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Satisfying frustration: How to make compelling games that encourage moral reflection

To inspire moral reflection, we as game designers have to go against players' inherent instinct to make strategic decisions and break a few fundamental game design principles along the way.

14 Min Read
Positioning moral dilemmas between satisfaction and frustrationKira Wanjek

Article by Kira Wanjek & Kolja Bopp

Video games have a great potential to support moral development. Playing is a crucial part of learning and developing behavioral patterns. Through play, one can safely test out behaviors and decisions without facing actual consequences. Moreover, a guided form of play, as provided by video games, can lead the player through a set of intentionally designed experiences. These experiences can become unique learning opportunities when they provide players with powers or roles they’d usually not be able to have.

Confronting players with moral dilemmas, situations inherently lacking a clear-cut solution, in the context of a video game allows players to contemplate their morals, act out their decisions, and experience potentially unforeseen consequences firsthand. This can leave a great impact, helping to solidify or reassess moral views.

Exploring these effects during my master's thesis on moral dilemmas, I created a short game about moral choices. The design is based on relevant theory and literature analysis. In the game, you make decisions as one of the last politicians in a country ravaged by civil war and threatened by a violent government-opposing group. Moreover, you help other government workers with the use of social & elemental skills in Point’n’Click-like puzzles.

▶ Play the game Johnson & Dilemma for free on Itch.io

Based on the game a playtesting survey was conducted, questioning participants on their general opinions toward moral dilemmas in video games and their specific experiences in my game. The results revealed an overall positive sentiment toward moral decision-making and moral dilemmas in video games, with some even citing the encouragement of moral reflection as a reason for liking them. This shows that there is a not-so-small group of players who enjoy reflecting on moral dilemmas as focal points of the gameplay.

However, my investigation into the topic unearthed that there are quite a few challenges to overcome when it comes to creating a game that encourages moral reflection and still offers a satisfying and fun experience. Here are my learnings:

  1. Fix flaws or backlash is guaranteed

  2. Check your bias and stop influencing the player

  3. Pace between satisfaction and frustration

  4. Don’t show consequences

  5. Underinform the player

  6. Let players experience frustration

Fix flaws or backlash is guaranteed

Moral dilemmas are inherently frustrating to deal with. Nobody wants to be faced with a decision that forces them to choose between the lesser evil. Moreover, players feel generally unfairly treated when the game argues against them or blames them for any of their moral choices. This much became clear to me when I analyzed posts and comments on Steam and Reddit, literature on the topic, and the results of my survey.

Due to this frustration, players will consciously or subconsciously attempt to avoid the dilemma by lashing out and trying to put blame on the game itself. Therefore, it is detrimental to remove as many flaws as possible when making a game about moral decisions.

Firstly, the scenario should be as clear as possible. Players will use any leeway for interpretation to justify their decisions and downplay risks. Moreover, as it is impossible to know which intentions a player puts behind their action, it becomes crucial to adequately describe the options beforehand. In the end, if a choice does not fit the player’s expectations or intentions, they will complain about the game being unfair.

Secondly, the scenario should make sense. When designing a scenario with a limited set of action options, it is not unlikely to exclude an obvious alternative solution. When forced to contemplate the situation, players will complain about the missing option. Therefore, it is important to iterate on the scenario, finding justifications and removing or adding variables until the scenario becomes watertight.

Thirdly, when iterating on the scenario, consider player feedback and their choices. In my study players were presented with the choice between saving either one NPC or another. The survey responses revealed that participants did not only question why it isn’t possible to save both but also claimed that they had chosen randomly. They stated that they did not care for either character deeply enough as the game did not provide sufficient opportunity to build an emotional connection with them. Interestingly enough, participants showed clear favoritism to one of the NPCs, suggesting that their choices were not as arbitrary as they claimed. Making it apparent that, as a designer one cannot rely on player statements alone.

Check your bias and stop influencing the player

When designing a game about moral dilemmas, it’s crucial to play-test the game and actually hear others' thoughts and reactions, taking an explorative approach to game design. Presenting a player with a moral dilemma making one option seem better than the other can hinder the player from reflecting on the dilemma on their own. Even when the goal of the design is to argue against the player’s views, it affords that the game lets the player make an unbiased decision first.

