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Morality in Video Games: Paint it Grey

Instead of giving us horns, halos and karma, give us interesting choices!

[spoiler alert - There is a spoiler for Enslaved in the indicated paragraph]

Do you want to be the good guy or the bad guy? It is a question quite a few games ask nowadays. Indecision does not pay off. Anybody who responds to an average game with any level of ethical nuance will end up being the Jack of All Trades, Master of None of Morality. This is not only a purposeful design element where “karma” is tracked based on how many “points” certain actions get, it is also implicit in almost all games: You fight the “bad guys”. Or, if you have a really original title on your hands, you might fight as a bad guy against the good guys!

It is binary ethics, and I will hardly claim it is unrealistic. Religious zealots and fervent nationalists base all their actions on the thought of fighting for good against the forces of evil. In turn, this is reflected in anything from fairy tales to the Ten Commandments. It is the idea that some acts are intrinsically good or bad – a concept that is quite easy to quantify and characterize in video games. Now the question is not only if this is good design. The question is also, is this a morality we want to support?

My suggestion is to base video game morality more on the reality of human nature, and less on a bland black-white dichotomy where no one wants to be caught dead wearing any shade of gray. Gray is the interesting color! It has more depth, reality and interesting choices. On top of that, morally black and white human beings do not exist. They are an abstract concept. We naturally use it to simplify our encounters with people that strongly disagree with us, and lose so much in the process: empathy and understanding. A truly relatable game will be made up of characters we can sympathize with. Enough designers put in effort to create a protagonist that is flawed but likeable. But what about the other side of the conflict? Seldomly have I seen games where the antagonist is a real human being. The tragedy of conflict, war and death is best shown by how futile it always is. There are only two features in human nature that cause us to fight with one another and create misery: Misunderstanding and Malfunction.

Misunderstanding is when people refuse to see, or are unaware of, other perspectives on the problem. They are so dominated by their feelings, or by their fellows, that they do not stop and think what they are doing to others. They do not realize the suffering they bring.

Malfunction is when people are mentally damaged. Psychopaths are incapable of empathy, and so are incapable of caring what damage they might do. Other mental disorders might make people blind and deaf to the suffering they cause.

 

[spoiler]

These are the “villains” you want to portray in a game. Think of the ending of Enslaved where the “bad guy” was only trying to do good in a very strange way. He did not understand very well what people needed, and so his intentions went wrong. Think of Heavy Rain, where the protagonist is trying to save his son, but has to do gruesome things to reach his goal. He is trying to do the right thing, but doing the right thing can be a very complex matter!

[/spoiler] 

Design-wise it would be much more interesting if games would take an increasingly realistic approach to morality. Instead of giving us horns, halos and karma, give us interesting choices! Morality is defined by the joy and suffering we bring, so let that be the measure we show in games. Some games express this by letting companion characters or factions respond to your actions. It is a step in the right direction. Emotional resonance would be another important step. For instance, Trip taking control of Monkey in Enslaved is a “bad thing” in binary ethics. However, as soon as the player understands their predicament, it can hardly be seen as bad any longer. The realism of such an action creates rapport with the player. If such actions were cast into a meaningful player choice, just think of the response! Yet currently, such morally grey actions are often not rewarded in games. You cannot play as a true human being because only extremes are rewarded.

Yet the question of morality in games is not only one of design. I am one of the last people to say games are bad for us. For instance, I do not think violent games cause violent behavior in any significant way. Part of the reason is that we all understand that video game violence is not real. We are playing pretend and we all understand that. However, with morality, that line seems less clear. Too many people accept that morality is a matter of good against evil. It is only natural to them that it works like that in fiction too. I do not think video games make the issue worse. I do think that video games can make it better. Actually, books, movies, and educational institutions can do just as much or much more here. I realize this. At the same time, books and movies have a much greater repertoire of thought-provoking material than games do. On top of that, games can let people actively take part in the moral choices. It also partly engages a different audience that might not be reached by the movies and books in question.

Currently, technology and profit limit our options. To truly implement realistic ethics you would need the type of dynamic AI that does not exist yet. Scripting moral choices might allow a binary choice to get 3 or 4 branches instead, but it is essentially the same problem. Realistic morality is a subproblem of realistic human interaction in games. I realize there are many technical hurdles here. For instance, even if the game characters come to form interesting and dynamic responses to the player, how would they formulate them? Natural language is hardly their strength right now. At the same time, there are a lot steps we can take to improve morality in games based on the technology that we do have right now. It can be both part of the design, and the story.

This article is meant as thought-provoking. What do you think right and wrong really are? Does it matter how we model it in games? Are black and white more fun than grey? Can we develop games that have a profound impact on how people view the world? If so, how would we do that? Or have we already done that with some games?

I realize I might have skipped some points. For instance, mythical creatures are quite prevalent in games, and it is only “natural” that some of them are pure evil or pure good. Also, some games might already tick some of the boxes I mention here. If you know any, I would be grateful to hear about it, as well as any other thoughts you might have on the topic. In the worst case, we can always fight about whose morality is better ;-)

[Reposted from Think Feel Play]

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