308: Ethics Without a Net

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Eacaraxe:
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.

Heh...I remember the first time I played KOTOR 2. There I was trying to be your generic goody-two-shoes Jedi Knight, stalwart-hero-of-the-land etc. Then BAM! Kreia blows my fucking mind by showing that my actions inevitably hurt more people than they help. Still one of the most profound moments I've ever witnessed in gaming.

Come onnnn Black and White 3!
Let me build an amazing world and then burn it to the ground in full HD!

Jachwe:
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.

I'm confused. Or maybe you're confused. I can't tell. You say in your first post that morality in games does not matter, then in your second post to say that it always matters.

Whatever the case, you're missing the purpose of immersing your identity in a videogame character. You say I'm fooling myself but isn't that the whole point? Art is meant to broaden your perspective, but you can't do that unless you're willing to invest some of yourself in another point of view. Yes, a healthy mind understands that the sublimation of your self into another character is an illusion, but the fun of it is in taking the illusion seriously while it lasts.

One of my favorite games ever is Way of the Samurai.

It had lots of avenues but was short enough that I didn't feel intimidated by my choices. Everything you did had consequence but because one play through could be finished in a few hours at most, I wasn't afraid to just do what I wanted.

My problem with games like say, Fallout, is that the freedom of choice and myriad of moral choices is just too overwhelming for a 40+ hour game. If I want to see the long-term consequences of what I do, I'll have to wait A LONG time. Even if I had nothing but free time its still a lot to ask of a curious player.

It wasn't a major point of the game. The overall consequences of taking the action or not don't change at all, beyond an easily aquirable and expendable healing item. But dangit, I still remember the old man calling me out in Chrono Trigger's Trial for eating his lunch.

I always play my RPG's 'properly' on my first run through. Sure I'll mop up ahcievements or run through specific routes in replays of the game, but first off I always stick with what I've done. Makes it far more challenging / fun.

Behold. You've just come across Gameplay and Story Segregation

Some things are acceptable for mechanics in the game to work properly. If we didn't loot dead bodies, we could never afford the next upgrade.

That kind of thing.

Really awesome article. I wish more games, with today's market and technology, would focus more on consequences and morality. I honestly believe that this adds ten times the depth to a game and the ability of the players to connect with the situation in question. I have a friend that chose to play as a renegade in Mass Effect, not because he thought it would be funny to be a jerk or whatever, but because his hurtful decisions honestly made him feel bad for the pain he was causing the other characters. Truth be told, I haven't personally had the opportunity to play many of the games out that are good examples of this, but I'm just glad that there are games out there that have some serious thought in how they make their players feel.

As mentioned, it is very difficult for a game to judge a player's intent, and without intent, how can you judge morality? My current playthough of New Vegas is with a character in it for the caps, yet because a majority of the quests are to help people, he's become "Very Good". His main way to solve problems it to punch things to death. He is a BAD MAN.

Using the morality system in conjunction with a reward system is often flawed. It, as mentioned in the article, adds to the stats recognition of a game, breaking the immersion. Bioshock is one example, Army of Two 2 is another, where the game punishes you for not being consistant. Mass Effect 2 punishes you by locking out dialogue options if you're not paragon on renegade - you don't build both bars if you pick ethically-neutral options, you build niether. But imagine the amount of writing required if a game were to try and emulate a morallity system more accurately.

Honestly I don't care. It's just a game, and if I want to reload because I cocked up, then so be it. Besides I'm saving every five minutes in New Vegas as it is...

It's funny you should mentioning staying in character, and Heavy Rain... cause there are actions that I felt were the right thing to do... but if I had know more about the character, I would have stayed in-character and done this differently. It was one of the reasons I ultimately don't praise the game's story.

Reloading is the primary reason I used to never finish games. I spent so much time trying the different outcomes that I finally got bored of the experience as a whole. It was meaningless and bland.

I had never played Mass Effect, so when I finally did, I made a conscientious choice to live with any choice I made, good or bad and play the game exactly ONE time through and never look at the roads not taken. Holy shit I had so much fun.

I've tried to apply that method to other games with varying degrees of success and entertainment. Overall I recommend it to everyone - especially those of us who sometimes have a hard time breaking our OCD.