However, it’s far too easy for a designer to let one’s unintentional bias seep into every aspect of designing moral dilemmas. Usually, one is not able to check one's own individual, generational, gendered, or cultural bias. Players might associate a moral dilemma in the game with some current or historical event. In other cases, players might simply have a clear answer and see the presented moral dilemma as not dilemmatic at all. Moreover, players might feel that the designers preferred one resolution to the dilemma over another, thus encouraging them to consider what the game wants them to do.

No one’s above bias, so check yours before it ruins the experience of your game.

Pace between satisfaction and frustration

Generally, it is advisable for all types of games to create a pacing that switches between moments of higher and lower tension. This way, players stay in the golden spot between boredom and overstimulation.

As previously mentioned, when we confront the player with moral questions, we’re likely not only causing tension but also frustration. Games are usually centered on creating a fun and satisfying experience for players. Frustrating the player feels like a mistake. However, it is ordinary for anyone to experience a certain degree of frustration when being confronted with a difficult situation. And for any type of media, there are consumers that intentionally seek out and appreciate heavy subject matter, even if might not be a fun experience for them. Games like “Papers, Please” show that success is possible even when committing to a more serious experience.

So, how does one pace around this frustration? First, you have to be clear on what experience you want to create. How much of the game do you want to dedicate to moral reflection? How satisfying & fun has the game to be? Is broad popularity crucial to you or is it also okay when your game is only appreciated by a niche audience?

In any case you’ll want to have at least some moments of leisure to make your moral questions stand out as instances of high tension and stakes. This can be done in various ways. You could, for example, let the player decide on a matter in which all outcomes are positive, but the player can decide to their liking, shaping the world as they want to see it. Or you could include some lighthearted, humorous passages in your game.

What you have to keep in mind is that feelings of tension and frustration can highly differ between players. When examining individual perspectives on specific dilemmas, it becomes apparent that people, influenced by their preexisting mindset, differ in their perceptions of what they perceive to be truly dilemmatic.

Firstly, players vary in their moral beliefs. For instance, those steadfast in a belief system prioritizing the greater good might not hesitate to sacrifice one life to save many. Therefore, as designers, we have to take into account that some may see the presented dilemma as actually dilemmatic and deliberate it accordingly, while others might swiftly dismiss it as non-dilemmatic.

Secondly, the emotional impact of a dilemma is further influenced by the player's level of immersion and their suspense of disbelief. Taking a life-or-death dilemma as an example, we, of course, have to acknowledge that players do not feel the same about the situation in a video game as they would in actual life. Going even further, as players are aware that it is only a video game, some might even enjoy a life-or-death dilemma when it means parting ways with a character they hate. While immersion can be enhanced or decreased through various means available to designers, it is ultimately up to the player to which degree they want to immerse themselves in the experience.

Thirdly, some dilemmas are more polarizing than others. A dilemma can be polarizing when each of the options activates different moral priorities. For example, one dilemma makes you choose to save one of two relatives, while another makes you choose between a relative and your romantic partner. In the first scenario, one might feel the same family-based moral obligation to both relatives and choose based on preference alone. In contrast, individuals might be more torn on whether to morally prioritize family or a romantic partner in the second scenario. A player might then make a swift decision based on their preexisting mindset without any struggle. However, dilemmas like these also have the potential to spark conversations between players outside the game, discussing their values with each other.

Ultimately, the interpretation of the dilemma is up to the player. As designers, we should be cognizant of the varying impact moral dilemmas have on the players’ reactions in and outside of the game, particularly when considering the game’s pacing.

Don’t show consequences

It may seem like bad advice to let the player decide and then not let them experience consequences: It means taking away power from the player, giving them less feedback on their actions, while still expecting them to be engaged enough with the game to continue playing. It goes against fundamental principles of game design and likely frustrates players (and it does).

So why should one avoid consequences? The problem lies at the heart of how players usually play games. Most players tend to follow an objective in the game, either offered by the game or self-imposed. Players then prioritize these objectives, such as optimizing stats, role-playing, unlocking new skills, characters, or specific story outcomes, over making choices based on their own morals.

Karma systems, for example, often have the problem that they incentivize players to go full good or bad in order to unlock some new content (on top of literally telling the player what is good and bad instead of letting them reflect on their own). The bigger the consequences on the game mechanics, the bigger the incentive to not choose morally but strategically.

