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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 Previous Page 3 of 3

As with any debate on ethics, there are several different takes on what makes for compelling moral gameplay, and both Pagliarulo and Thomas can cite several examples about what makes for interesting gameplay choices, as well as why it's become popular to give gamers these options.

"I think gamers get tired of doing the same thing over and over," says Pagliarulo. "We've slain dragons, beat up super villains, and shot at space marines over and over again. There's a level of burnout there. So when you throw in something like a morality system, it forces the player to stop running on autopilot, and think about their actions a bit more carefully. 'Shooting the bad guy' becomes 'shooting the guy who may or may not be bad,' and that in itself adds a unique twist to the gameplay.

"Look at a game like Army of Two: The 40th Day. You've got this really tight co-op experience, but there are also these situations where you've got to make a moral decision in a matter of seconds. You never know when one is going to pop up, or what the outcome is going to be, and it adds a layer of gameplay beyond simply 'point my gun at this guy and pull the trigger."

Thomas points to studios like BioWare and Pagliarulo's employer Bethesda as developers who create games with compelling choices.

"There were quests in the Baldur's Gate series which I felt were sort of difficult for me to reconcile because there wasn't really a right answer," says Thomas. "The choices you made would offend a party member and that party member, when pushed to a certain limit, would turn on you.

"I experienced a kind of crisis in that I wanted to please everybody, and I certainly have seen a lot of real-life humans fall prey to that same problem. Ultimately, it felt as subjective and kind of relativistic as philosophy does in real life. At that moment I was like 'dammit, there's no right answer here!' and of course I had to put down the party member and felt terrible about it."

"Then there's the assassin's guild quest line in Oblivion, written by Emil," says Thomas. "It's very interesting, because it's supposedly the most kind of sociopathic and empathy-free quest line in the game, and yet it's also the one that made me feel something. Because -- spoiler alert -- you're brought into this quite charming family of monsters and at some point you're called upon to turn on them and kill each one through a variety of means - poisoning their food, killing them in their sleep, all of these things.

"You come to sort of love them, because they're charming in their sort of gruesome fairy tale way. And so I felt genuine ethical queasiness at the prospect of taking the few characters in the game that I cared about and annihilating them for the cause."

Finally, Thomas points to Ubisoft's open-world shooter Far Cry 2 as an unsung example of a game that offers compelling moral choice gameplay. "There are certainly decisions that you can make that shape the narrative in a very broad way, such as when one of your rescue-ready buddies comes out to help you in the field. If they get tagged and they're bleeding on the ground, you can sacrifice one of your syrettes to bring them back, but if you can't do that you can either abandon them or blow them away.

Far Cry 2

"All of these things feel grey when they're in the heat of the moment. They're contextual. The game responds to them, but it's not really making a specific didactic moral statement, it's just putting you in the position of making interesting decisions and allowing your own pre-loaded moral structures to be self-applied. I think that's extremely powerful."

As designers continue to experiment with interactive morality, new innovations will certainly arise to allow for more and more powerful emotional experiences. Could the first step towards creating more moral complexity be the discontinuation of rewards like Achievements and Trophies for earning the "good" or "bad" ending of a game?

"You could argue, and I think many have, that moral decision making in interactive entertainment sort of requires that you accept the sociopathic economist in all of us," says Thomas. "If you want to players to make these decisions based on any kind of internal ethical compass, you should decouple them from any mechanical rewards. I'm not totally sure I agree with that, because in real life, there are physical rewards for all forms of self-interest. But I certainly agree that we start with such an incredible bias upon entering a genuinely solipsistic artificial space."

"Concrete gain is the root of any conflict of interest," Thomas continues. "It's difficult to imagine a set of quandaries that doesn't touch on material. I know that you can do it, but you would be filtering those questions, and perhaps in some game where all rewards are essentially equal.

"Perhaps it's also possible that you'd have to open up to leaving things in a state of questionable resolution as well. In BioShock 2, as a highly narrative-driven shooter, we felt compelled to tie it off, to show that your actions lead to a dramatically compelling outcome no matter what. In real life, that's not the case. The right path might actually be the most boring. There's the notion that we're also entertaining as we do this.

"That puts the thought experiment of what games could be into some question. Because again in the case of BioShock 2, we're throwing millions of dollars at this, and the user is expecting to be compelled and titillated in the same way as with any narrative. And as with real life, playing the saint is a lot less fun and arguably not a commercially viable decision."

While Thomas is probably correct that few players will say they want to be all good all the time, the feedback on moral choices in games might suggest otherwise. In short, although many games offer up the option to be diabolically evil, most players want to be good. "Interestingly, when we looked at the actual stats for Fallout 3 we learned that a really staggering majority of people chose to play the game as the good guy," says Pagliarulo. "So it's really interesting to me that even though we gave players the choice to be evil, to be the jerk -- most of them chose not to."

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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