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Musings on Morality
by Matthew Jenkin on 06/08/14 07:37:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This post is adapted from a previous blog post.

TL;DR - Games suck at morality, but are hindered because they can't read the player's mind.

The Inciting Incident

The other day I was playing a game called "Chuzzle". It's yet another match-3 game that goes out of its way to make the whole experience... cute. You're matching little furry tribble-like creatures that watch the mouse cursor, and squeak happily when they're matched.

Chuzzle screenshot.

Occasionally, however, you get a not-so-happy squeak. This is the game trying to tell you you've made a bad move. I had pondered for a while about exactly how it decides that a move is "bad", as - from my perspective - it wasn't. That day I suddenly realised the reason for the dissonance: I was evaluating moves retrospectively (i.e. based on their outcomes) whereas the game had to evaluate based on the state of the board at the time. Now, you'd think this wouldn't be a major epiphany; most would probably go "Oh, that's what it is" and carry on with their day. For me, this forged rapid mental connections to other ideas I'd had in the back of my mind for some time, leading to much ramblings and discussions. Rose Red laughed at me; apparently only I could find something deep and thought-provoking in Chuzzle.


A lot of computer games, predominantly RPGs, have what's sometimes referred to as a "karma meter" (see tvtropes if this isn't enough reading already). This is probably inspired by the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system, which represents a useful (and not overly complex) categorisation of different moral perspectives. It has two axes:

  • Lawful—Neutral—Chaotic (does the character follow the rules)
  • Good—Neutral—Evil (is the character virtuous)

The drawback to D&D's system is that it's a player-driven labelling tool - a player decides that the character they are creating will be "Lawful Good" (for example) - it's not a property that develops through the course of the game depending on what the character ends up doing (though the other players will probably complain if the character is not behaving according to their alignment).

Measuring Morality

The most basic way a game could track changing morality is with a single number representing "goodness". When you do something "good", it goes up; when you do something "evil", it goes down. Alert readers may already have noticed the problem with this: picking up lots of litter will cancel out burning down an orphanage. To get around this, you therefore need to have two numbers; one representing "good" and one representing "evil". This allows for a much richer and more realistic assessment of a character's morals. At the very least, the game should be able to recognise four different states:

  1. Low "Good"/Low "Evil": the player is neutral
  2. High "Good"/Low "Evil": the player is virtuous
  3. Low "Good"/High "Evil": the player is dastardly
  4. High "Good"/High "Evil": the player is amoral

Sadly, as anyone who has played any of these sort of games will probably have noticed, most games really only recognise the second and third states (the first state exists by default, in that it's typically where the character starts, but there's usually only a "good" ending and an "evil" ending - see No Points for Neutrality on

By Whose Law?

So, it shouldn't be too hard for games to do better than they are, but this isn't the end of the story. You may have noted that I've been referring to "good" and "evil" in quotation marks. This is because we've been talking about a single axis, instead of the two mentioned earlier. To qualify something as "good" or "evil", you must be clear what system of measurement you are using. "Legal" is not necessarily the same as "moral". How many times has a major plot point of a book or movie been a character disobeying an order/breaking the law to do something they believe is right? (NB: please don't take this to mean that I'm advocating moral relativism. I'm just noting that people can have different priorities when it comes to virtues.)

Nuance and Conflict

Another feature that generally isn't well-implemented in games is presenting the player with a true moral dilemma. Most of the times that a player is given an option between two (or more) actions, it is clear that one is the "good" option and another is the "evil" option. This is a moral choice. By contrast, a moral dilemma is when you are faced with - for example - trying to choose the lesser of two evils. If you know which choice leads to the result you want, it's not a dilemma.

Similarly, there is more than one virtue. One game that recognised this (I haven't played it, so I don't know how good a job they did) is Ultima IV. It had eight virtues the player's character was trying to cultivate, and situations presented with those virtues in conflict (e.g. a friend takes credit for your accomplishment. Should you correct them - Honesty - or let them have the glory - Humility). Depending on how realistic the scenarios were, this could make for some very interesting dilemmas.

