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Ethics 101: Designing Morality in Games
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Ethics 101: Designing Morality in Games

May 26, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[Gamasutra interviews Bethesda's Emil Pagliarulo and 2K Marin's Jordan Thomas to discuss the importance of building challenging, satisfying ethical gameplay -- both in games the duo created such as Oblivion, Fallout 3 and BioShock 2, and in the work of others.]

To a certain degree, all games are about choice. The player chooses how and when to react to a given situation, whether that situation is as simple as fight or flight or as complex as determining the future of an entire species. Given the role that choice holds in gameplay, it's no surprise that morality systems have become more and more common as games have increased in complexity.

Oftentimes these morality systems offer up only basic black and white choices: should I help this character or harm them? Should I defeat the evil wizard or accept his offer of power? Various types of moral choice systems appear in complex RPGs like Mass Effect 2, adventure games like Heavy Rain, and even straightforward action titles like Dante's Inferno.

Compelling moral choices can encourage players to experiment with different ethical stances over multiple playthroughs, while underdeveloped morality systems can seem like little more than an additional bullet point on the back of the box.

To examine how to make in-game moral choices that are both intellectually engaging and stimulating from a gameplay perspective, we spoke with key developers from two studios with very different specialties: Bethesda's Emil Pagliarulo explained how he and the rest of the team approached morality in RPGS like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3, while 2K Marin's Jordan Thomas discussed branching moral outcomes in the shooter BioShock 2.

The results of the conversations with the developers pointed to two aspects that need to be present in order to make in-game moral choices compelling: a virtual world that somehow connects with the player, and a set of choices that offer outcomes of significant moral weight.

The two required elements may seem obvious, but more often than not a game with a moral choice system is missing one or the other. Choosing to punish or absolve tormented souls in Dante's Inferno carries no weight because it has no connection to the narrative -- it's all about maximizing what kind of experience points you want to earn. InFAMOUS features a likeable protagonist and a recognizable world, but the choice to give food to hungry citizens or keep it for yourself is no choice at all in a game that doesn't require you to eat.

So how do developers tackle the issue? The first step is to create some element that players can create an emotional bond with. "It all comes back to the characters you've created," says Bethesda's Pagliarulo. "I think Heavy Rain has proven this better than any game in recent memory. In order for a developer to provide moral choices that matter, the player has to be convinced that those choices are going to have some kind of effect on the characters in the game, and the more believable those characters, the stronger the emotional impact.

"At the end of Heavy Rain, if there's one thing you feel it's that Ethan loves his son and is completely invested in finding him, and this really challenges the player's willingness to go as far as it takes.

"As it turns out, when I played Heavy Rain, I wasn't willing to do carry out one of the sequences, and I actually sat there yelling at my TV, saying, 'No! I won't do it! This isn't my fault! I will not be made the bad guy! You stole my son -- it's your fault! Not mine!' I was pissed off. Not at the developers, but at the Origami Killer. And you know what? The game didn't exactly have a happy ending."

Few games have managed to create the same kind of believable characters as Heavy Rain, but fortunately there are other ways to draw a player into a game. One of the strongest elements of the original BioShock was the city of Rapture, a game world that was so solidly drawn that it felt real. It had a history, a set of rules that it adhered to, and an internal ecosystem that made it feel like a real place.

BioShock 2

"A lot of people told us that in their version of the world, they decided not to kill Big Daddies," says 2K Marin's Thomas. "This is not an outcome we support with any special content. This is a simulated moral decision that they chose to make based on their own level of empathy for these enslaved former humans."

The world of Rapture in both BioShock games is a place founded on debatable concepts, and both games use a clash of ideals as the basis for the narratives. Rapture is both physically and ethically murky, and as such clear-cut "good and evil" choices seem out of place. In Rapture, the choices should be every bit as unclear as the rest of the world, something which Thomas believes the original game failed to achieve:

"It chose a very binary set out outputs at the far end," he says. "The players who enjoyed that were those who kind of were those who felt that they were embodying a moral extreme anyway -- there was a sort of cogency between what they chose and the outcomes they received. The ones who were less satisfied felt that they were morally more grey, or granular, and as such neither of the endings of that game reflected them well."

