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Morality in Games - Another Definition

What does morality in games means for the player and what conditions must be met to implement morality within a game?

 [This is a repost of my original article on gameranting.blogspot]

 What is morality in games and which conditions must be met to speak of a successful implementation of morality in games.  In general terms morality means that players are facing a moral question when playing the game and have to answer that question.

First of all we must define what a moral question is: "it is a question where at least one of the answers leads to an ethical conflict within the mindset of the player, and where the player never turns back on the answer he gives."

In order for a question to meet this definition two conditions must be met:

  • The player must lend moral weight to the question and accept it as real, hence the required ethical conflict.
  • Whatever the answer given by the player to the question, its effects can never be interpreted as a reward or punishment by the player.

Both conditions must be met to produce a game with a moral question.  The first condition depends completely on the player so can't be controlled by the game designer.  The second condition however, lays entirely in the hands of the game designer.

Lets illustrate this with the game bioshock, which I consider as a good example of a game with a moral question.  In it the player stumbles upon girls (called little sisters) protected by heavy armored divers (called big daddies).  These little sisters are girls deliberately infected with a parasite, to harvest an energy fluid from their body called adam.  If the player manages to kill the big daddy. he gets the choice to kill or save little sisters:
a/ kill the little sister and obtain some adam
b/ cure the little sister and obtain adam but less then if he had killed the little sister

The moral question offered to the player is then: "if faced with an ill child, would you try to safe it, even if you might get killed in the process?"  If the player now chooses his answer as if dealing with a real child, the first condition is met.

But what with the second condition: would the player not interpret receiving more adam for killing a child as a reward? Not necessarily, because although curing a little sister will return less adam, saving several little sisters will result in an extra gift from another character within the game, negating the initial difference in received adam.

The game also contains different endings, based on the choice made by the player, so does those not count as a reward?  They don't since most players should not be aware of these possible endings just until they finished the game.  At that stage the ending has no impact anymore on the choices made by the player.

Now there are a number of behaviors that the player could display which need further explaining as they seem to contradict the definition of a moral question.
  • The player might choose to ignore the little sisters: If the player still meets the first condition, but judges the risk for his own life (to low on health) to high then the question still remains moral.  If he ignores the little sisters because it's to much of a hassle to safe them, then the question turned into a game play question (how fast can i finish this level, how much time and effort does it cost me to save this child)
  • What if the player, after learning the of the different endings, decides to replay the game and alters his behavior to see the other ending?  Then he proves that the question has no moral weight for him, either because the effect of his initial choice acts as a reward or punishment towards him, or because be he turns back on his first answer simply for the sake of seeing another ending.

In conclusion, whether a game contains morality, depends completely on the views of the player (first condition).  Game designers can try to strengthen this view (by omitting any possible reward/punishment interpretation) or disrupt this view (by offering immediate rewards/punishment for the choices the player makes).

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