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The use of morality in games

Why is morality an interesting mechanic to include in a game? As a basic explanation, it could be that it takes advantage of what other mediums can’t do. Direct interaction with the player. While watching a movie you have no control over it. However, player choices can shape their character and story experience. As a result of this added control, gamers have more reason to experiment and replay games. Since morality is a driver of these choices, it’s naturally becoming more prevalent in gaming over time.

Moral decisions often serve to give players more options in a game, but also make them feel something about the consequences of their actions. Additionally being all-in on good or bad often leads to new gameplay options. We’ve seen this in action with basic heroic or villainous decisions in games like InfamousBioShock and Mass Effect. Yet these decisions and their consequences are often too basic. To understand this, we have to look at how the use of morality in games has changed.


The history of videogame morality…

There is a long history of choosing between actions that could be morally right or wrong in videogames. The difference is that past generations didn’t explicitly point out their morality, except for making things harder for you. This includes the very first Grand Theft Auto, which let players freely murder non-player characters (NPCs) until the cops could stop it.

The most famous examples are clear and binary choices. In games like Mass Effect, morality is used as a core mechanic, with visible ‘good’ and ‘bad’ meters that fill depending on your choices. Those choices are mostly obvious, and almost always either good or bad with no other options in-between. Decisions like these are oversimplified compared to the complexity of real-life morality. People aren’t always good or always bad in real life. On top of this, some decisions are only available if you are high enough on one side of the meter. 

But real-life morality doesn’t work that way. Good and bad people don’t work on a slider, gradually changing from one to the other. They are a mix of both and can change over time. However this kind of moral system can still work depending on the choices, or lack of choices given. Moments where Mass Effect presents you with only poor choices and lets you choose the lesser of two evils can work brilliantly. 

Additionally, games that don’t give a ‘good’ option and leave you at the mercy of the developer’s intention can work too. Since these moments have no choices, they can potentially have a bigger emotional effect. The ‘No Russian’ scene from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 stands out as a morally difficult moment, forcing the player to be an accomplice to mass murder. By letting players feel guilt through their own actions, morality is explored in a different way. This could be why the ‘No Russian’ scene was so controversial at the time, and why modern games are moving to more ambiguous uses of morality.


What do players usually do?

Surprisingly enough, within the context of morals in gaming, most players are still fundamentally good people. Despite being fictional, gamers choose to act with good intentions and stray on the path of being morally just in their games. This theory is echoed by Chris Avellone, writer of Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. “The majority of people want to be good and be an agent of change in a world that allows them to be good,” said Chris, to The Hollywood Reporter.

In adventure games, statistics are often tracked to show players how they acted compared to others. Richard Iggo (Telltale Games senior director of marketing) told GamesBeat “when faced with no-win situations where each decision is morally gray – the majority of people will try to do the ‘right’ thing if they can”.


The player motivation…

From a psychological perspective, we could guess that these players just don’t want to feel guilty over a morally questionable deed they played out in their game. However, there are also plenty of gamers who have no qualms about being the biggest jerks they can be. Associate professor of criminal justice and psychology at Texas A&M International, Dr. Chris Ferguson, theorized that it’s not guilt that motivates players, but fun. Fun content like weapons or alternate endings would motivate player decisions, instead of what’s morally right.

The paragon and renegade meters of Mass Effect are a prime example of this. While the Mass Effect series has a whole swathe of great moral decisions to make, the fact that these decisions contribute to points on a meter is undeniably a videogame mechanic. Since morality is gamified, players might decide to make decisions not based on their perception of right or wrong. Instead, Mass Effect gamers likely play by raising one of the two meters to earn in-game bonuses like new dialogue options, items or cutscenes.

Similarly, saving the little girls in BioShock is undeniably the morally right thing to do. Meaning that players who don’t do it are either curious about the outcome or want to see the alternate ending. Neither way is the wrong way to play. Both options exist to provide more fun diverging paths in games. Though players reacting to morally charged moments could be a good sign for a game. Meaning that developers who notice the majority of their players acting morally good, could rest assured that they’ve created a game with strong enough characters and writing to solicit those real-world emotions out of the gamers.



A shift in thinking…

In the current generation of consoles, we’ve seen the clear shift away from good and bad meters. There are now ample games that let the player decide how something plays out. Games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, don’t award points or rewards for good or bad actions. The moral ambiguity from quests lets players ponder the consequences of their actions.

By implementing morality this way, choices become less obvious. In the cases of games like The Witcher, they could be important branching points for the story without you even knowing. As a result, players have more freedom to experiment with decisions. This freedom in moral decision making can be far more interesting for players. It lets morality in games gain some needed nuance. On the developer side, this works too, as there are fewer mechanics to implement. Exploring morality simply requires some solid writing and game design.



Morality in modern games…

More recent releases like The Outer Worlds are abundant with this kind of moral decision making too. Early moments in the game allow you to decide between giving a resource to one group of people over another. It looks like a clear cut decision thanks to a prior interaction with an unlikeable character from one faction. Brilliantly though, a companion character points out that there are good people that would be affected in that group too. So no matter what you decide, someone will suffer and it’s not obvious once you complete the quest. Rather, you see for yourself by re-visiting these groups and seeing how their lives have changed.

Moving forward, it’s clear to me that the use of morality in games has only improved. Removing any obvious moral mechanics gives games a chance to use morality in a vaguer but far more interesting way. There are often no rewards when in-game choices are ambiguous. In these cases, it will always be up to the player to determine what’s good or bad. More player choices can only benefit games as a whole, and let’s hope this trend continues with titles like Cyberpunk 2077 and Dying Light 2 on the horizon.

Chirag Pattni
Psychologist and long time gamer. Has a love-hate relationship with technology and loves all things Japanese.

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