On a side note, in Dragon Age: Origins,

I remember one of the few times I felt guilty in a game was during Fallout: New Vegas. It was the part where the player is on their way to the town that was attacked by Caesars Legion. When you approached the town you see a man running towards you. He runs up to you all happy saying he one the lottery. Now based on my concept of the lottery I thought to myself that this would be a great chance to get some caps at least. So I make the guy explode with my shotgun, and still his lottery ticket. I head into town thinking I just found the way to pay for my repairs. I walk into the post office where the waypoint is pointing me and talk to this gang member in a chair. Then he informs me that the Legion just attacked the town and the lottery was used to see what punishment the citizens would get, and the winner would be allowed to live. With the winner now living large, and by that I mean a large area with his parts now spread across a quarter mile outside of town, I could not help, but feel guilty about my actions.

Steve Butts:
My Commander Shepard might be a high-minded idealist, but he's not above riffling through the pockets of dead people for a few extra credits. After all, I'm trying to save the world here and, let's face it, it owes me.

I honestly would have used the "I'm using this to help save the world" excuse, rather than the "the world owes me for what I'm doing" excuse.

I think I agree about the shame, rather than guilt, based systems in games. I think a lot of people think things have to be obvious or taken at face value, which misses the subtlely and often the point entirely.

I also agree games really have trouble making morality and the situation in-game feel real to people, so often I see characters and I either just don't care about their situation because I'm more interested in what I'm trying to do or I feel too much like someone is trying to manipulate me and I close myself off.

Peter Molyneux is pretty much the posterchild for the game developer that wants to incorporate moral choice into games but never succeeds. Don't get me wrong, I like a lot of his games, but I always seem to see that he is trying to get something across but it never goes through well. A lot of the things in his moral choice systems are what people complain about, standard black and white; good and evil, to the point that it's dull and there's no real motivation besides practicality, which isn't a moral issue.

I actually wish people would simply include moral choices less, it's hard to do correctly, as has been shown by the many many games that have attempted and ended up with a samey uncreative system that no one is interested in. Kudos to people who take time and effort to make a deep moral choice system with real consequences, but it's like how I feel about many things; if you aren't going to take the time and thought to do it correctly, don't do it.

Eacaraxe:
On a side note, in Dragon Age: Origins,

Haha, quite true, perhaps a case of getting tired of dialogue or wanting to get to the combat? I don't really blame him if so, but they do make it pretty clear what will happen.

This entire article is with the proviso that someone would want to be a good character, but are lead astray by rewards, which is simply not true for me. I always play an asshole because I am, and like being, an asshole.

aww...
Fallout 3 can also be used as a good example but too bad it was never mentioned.

There was a certain quest there that turned out to be not what I expected.
The quest wherein you were given the choice to either 1. kill a bunch of ghouls that are trying to get inside Tenpenny tower and get rewarded for it OR 2.help those ghouls get in Tenpenny Tower.

So I had decided that I would become a saint and toss prejudice aside, and help those ghouls get in Tenpenny Tower. After traveling a short distance to where they said those ghouls came from I found myself inside a subway lair. I later I found out that they were planning to get in the tower through force with the use of their feral brethren. Their leader asked me if I can help them open the locked door in the tower's basement that was connected to the subway system which contains a group of feral ghouls. "No" I said and so told them that I'll use a more diplomatic approach and convince the Tenpenny residents to accept them. They agreed and I ran my ass back to the tower.

In Tenpenny Tower I headed to the owner of the place, Allistiar Tenpenny, and asked if they can let those ghouls live in his estate. A few minutes later, he agreed at my proposal that if I can persuade the other residents to accept the ghouls living along side them then I'll be able to help those ghouls live there.

Several blackmails and threats later. I have convinced most of the residents to accept them and kicked out those latter who wouldn't agree. So I went to talk the leader of the ghouls and told them that they can finally live in the tower. He thanked and rewarded me. I was proud of myself and so I went to do some adventuring after that.

A few days later...I decided to go back to the tower and check back on things. When I passed through the gate, I noticed that there was something wrong. The guards where nowhere to be found so I ran inside and find out what happened. At my surprise there was no "normal" residents...all have been replaced with ghouls so I asked around to the whereabouts of the original residents. Eventually I found out that their leader disposed of them and dumped them in the basement. After learning to what happened to their fate I ran down the basement and saw a pile of bodies stripped to their underwear. Angrily, I confronted the ghoul leader and asked about what happened. He said that there was "disagreement" between them and he had to dispose of them. That pissed me and so I decided to exterminate all of them starting with that asshole.

