There are games out there that claim to have the player make moral decisions – and that the decisions will change the game in dramatic ways. I’ve always been let down by these games because they promise so much and don’t fully deliver. It’s very rare to find a game that brings moral issues to the forefront of the player’s experience.
It’s too easy to put the moral aspects of play in a cutscene and that does very little. This may have something to do with how some game makers learn about morals and ethics in games.
Take a look at this tutorial on karma and moral decision making. The way that moral decisions are discussed is to frame them in the context of what moral decision system to use (relating to interface and not ideology) instead of what makes for a good moral question.
Too often the moral decisions are made for the players by the virtue of the design of the game. It’s not about what’s morally “correct” but what’s best to “win”. I’ve done horrible things in video games because they get me to win, but these horrible things are actions I’ll never consider outside of game play.
By crafting moral decisions into our game a priori the played experience we are not giving the player a decision.
As designers, if we focus on crafting good questions we can get good moral exploration in games. It’s of the utmost importance that we embody this in the gameplay and not just in a single character or a cutscene.
The moral quandary must transcend the game!
How do we create this feeling that transcends the game? We can do so by invoking aspects of the player’s life or by incorporating an open question around meta-ethics. By looking at meta-ethics we can start thinking about really good questions that will get players thinking in new ways. Philosophy Now has a good podcast episode on meta-ethics.
A recent Guardian article on guilt in video games touched on getting the player to feel moral issues. In fact, the article is a good summary with issues around morals in games today.
Which is why guilt is so fascinating as a game component – it can exist both inside and outside of the mechanics, and it can permeate the whole experience. In the sci-fi strategy game XCOM, players can name the characters themselves, and many of us choose to use the names of friends and relatives. Almost by accident, this brings to the game an almost unconscious guilt mechanic – you feel bad about endangering the character named after your boyfriend, or pet dog, or mum; maybe you even protect that character, placing them at the back of the pack.
If you find all of this too heavy, take a break and listen to this interview on morality and humour with Noël Carroll.