The problem of morality in videogames

Aaron looks at why morality in video games rarely manages to achieve the lofty goals set by developers...

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, morality is defined as:

1. descriptively to refer to some codes of conduct put forward by a society or,a. some other group, such as a religion, orb. accepted by an individual for her own behaviour or2. normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.

The definition goes on to describe morality as a code of conduct that applies to all who can understand it, and that anyone who fits this description should never override these rules. Those with a rational disposition would also have no problems with this. Fair enough.

Regardless of any official or professional definitions of the term, or whether you can recite the definition yourself (or even understand it) morality is something that we all just get, at least those of us not susceptible to the kinds of urges the more undesirable element of our society may experience. Most of us don’t need an in-depth, philosophical explanation of morality, we just know what’s right, and what’s wrong. We also know that morality is far from black and white. It doesn’t fall into two categories of right and wrong or good or bad, there are many shades of grey, and these colours of morality shift and blur depending on the person and situation. So, why then, do game developers so often insist that a simple duality approach to morality is correct?

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Moral Effect

The trend of giving gamers a chance to play with the moral football has grown over the years, and many games feature some form of decision-making process that can paint the player, and their character, as a good or bad guy. Some games deal with the most basic of moralities, such as the Infamous series’ approach of being a hero or super villain, achieved by either helping cops and civilians, or doing the opposite with an evil, moustache-twirling laugh. BioShock presents the obvious extremes of saving or killing little girls, which is even more blatant, whilst others, such as BioWare’s Mass Effect, offer a little more depth, with various kinds of situations that force the player to choose their path, often with large-scale repercussions. The devs billed these choices as Paragon and Renegade rather than simple good or evil, but let’s face it, it’s still a good or bad meter. Other games tackles specific areas of morality, such as Catherine‘s focus on being faithful in a relationship.

This is all well and good, and we’re all for injecting some moral choices and development in games. We’ve got plenty of mindless, shoot the currently in vogue evil nationality in the name of freedom titles floating around, so a game that makes you think, and even consider the ramifications of your actions is definitely a welcome sight. The problem with this, however, is that most games simply don’t get it right, or even come close.

As I said earlier, morality is far more complex than good or bad, and so are the results. Most games don’t embrace this complexity, instead offering clear cut good and bad choices. These choices will usually affect your character in either a good or bad, hero of villain way. Rarely do they attempt any real character development, and most of the time the repercussions are simply scripted events, or rail road-style signal points along the story’s time line. What’s more, choice are often delivered in obvious, in your face ways, and can even be controlled and limited. You’re also rewarded regardless of your choice in most cases, so being evil, for example, rarely comes with the kind of consequences you’d expect, or face in real life, removing most of the gravity of the decision.

Take Mass Effect for example, a champion of player freedom and moral choice. Instead of letting players make an important decision organically as Commander Shepard, choosing their own fate, the game often goes into an obvious moral moment, and a prompt pops up onscreen, and you can choose whether or not to execute the corresponding action. Much of the rest of the morality is handled in dialogue trees rather than actual actions, and many choices aren’t even available unless you’re already far enough along one of the two moral directions. So, if you’ve been good throughout the game, you’re effectively unable to even try making an evil decision, and vice versa. This limitation means its not really a moral choice, but a forced decision, and it takes the micromanagement of morality out of the equation , instead setting it up as one, large arcing choice, with a direction you initially choose to head in and stick with.

I don’t know about you, but I know that I made some bad choices, morally or otherwise, when I was younger, but I didn’t turn out so bad as I learned, changed, and developed as a person. Not so for the likes of Commander Shepard. Unless you want to end as a neutral middleman, he’s or she’s good or bad for the duration, as you have to pile in the karma points to be able to unlock the good or bad dialogue choices. If you stay neutral, a lot of these choices aren’t available, further forcing you to choose one or the other.

Regardless of the way in which games such as Mass Effect restrict moral choices to cater for the ongoing story, another factor that’s often overlooked is that morality isn’t simple multiple choice, and along with the good or evil basics, emotion plays a very big part. Again, as I said earlier, we all usually know what’s considered good and bad, that’s simple, but when it comes to morality, this is often greatly affected and swayed by emotion. Often this emotion is fuelled by a situation, and strong enough emotion can even change the usually easy to understand good or evil aspects of an action, and change people’s usual view of morality.

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Take, for example, the parents of a murdered child. Forgive me, it’s not a nice subject, I know, but it’s one way to look at morality and its lack of definites, and how emotion can change things. Some would argue that the parents would be right for wanting to see the perpetrator punished for their crime, even to a capital level, and that the reasons for this are justified. However, others would say that it’s morally wrong to take another life, even one of a such an evil criminal.

Now, personally, I’m not an advocate of taking human life, but if said parents took the latter option, would I think this made them morally wrong? No, of course not. They’re not evil, they’re just coming from a place only they can possibly understand, and this justifiably affects their views. Morality doesn’t come into it in a ‘normal’ way, certainly not to the point that a Mass Effect-style good and bad meter would divvy out evil points for making such a decision. There are always other factors that go into such decisions, such as emotion and personal issues that a socially acceptable set of rules can’t cater for, and simple video game logic just can’t reproduce this, at least not all the time. Occasionally, though, some titles do get a little closer.

