Values and the Meaning of Moral Behavior in Video Games

I’ve spent the last few weeks on PopMatters talking about moral choices and how they can be an effective tool in our understanding of and our engagement with a game. I started by discussing an example of a directed choice, moved on to a more fundamental understanding of why many supposed moral choices in games don’t work, and finally by looking at a different presentation of choices in games like Papers, Please. After publishing all three posts, fellow PopMatters contributor Jorge Albor briefly asked about my focus on consequences regarding moral choices.

It’s true, both the games and my writing highlighted what he called a “consequentialist ethic” whereby the outcome was more important than virtues or values. This has been a bugbear of video games for a long time. How does one get a player to concern themselves with what they are doing instead of what they will get out of it? How does one get that player to not just focus on items or experience, but on story content and so forth? In talking about recentering moral decision making on moral values instead of moral consequences, I want to talk about something that I previously left alone in my discussion: behavior.

When making a moral decision, the idea behind presenting such a decision at all in a game is asking what the player believes or believes to be right. Ignoring the potential of the player to game the system for their own benefit, this type of choice is being asked in a manner that is separate from the moment-to-moment play of the game itself. It is a mechanic is made available to the player to experience that then goes away. We see such things all the time in games like BioShock or Mass Effect or any other games that tries to create important moral choices a part of the gameplay experience. However, these moral choices don’t inform how a player behaves in the game. Telltale have managed something somewhat different in games like The Walking Dead by focusing the player on the same conversations that choices are made during play, but when it comes to scrounging around an area looking at stuff or potentially picking items up adventure-game style, there doesn’t seem to be a connection between those choices ad actions later taken in a game. Actions have to happen regardless of the player’s moral stance on snooping or stealing.

Even Papers, Please doesn’t confront this issue. As much as I lauded it for its presentation of its choices among the gameplay, which centers on the monotony of doing paperwork, and for how the grind of doing so affects the player, the player is still performing the same actions regardless of the choices made in between these other segments of gameplay. Nothing in how the player feels about the larger system in the narrative or the individuals within that system is going to change the player’s behavior in performing gameplay activities. Of course, that is part of the purpose of Papers, Please, highlighting such a disconnect between action and the desires of the one performing that action, but it does place that game outside the realm of striving for emphasizing the importance of moral behavior over player behavior.

There are two ways to go about instituting a game that relies on moral behavior as a key component of its play. One is to create systems that encourage moral behavior by making it beneficial and directing the player towards it. The other is to ask a question and allow the moral choice to play out in the manner that the player wishes to tackle the situation. Neither of these are new ideas and have been executed plenty of times before in games. Actually, the definition of what “moral behavior” can be broadened to encompass what the game “believes” about potential moral choices (which might be understood as what the game allows the player to do), then pretty much all games fall into the first camp. Instead, though, I’m going to narrow what I mean by moral behavior to only include behavior that teaches and encourages the player to consider their actions during play and not simply to consider the actions that can be taken during play.

This isn’t a new idea. In fact, one of the earliest examples of such a design is one of video gaming’s early masterpieces, Ultima IV: Quest for the Avatar. Back in the early 1980s, the game’s creator, Richard Garriott, was having something of a crisis of conscience because of how people were actually playing his games. They were killing everything they could see, stealing everything not nailed down, and so forth. Standard video game player behavior based on desires rather than consideration of what their actions mean. A full in depth account of the story of Ultima IV‘s solution to the problem idea can be read in this excellent historical write up by Jimmy Maher.

Garriott wanted to create a game that could teach the player to become a better person and that is what the goal of Ultima IV was. There was no evil wizard or some world conqueror than needed dealing with; the goal of Ultima IV was to become the Avatar by embodying eight virtues. These virtues are essentially more stats that are hidden from the player and can only be increased by behaving compassionately to increase compassion, valorously to increase valor, and so forth. This meant doing things like giving to beggars and not running away in the middle of a fight. Of course, then, ignoring beggars or running away from a fight would decrease those stats. However, like any stat, players eventually figured out how they worked and how to game the system. But in those pre-internet days, plenty of players felt the effects of a game that wasn’t just different, but one that was trying to impart a moral code. I also recommend reading Jimmy Maher’s record of the release and aftermath of Ultima IV for more information.

