What are some realistic moral choices in video games?

Following my article on morality in video games yesterday and the resulting thoughtful discussion in reddit, I noticed that some people have trouble grasping what is wrong with the way morals work in video games or how they could possibly be improved within the framework of a video game’s limitations. One claimed that we can never have better morality without inventing a full-fledged AI first while another pointed out that a simple morality based on the reaction of others to your own actions would be the most realistic.

It occurs to me that perhaps the best way to illustrate what I’m talking about when I claim that video games are the best artistic way to explore ethics, is to present some examples as they would appear in a game and in a way that is compatible with current technology and some of the ideas I presented in my previous article. Hopefully this will clarify a bit my vision of a how a better moral system might work.

Since I started with Fallout 3, I’m going to continue using it as an example setting. In case you’re not familiar with this particular post-apocalyptic world, you may not understand some of the concepts I’m talking about such as “Supermutants” or “Ghouls”. In that case, perhaps you can find this link of some use.

Example 1: Lets imagine that our character has entered a bar in one of the smaller and more isolated cities to find a contact of his. While inside, he notices that the Ghoul waiter is being harassed by the patrons of the place as well as the owner. It seems that this place has a very strong anti-ghoul (or perhaps pro-human) sentiment. If the character intervenes at this point and comes to the defence of the waiter, the situation quickly escalates to hostilities as the xenophobic crowd labels you as a ghoul-lover and treats you accordingly. Your contact avoids you due to the amount of attention you brought to yourself (and you may even lose your quest). The prices in that town rise. People treat you with contempt etc. If your dialogue options are too aggressive you may end in a fight and by killing one or two people there, you make the guards come and attempt take you into custody and so on.

Lets say now that instead of intervening in defence of the ghoul, you join in the abuse and finally put the last drop. The Ghoul runs away and subsequently leaves the city. You forget about this event until one day you visit another village (perhaps a ghoul one) and find out that the one ghoul is now mayor or some other important personality for your current quest. Subsequently you get into a situation.

Or lets say that you opt not to do anything and let the situation unfold as it will. Unfortunately soon enough the ghoul is pushed over the edge by an unruly patron and things escalate dramatically. The ghoul pulls out a live grenade and tries to take himself and everyone else out. You survive, but perhaps some important personalities in that city don’t, such as the contact you were trying to see. Your inactivity lost you the quest.

Now the way this event is scripted is so that there are no perfect solution and no way to avoid taking the consequences of your (in)action. This is an attempt to simulate how the real life works, where there’s no clear “good” path, sometimes inactivity is as bad as doing evil, and very often, doing the good deed is far more costly than not. The interesting part comes from the fact that sometimes you may not like any of the available options but you still need to make one which lies in some kind of grey area. This makes people not only agonize on which choice is better but significantly adds to the replay value as next time you’ll make another choice to see where it leads you.

Now lets add some of the ideas I brought last time. In the case of factions the effects will be predictable. Doing nothing will probably leave you neutral in the eyes of the current settlement and perhaps lower you status in the eyes of Ghouls. Opposing the crowd will significantly drop your reputation in the current settlement and improve your ghoul standing, while abusing the ghoul will drop your reputation for ghouls and perhaps the new settlement you’ll find it later while increasing your reputation for the current settlement.

Now lets also consider that we have implemented alternative moral scales to the good/evil and one of them is about xenophobia/xenophilia. Lets say that during the course of the game you’ve spent significant time defending other ghouls and supermutants from abuse, you’ve helped in their quests and so on. As a result, you are very xenophilic towards impure humans. Now the game changes the script and due to your reputation, the ghoul comes to you explicitly for assistance. Do you turn it down and lose “karma” in that scale or do you follow your principles and help it despite the steep consequences? This might become even more agonizing since losing karma in that scale might disable (or make more difficult to acquire) a particular perk which relies on you having enough of a rank in it. On the other hand, if you have spent most of the game treating impure humans like shit and are xenophobic instead, when you initiate any discussion with the ghoul you can’t avoid but escalating the situation to the grenade situation (i.e. all other dialogue options are disabled). Now your intolerant nature (which you’ve built-up in the rest of the game) has cost you a quest or perhaps some serious amount of money in the future.

Much of this example is not really that much different in what has been implemented many times already but there’s one significant difference. You see, most of the time, when game designers create such a scenario, they can’t avoid giving you some blatantly obvious “good” choices and some blatantly obvious “bad” choices and then limit you to choose among them. They would for example create a dialogue path that completely defused the situation and let everyone happy, or a scenario where you kill someone, or one where you ask for money in some way. But the tough part about morality is that there’s more often than not, no “good” choices to choose from and the player is forced to make some tough decisions that he’ll have to live with.

Even the scenario above for example, limits the consequences of my actions generally to my own character, but occasionally, it is far more gripping to see events that don’t affect your character in a material way, but rather deal simply with morality. This is where the multiple morality scales can make the game better, as they will serve to record such choices or inaction and affect you in more subtle ways, such as in which perks will become available to you. Lets see another examples of how this might work.

Example 2:You are along the wasteland and see a bunch of slavers transporting a bunch of slaves for sale. Helping the slaves would move, lets say your  liberty scale towards liberty. Doing nothing would move it slightly towards domination, buying the slaves and freeing them would move, lets say, your pacifism scale towards peace and so on.

This is an example where doing nothing does not have direct negative consequences (for non-role players that is) but if you really wanted to play a liberty oriented character, ignoring all instances of slavery would likely cause an issue in obtaining some perks or joining some faction and so on.

Example 3: A city you are visiting is being attacked by raiders. You help drive them back but then the townspeople drive off and capture the remaining ones. When they come back, they decide to turn them into their slaves as punishment for their crimes. Allowing this to stand will decrease your liberty scale but increase your justice scale. Trying to stop this would increase your liberty scale but might ruin your relations with the city. Joining the hunting party might decrease your liberty scale even more.

This kinds of actions will allow you to flesh out and move your character to a specific orientation even if you’re not particularly interested in role playing (i.e. if you haven’t decided before hand what your personality will be). Then as the game progresses, you can see how what actions come to your naturally affect the views of everyone else about your character. You may think for example that you only work for a fair price but others might see you as uncaring and slavery supporting (because you didn’t free those poor slaves). Or you may think that you are someone who protects the weak, but you also end up looking  domineering.

In short, I hope my examples clarified that morality in video games should not simply be about material rewards but about making players realize that there’s no easy answers that one can pick as the “good” or “bad” ones and even neutrality has a cost. By making these effects either indirect or simply leave them to the imagination of the player, we can provide the basis for some interesting thinking as well as the opportunity for a good role play experience.


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