In other words, the players who felt as if they were playing a purely good or purely evil character were satisfied with the two possible outcomes, but those players (arguably the majority) who viewed the BioShock experience as more morally ambiguous were less than satisfied with the simple either/or choices.

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Nate Logan
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If I'm going to be honest I'd have to say the game that left me with the most profound feeling of moral ambiguity was Shadow of the Colossus. That's interesting, because as far as I could tell there was no real choice to be made. You either went along killing colossi like a good video game hero or the game didn't progress.

All the cues were there to make you wonder if what you were doing was wrong: from the majestically tragic colossi death scenes to the creepy little black spirits that enter your body when they die. It was perhaps the first game I've played where I wanted to throw myself against the 4th wall. I couldn't help but wonder if there wasn't some other hidden choice I was supposed to be making instead.

I'll admit I was somewhat disappointed that I didn't have the freedom to choose not to kill the colossi (other than turning the game off, which isn't satisfying).

If a game can manage to convey SotC's feeling of moral unease and still give the players the freedom to feel like they truly chose the actions that put them in that state, we'll have achieved something.

Andrew Vanden Bossche
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I think that the conclusion of this piece speaks to a serious problem with the way morality systems are conceived.

Certainly it sounds wonderful to say that players generally choose good even when evil is available, but why on earth is that a good thing? Surely we aren't stuck in the tired notion that our choices in games have much to do with who we really are? We already know that killing people in Grand Theft Auto doesn't make us sociopaths.

So as pleasant as that anecdote sounds, is it really a good thing that players aren't compelled enough to try making the "evil" choices, as it essentially means that half of the game content is unappealing to them?

I'm one of those people who always makes the "good" choice unless I force myself to do otherwise. But this is often because it's really annoying to have a videogame be morally outraged at me. inFamous was particularly insistent about making me feel bad about the stuff that Cole was doing.

People can read literature or watch films that follow the perspective of a morally questionable person and be really empathetic and engaged with that person. That certainly doesn't make the viewer evil.

I'm tired of videogames that pretend to be psych exams. These games are fantasy. They exist to be interesting. I can see that designers don't want to send the message that being evil is a good thing, but it's possible to make evil interesting and compelling while still not making it sound like something a person would actually want to do.

I want a game that presents me with fun and interesting options, not one that judges me. If evil isn't interesting to players, maybe it's time for a different duality.

Al Tenhundfeld
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Evil is interesting to most people; I think that's self-evident. It's fun but mostly pointless to discuss how many people choose to play the evil paths. What matters is how much the option of choosing evil enhances the experience for players.

Christopher Braithwaite
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I think the number of people choosing the "good" path is a valid point to discuss. It appears that the enjoyment players get from evil paths is not playing them so much as it is to play the good path knowing the evil path is always available. This makes being good actually feel like a choice rather than something forced by the developer.

Peter Dassenko
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I thought the problem with choices in BioShock was that you ultimately received the same reward whether you saved or killed a little sister. Once I figured out which path to choose - based on an Achievement & the realization that I received the same reward either way - the choice became a formality in deciding how I wanted to receive the same end result. For me, any morality based decision is dependent on the perceived benefit or player experience - since it's a video game...

Ian Thomas
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I found some of the choices in both Mass Effect and particularly Dragon Age much more interesting; there are pivotal choices in each game which have no obvious good or evil path (unlike, say, KoToR) but which clearly have dramatic and damaging repercussions, whichever outcome is chosen. Those choices were much more terrifying and paralysing, and therefore much more interesting, than the rather obvious moral choices in many other games.

Christopher Braithwaite
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I think strict "black/white" morality is underrated in games. There is so much that can be done with seemingly ironclad moral systems (i.e. Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics) that I think developers are leaving a lot of territory undiscovered in the stampede towards ambiguous morality. The Kotors did some good work in this area by playing with the context and meaning of light/dark; I wish more games would expand on these ideas.