That whole endeavor left a bad taste in my mouth. I mean...WHO KNEW?!?!?

(& sorry for the long post)

bushwhacker2k:
I also agree games really have trouble making morality and the situation in-game feel real to people, so often I see characters and I either just don't care about their situation because I'm more interested in what I'm trying to do or I feel too much like someone is trying to manipulate me and I close myself off.

Peter Molyneux is pretty much the posterchild for the game developer that wants to incorporate moral choice into games but never succeeds. Don't get me wrong, I like a lot of his games, but I always seem to see that he is trying to get something across but it never goes through well. A lot of the things in his moral choice systems are what people complain about, standard black and white; good and evil, to the point that it's dull and there's no real motivation besides practicality, which isn't a moral issue.

Part of the problem in my opinion is that no matter how immersive a game may be, the fourth wall will always exist and the game itself extrinsically final -- it exists for a cause outside itself, that being to entertain the gamer. That immediately causes a contradiction with any internal logic or ethical system the game's designers may put into place. Any in-universe action, as long as it furthers the final cause of the game whether that be mere entertainment or to see the game's ending, must be morally permissible on the player's side of the fourth wall regardless how the designers portray in-game morality. That really doesn't mesh well with games that have defined morality systems -- Fable 2 for example,

Yet, because the PC is the manifestation of the player and thus the protagonist, their actions no matter how deplorable in-character are justifiable by merit of the game's final cause. Whether that's an outright contradiction of the game's central themes, or brilliant deconstruction of those themes on Molyneux's part, is up for debate, but personally I'm in the former camp.

Either way, in games which espouse traditional good vs. evil morality, the end result with the good/evil dichotomy is an "evil" character typically ends up being established as an antihero against a villain whose deeds or plan by design must be worse than anything an "evil" player can do...and very rare is the game that allows the player to become the villain as befits a genuinely evil character in anything but the game's epilogue. Now that I think of it, a game with a traditional good vs. evil dichotomy, in which after a certain moral horizon is achieved, the protagonist becomes the villain and the antagonist becomes the hero by merit of this relativity would be extremely interesting, but that's tangential...

Anyhow, that's part of why I said earlier that game designers just need to lay off the in-universe morality systems, or at the very least remove incentives for it that render the system less a conflict or quandry than a calculation. Another poster mentioned that game designers cannot interpret intent, which just further undermines the prospect of a deontological system of game morality. Let the player -- who already is the final arbiter of morality thanks to the game's extrinsic finality -- decide for themselves what actions in-universe are justifiable.

The Random One:
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... snip.

Everyone hates that the 'good' solution of the quest doesn't turn the world into rainbows and unicorns.

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

More Snip

Even if everyone will hate it.

This is a fundamental problem with gaming in general, the players themselves. It's why we don't see as much innovation as we'd claim we want. Because when we do get an innovation, (for example, motion controls), too many gamers reject it for various and often illegitimate reasons.

In other words, if an innovation is not perfect gamers will often demand it's death even if it has potential and just needs to be worked on more.

We as gamers also need to get away from the spreadsheet mentality. We need to remember that the reward is playing the game, and any shiny in-game gear/items we get are simply bonuses that we can do without.

To sight Bioshock as an example. No matter what I told myself I can never, NEVER, harvest the little sisters. I've done two play through and both times I saved them because I could not kill them for my own gain. The first time I played the game I saved them even though I believe it would net me less Adam, however, the teddy bear packages proved me wrong. But even if those teddy bear packages weren't in the game I still wouldn't have harvested the little sisters.

It's just the way I am. I care more about the gameplay experience then the in-game bonuses, and in my opinion more should do the same.

This reminds me of a couple flash games I heard about recently, though I didn't play them myself. One involves the end of the world, you play this scientist who's working on a solution to the problem which will wipe out humanity in a week. You play through, allocate time to either researching or spending time with your family, and what you do determines if you live, everyone lives, and such.

That catch is, short of some manual file deleting, you can only play it one time. You can't "lose", in the usual "you don't get to see the ending" sense, but you only get to have one personal outcome.

Steve Butts:

Jachwe:
-snip-

I'm confused. Or maybe you're confused. I can't tell. You say in your first post that morality in games does not matter, then in your second post to say that it always matters.