Chicken Chaser

As much as the series has been ridiculed and criticised for failing to deliver, Fable is one of the few games to come close to actually getting morality right. Rather than offer a simple press A, B or C choice, the whole game was a moral exercise. Everything you did, be it choose quests that were of a good or bad alignment, help villagers, drop rent prices for your tenants or, even stay faithful to your wife was up to you. Few prompts were given, the whole game left your choices and lifestyle in your hands. You lived in the world how you saw fit.

Even when the game relented, and gave in to the traditional multiple choice, and demanded a big, obvious moral decision, such as the one at the end of Fable II, it worked as options dealt with personal, even emotional choices you’d made up to that point. If you chose to raise a family, for example (which you could totally ignore if you liked) the option of sacrificing your loved ones was a very real choice, and the moral balancing of your wife and children versus everyone else in the kingdom was difficult. It worked, as well as any game has managed thus far.

Similarly, another game that suffered criticism was Alpha Protocol. Admittedly, much of this criticism was deserved, as the game was buggy and poorly developed, but one area where it got things right was with the player choice. This wasn’t really billed as moral choice so much, but often these choices were a test of your own personality, and importantly, the repercussions were handled very well. Your choices affected your path through the story far more than other games, changing which characters helped or hindered you, and even future confrontations. What’s more, the choices weren’t basic good or evil, but more about personal interaction and how you handled yourself. It was impressive, and although still largely scripted, as games are, it gave a better impression of player choice, moral or otherwise.

On the flip side, something like Mass Effect‘s no frills, basic choice of sacrificing Kaiden or Ashley, two people we’ve only been on a couple of missions with by that point, one of which is a full-on xenophobe, pales in comparison, and is handled in a pick number one or number two way. The difference is huge, there’s little to no emotional investment, and aside from changing which character you’ll meet later on in the series, the repercussions are minor for such a pivotal moment.

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Because people aren’t light switches, with only two states of mind, this basic, and often impersonal approach simply isn’t sufficient to truly challenge your moral compass. And this is further proven with real psychological tests that ask various random questions (think the Voight-Kampff, or Turing test from Blade Runner).

Often these are moral questions designed to reveal a person’s moral fibre, but there are no pre-defined right or wrong answers, it’s more about how a question is answered, rather than the answer chosen. A person’s actions and emotional state is far more important. Psychologists know that it’s not so simple as a limited selection of possible choices.

Pick A Card

So, if a game’s so-called moral choices aren’t all that moral above and beyond the most fundamental definites, what are they, and should developers continue along this path? Games like Mass Effect may offer good or bad character options, but at the end of the day they’re not so much moral choice, but are instead simple choices. With your possible actions laid out for you, pre-scripted like one of those old adventure books, there’s little room for you to really pick your own path. If anything, most gamers would simply choose one option to see what happens, and pick the other on the next play through.

Now, this isn’t bad, and although they may not be deeply, it at all moral, such choices in games can only be a good thing, and anything that gives players the option of taking control, and not being tied to a linear story, or restricted character with no development is far better than the alternative. I’d argue, though, that much of the time this morality is simply player choice and reasons to replay the game. To be truly billed as a moral choice, more needs to be done, and we need to understand why previous attempts have failed.


As morality is a very complex and often personal thing, for a game to truly embrace this subject, and to give players a real moral choice, the game itself needs to evolve. At the most basic level, pre-scripted stories and character interaction would need to be altered, or totally overhauled. As everyone is different, and has a different sense of morality, games would need to adapt to each player. This would mean a greater level of artificial intelligence, and even learning and adaptability. Even the best AI in gaming at the moment is still a simple decision tree based upon possible player choices, and so limits are easily reached. With better, and more flexible AI, unique choices and situations could make for a far more believable and emotionally involving situations.

This level of AI, unscripted story, and world progression simply isn’t possible at this time, and hardware and software limitations prevent games that are truly open, not relying on pre-determined events, from being developed. We’re talking Star Trek holodeck-style interaction here, and so it’s easy to understand why games with moral choices are so restricted and fail to truly hit the mark, even when a studio as talented as BioWare is behind it.

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So, what can be done? As I pointed out earlier, not all games have relied on the same choice-based system. Both Fable and Alpha Protocol have managed to achieve more success when it comes to morality, not relying so much on obvious choices. By taking away the multiple choice system (applicable to Fable more so than Alpha Protocol), there’s far more room for a player to experiment in their own way without arbitrary restrictions. Fable may not have been the deepest game morally, with a more cartoon-style series of events, but if this approach was used in different themes, and expanded upon with better tech, it could be a very interesting exercise in user morality.

Even if developers stick with the more traditional, and easier method of simple choice, games like The Witcher did a better job than most. Here choices weren’t obvious. You could make a pivotal decision without even knowing it, even to the point that in another play through you still may miss the choices that lead to specific events. This subtle use of choice to affect the story is far better than an obvious red or blue decision, and needs no new tech or advanced mechanics, just better planning and writing.

Whichever method is employed, it’s clear that true morality in gaming is a difficult matter, and getting that correct balance of choice and emotional impact is something that’s arguably more difficult that crafting a game that plays well. Still, if a developer claims that a game offers real moral choices, then surely, this is work that needs to be done.

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