Duncan Boehle
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It's interesting how the article didn't really discuss the idea of morality in games *deliberately* being straightforward. For example, Sid Meier's game psychology speech emphasized reducing moral ambiguity for the sake of improving the gameplay experience, by making the player feel rewarded and sure of his/her decisions. He gave the example of making sure Genghis Khan was a really despicable character, to encourage the player to attack him, instead of making the player doubt what the action is "supposed" to be.

This article takes the exact opposite approach, which assumes that making the player doubt his/her actions is good. That makes sense if ambiguity causes the player to really think about his/her actions, which will drive home an artistic or moral theme that can't be conveyed with purely instinctive play. But I wish this article went more into the balance/trade-off between conveying a theme to the player and creating a compelling gameplay experience.

There's definitely a cost to constantly giving deliberately frustrating/difficult choices to the player, and the best designs should be able to both deliver a moral theme *and* remain fun, rewarding, and engaging.

Bart Stewart
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What about the possibility that different individuals naturally tend to prefer either moral ambiguity (freedom to choose) or moral clarity (satisfaction/security of knowing the right thing to do)?

A game designed to focus on clear right/wrong choices will fail to satisfy someone who finds exploration of gray areas more satisfying. And a game in which every choice has both positive and negative consequences is likely to be unsatisfying to a player who wants to feel like a hero.

Is a best-of-both-worlds design possible? Can a game be designed so that it effectively satisfies both the gamers who want to be free to choose any action regardless of externally-imposed moral assessments, as well as those gamers who prefer that clear distinctions are drawn between right and wrong actions?

Christopher Braithwaite
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I think you are falsely polarizing players who prefer ambiguity and players who prefer clarity. I think that a player who is only interested in the "clear choice" as Duncan suggests is not actually interested in morality play at all. OTOH, players who wrestle with questions of either good/evil or gray areas are actually the same kind of player.

Bart Stewart
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Christopher, I think you might have trouble convincing people that a preference for moral clarity (in gameplay or real life) has nothing to do with a moral sense. Freely choosing the "good" option -- or the "evil" option -- is no less a choice than choosing a more ambiguous action. In fact, it may be more difficult (and therefore more interesting in a gameplay sense) than picking from a bunch of options each of which is no more good or bad than the next.

As you yourself said (with considerable insight IMO), the real value of the evil path may not be that it offers some amazing content, but simply that it exists and is always available. To put it another way, the reason for the existence of evil is to create the possibility that players may choose to do good -- good has no meaning unless it's a true and freely available choice.

My point was that a game with mostly black-and-white choices, where the good action can generally be distinguished clearly from the evil option, is likely to appeal to different kinds of people than a game where, as in film noir, no "right" choice exists and the only question is who has more power. The same person may be able to enjoy both Star Wars and Dirty Harry, but I think that person is still likely to prefer one over the other as representative of a style of entertainment. I don't agree that that's a false distinction.

So my question was whether it's possible to design a game that can satisfy both worldviews as gameplay style preferences. Can one game offer plenty of choices that are interesting because their positive or negative consequences to other characters are clear, while at the same time offering satisfying gameplay choices whose moral impact is mixed or unknown? Or does a game need to be designed to be mostly one or the other? I still think that's a valid question.

David Hughes
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@Christopher: Maybe I'm in the minority, but quite frequently I enjoy exploring the 'evil' path in games. One game in particular stands out in my memory, because it was also the first game with a morality system I ever played: BioWare's Knights of the Old Republic. There is a game with pretty concrete light/dark choices, but both sides are well-realized and the dark side is damn fun! In fact, it fits the whole Star Wars mythos of the dark side being the one where you give in to emotion, etc.

Another type of game that's interesting is a game with some clear-cut choices, and then a bunch of environmental choices which accrue good/evil over time--I'm thinking of the Fable series. Here there are a few 'big' choices along the lines of traditional RPGs, but EVERY action plays into the 'morph' system. Your character evolves over time, sometimes into a fat, balding hero with horns (which I had one playthrough). This is a game design that deserves more attention, even though many of the other elements of Fable I and II are shallow (i.e. relationships).

Duncan Boehle
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Following up on the idea of Fable having variable-sized moral issues throughout the game, what about a game that had variable amounts of moral ambiguity? To address Bart's question, it seems like most games today are limiting themselves (completely understandably) by having a fairly linear set of choices. Even though the player can make all sorts of interesting decisions in the game that affect an arbitrary stat like "karma", for instance, what if a game used the player's earlier choices to strongly influence the choices they could later make in the game?

