91: Paladins Can Loot?

"Some CRPGs, notably The Elder Scrolls series, eschew player alignment systems almost entirely in the name of player freedom. However, player alignment system or no, CRPGs can't avoid answering the classic question of moral absolutism vs. moral relativism. If Good and Evil exist in the game world, it's because they have been codified during the development process; the system's discrete nature is inherently limiting.
"That said, it's entirely possible for a game implementing a player alignment model to take a nuanced approach to ethical questions - just ask Black Isle Studios."
Raja Doake examines the roots of our classic preoccupation with good versus evil.

Paladins Can Loot?

How much longer will it take for game designers to realize that there is no such thing as absolute good or evil, there's only actions and consequences? "Good" and "evil" are labels people assign certain deeds to reflect their personal attitude towards it. And this is where the trouble starts - if most of us can agree on basic things like killing/saving life being good or evil (and even then - what if you save a life of someone who was going to kill someone else? Is that good or evil? Or even lawful/chaotic?), the more "gray" you go, the more subjective and personal the labels become. What is seen as "evil" by the designers might be seen as "good" or at least "neutral" by the gamer. Even further - what might be seen as "evil" by both designer and player, might be seen as "good" by the game characters given a certain context (say, killing a guy who beats his wife).

IMO what game designers should focus on is choise-consequence, action-reaction model, abstracting from subjective and uncertain labels like "good", "evil", "lawful", "chaotic", etc.

I completely agree shadowbird.

shadowbird:
IMO what game designers should focus on is choise-consequence, action-reaction model, abstracting from subjective and uncertain labels like "good", "evil", "lawful", "chaotic", etc.

I agree as well. I'd like to see a faction-based model, possibly with variable granularity starting at the level of individual NPCs and moving up to groups from there. Something like KotOR II's Influence or Oblivion's Disposition (but without the game-breaking speechcraft minigame). In this kind of framework, the player's Goodness or Evilness are not absolute, but are rather determined by the player's affinity for the ethics of the various NPCs. The catch is that this requires complex, well-written NPCs throughout the game, without the crutch of absolute alignment to make characterization easier.

Full disclosure: I wrote the article. :)

I wouldn't say that the point would be to banish the absolute models of morality (I'm sure I'm not the only one who'd be annoyed if moral relativism became the standard by fiat), but rather to make sure that the consequence model of the narrative proceeds naturally from and consistently with the ethical model chosen by the developer. If that means you get a score out of 100 based on how few verses of Deuteronomy you violate, then so be it - if it's appropriate for the game.

I disagree. There are no absolute models of morality. As I said, "good/bad, [in]appropriate, [un]polite" - these are just labels of attitude. If you meant "majority opinion" or "religios commandments" then so be it, but don't call it absolute. :) Moral relativism is and always has been the only "fiat" - "don't do unto others that you would not have done unto you". The only reason the majority of the world has any kind of moral rules is because they enforce that idea. And that idea is as morally relative as it gets.

Part of the reason for the lack of nuance in crpgs is that it's just darned hard to model well. An "evil" character may perform any number of "good" deeds for underhanded reasons: there are many situations in which an evil character could prefer not to face the consequences of being reviled, situations where good deeds might open upon more lucrative opportunities to exploit etc. How do score that then? If you assign good/evil points then you pretty much have to call that good because you cannot second guess how the player will behave in the future. Similarly, if a character begins as a psychopathic killing machine, mowing down everyone in his path, then moves on to a new town, and proceeds to beat up innocent people (without killing) and verbally bullies them, this can be seen as a shift towards goodness, but I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for a game to pick up on that.

If you start labeling individual events as good or bad, irregardless of their motive you fail, and it becomes the job of the game creators to create situations where the player motive can be inferred. But this leads me down a path where I wonder do we ever truly understand evil people's motivation? Which leads into a do humans have the capacity to judge good and evil argument, one which I've started a few times and generally end up stepping on peoples toes (or at least beliefs) with.

Consider the following, are they good, evil, or undefinable in that we can't say.

Killing. Rape. Stereotyping. Stealing. Lying. Doing Drugs. Swearing.

I am perfectly comfortable with naming any of these as legal or illegal, but good or evil? No, that's a stretch of ego that I'm uncomfortable generalizing. Individual cases of any of those could be evil, could be good, could be gray in between most likely. In general, we all agree on certain rules and we agree to punish people for breaking them, but we tend to confuse that with good and evil, and the closest we get with out games is a mock up of legal/illegal and this is why they lack the depth that real circumstances get.

I suggest that no action, repeat, NO ACTION is inherently good or evil. Our perceptions are the only thing that can make one so. Understandably, we all have differing ideas of what's OK. Makes it very difficult for a programmer or a writer to allow for the situations. Character development is the only real answer I see to this, and by doing so you limit what types of character your player can be.

