If you can find Ultima 6, you are asked a series of questions with no wrong answers, but with difficult moral choices. Do you steal coins from a cash delivery job so a family can eat? Do you abandon your guard post to assist your allies in a war?

This is the kind of hardcore consequences for every action, sets the tone for how you are, and actually changes your stats at the START of the game. It's quite impressive, especially given how old the game is. I quite enjoyed it on my parents early generation 2x CD ROM system on their PC.

It's funny that you bring up "Red Dead Redemption."

I recall when I arrived in first city. I went into the bank, I strolled behind the counter, and as soon as I did the 'outlaw' light started flashing and the marshalls shot me dead. I restarted from my last save point. I reasoned that, since I had my gun drawn at the time, the marshalls might have misunderstood me. So I went back to the bank without my pistol drawn, went behind the counter....same thing. The morality system of the game was telling me it's wrong to go behid the counter...but I didn't do anything wrong, and, as a matter of fact, those marshalls were shooting me dead without even questioning me. I learned in the end not to ever go behind the counter, but it wasn't my morality that was askew.

I'd just like to point out that the "3-minute-mages" link leads not to...well 3-minute-mages, but to the wikipedia site on JC Denton. The one that is supposed to lead to JC denton is correct though...ugh i'll try to be clearer, becuase i have no idea what i just said.

Page 1

Steve Butts:

All the talk about Damage Per Second, Heal over Time, or 3-Minute Mages proves that the mathematical foundation of the game, which is supposed to serve the larger experience, has for many players actually become the experience.

It is supposed to lead to http://www.wowwiki.com/Three-minute_mage
(or something similar that explains 3-minute-mages)

But it leads to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JC_Denton

The same link that this leads to:

Steve Butts:

Deus Ex's stealth options were a better reflection of the values I wanted to express through J.C. Denton, but the shooting options were more in line with what I wanted to play.

-V

Jachwe:
Funny thing utility is mentioned. Ever read Jeremy Bentham or John St. Mill? Utilitarianism is as valid a system to judge morality as any other action based system or intention based system. Maybe the majority of gamers use utilitarianism to determine which action is good. They as a sentient being are the only ones who matter and if they are happy with bigger stats than "impact of emotions" so be it. If you are happier with impact of emotions than bigger stats so be it too. This of course takes the morality system out of the game and into the real world. It does not matter what morale the game world does persue. You are not in the game so stop talking about morale and weight as if it mattered. It is a constructed world that has definite rules and a definite morale. Live with it or do not play the game if you are unhappy because that would be moraly bad (according to utilitarianism, you get the idea and now go read a book (on utilitarianism, because utility matters))

When Bentham and Mill speak of "utility" they meant a largely abstract and subjective sense of "happiness" or "satisfaction." So Utilitarianism is meant to lead us to actions which are likely to cause the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. Which would you prefer: You and nine other people get ten dollars each? Or you get a hundred dollars and nine other people get nothing?

If you want to argue that NPCs aren't people according to this reading, we have to part ways. Part of the illusion of playing games is pretending that what we're doing matters. Once you step away from that, no consideration of morality of virtue will ever be relevant.

Utility in the sense I'm using it, simply means "usefulness" or "practicality." An earlier draft of this article explored the concept that the mechanics-driven decisions of certain World of Warcraft players does constitute a kind of morality, but that morality is NOT Utilitarianism.

Because of this, I definitely like games that take care of saves for me. There's no quick save, no option of reloading just before some big choice happens. Of course this only offers a fun experience if there's enough checkpoints that you're not going to lose major progress by dying. I think Metro 2033 is a good example of it, and LA Noire seems to be pretty good with it as well although unfortunately the major plot point that revolves around some sort of morality (mind you I'm on the 2nd arson case so not finished yet) is completely out of the player's hand and in fact has very little development.

I remember reading, a long time ago, someone talking about creating a game with a heavy focus on grey morality. That someone mentioned the letdown when he discussed the idea with game designers and was told that most players wouldn't really care for the weight of the choice and would just 'game' it, that is, take whichever choice gave one the most rewards (or if each gave equivalent but different rewards the one which fit their playstyle the most) or ignore its significance entirely if there were no rewards.

But I remember more a quest that did the morality system perfectly. It had two factions, neither of which were in the right, a lot of evil ways to complete it, and a single 'good' way that ended up backfiring. It was subtle and realistic and had weight.

Everyone fucking hates it.

I'm talking about the Tenpenny Tower quest in Fallout 3, of course. I unfortunately was spoilt of this quest beforehand, but feel that it's one of the few quests that actually puts the game's morality system to work. It does have a 'good' ending, yes - as in one that nets you good karma - but it doesn't have a really good ending. Because, you know, sometimes our actions have unforeseen consequences. Sometimes trying to do good ends up doing evil. Sometimes we trust people who betray our trust - and not even out of malice, simply of a completely different view of what that trust entails. It happens.

And, as I said, everyone fucking hates it. Everyone hates that they didn't see it coming (even though Roy Philips might as well be wearing a 'psycho of the year' tee). Everyone hates that they kill Dashwood as well (even though if he was spared that would cut the emotional impact of the whole thing to a tenth and he wouldn't sit idly or merely escape as it happened anyway). Everyone hates that the 'good' solution of the quest doesn't turn the world into rainbows and unicorns.

Sometimes that makes me thing gamers don't deserve mature games after all. What would they do with them?

But then again, even though everyone hates it, everyone also feels something about it. Even people who admit they see the game as the mesh of numbers and odds the article also mentioned will talk about how pissed off they were at that. That feeling? That is what a good work (a book, a movie, a song, a game) is supposed to make you feel. The burning means it's working. We need more of that.