Mass Effect seems to attempt this, but ends up coming across as restrictive, rather than enabling the player. For example, dialog options become available/unavailable during conversations depending on what choices the player has made in the past. This system allows for extreme players to quickly choose to be the good guy or bad guy, and they would be satisfied. For the camp who prefers moral ambiguity, however, Mass Effect's design falls short - the "grey" options are usually neutral, instead of conflicted. So if the player doesn't believe in following one extreme in particular, the game ultimately restricts the player's options by disabling the extremes.

Instead of restricting options for this group of players, the game could instead provide alternative scenarios or choices - such as situations that were more difficult and conflicted, or ones that asked the player important moral questions. The main problem with trying to get the best of both worlds is that the game's content and situations naturally lend themselves to either black/white or grey choices; changing the content and these situations based on the player's actions seems like the most direct way to solve the problem. The challenge them becomes creating situations that can be skewed as either straightforward or ambiguous - and that sounds fun to solve :)

Stephen Chin
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" So if the player doesn't believe in following one extreme in particular, the game ultimately restricts the player's options by disabling the extremes."

But isn't that consistent? A person who is not a Paragon is not going to successfully pull off a Paragon response (and ME does not have any method of 'failing' a conversation). However, I do agree with the underlying thought that often there is little incentive or support for a neutral answer - either you're picking good/bad (or whatever) or you're... just vaguely defined as far as the game's morals and ethics go. It would be, perhaps, more fulfilling to introduce a neutral option as a valid moral/ethical path. So, to use ME's system, you would have Paragon (how you do something is as defining as what you do), Renegade (the ends justify the means), and well... some other label representing something like acting in the moment - you make your decisions based on the individual circumstances. Or what not. You would have three meters opening and closing off different options - and in the case of the Neutral option, in addition to having it's own unique options, it might count as a small modifier to Paragon and Renegade score.

ME though, it should be noted does not necessarily equate Paragon as good and Renegade as bad. Both are portrayed as good - it's the means, methods, and motives that vary for each. Paragon simply represents more of the traditional heroic character - an altruist while Renegade is mroe of the Cowboy Cop (Dirty Harry).

Tim Haywood
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I actually think this is a bit of a designer fad at the moment. But its born of a disturbance thats bubbling under within the gaming industry. In that game makers are beginning to feel conflicted about the content of their games. As games become more casual, more mass market, game makers are becoming worried about the moral issues of the content we create. I believe that because of this, design often subconsciously compensates for our concerns about morality.

We worry about the violence in our games, so we give the player the choice so we don't have to take moral responsibility for the actions of our game characters.

GTA IV doesn't worry about such issues, Niko is a killer, so technically you play an evil character. Yet you can really empathize with him. It's some of the best game based story telling in recent years.

But with Dead Red Redemption there are moral choice to be made, and its interesting that this game has not been as well received as GTA IV (its still great though), and is it because the main character isn't as clearly defined, as is more of a blank canvass that the player paints on to by their actions....? (and therefore for some its not as cool as a game with a clearly defined protagonist?)

Mass Effect 2, gives you two (three in a way), moral paths to follow, with ultimately the same goal - there are significant changes to the story though which makes it satisfying enough to do a number of repeat plays to see how things turned out. But again its difficult to take the moral high ground when you shoot the faces off people even if you do it politely.

But what about something like Modern Warfare II? Even playing the game is a moral choice, then there are other choices within the game to make, but to be honest once you put on the uniform the moral choice has been made. But killing isn't evil right, not if its against "them"?

Is a Soldier killing people morally wrong? In Christianity, Its one of the 10 commandments, "Thou shalt not kill". But as anyone even remotely schooledl in religion will know, that only applies to the followers of that religion. You can kill an unbeliever and are quite often encouraged to. Of course these days we take a less literal view of this.