Shadowbird: I understand a person arguing that morality is relative. The existence of moral relativism is widely documented and, in our civilization, quite popular. It's your prerogative to claim that moral absolutism is false. What I don't understand is your claim that the concept of moral absolutism doesn't exist.

The existence of moral absolutism is also widely documented. The Abramic religions are a convenient example. Huge portions of the Old Testament consist entirely of variously specific enumerations of Things That Are Evil. Worshipping idols is evil. Making burnt offerings is good. Breaking the sabbath is evil. Loving Thy Neighbor is good. Doing what God says to is good and doing what God says not to is evil. I don't think anyone here is likely to deny that there have been people who use similar concepts as their moral compass. If that's not moral absolutism, I don't know what is.

The moral relativist here might say that "This is just one kind of moral absolutism, what about the ones who say that idolatry is awesome and the sabbath is for suckers?" but he would be missing the point. The moral absolutist does not say "My God proclaims this to be evil, and your God proclaims it good." He says "This is evil; your God is wrong to proclaim it good."

The fundamental difference between moral relativism and moral absolutism is this: under absolutist morality, the good and evil are facts existing independently of belief, and any moral judgment of others is made according to these facts; under relativist morality, good and evil are beliefs held at a less fundamental level than truth, and moral judgment of others is either based on the other's beliefs or not made at all. What specifically is believed, the results of these judgments (i.e. punish, forgive, ignore, banish, chastize, reward, etc.), are details specific to individual moral models which can be categorized as either absolutist or relativist.

Moral absolutism, typically, emerges from homogeneous cultures where change and the prospect of change are both very minimal, and neighboring cultures are either very similar or very hostile. In such circumstances, societal stability comes mainly from not rocking the boat; an unambiguous moral model forms the best basis for the ethical and legal framework of that civilization. The rules are finely tuned for the situation in which they arose, and deviance from them is suboptimal.

Moral relativism, on the other hand, emerges from diverse cultures in dynamic times, where there are many exotic neighboring cultures, most of whom are trading partners. The modern West is an excellent example. In these circumstances, stability and solidarity comes from coexistence and acceptance, since the boat is already being rocked; a moral model which allows other moral models to coexist underneath it will produce a legal and ethical framework that keeps that civilization running smoothly and profitably. There are lots of people who'd prefer to carry around their own cultures than learn a new one, and it's far preferable if everyone agrees to let everyone just do their own thing. People who form their own moral models in such an environment will base it on the environment's highest prerogative: don't pick a favorite.

It's basically the difference between Right And Wrong and Live And Let Live. Adhering to one of these philosophies does not grant one the ability to proclaim that one is merely a creative interpretation of the other.

I suppose I should tie this back into my main point.

People exist who adhere to absolutist moral models. For this reason, it is entirely valid to make a game with an absolutist moral model. Simply design the game world's moral model after that of a moral absolutist, rather than a moral relativist. Done well, that could be a quite meritorious exploration of morality.

A game of this type is a type of simulation. A simulation is a system which assumes that certain models are accurate. Since moral absolutism is a moral model, there's no reason to suggest that a game can't be made from a morally absolutist perspective. That's what I meant.

Bongo Bill:
People exist who adhere to absolutist moral models. For this reason, it is entirely valid to make a game with an absolutist moral model. Simply design the game world's moral model after that of a moral absolutist, rather than a moral relativist. Done well, that could be a quite meritorious exploration of morality.

All of the player alignment models that I'm familiar with -- basically, the ones I mentioned in the article -- are absolute models. At the moment, all of the CRPGs I'm familiar with either implement a player alignment model that defines right and wrong absolutely (Karma, Light Side/Dark Side, Open Palm/Closed Fist, Gygax) or don't implement one at all (The Elder Scrolls). Further, most of the ones that do implement a model define right and wrong largely the same way.

It isn't that it's invalid to make a game with a morally absolutist player alignment model, it's that there are plenty of those already. Moving away from the legacy of the Gygax model would force CRPG developers out of their comfort zone and, hopefully, pave the way for more interesting games.

Ajar:

Bongo Bill:
People exist who adhere to absolutist moral models. For this reason, it is entirely valid to make a game with an absolutist moral model. Simply design the game world's moral model after that of a moral absolutist, rather than a moral relativist. Done well, that could be a quite meritorious exploration of morality.

All of the player alignment models that I'm familiar with -- basically, the ones I mentioned in the article -- are absolute models. At the moment, all of the CRPGs I'm familiar with either implement a player alignment model that defines right and wrong absolutely (Karma, Light Side/Dark Side, Open Palm/Closed Fist, Gygax) or don't implement one at all (The Elder Scrolls). Further, most of the ones that do implement a model define right and wrong largely the same way.

