Weighing Morality in Gaming

Philosophers and Theologians have been debating the mechanics of moral choice for millennia.

Debates have ranged from the popular "nature or nurture" to total freedom of the will, to some modification that sits between these extremes. Video games have only recently begun to consider the nature of moral choice as an integral piece of a game's mechanics. Developers have started to craft experiences that will allow the player's moral and ethical choices to affect the context of their gaming experience. This enlargement of player empowerment is in some ways a logical next step from the existing paradigm of physical empowerment in game environments.

There are few developers, however, that have made the transition from merely allowing the player to affect the physical world to enabling him or her to influence the people and events in that world with more than a gun, sword, or spell-book. Of these, Bioware's Mass Effect games are perhaps the purest example of how these kind of systems have been implemented thoughtfully and effectively. There are real consequences that the player has to live with, and they carry over throughout the series. Players can choose between morally good (blue) and morally questionable/renegade (the choice between playing as Luke Skywalker or Malcom Reynolds) with a neutral choice in between. The player can always choose either good or bad, but persisting in one type of choice long enough unlocks a kind of super-powered good or bad choice later in the game.

The Bioware games are not the only ones to go this route. Alpha Protocol has recently attempted something similar, and games like The Witcher, though they do not use color coding for their good and bad choices, do allow you to make moral decisions which affect the world in real pragmatic ways. However, I would like to use the Bioware/Mass Effect system as an exemplar of the mechanics of interface between the player and the game world. The implementation is well done, but I would like to propose, from a philosophical and theological point of view, the possibility of implementing a system that more accurately reflects real life moral choice as described by some of the great thinkers of Western Culture.

As Aristotle said, the more a person does the good, the more they like doing the good, and conversely, the more a person does evil, the more they are inclined to continue to do evil. Both reason and experience back up Aristotle' s observation. If a person acts in a pattern of charity, they will become the kind of person who is inclined toward charity. If a person habitually degrades other people, they will find it difficult to think well of someone new they meet. One can make an argument for this easily observed reality from theological, philosophical, psychological, and physical grounds. Given this, perhaps the next evolution of the morality system in games should be one which pushed a player toward a particular choice depending on their tendencies. If the player has thrown someone out of the window the past three times he or she has argued, shouldn't that be what he or she is inclined to do this time?

Implementation could be achieved in game by either limiting the player's time to make a choice, and by weighing the way he or she starts off making the choice, i.e. it's easier to click that part of the screen, or you have to go a farther distance with the cursor to get to the alternate choice. This would allow the user to make choices both in line and out of line with his or her tendency, but it would also show how making choices shapes what is most natural for a person. It would also be a good indication to the player of what kind of road their character is heading down. There may come a day, the game might say through this interface, where you are so far gone that the good choice will be utterly out of reach in the time you have. Or it might say that there is a time ahead when that bad choice is so distant from your own character and morality, that it is well nigh impossible for you to make that choice.

One objection to this particular way of doing things might be that when people are going bad, they just don't realize it Medieval theologians viewed evil not merely as a form of guilt, but a privation, something that removed life and knowledge from people. The popular apologist C.S. Lewis expressed this by saying that Goodness knows both Good and Bad, but Evil doesn't know either. This might lead to an alternate implementation of the choice system. If one constantly chooses the bad choice, the interface might change to reflect the assumptions of the character in the world. If the good choice is always in the upper right and in blue, and the bad is always in the upper left and red, perhaps the more one chooses bad, the red begins to look a little more purple, and then finally changes to blue. The good choice will shift to the same purple, so that at some point, only their positioning differentiates them. It too would continue its color change until a shift back to good, or a full delving into wickedness once utterly and finally changes their colors to their opposites. When both become purple, might it not also possible that their position on the screen may shift randomly, so that the good choice is not always on the right, and the bad not always on the left.

Expressing the knowledge and perception of goodness would be a bit harder to implement, but if one were to attempt to duplicate what the philosophers and theologians tell us, perhaps some further explanation of the result of each choice is made available to a player playing the straight and narrow. It might also be possible to reward bad choices more quickly (as has been done in the Bioshock games) which would be a trade off for the information provided to characters who choose the upright path.

Lest this be considered to simply be a play for "morality in games" in the sense that I am asking for the content of games to be within particular "acceptable norms" I make no judgment on context or content. My goal here is simply to suggest the possibility of implementing interface which reflects real moral process in life as we know it, so that form is appropriate to matter. Acts of the will are habit forming. For many belief systems in the world, there are acts of the will which are ultimately and finally habit forming. An implementation of this particular worldview might not only be engaging on the philosophical level, but cause players to think more about what choices they are making in games.

Joshua Wise is a Seminarian at Lutheran Theological Seminary working on his Masters Degree in Systematic Theology. He has a BA in Biblical Studies with a focus in Ancient Hebrew and Latin. To fund his studies, he works full time as a .Net Systems Developer. His main areas of study are Soteriology and Patristics as well as Temporal Theory. He started the website The Cross and The Controller to discuss the intersection of Theology and Video Games.