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Morality In Video Games

Discussing the narrow focus of morality in game design and how, if video games want to be truly impactful, they need to become much more nuanced in their approach to themes like morality and player agency.

The idea of using morality as an integral gameplay mechanic has become increasingly common in recent years.  Recent games such as Fallout 3, Fable 2, BioShock and Mass Effect have all attempted to find different ways to provide players with gameplay that focussed to varying degrees on morality. 

And yet, the ways in which they present morality to players are often clumsy and narrow-minded.  What are some of the problems, and what could be done to rectify them?  Just a word of advice - this entry will contain spoilers so if you're concerned about that and haven't played these games yet, you might want to skip this entry.

There are a couple of main problems that crop up.  The one which is most important to me is the fact that players very rarely actually have much agency.  Bioshock, an otherwise top-notch game, essentially falls apart in its story-telling during the back half of the game because the narrative and the gameplay are at odds.

It is explained to you that you are just a pawn, and that a code word allows others to manipulate you.  Much has been made of the fact that this confronts the player with the way in which they mindlessly follow instructions in games, but the point is completely lost because for the rest of the game you have no choice but to continue doing things exactly as before

The game tries to say something, but fails pretty much entirely.  The player of course does have one option if they wish to avoid this, which is to turn the game off, but surely any game which presents that as a viable option to the player has failed in its design.

A related and more important issue is the reliance in video games on violence.  If you tell me that your game is about choice, agency, and morality, then you absolutely must provide me with a way to play through the entire game without me ever having to commit a violent act. Part of the issue is that video games, including ones about player agency, are essentially still games about violence. 

Mass Effect is a game about a military commander, and while there are a number of side-quests that can be resolved non-violently (and, to the game's credit, a number that are non-violent no matter how you resolve them), it is still impossible to play through the game in its entirety without engaging in large amounts of violence. 

Fallout 3 is situated in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and while it is likely true that such a setting would in fact be quite dangerous, certainly some people in that world would be able to get by non-violently.  Yet playing Fallout 3 without killing any of the various mutants, soldiers, etc., while perhaps technically possible, would be so difficult as to render it not an option. 

Fable 2 is another game where you play as a violent hero, and have absolutely no way to get through many of the situations that the game offers you without killing large numbers of enemies.

All of these games, however, fail to offer you meaningful choices for the most part.  Fable 2 promises, "for every action, a consequence", and yet the game does not at any point provide you the option to play through the story without performing violence.  Apparently I can run around smashing "bandits" with a gigantic hammer all day and my purity and goodness will still be flawless.  How does killing my fellow slaves in the Spire make me a good person? 

In fairness to Mass Effect, the game does not have a good/bad measurement as most games do, instead offerring  paragon/renegade measurements.  These correspond more to two personality types than to "good" and "bad", and they exist simultaneously, not on a single scale as the morality does in Fable 2.  But again, there is absolutely no non-violent option available to the player to complete the main story.

Another important reason that systems of morality in games tends to be somewhat ham-fisted is the desire for "game balance".  I'll state my view on this topic quite succinctly - if you are trying to provide the illusion of morality, or of player agency in any meaningful regard, if your goal is "balance" then your system is broken.  In Bioshock there is the now well-known fact that choosing to kill or save the Little Sisters makes very little difference in terms of the power of your character, despite the fact that the decision is in theory one of the most important aspects of the game. 

It completely kills any sense of meaning in the player's actions, since they know that no matter what the do, the result will be the same.  If you want the player to actually feel as though they have agency, you need to provide them with more than just aesthetic differences between their options.  Maybe the "good" choices could make the game more difficult, because the player has to sacrifice some potential rewards or avenues of progression, or the "bad" choices could make the game more difficult because law enforcement is constantly on the lookout for your player. 

The latter option, though, would require that the game actually has meaningful punishments for being caught; taking the player's equipment away but then leaving it in a box where they can steal it back (as in Oblivion) or simply allowing the player to pay a fine (as in Fable 2) are not strong enough disincentives. 

But what if the player had a rare weapon that could not be easily replaced, and getting caught for committing a crime meant you would permanently lose that weapon?  Players would think twice about comitting crimes, and they would be far more careful about getting caught if that was the path they decided to go down.

One example I'll give of a game that generally got this right, which is not really known as a game that deals with player morality, was Metal Gear Solid 2 (and 3 and 4, for that matter).  The option to tranquilise or otherwise avoid every single human enemy in the game meant that the player was genuinely able to go about the game in a generally non-violent way. 

But just as importantly, playing the game without using overt force requires you to play in a very different manner.  Enemies and environments react quite differently, and the strategies that you will have to employ are noticeably different as well (and, in my opinion, hiding in lockers, orange crates, etc. is far more fun than throwing a grenade anyway). 

Another reason for the success that MGS2 has in dealing with morality is the fact that the game never tells the player they are making a moral decision through some overbearing method such as a good/bad meter.  It is inherent in both the gameplay and our understanding of the world that tranquilizing a person and shooting them in the face with an assault rifle are two very different things.

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