Letters to the Editor

The Nostalgia Issue


In response to “Ethics Without a Net” from The Escapist forums:
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?



In response to “First Kisses (And Deaths-By-Molester)” from The Escapist forums:
I believe the problem with morality systems in games these days is that they are taking place in a sphere where the risks are too high. When stakes are up and the chips are down, you really only have three options: You can be a paragon, you can be a dick, or you can be a chump.

The reason Alter Ego is able to pull off a “shades-of-gray” morality system is because your character isn’t tasked with saving the world or doing secret missions or anything like that. The only thing your character is tasked with doing is living his/her own life as best (s)he could.

I put forward that the stark “black-and-white-and-50%-gray” morality system exists because if people were given a multitude of options, there is a large chance that nothing could be accomplished. Or, worst-case scenario, tons of content would be created that most players probably wouldn’t see.

“Shades-of-Gray” is great for making a character seem human, but given the quality of writing these days, the character will most likely come off as being dodgy and inconsistent — especially if the decisions are put in the hands of the players.

We can lament the lack of “Shades-of-Gray” in our games. However, the more I look at it, the more I realize that it’s probably for good reason.



In response to “The State of Gaming Nature” from The Escapist forums:
What’s interesting to me about both Hobbes and Rousseau is that neither seemed to really get into how the genesis of “society” plays into our state of nature. They seemed to speak as though Society was somehow imposed on us by an outside force, some unseen “zookeeper,” rather than constructed by mankind itself. Society isn’t in conflict with our nature. It reveals our nature, or rather what we feel about our nature, because we created it.

The nature of a man, when you get right down to it, is self. Myself and my needs are the first things I know and understand, all else be damned. I’m hungry, so I cry until food is brought. I want a cookie, so I take it from the jar. We are selfish by nature.

Now, the problem with that statement comes when we try to assign a moral weight to being “selfish.” Selfishness is morally neutral, neither good nor bad on its own. We are only so because, at the beginning, Self is all we know. Later, we begin to learn to utilize other people to help meet our needs (such as crying because we understand it will cause others to fill those needs). Even later, we begin to understand that behaving in certain ways (sharing, being polite) greatly expedites this process.

Much later, after much practice, we begin to really understand and empathize with others. We say, “Please,” and “Thank you,” and, “I’m sorry,” because we understand how we would feel in the other person’s shoes… but still, we are understanding those feelings through the filter of self.

In the end, society and its rules developed for two reasons: fear and empathy.

Hobbes focuses on the fear: We’d love to take whatever we want, but we know that a world in which that is permissible means it can be done to us. There will always be someone stronger, so we know that we would constantly have to protect what is ours. In a sense, we fear the freedom that others might have, so we forfeit a bit of ours to establish something of an armistice.

Rousseau focuses on the empathy: As social creatures, we understand that we need each other to best survive and thrive. Your broken leg means neither of us will eat tonight, unless I help you. Additionally, if I help you when you’re in need, you’ll do the same for me when my time comes.

And both men are right, though seemingly opposing. They’re entering the same room through different doors, and that room is Self. In the Hobbes-ian view, we fear for our Self and what others might do against it. In the Rousseau-ian view, we empathize with the Self of others because we know what they can do for our own.

Rousseau’s angle is the more advanced, to be sure. A person has to be willing to put aside or delay gratification of the Self to truly feel and act upon that empathy. But the fact that such a thing takes effort (and, for many, law) demonstrates that something about it runs counter to our nature. Meanwhile, Hobbes’s approach doesn’t account for the fact that society somehow emerged from that brutal and selfish nature–something about the “law of the jungle” also conflicts with our nature.

As for the games themselves, I really found New Vegas to provide a more accurate representation of our nature, in that it doesn’t put the player in either camp. It shows us both sides (with the raiders on one end, and the Followers on the other, and other factions strewn in between), and then lets us choose–gradually. It’s not just a matter of “choose to do combat and leave the helping,” or “choose to do the helping and shun the combat.” You can make those choices within a single quest, based on how you resolve it.


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