It isn't that it's invalid to make a game with a morally absolutist player alignment model, it's that there are plenty of those already. Moving away from the legacy of the Gygax model would force CRPG developers out of their comfort zone and, hopefully, pave the way for more interesting games.

Now that's an argument that doesn't suck. Absolutely!

Bongo Bill: That was my entire point. I have no problem with the concept of absolute morality, I have problem with that concept being in every single game that I've ever seen (the morality-enabled ones, of course). As far as we know, in our real world, moral absolutism doesn't exist (some people believe it does, like your example of religion, but it's just their belief, which makes it relative as long as there's a single person believing otherwise), yet every game that has some sort of alignment insists on using moral absolutism, including those that are supposed to depict our real world.

shadowbird:
Bongo Bill: That was my entire point. I have no problem with the concept of absolute morality, I have problem with that concept being in every single game that I've ever seen (the morality-enabled ones, of course). As far as we know, in our real world, moral absolutism doesn't exist (some people believe it does, like your example of religion, but it's just their belief, which makes it relative as long as there's a single person believing otherwise), yet every game that has some sort of alignment insists on using moral absolutism, including those that are supposed to depict our real world.

Then, um, what are we arguing about?

shadowbird:
Bongo Bill: That was my entire point. I have no problem with the concept of absolute morality, I have problem with that concept being in every single game that I've ever seen (the morality-enabled ones, of course). As far as we know, in our real world, moral absolutism doesn't exist (some people believe it does, like your example of religion, but it's just their belief, which makes it relative as long as there's a single person believing otherwise)

Well, one, I'd say whether moral absolutism 'exists' outside of the beliefs of those who think it, that question has nothing to do with whatever anyone believes: moral absolutism could exist, and everyone could just be ignorant of it/ignoring it. Same applies to moral relativism. Either one or the other (and then some particular form of moral absolutism) is the truth about the universe: therefore, some beliefs are true and some are false, and the number of people who are right or wrong in their beliefs changes nothing but their own status as right or wrong. To fall back on a classic analogy, don't think just because people 'construct' maps they also make the mountains and rivers on them.

Also, it seems there's some confusion between 'moral' and 'cultural' relativism. A moral absolutist might very well say "My God proclaims this to be evil, and your God proclaims it good"--that would make him a *cultural* relativist--a cultural *absolutist* would say 'you're lying--your god said it's evil too!'. What makes him a moral absolutist is whether he then says 'Your god is wrong and my god is right'.

If, of course, he also thinks he's got as good, if not better justifications for his moral absolutes. If he doesn't, he'll just keep quiet. Think of it in terms of dice: an moral absolutist thinks there are an objective number of dots on the face of the rolled die; the moral relativist, on the other hand, thinks the 'dots' are subjective, just 'cultural constructions'. The cultural absolutist thinks everyone in the world sees the same number of dots and anyone who disagrees isn't just wrong, but lying; the cultural relativist believes people when they say they see a different number of dots--or no dots at all--even if he thinks they're wrong.

And finally, even if you're a moral absolutist, that doesn't mean you actually know how many dots are facing up--it just means you believe the dots are out there in the world, and not just a 'cultural construct'. There's a big difference between skepticism and relativism, or to put it another way, between thinking something is not black or white but rather a shade of gray, and thinking something black or white is hidden behind a gray fog.

Anyways, to get off that tangent, I think it's natural that we see morally absolute judgments of good and evil in games that are "morality-enabled"; the same way we see absolute judgments of success in games. The game designer's morality is imposed on us the same way the idea of success is imposed on us in the form of victory conditions.

I think the "morality-enabled" games are more problematic than the 'success-enabled' games (just about every game besides some out of the Sim franchise) because we all bring along a lot more of our own beliefs about morality to games.

One obvious reason is that a lot of times in games, not completing the mission given to you would only be 'success' to a member of a death cult: if failing to close the portals allows the world and everyone in it to be swallowed into the Abyss of Insanity, we all pretty much agree on the concept of success. Games that are "morality-enabled" are generally a lot more controversial than that: the game worlds of those games are designed from the beginning to deal with quandaries.

The other reason is, I think, that giving the 'victory' conditions to us is part of what we want from the game designer--if we wanted to play SimCity, we'd play SimCity. So we're way less critical when it comes to measuring success in absolute terms--they told us since the first Civilization that a form of final success for humanity is to colonize Alpha Centauri.

Morality, however, we're just way more critical I think. We're much less willing to play by someone else's rules, to pretend what they've called 'good' and 'evil' really is such. Why? Because most games have us taking on the role of a hero--success for a hero is to be heroic and finish the quest. In real life, on the other hand, there are no 'quests' handed to us.

