The representation of morality in video games is a strange beast. Many games, particularly role playing games and even some open world action games, such as inFamous, use these moral systems as a core feature, even advertising it on the box for narrative driven games. In this piece, I’m going to examine the two main approaches to morality in popular video games. The first we will called the ‘systematic approaches’ and the second type, it should go without saying will be referred to as ‘non-systematic approaches.’
“But wait!” you might be thinking to yourself, “aren’t all video games defined by systems, so won’t all moral systems in games be systematic approaches by design?” This may be technically true, but the reasons for using the particularly terminology I’m using for different approaches to morality in games will become clear as you read this, so do not worry!
First, let us look at the systematised approaches in which morality is on some sort of scale and is represented visually to the player, usually in a stats or pause screen. In titles like Knights of the Old Republic and InFamous, for example, both games allow players to make decisions that effect narrative outcomes and somewhat more complexly in KOTOR, companion attitudes towards the player character, which is dependent on their own particular alignment. In both games, however, each side of the moral equation, with good being blue and bad being red represented on a scale, have specific powers restricted to particular moral alignments. And it’s here that the illusion is revealed for what it is! The moral systems here become nothing more, in practical terms, than another type of statistic or talent/upgrade tree, a way to min/max a particular mechanical play style under the guise of morality. This morality meter approach ultimately undermines the idea of moral decision making in games, because instead of the player using any particular ethical decision process through an axiom, or some kind of categorical imperative, or some consequentialist basis, the player is instead ultimately just making the same sort of decision as “what sort or weapons or spells should I equip?” This ultimately undermines the abilities for the player to get truly engrossed in the narrative and feel disconnected from their decisions.
The Mass Effect series uses a similar system to this, although as far as I remember, do not dish out or restrict gameplay abilities based on the moral decisions of the player. Instead, it seperates ‘moral decisions’ into Paragon and Renegade, which basically just mean ‘Saint’ and ‘Asshole’ respectively. It has it’s own issues, however in that the dialogue, instead of being done as a list, is done through a simplistic dialogue wheel that make you have to choose a set of options based on sometimes vague language, so the player sometimes has difficulty on knowing what their character will actually say, restricting agency. Normally this lack of clarity might bring a problem to knowing which is the ‘right’ decision to make but never fear, the developers are their to patronize the intelligence of the players by making the asshole decisions in red and good guy decisions in blue. In a game with list based dialogue with fully formed sentences as options, which I will say right now are in almost all cases, better, this colour coding of decision making players actually able to assess the meaning of the options presented and make decisions accordingly instead of a vague guess on what the character might say. Worse still for Mass Effect, depending on you morality meter alignment, some dialogue options will open to you from that particular alignment and close off that from the other alignment. This means an arbitrary restriction even within the systems of the game, reducing player agency and their ability to shape Shepard in their own nuanced image. What if players want to have him start off as a goody two shoes and as the game progresses, make him become an anti hero of sorts? Not possible within this system! While all computer RPGs will have limitations on what choices the player can have simply by the limitations of the medium, this problem is compounded by the practical issues involved in having a voiced player character in this genre.
Fallout 3 isn’t much better in this regard. Except it has a couple systemic quirks about how morality (or ‘karma’ as it is in game) is calculated and displayed. Most notoriously is how the player can nuke an entire town for the entertainment of others and become the embodiment of malevolence and then give thirsty beggars lorryloads of purified water and then suddenly you are redeemed and holy, the embodiment of the good. It’s all very strange, which gives the game a very inconsistent representation of what constitutes right action within the game’s logic. Despite these oddities, it still has some more nuance and thus greater accommodation of player agency than the titles discussed prior.
This set of games makes all the same errors fundamentally in that they treat morality as good and evil, that is to say, as categorically different rather than a difference of degree. I’m of the opinion that if possible, if games are going to systematise moral decision making in such a way, they should consider having more alignments based on differences of degree to facilitate more player agency in the shaping of player characters. A better system to start with might be the Dungeons and Dragons alignment charts, but this simply could also be achieved by not doing things like colour coding which options are good/bad as they appear. Another thing to be aware of is that the moral valuations on player action present in these games are based upon the values of the developers, ethical, political or otherwise which in turn are likely to represent the values of the period and society in which the game was made. This might be particularly troublesome for modern western games of this sort that deal with issues of racial discrimination and other contemporary social issues, which are likely to be valuated anachronistically or with some other bias to contemporary western society, which might leave some games feel as though it’s wagging it’s finger at you or preaching to you, rather than encouraging player expression or meaningful self reflection to determine whether you acted rightly.
However, not all systematic approaches to morality in games have these troubles. Fallout: New Vegas is one such title. It avoids this due to it’s amoral approach to morality. Sure, the karma meter is present, but when playing the game, it doesn’t matter. Because the core narrative focuses around geopolitical clashes of various factions, based on different political ideals and circumstances, this makes the narrative decision making in New Vegas more of a political one than an ethical one most of the time. Reputation with factions is what matters, not morality, which will find players who do a self insert playthrough will wind up justifying their actions either consequentially, opportunistically or through whichever political and moral values they have going into the game. Internet discussions to this day related to this game will often involve discussion on which faction or narrative path was ‘the right one’. This kind of amoral, multifaceted approach to moral systems allows for greater player expression and for the player to ultimately decide at the end of the day whether they acted rightly instead of being preached to or having weird systemic quirks a la Fallout 3. It is also in my opinion far more interesting to play through than games with conventional moral systematisations..
Now, onto non systematic approaches! The prime example for this is The Witcher series. Underpinned with well written plotlines, these games have a far more intelligent approach to ethical decision making. The games have no meter represented to the player on how good or evil they are and no special powers or abilities for the ethical decisions presented throughout the narrative and various sub-narratives throughout the series. Outcomes in this game aren’t even a moral scale that add or subtract good boy points under the hood, but is instead done through branching narratives, which is a much more organic and immersive. Additionally, because the writing of the game allows the player to become invested, emotionally or otherwise, into it’s characters and game world there can be some real dilemmas presented to the player, whose outcomes may not necessarily be immediately obvious. This forces the player to seriously weigh up their options and think through one or more modes of ethical reasoning to assess which action to take is the right action. Due the dark fantasy nature of the game, some outcomes that players may have reasoned to be good don’t manifest and instead their actions might not result in intended outcomes which may strike the player on an emotional level and cause them to reflect on the decision they made and think if it really was the right action and if they should have acted differently. Through this organic approach to ethical decision making (that may technically count as thought experiments in philosophical discussion since it applies worlds that are not ours), games can be more intellectually stimulating for players and test their principles and convictions in a general way without undermining itself by just being another glorified talent tree, which is why in my opinion, why these non systematic approaches are superior to the conventional systematic approaches.
Speaking of moral systems in games more broadly speaking, players who are inclined to testing out different ethical theories (ie; those interested in philosophy of this sort) and decision processes in a variety of ways can do so in games that allow such levels of agency, although again, these are likely better done in titles like The Witcher as opposed to InFamous.