Even if everyone will hate it.

The problem as I see it is that I doubt video game morality systems can ever be anything but consequentialist, yet attempt to force an illusion of deontological ethics and objective morality onto the player. When a player sits down with a game that has multiple morality "paths", they've made a decision prior to playing about how they're going to play and all else is pursuant to that final cause. Moral choices in the game are not made in and for themselves, which is what the game would have the player believe, but for what consequences it will have.

This problem is compounded when game designers craft labels, which add a sense of objectivity to the game world being crafted. If a Shepard is paragon or renegade in Mass Effect, they are such because the designers have deemed a particular course of actions such. When incentives, alternate character growth methods, or plot paths for adhering to a particular moral path, and make deviating from that or playing in alternate ways detrimental (as, again, is the case in ME1/2), designers encourage or outright force players to adhere to the morality they've enforced upon the game.

That, by the way, is the reason KoTOR2 is one of my favorite games of all times when it comes to morality systems. Chris Avellone deconstructed the hell out of Star Wars' innate morality system, illustrating the would-be deontology of the Jedi is far more nefarious than advertised while showing the Sith to be far more deontological than expected, and I loved every second of it. Add in the fact Kreia is a notoriously unreliable narrator, known pathological liar and manipulator, yet pushes the character to elect morally-grey choices which forsake morality-based incentives, and you end up with a fourth-wall shattering deathblow to the light side/dark side mechanic.

The only solution as I see it is to chuck the whole idea out as holding game morality back. Throw out the illusion of deontology, get rid of incentives tying the player to a designer-enforced path, and let the player make up their minds for themselves whether their character is doing the "right" or the "wrong" thing, and whether their characters are good or evil. Dragon Age and New Vegas did a pretty good job of that while maintaining some vestiges, and they were dramatically better off for it. Let's get some postmodernism up in this bizzatch.

People hated it? I thought it was freaking hilarious.

Another example from Fallout 3 being those people trapped in those stasis tubes by the psycho girl...

I got the feeling that maybe ethics end up feeling inconsequential because we get too much freedom.

If a game dictates that we are the good guy or the bad guy, and the player then needs to play that role to the best of his abilities, maybe the smaller choices would matter more. Then to mix it up the game could face us with a variety of grey area options. I think in this way the game could combine utility and simulated morality better than trying to give us ultimate freedom.

Lets use the Star Wars setting for this example. In a game that puts the player in the role of playing a Jedi Knight, turning to the dark side would mean losing the game pure and simple. This wouldn't be much fun if we only were faced with goody goody options, or if the choices we face are black and white. But if we sometimes only have various degrees of shady options ethics might end up having more bite.

Imagine this situation:
Our saintly Jedi Knight is stranded on some remote planet. In order to save the world and kick some evil arse he needs to get off the planet.
Choices:
1. Steal a spaceship from an old lady.
2. Work with a known smuggler to get passage on his ship.
3. Rob some locals to get enough money for a ticket.
4. Do goodly deeds forever and let the bad guys take over the galaxy.

Now all of a sudden, ethics starts to bite bit a more. Being the good guy suddenly isn't the easy way out anymore.

I think this could easily work. One important question comes to my mind though. Is it fun? Do we really want that degree of ethics in a game? Or is ethics better of being simply another metric of success, another mechanic to be played at will?

Steve Butts:

When Bentham and Mill speak of "utility" they meant a largely abstract and subjective sense of "happiness" or "satisfaction." So Utilitarianism is meant to lead us to actions which are likely to cause the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. Which would you prefer: You and nine other people get ten dollars each? Or you get a hundred dollars and nine other people get nothing?

If you want to argue that NPCs aren't people according to this reading, we have to part ways. Part of the illusion of playing games is pretending that what we're doing matters. Once you step away from that, no consideration of morality of virtue will ever be relevant.

Utility in the sense I'm using it, simply means "usefulness" or "practicality." An earlier draft of this article explored the concept that the mechanics-driven decisions of certain World of Warcraft players does constitute a kind of morality, but that morality is NOT Utilitarianism.

I see the error in my comment. That is I have put the word utility at the beginning and at the end without realising it. At the beginning I use it as you used it because the word was a nice label to an entrance point. At the end I used utility as in the concept of utilitarianism.
Well I think we have to part ways. If you think that morality does not matter even if you take a step back from the game your sense of morality is broken. Morality always matters. I have just showed how easy it is to have morality, real world morality, matter in a game. By evaluating how much fun the method of playing is for you, how much happiness and fulfilment it grants you and than according to your decision to persue the chosen method. I acknowledge differences in the quality of enjoyment that different people take from the same action.
You use the word "illusion" which is nice. You want to immerse yourself in a fake world and escape reality. Escaping for a limited amount of time from the rest of the world is fine. That is what alcohol is so popular for and yes also videogames. But to lose yourself in a constructed fake world to project yourself into the avatar of the game which is not you is a dangerous game you are playing. You always, always have to be aware of yourself, your real self, not a pretend self in form of a videogame character or some lelel 13 elven mage in a role playing game.
So no I will not step whole into the game world but always be aware that I am playing a game as I am always aware that I am watching a movie or reading a book. I am able to extract something out of it but taking part in it is just an illusion that videogames do better than other mass media. That is why videogames are so dangerous to young children who have yet to learn to differ between reality and fantasy. But this problem is not exclusive to viedogames.
But the good utilitarian I am I am obligated to allow you to fool yourself if it makes you happy.

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