The ethical and moral decisions in the Mass Effect series fundamentally shape the play experience—from beginning to end. Will sparing a race of sentient androids sow distrust among their creators? Will releasing the last member of a potentially hostile species create tomorrow’s ongoing war? Is there justice in destroying information gained by torturing innocents? Answering such questions is seldom made easy. In fact, many of the series’s moral conundrums reflect some of the difficult decisions that we, as a species, confront in our own family circles and on the political stage. There are rarely easy answers and Mass Effect‘s depiction of repercussions create a unique and compelling example of moral systems done right. In many ways, playing Mass Effect is a powerful learning experience.
Even so, the series does not deviate far from the traditional binary decision-making paradigm. However, one recent educational game seeks to experiment more directly with the question of moral and ethical decision making in games and in real life. Quandary, by the Learning Games Network, is a piece of interactive fiction of sorts that targets eight- to fourteen-year-old children, encouraging them to play alone, with family, or in a school environment. Instructors are encouraged to let kids play the game’s scenarios and work through the decision making process as a team. Of course, abstracting any complex issue is no easy task, so naturally the game’s choices lead to several interesting arguments regarding decision making. Quandary also offers some potentially useful strategies for traditional game designers seeking to model decision making in games.
Illustrated with a comic-book style aesthetic, Quandary players take on the role of a Captain on the space colony of Braxos. The comic makes the vulnerability of the colony clear. With a small number of inhabitants under a great deal of pressure to build the colony from the ground up, even minor conflicts could cause the colony to collapse. The player becomes an authority figure who mediates conflict to ensure the colony’s continued peace and prosperity. The other villagers, even when they disagree, always respect the Captain’s decision and cede power to the character when decisions cannot be made communally.
The role of the authority figure creates an interesting double agenda. Over time, players naturally reflect on how real people in ethical dilemmas might make their decision, hopefully learning how to contribute to such discussion themselves, but the game also encourages players to understand and critique authority figures. The fallibility of adults, particularly those adults in authority positions, is a powerful lesson we all confront at some point in our lives. Those we rely on, from parents to priests, make mistakes, sometimes unintentionally. Since players participate in the lead character’s decision making process and live with the consequences, they can interact with the processes by which even well-meaning individuals create poor or less-than-ideal situations when making decisions. In particular, the game illustrates quite well how competing public opinions and a lack of information can affect someone’s decision making process, no matter how intelligent or important they may be. In some ways (and maybe this sobering fact is intentional), Quandary might actually make children less confident in the ability of authority figures to make decisions in their best interest or to mediate issues on their behalf.
The actual gameplay of Quandary is simple. First, the game presents a scenario. In Chapter 1, the colony’s primary well is infected by a strain of bacteria that makes villagers sick. Some of the colonists want to temporarily rely on another citizen’s well, free of charge, for the good of the colony. The well’s owner wants to charge people for its use. Naturally conflict ensues with the fervent defenders of private property on one side, utilitarian “communists” on the other, and a group of people on the fence in the middle. Next, players collect the input of villagers and sort them into piles of Facts, Solutions, and Opinions. Then players pick two solutions to delve into further, asking the colonists to share their thoughts on the solutions in question. Armed with information, players then make their decisions and are then asked to predict if the colonists will agree or disagree with their verdict. Finally, an illustrated vignette describes the outcome of their choice. Decide to do nothing and the town eventually cleans up the well, but only after fomenting discontent among the villagers who get sick before the well becomes bacteria-free.
Interestingly, there is no value metric for opinions, facts, answers, or solutions. Players earn points not by pleasing people, but by accurately gaining information and predicting public opinion. By far, this is the game’s strongest procedural argument. With several opportunities to receive positive feedback, none of which is tied to earning popularity or finding some ideal solution, the game suggests that navigating the landscape of ethical quandaries demands a systemic understanding of information, opinions, and facts. A job well done, Quandary argues, is less about the outcome and more about a thorough consideration of facts and possible solutions.
This theme of how complex social systems feed into decision making is reiterated at each stage of the game. After the first round of isolating information (and armed with facts), players earn points by discussing those relevant facts with villagers who may have divergent opinions. While one person might want to kill a potentially dangerous species, their opinion can change as you present facts or new light is shed on a possible solution.
Importantly, the goal is not to change their opinion at all. In fact, it can be difficult to predict whose opinion might change and no event or point boost clearly announced when such shifts in opinion take place. Rather, the player’s goal is to get relevant information to those who care about each conflict. In some ways, this portion of Quandary represents some ideal relationship between real world events and valuable information, one that modern news media consistently fails to create. Above all else, the game values a discussion by informed citizens about their personal values in relation to conflict.
Similarly, repercussions matter, not just for the Colony as a whole but for individuals. The final task for players is to predict how these individuals might react to their decision. Why might an authority figure want to predict how others might think about their decision? Because ultimately, the colony is made up of these same individuals. While the game doesn’t track each players opinion over time (indeed, players pick up pretty quick that a few characters always follow a strict ideology, ie: the Engineer doesn’t care either way, the Security Officer is essentially a libertarian, etc), there is an implication in the conclusion that the long term perception of these characters matter for the well being of the colony. The game seems to appreciate the importance of decisions without trying to create an easily quantifiable metric for success.
Another interesting element of the game is the presence of the faceless Council. While players make decisions, all decisions are first vetted and approved by a higher body of bureaucrats. Although they always agree with the Captain, the Council asks for arguments in favor of and against the decision. As a result, the game suggests that counterpoints are vital to levying a decision. Likewise, players gain no points from bending the council to their will through deception. Rather, points are earned by giving the best arguments that you can against your own plan. It’s a great manifestation of an ideal scenario in which considering opinions and facts lead to solutions instead of bias and deception. While not entirely realistic, the scenario certainly expresses the value of openness in the decision making process over succumbing to the very human tendency to avoid rational decision making.
In a variety of RPGs, players face all sorts of ethical conundrums. Games are laudable for confronting players with serious concerns, but few bother to complicate these issues with public opinion and misinformation. While Quandery is far from the exciting thrill-ride that is Mass Effect, the care the team of experts put into this educational game is well worth consideration.
// Notes from the Road
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