This is probably the best example of the first way for a game to make morality a behavioral part of the game instead of providing a simple choice. This method directed the player to behave a certain way in the game world. If you kept to the code, you succeeded, and if you didn’t, you failed. It’s the same type of reinforcement pretty much all commercial games employ with the victory condition redefined from winning (something that reinforces a player behavioral mindset) to becoming a virtuous person (something that reinforces a moral behavioral mindset).

But what of the other method, presenting a situation and allowing the player to choose how they tackle it? If you hadn’t guessed, this would be the method of a game like Dues Ex: Human Revolution. The idea behind this method is that by giving the player different ways to tackle obstacles, the game allows the player to choose who they want to be. Mostly, the choices in Deus Ex revolve around whether you want to kill everyone in a room or sneak by and let them live. Such games are essentially repeating the same moral question as all those poorly made games about moral choices. The difference is that instead of making decision making moments into story moments, the simplistic questions are complicated by the fact that the game expects you to execute the actions. The moral question then becomes one, not of whether it is right to kill people or not, but whether the player has the patience and by extension moral fiber to painstakingly make their way through leaving all potential enemies in the game standing and the threat that they pose intact. It weighs the will to be a good person against a player’s own fallibility and need to move on.

Does the player, if caught, fight back, run away, or start over? How many times will the player attempt this gauntlet to be met by more threats in the next room? At what point does the player say “screw it” just in the name of progress? And does any of this actually go through the player’s mind while in the middle of the action?

Yeah, real downer that last question. Players don’t choose to play stealthily because that means that they are a good person or that they succeeded in this test of their own moral fiber. They do it because they want to play stealthily or they want the challenge (or in the case of Dishonored) because they want the good ending. The problem is in what the game allows. Deus Ex or Thief or Dishonored or Splinter Cell: Blacklist all allow the player to be violent and kill people even if they choose not to, only the do player considerations take over. The player isn’t fundamentally hampered by their chosen values, and if they are struggling and still stay with their non-lethal playthrough, the game becomes about the challenge and achievement of facing difficulty, not the moral stance that these actions were supposed to represent.

The original Thief at least makes use of this problem by making the character an amoral jackass to begin with. The game’s protagonist is interpreted to have a noble heart because of his actions in the game, but the reason that he takes those actions is because swords are sharp and he is fragile. Thief engineered its systems in such a way that being stealthy is not only an enjoyable way to play, but the winning motivated way to play. You can still kill an unsuspecting guard because he’s in the wrong place (you’ll knock plenty of them out after all), but doing doesn’t represent moral reflection on the part of the game’s main character, just a necessity of the moment.

Moral choices for a long time were a joke in video games. The general feeling was that better writing could elevate them from resource management puzzles into things worthy of consideration on their own merits. Several games from the past few years have proven that supposition correct. Similarly, better and more subtly crafted game systems and interactions can create behavior that is based on values and not player incentives. But unlike better writing, which we have a conception of, we don’t really have an idea of what such crafting would look like in play interactions. Games like FTL have managed rudimentary moral scenarios through the confluence of various systems like whether or not to send a crewmen in to fix the oxygen supply in a room and who will do so. These circumstances occasionally managing to disguise the situation’s puzzle-like nature. Other examples include Brenda Romero’s (formerly Brenda Brathwaite) the-mechanic-is-the-message series of board games, most notably Train, which manages to create moral considerations through the basic systems and correct enforcement of rules in the game’s context.

I have a pretty strong understanding of what makes a good moral choice and how they are crafted, but behavior is another animal all together that may possibly be more important as it is reinforcing itself all the time in the player’s mind. The questions asked by the behavior in a game are limited in comparison to those asked by choices. They are always about violence.

Jorge asked me about values and how those could be the consideration for moral choices instead of their consequences. I think they are in a sense. We make a choice and accept its consequences in games like The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us. Gunpoint and Bastion have choices that have no consequences and are only informed by the player’s values and are based on what the player has learned throughout the game. I was asked about the representation of values in making choices and spent my time talking about behavior. What we believe doesn’t come out in what we say; it comes out in what we do. How we behave towards others, society, and the world at large is a far greater measure of what we believe. We can be asked a difficult question and search within ourselves for an answer, but what good is the answer if we betray it through the next sequence of play? Spare the traitor’s life in Grand Theft Auto IV and then run over a dozen pedestrians on the way home. Save the little sisters in Bioshock, but kill all the splicers. Our values are well represented in our choices, but not so much within our digital selves.