But putting religion a side for a sec, society morality in the US and the UK, on the one hand punishes violence and vicious people, yet pumps millions of dollars and pounds, into "defense". We have armed forces around the globe killing people. Yet our governments take the moral high ground, and say they deserve it. I pretty sure a lot of people in prisons feel that whom ever they hurt or killed "deserved it too".

So giving we live in a society that is evidently conflicted about what is moral and what is not, this is subconsciously reflected in the games that we make and play, and some developers don't want the responsibility so they pass it over. But some (and probably the better for it), accept the morality of their characters because after all - ITS FICTIONAL, its not real world, its a form of escapism entertainment and should NOT be worried about, as long as it stays on the sensible side of decency.

Christopher Braithwaite
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I believe the answer to your question is yes, a game that encompasses both stark and nuanced morality is definitely possible; it's the kind of thing that keeps a show like Law & Order on the air for 20 years. Figuring out how to get that formula to work in a game will require lots of determination and a tremendous stroke of luck but I do think it's possible.

@David Hughes

Am I the only one who thought choosing The Needs of the One at the end of Fable II was the only remotely ethical choice? I had serious problems with the other two choices which seemed selfish, inconsiderate and unrealistic to me.

Thomas Whitfield
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@Tim Heywood

GTA4 is a different kind of choice based system. Niko, his story, and his good/evil -ness are a variable based on how you play. He's looking to start a new life. He can fail in a variety of ways non of which are scripted at all.

Niko living the shortest GTA4 game possible (say trying to get the "Liberty City Min." Achievement / Trophy) is Niko who is trying his hardest to get out of the killing business... to get better... to just do what little he has to to start a new life and give up all the killing.

On the other hand a Niko that goes for 100% completion is slaughtering and murdering hundreds and maybe thousands more people. He is taking more missions (pretty much all of which are pretty much morally iffy at best and gut level insane at worst... usually involve killing a lot of people. Not to mention all the little things 9shooting 100 pigeons, driving all over everything to do stunt jumps off of them). This Niko failed to get above the world he is trying to escape. He spends hours of quality time with his new "friends", often driving drunk. He has dived in head first and let the insanity and killing rule his new life.

The scripted sequences are exactly the same on both play-through types... but the Niko you end up with (as an assemblage of his total actions) are completely different. The short game Niko is a sympathetic character. The long game Niko is a complete psychopath, who may deserve the ending (again it is the exact same ending).

This doesn't take into account random player behavior. A player can play the short game and at the same time always drive his cars on the sidewalks so as to hit the most people.

The Niko i played was a sympathetic character that did not plow through crowds with a garbage truck or lob grenades randomly off of bridges... he wasn't a nice guy, he wasn't perfect, but he was a pretty grey character. My brother's Niko, however... was not well at all.

Rui Craveirinha
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In games, morality is just different word for a win-win reward system.

- You helped granny cross the street. + 5 Good. She rewards you with 1000 Gold.

- You killed granny. + 10 Evil. You loot her corpse for 1000 Gold.

Is this what we'd call morality?


Probably, the reason why people chose the "good" path is because it is as rewarding as the evil one (in pure game terms you are never truly penalized for choosing a specific path) and it arives at happy endings, which we're naturally inclined to pursue. "Good" points are perceived as more valuable than evil ones: most of us want to be adored, nurtured and loved, not hated and despised. Again, I think this has aught to do with morality - it's all a matter of making players feel rewarded and motivated to play. The final points of the interview sum this pretty nicely: all interviewed have to rationalize the "morality" system in accordance to real-life views, but in the end they all admit that to make a commercially viable game morality pressuposes rewards... all else is rhetoric.


Morals should be a question of a true, unbiased choice, one which should not be "easy" to pursue. Real life offers powerful connundrums in terms of what is right and wrong, not clear binary choices on whether you're good or evil. Also, decisions branch out in complex, impossible to predicts ways, making the assessment of what is good or evil that much harder. Furthermore, in real-life, more often than not, good decisions warrant sacrifice, hard work, pain and even suffering to many. Bad decisions may bring about happiness and fortune to equally as many. None of this I see in either of the aforementioned games.