On the other hand, experiencing multiple choices without showing consequences might even make those players lose their suspense of disbelief. Consequences are an important part of life, after all. Players then might conclude that all upcoming choices will be irrelevant as well, which lets them take future choices less seriously or, in the worst case, makes them quit the game.

When I asked participants of my survey what they liked about moral decisions and moral dilemmas in video games, roughly a third mentioned “having an influence on the story and game.” They want to make an impact.

Impactless choices can be perceived as meaningless by players. However, these choices are not meaningless at all. They offer players the opportunity to express themselves or their interpretation of the player character. Whether this benefit comes to fruition, however, depends on the player's immersion.

Still, while participants of my survey felt quite powerless in general, likely due to the plenty of meaningless choices in my prototype and an unchangeable, quite dark ending of the story, two-thirds of them still felt responsible rather than non-involved and one-third guilty as well as one third innocent. These feelings of responsibility and, to a certain degree, guilt indicate that even without influence, some players are still engaged, potentially reflecting on their responsibilities and actions in the game.

Underinform the player

To de-incentivize strategic decision-making in favor of moral decision-making, one can also provide insufficient information to the player. This also goes against common game design principles, as it limits the player’s agency. They might be able to impact the game world but cannot plan exactly how.

Underinformed choices are best suited to represent so-called “wicked problems”, where someone is faced with a complex situation in which not all information is known or is hard to understand. Or in which there are many people with many different, conflicting views involved and the ultimate impact on the system is unknown. These are the kinds of problems one might encounter when facing large-scale systematic decisions like in politics or economics. When presenting a problem like this in a video game, it’s usually sufficient only to provide a bit of information and otherwise rely on the players preexisting understanding of the topic, ultimately confronting them with their own biases.

However, from my research, players confronted with such problems are likely to claim that they are unable to make a decision because information is missing. Moreover, when facing the consequences of their decision, players will feel unfairly treated by the game as they are blamed or punished for outcomes they could not have foreseen. Designers here again have to decide how to pace their game and to which extent they want to rely on players’ moral assessment of serious topics instead of game strategic decisions.

Let players experience frustration

In order to make the player feel engaged by your game, you should create a unique experience for the player. You should start by getting the player involved. While this again depends on the player’s immersion, you can actively increase their involvement, for example, by putting them in a role of power and responsibility. Moreover, players also feel a certain responsibility to NPCs that express trust in them or come for them to help. To enhance this effect, it is, of course, also important to let the player build a relationship with these NPCs by letting them overcome hardships together, giving insights into the NPC's life, like information about their family, their values, or their aspirations. This strategy, for example, led players of my playtest to repeatedly express a desire to overcome the presented crisis together as a group and also to apply this moral standard to NPCs.

Moreover, to leave a lasting impression, you should not only let the player decide on a topic but make them act out their decision. For example, during my playtest, the players had to flee from an impending danger with a group of NPCs. One NPC refused to come as she wanted to call her husband and children from a wall phone to make sure they were okay first.

The players then had the option to either wait for her, endangering the group, or flee the scene without her. In contrast to the other decisions in the game, they did not have to pick an option in a dialog. Instead, players had to actually stay in the room waiting for the NPC to stop trying to call her family that wasn’t picking up or had to leave the room without her actively. To make the situation more realistic, the players were not informed about how much time they had to decide and wait.

While the players in my playtest most of the time took risks and tried to keep the group together and also did so in this scenario by waiting on the NPC, their answers on why this scenario was difficult or not difficult showed a great deal of emotionality. Players expressed feeling the urgency and impatience of the situation as well as the fear of the unknown consequences, with one even claiming, ”I thought I was gonna die, but I couldn’t leave her”.


Moral dilemmas are hard to design. To inspire moral reflection, we as game designers have to go against players' inherent instinct to make strategic decisions and break a few fundamental game design principles along the way. Meanwhile, we have to solve a dilemma on our own: Do we want to prioritize a satisfactory experience more likely to reach mass appeal, or are we okay creating an intense, partially frustrating experience encouraging moral reflection only appreciated by a niche audience?

▶ The full study can be found here: "Portraying Moral Dilemmas through Video Games"

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