Whatever the case, you're missing the purpose of immersing your identity in a videogame character. You say I'm fooling myself but isn't that the whole point? Art is meant to broaden your perspective, but you can't do that unless you're willing to invest some of yourself in another point of view. Yes, a healthy mind understands that the sublimation of your self into another character is an illusion, but the fun of it is in taking the illusion seriously while it lasts.

I am the one confusing you. It has been a while since I last checked this corner so excuse the late response.
In my first response I was saying

Jachwe:

Maybe the majority of gamers use utilitarianism to determine which action is good. [...] 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.

The second time I said

Jachwe:

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

Well I see your problem but my staements have enough context around them still I will add a few words here and there for clarification.

Jachwe:

Maybe the majority of gamers use utilitarianism to determine which action is good. [...] This of course takes the morality system out of the game and into the real world. It does not matter what [in game world] morale the game world does persue. You are not in the game so stop talking about [in real world] morale and weight as if it mattered [in the game world].

Jachwe:

If you think that [real world] morality does not matter even if you take a step back from the game [so you are not in the game world but in the real world,; you are not fully immersed] your sense of morality is broken. [Reall world] Morality always matters [in the real world]. I have just showed how easy it is to have morality, real world morality, matter in a game [which has its own morality in the game world]. By evaluating how much fun the method of playing is for you

Now you might be confused when I say real world morality does matter in a game but not in the game world.
That is because unlike you I differ these two. For your point of view of immersing in the game there is no difference between these two. But my stepping into the game allows me to be in the game and yet see the game world from without thus allowing me the necessary distance between real world morality and game world morality so I can have fun shooting someone´s head of, lit him on fire, piss on him and play with his decapitated head soccer without feeling like a horrible person. How do you justify killing in videogames? Or do you not play these games because you cannot justify your actions?

Captain_M:
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.

And this really gets into what is the definition of morality. In the above game, you were in fact doing something wrong. You were performing an action that got you killed. And continued play requires not being killed. So yes, your morality is exactly "askew" of the what is good and bad within the confines of this imaginary world.

What constitutes good and bad within that world is something to be explored and discovered. The fuzzier less well defined terms Right and Wrong are just blurry generalizations for Good and Bad. For instance, stealing loot from every house you come to is often supported as a good but often low profit thing. Rarely is it a bad thing, with bothersome consequences.

These are the underlying morals of the game, not the player. The player discovers the morals of the game. And this is why I much prefer a game that lets you revisit and change your choices, as you explore what is considered good/right and bad/wrong within the world.

As for experiencing fear/shame/guilt, imagine having died from going behind that counter several times until you know that you shouldn't, that it is bad to do so. But then one day you do it anyway. You experience excitement and fear during the act, and then you die. And then you feel ashamed and foolish, because you knew better.

I've wondered if it wouldn't be better to have a more immediate reward for neutral play than the good and evil extremes, like many do.

For example, playing through a game and picking the best goody-two-shoes options also require a sacrifice of your character that either weakens them, or slows progress. Picking the evil bastard option causes something else to happen that hinders you. This could also allow for a different reward or option later in the game, like a situation where somebody that you helped earlier in the game at great personal cost comes back and saves your butt, or on the evil side since your character is not above any act no matter how depraved has an option to solve a problem with a particularly nasty way to handle a problem. (stopping some death machine by clogging the intake or exhaust ports with a dozen or so orphans)

To truly *play* a game, you need to *know* the game.
Just because you play with the numbers it doesn't necessarily mean you gloss over the presentation.

Well, I know that World of Warcraft I suffered from from what TV tropes refers to as Dark Induced Apathy. Witch is where each side is just as douchie as the other, most people at that point just choose who they think looks the coolest but some, like myself just loose interest. It happened with Warhammer 40K as well. I'm not sure if this has anything to do with the emphasis on stats rather than story but it may be a factor.

...what was so morally ambiguous in Bioshock? A lot of games try to be "ambiguous" but fail due to the general poor writing that is rife within the games industry.

Heavy Rain is a good example of a game where what you do matters. I really appreciate it for that.

Wuvlycuddles:
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.

Well, while this would be a whole sub-plot unto itself, I do enjoy the concept of redemption, and if you were a jerk in the beginning of the game and you try to do the right thing later, you should be given mistrustful glances and rejection from the good guys and bewilderment and knifes in the back from the bad guys.

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