Most important of all, unlike other mediums, I do not see an author's views on life in these so called 'morality' systems. I want to know what the game designer feels should happen in these moral conundrums. The consequences of players' actions should be dictated by a specific world view, not by a sanatized, polished, consensual (yet hypocritical) idea of "good" vs "evil". I want powerful dilemmas that move my heart, question my belief system, political views, and teach me something about life, not some sappy reassurance that I did a good deed by helping granny cross the street.

To even discuss morality based on the pre-adolescent logic of "Fallout 3" or "Bioshock" is something alltogether outrageous once you shift into perspective. Literature, theatre and cinema have all offered a great deal more insight into these issues, with an infintesimal part of the expressive potential that computers afford game designers, so why do we even bother dissecting this? What am I even doing here? I haven't got a clue.

Robert Schmidt
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I think that the best way to tackle the question of morality is to dispense with the concepts of good and evil, right and wrong, all together, otherwise the player isn't making moral or ethical choices they are instead choosing to be good or bad which is different. Much of western concepts of good and evil are based on selfish vs. collective and short-term vs. long term benefits. But there is nothing inherently right or wrong in these choices, society just attaches a value to them based on the circumstances of the day. At certain times society puts a greater emphasis on individual achievement, at other times the good of the collective is more important. Instead of attaching labels to the choices or defining one path as good and another as evil one should merely have consequences. I see moral absolutism as one of the problems with culture in general. It slows social progress. I am working on a game that looks at social issues from the perspective of resource management and social cohesion. If a player chooses not to share their food with the collective, for example when they have more to give than the collective, they may succeed in the short term but long term, the collective may not share their food with the player, which could be fatal if the circumstances are reversed. No dark clouds or evil laughter, just consequences. This allows the player to understand the roots of morality rather than just playing with being a good guy or bad guy.

Rui Craveirinha
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@Robert Schmidt

I would love to play that 'game' of yours ;)

Bart Stewart
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@Robert, it's interesting to see this approached from the Simulationist point of view, which is where I tend to live.

From a Narrativist perspective, it makes sense to define specific moral/ethical choices with clear outcomes since that's the most comprehensible way of telling a particular story or limited set of alternative stories. It also appeals somewhat to the Gamist designer (insofar as dealing with "internal" stuff like thoughts and feelings energizes the typical Gamist at all), since well-defined situations and actions can be seen as just another form of rules-following design.

But from a Simulationist point of view, that approach is relatively uninteresting because it has to be hardcoded. It's tedious hand-coding of individual cases instead of building a single Big General System that covers a wide range of possibilities. And it leaves no room for discovering the unexpected.

Better (the Simulationist thinks) would be to focus on creating a system with three features: 1) NPCs have goals, 2) NPCs know when you help them or hurt them with respect to their goals, and 2) NPCs can belong to groups with shared large-scale goals and pooled resources. Assuming you're able to do other things in this gameworld beyond just shooting everything that moves, if you help an individual NPC (which that character would see as the "good" option even if it looks evil to some NPC with opposed goals), your favor/faction/relationship with them goes up some amount, and by some smaller amount with any groups they're associated with -- likewise in the other direction if you do something that injures them in some way.

Add up enough such interactions over time, both locally and globally, so that individual NPCs and groups can recognize patterns in your behavior toward them, and what you wind up with is emergent ethics. You'll play the game in a particular way to be on the "good" side of individuals and groups whose goals you favor, but without any developer having to hard-code a +10 Evil value for whacking poor Granny.

So my question is, why don't more publishers want to fund Simulationist game designers?

(That's probably a question that answers itself....)

Robert Schmidt
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@Bart Stewart, agreed. And you are right that I do approach this from more of a simulation perspective. At the same time, I think it is impossible to address morality if the choices have value judgements attached unless the point is to question those value judgements. You can address ethics but it seems to me that in terms of narration you are not really "exploring" those concepts rather you using them to drive story and character. To me that is no more about morality than chosing between one path or another on a trail. Ultimately there can be no explicit reward for moral behaviour otherwise it is not moral. Therefore the only reward the player should receive for their actions is a personal level of satisfaction from doing the "right" thing. One of the problems I see with this article is that it doesn't differentiate between morality and ethics. They are fundamentally different issues. I am taking this article at its word and looking at the moral question.