The morality of actions, however, is something that *is* a part of our everyday lives. So when a game designer decides a certain action is immoral that I think *is* moral, it's like the game designer is telling *me* that I'm a twisted or flawed individual! Telling me an *action* is moral or not just strikes so much deeper than telling me a *character* is moral or not. I think we're just more willing to accept someone's judgment of a person as opposed to an action because people are so much more complex than actions.

I think that's at the heart of it. Fact is, we know as little about the proper arc of development of a civilization that constitutes 'winning' history as we do about right vs. wrong--probably less. However, telling me that my ideas about the proper unfolding of human history are 'wrong' just doesn't seem as personal as telling me punching out someone who insulted me is or is not. I think that's at the heart of the problem--"morality-enabled" games are just way more personal than "success-enabled" ones because we are more defensive about how we define success as about how we define morality, and because they ask us to not just accept a fictional character as moral or not, but actions which happen in the real world as such.

shadowbird:

IMO what game designers should focus on is choise-consequence, action-reaction model, abstracting from subjective and uncertain labels like "good", "evil", "lawful", "chaotic", etc.

While I disagree with your stance on morality because I know there are absolutes (and that is as far as I am willing to discuss it because you clearly have a differing stance, so I am sure we both realize the result of any such discussion would be agree to disagree), as far as games are concerned, I think you got it dead on, CRPGs need better choice-consequence, action-reaction modeling.

For example, a consequence of being a looting PC Paladin may be that the NPC who you looted from, comes looking for the return of their worldly possessions, either personally or by the local law they ascribe to. Just because they took something doesn't make them evil, neither would it necessarily break the laws they ascribe to but what it does have is consequences, which would allow for a bottleneck in the game play, where the player would need to clarify two things: their intentions for the actions and their position on the ramifications. From that, you could clearly gather if the action was indeed evil/good and lawful/chaotic: Does the character submit to the local law authority? Does the character return the object(s) in question? Does the character react to the consequences with remorse or indifference to how it impacted other characters?

Another problem with CRPGs other than facing a player with the butterfly affect their actions have on other characters within their story, is also the tools they give to PCs to react to a situation. How many CRPGs allow a player's character to do the following:
- Knock out an opponent
- Bind a opponent
- Diplomacy: listen to the opponent and come to a compromise
- Circumvent a opponent: sneaking around them or just running past them)
All too often, there is only one response in a CRPG, opponents must die and the PC must do the killing. A lack of options exist that would allow a character do anything else other than slaughter the horde, which seems a far more common occurrence than even using self defense. This lack of options seems to be very intentional, since apparently only bloodshed could possibly be interesting to play, huh? Ugh.

Its part of something that I think should be considered a great deal more in CRPGs, CRPGs need to focus more on Goal Based Experience in their design, where it does not matter how the player achieves a goal, only that the game comes down to a bottle neck where the goal is, upon achieving the goal the rewards of either alignment and experience (or other character building defining numbers) are given to the player. It shouldn't matter how many people they kill or do not kill, only that a goal along the quest has been reached, then the designer's decided upon story progresses but the player has decided how their character's story has fit into the game of their own volition.

Current CRPGs alignment issues and how the do not jive with a player's view of how their character is are but a symptom of poor CRPG game design. Alignment could still work, only better, under a system that both let the player explain themselves and react with appropriate tools, where any solution is still the successful one: I like to call that Goal Based Experience, it may be under other design game names as well that I am not aware of.

In the end, morality is all about you and me, the thoughts and beliefs of the characters in the game called life. The best in-game "morality" system would be one that concentrates purely on giving you as much flexibility in the actions and choices that you're allowed to make as possible, and model the result/reaction based on the moral/cultural design of the NPC characters that populate your world. The goal is to let you make your own moral decisions and simply have the world around you react to them according to the world design parameters.

As a Paladin, the game developers should give me the choice to loot or not to loot. If I choose to loot, there may be characters in the game whom the developer's have bestowed upon the stereotypical values of a Catholic Monk who's morality compels him to look down upon me. On the other hand, there may be another character, a corrupt monk who looks upon your actions in a more positive light, seeing you as a kind of kindred spirit or such. Just like real-life, we make our own decisions about morality and reap the results of our actions, with some condemning us and others praising us, as well as every flavor in between.

The real-life debate of moral absolutism versus moral relativism is quite a doozy. Moral absolutism is the belief in a moral truth that remains constant regardless of our own subjective moral viewpoints. Moral relativism is the belief that our own subjective moral viewpoints are all that exists, and there is no objective moral standard. This viewpoint essentially negates the role of morality as a "code of behavior" of sorts in the first place, does it not? If everyone makes their own rules, then there are no rules. You might as well say morality either exists... or it doesn't.

 

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