Intention, Outcome, Reaction

So how does this all relate to my Chuzzle epiphany that began this big wall o' text? Well, sadly despite the possibilities inherent in the ideas I've described above, games are knobbled before they've started the race. Why, you may ask? Because, like Chuzzle, they can only judge actions based on a limited amount of information. Step into the - hypothetical - real world for a moment. Think about the different scenarios of a murder trial. The defendant could be found:

  • Not guilty - they neither attempted nor succeeded in killing the victim
  • Guilty of manslaughter - they did not intend to kill the victim, but did cause their death
  • Guilty of murder - they deliberately killed the victim
  • Guilty of attempted murder - they tried, but did not succeed

The moral judgement the judge and/or jury make on the defendant will vary depending on their [the defendant's] Intentions, and the Outcome of their actions. As some friends pointed out, their response is also important. Their Reaction (e.g. remorse or lack thereof) to the victim's death (or survival, in the case of attempted murder) gives some indication as to their intention, and likely also affects the severity of the sentence given.

People are, generally speaking, reasonably good at assessing the motivations for someone else's actions, and whether or not that person regrets their actions (aside from the Fundamental Attribution Error and similar cognitive biases). Computers, on the other hand, are not. Usually, they lack even the necessary perspective to attempt to make such assessments (as they cannot see the person's face, cannot hear their tone of voice, etc). That means any game (barring drastic and unlikely advances in the field of Artificial Intelligence) is reduced to making judgements purely based on Actions (i.e. is this act fundamentally "good"/"evil" regardless of circumstance) and Outcomes.

How much does this matter? Well, let me present you with an example. Let's say that a player wants to enter a castle, but there is a guard at the gate, and the player does not know the password. It's not infeasible that slaughtering the guard and looting their corpse for the key would be considered "evil", and would score the player's character a significant number of "evil" points. The only way the game can determine if this has happened or not is to record if the guard is dead, and whether the player chose to attack the guard. So let's consider some other actions. Attacking a guard is "evil", but attacking an ogre wouldn't be (unless of course the game is trying to make a point about bigotry or something). Choosing to run away from an angry ogre isn't "evil", merely good sense. Running past a guard isn't "evil" (though may give a minor penalty if you bump into them). Is it your fault that the angry and short-sighted ogre chasing you happened to take it out on the nearest available human (i.e. the guard)? The point is that cunning players will find a way to achieve their nefarious ends without doing anything that is obviously "evil" (and computers are not good at dealing with things that aren't obvious). Alternatively, if you've set up a nice moral dilemma, the player may choose to do something "evil" to achieve something "good" - how should the action be remembered?


Essentially, computers are not very good at measuring morality. I don't know the best solution to this problem, I'm just presenting a different perspective (solving a problem is easier if you have a clear idea of its parameters). We can do better, but we'll have to be very careful about setting up moral quandaries for the player, and measuring the right elements to ensure the player is fairly rewarded/punished for their actions. As a non-moral example, if the goal is to get inside the castle, you should measure this by testing if the player is inside the castle, not if the player has unlocked the castle gate (this is a Twinkie Denial Condition from way back).


I realise that such features make a game more complicated, and more realistic, but they don't necessarily make it more fun. However, despite what some people may argue, fun is not the primary focus. Not all movies are fun, but all successful ones are engaging in some way or another. One might say that frustration isn't fun, yet games can become boring if they are too easy. It's not the mechanism that makes something work, it's the way it is used to create the overall experience (*waves hands madly and holistically*).

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Boyer Geoffrey
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IMO Obsidian made the right choice to drop the Karma meter in Fallout: New Vegas. Instead they used individual reputation stats for each faction, with two axis for each reputation stat (Fame and Infamy)

Paul Wrider
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Karma is still in New Vegas, they just supplemented it with faction reputation as well, so you can have super positive/negative overall Karma, but still be loved/hated by a specific faction.

Boyer Geoffrey
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Karma as it is implemented in New Vegas is functionally useless. No one will comment or act on it besides two followers if my memory is alright and that's the whole of it

Matthew Jenkin
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One hopes the system is actually using the stat somewhere (otherwise why bother tracking it?), but there's certainly no point in telling the player about it if its effects aren't equally obvious.

Andreas Ahlborn
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If you think about it, the diagram you show gives a hint how a more complex approach to morality could be stored in RPGs.

A while ago I did a research about color difference, because I had to make an algorithm for a game, which calculates the difference between two given colors.

The traditional, simple, bi-polar morality systems (THE FORCE, Paragon-Renegade etc.) are measuring the "grey" spectrum of your actions/intentions in the gameworld, the bright-or darkness, so to speak. How much more satisfying would be a morality system that uses the whole color spectrum?

Your venn diagram gave me the idea, that every action/conversation in an RPG could be colorcoded in RGB-Colors. where Red symbolizes Courage, Blue Truth, Love Yellow etc. (or whatever you consider for your game most relevant). Then when the player makes the decision his current Character-color is mixed up (imprinted) with the action/decision he made. So say, when he eliminates another character to save someone he loves, her/his Y-color attribute is intensified, but his whole color could either be darkened, when he simply kills the antagonist or brightened if he goes through the trouble to talk the antagonist out of it.

Based on color coding you could also measure symopathy/antipathy between The Player and NPC that are in the gameworld. The lesser the color difference between two persons "Soul"-color the more likely they would ally.

It would especially heighten the replay value of RPG Games, because an ally in one playthrough could become an antagonist in another (Based on colr difference)

I´m really impressed of the theoretical concept behind the Nemesis system in the new LOTR game. It`s basically what I find interesting for emergent, unique Player experiences.

Matthew Jenkin
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That's a rather nifty idea, especially the idea of alliances based on how similar your stats are.

In general, we're probably talking about a distance between two n-dimensional vectors (where n is the number of attributes being tracked).

It also makes me think of the ideas expressed by Ken Levine in his recent GDC talk (Narrative Legos - not original, just the most recent example I can recall).

I'll have to look up the Nemesis system - thanks for the heads up.

Jennis Kartens
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I think before the "greyscale-problem" and "the computer doesn't know" there comes the actual problem of the evolution of games and where we are right now with the things we can do. In a lot (most?) games with such morality mechanics, you're very limited in your actions. It mostly is based upon destruction and death. Most games are, after all, about that.

This as such renders an initial problem, where you can't simplay apply a "real world" morality system based on current standards.

If you have no realistic choices in the first place, a morality system does nothing anyways. Rewards for certain actions are even more harmful. In Deus Ex: Human Revolution you get more XP for knocking down enemies into eternal sleep which undermines the entire system.

Therefore I think games need to grow out primary of the very old patterns, mechanics. Like Telltale is trying to evolve their franchises for a more indepth social relationship with the player, instead of instant abstract rewards.

Matthew Jenkin
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Fair comment.

That [having a wider range of possible interactions] would probably also remove the polarisation problem. If you can only make binary decisions, having more than two outcomes is a bit redundant.

I agree that more nuances are great, but feedback is still important. I've read that lack of clear feedback was one of the problems with Beyond: Two Souls (found the link:

Michael DeFazio
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After thinking about the whole D&D system... I'd probably replace the (Good- Evil) continuum to be more like:

Altruism - Greed
Benevolence - Avarice
Benevolence - Malevolence

So you might have a simple quadrant of

Altruist (Gandi or Robin Hood)
Greedy (Jordan Belfort "Wolf of Wallstreet")

Altruist (Pope Francis)
Greedy (Larry Ellison)

'cause, what is "good /evil anyways"....

I realize it's still ambiguous, but less grey than (good / evil) in context...

if you make immediate decisions in the game where your npc benefits (but as a side effect other people/ the world suffers) you'd get points for "Greed"

if in your decision you have to forgo, give up, risk, or sacrifice something (power/money/etc.) for others (npcs, team members etc.) then you get points for "Altruism")

I also like the idea of "temptation" (i.e. there are immediate tangible benefits for doing something "greedy", meanwhile the more "altruistic" types of decisions (may or may not) play out... but over a longer term)

Most games do things which are plain silly,
Kill innocent people to "level up" you "evil points" so you can upgrade your "bad powers"
Save innocent people to "level up" you "good points" to upgrade your "goodie powers"

Matthew Jenkin
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According to various explanations of the D&D system, Good/Evil effectively means "Selfless/Selfish", so I think you're on the right wavelength there.

Similarly Lawful/Chaotic effectively means "Principled/Pragmatic" (which can be a more useful political consideration than "Left"/"Right", but that's a whole other kettle of worms).

I agree that temptation is valuable for crafting actual moral dilemmas, but ambiguity is probably important too (i.e. make the outcome not 100% obvious; something which I've heard "The Walking Dead" does pretty well).

Tom Matcham
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Very interesting article on a topic I'm very interested in.

Those who are interested might be interested in my own solution to the morality problem using machine learning and classifications.

Video here:

Matthew Jenkin
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Thanks; I'll definitely check out your video.

Paul Schwanz
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The subject of morality in games has always fascinated me, in large part because of the design challenge it represents. Thanks for giving me another perspective on the issue.

If you are interested, I wrote some on the subject many years ago.

Matthew Jenkin
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Thanks for the feedback.

I haven't read your post yet, but it looks interesting.