Monday, July 27, 2009

Morality Metrics in Videogames

I needed to convince the Council of Saren’s treachery, and a Quarian had the necessary evidence. Unfortunately, the Quarian had also decided to place her trust in Fist, the owner of Chora’s Den and former employee of the Shadow Broker. What she did not know was that Fist had decided to break out from under the Shadow Broker and work for Saren. The Quarian was in a lot of trouble and getting to her would not be easy.

When I headed into Chora’s Den, a number of thugs decided they did not like the way I looked. With gall that could only come from ignorance, they opened fire and I was forced to take cover. After taking a moment to collect myself, I decided to educate them on exactly who they were shooting at. In a matter of seconds they were definitely smarter, but considering their lack of movement, I did not think they appreciated my efforts.

After walking into Fist’s office and dispatching two defense turrets, it was time to extract some necessary information.

“Where’s the Quarian?” I demanded of Fist.

Cowering on the ground he responded, “She’s not here; I don’t know where she is. That’s the truth.”

“You’ve got three seconds to come clean. Then I start shooting.” I knew he was lying.

“The Quarian isn’t here, said she’d only deal with the Shadow Broker himself.” I gave Fist some room to stand. After collecting himself he continued, “Nobody meets the Shadow Broker, ever. Even I don’t know his true identity, but she didn’t know that. I told her I’d set a meeting up, but when she shows up, it’ll be Saren’s men waiting for her.”

His response did not improve my demeanor. Menacingly I ordered, “Give me the location, now!”

“Here on the Wards, back alley by the Markets, she’s supposed to meet them right now. You can make it if you hurry.”

Fist had given me some hope, but he was still corrupt and depraved. He was working for a traitor to intergalactic life, had sent an innocent into a trap, and had repeatedly tried to kill me. I had to get to the Quarian quickly, but I could not simply let Fist walk away. Even if he claimed he would go into hiding, he had already lied to the Quarian and to me. I could not risk the lives of other innocent people.

I did not like the idea of execution, but it had to be done. Reluctantly, I raised my pistol. “Too many people died here Fist, you don’t get to walk away,” I stated. Then I pulled the trigger.

Suddenly, a message popped up informing me that my Renegade ranking had increased by two points.


I had just performed a service to the galaxy. In killing Fist I had probably saved a countless number of lives, and I had set Saren back in any plans that he was constructing. Instead of being lauded for my actions, I was branded as a renegade?!

Why was Mass Effect denouncing my moral character?

In On Crimes and Punishment, eighteenth century Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria stands against the death penalty in stating, “The laws… are only the sum of the smallest portions of the private liberty of each individual, and represent the general will, which is the aggregate of that of each individual. Did anyone ever give to others the right of taking away his life?”

The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, found Beccaria’s argument to be sentimental and sophomoric. “If a man has committed murder, he must die… There is no substitute that will satisfy the requirements of legal justice… There is no equality between the crime and retribution unless the criminal is judicially condemned and put to death.”

The issue of capital punishment, among many other moral and ethical issues, is one that has been debated for centuries, and will continue to be debated. Every individual is raised with differing moral codes based upon an innumerable number of influences including family, friends, environments, current events, etc. In fact, with some notable exceptions, most people make no conscious effort in shaping their moral code. Decisions, from the miniscule to the life-altering, are made according to the perceived consequences, and one’s moral code provides judgment of those consequences.

Unfortunately, videogames such as Mass Effect and Fallout 3 have a glaring tendency to completely ignore and disregard an individual’s moral code with the introduction of an arbitrary morality meter. These meters judge a player’s actions according to a hidden and often contradictory metric, and assign a numeric value ranging between the extremes of right and wrong, good and evil, or paragon and renegade.

What purpose do these arbitrary morality metrics actually serve in videogames? Advocates of such systems would argue that morality metrics add consequences and weight to player decisions; these systems allow for a player to feel he or she has more of an impact on the game world.

Is this actually the case? Does an extra tick mark in the bad karma slider actually serve as a consequence? Mass Effect’s paragon and renegade system had no discernable impact on the storyline or gameplay. Fallout 3’s karma system did nothing more impactful than provide unnecessary dialogue and ally options.

In actuality, these morality systems detract from interesting choices and actual consequences. All decisions made in life have both positive and negative consequences, and these consequences are sometimes perceived and sometimes hidden. Often, the consequences we perceived can turn out to be false, but we’re still stuck with the decision we made. Morality metrics in videogames remove all of this ambiguity, and give us the choice of being either Mother Teresa or Hitler, as asserted by James Portnow.

Such moral systems in fact nullify meaningful choice in videogames by circumventing the player’s personal moral code and replacing it with an arbitrary one. Players are, in essence, punished by being deemed a renegade or evil, not necessarily because their actions are morally unjust, but because their actions conflict with a random and obscure rule set.

Instead of attempting to provide impactful decisions through morality systems, developers need to remove any judgment from player choice and provide tangible consequences, both positive and negative, to each decision. This is of course easier said than done, but it is not without example.

Despite Mass Effect’s opaque paragon and renegade morality system, the game does provide a prime example of how to construct impactful decisions, in forcing the player to choose between two of his or her teammates towards the end of the game. Each option has both a positive and negative consequence. Option 1 allows for character “A” to live, but character “B” must die. Option 2 allows for character “B” to live, but character “A” must die. The decision has no bearing on the paragon or renegade ratings, but real consequences exist.

This decision also allows for a player’s own feelings and values to be put to use, unlike other decisions in the game. A player who enjoys combat may choose to save the character that is stronger. A player who enjoys the story may choose to save the character that he or she has interacted with more. The necessary decision is known, and the positive and negative consequences are known. Each individual player is able to make the decision based on his or her own values.

The Witcher also exemplifies a videogame that provides for real, ambiguous, consequence-oriented decision making. At one point in the game, an angry mob calls for the burning of a local witch, falsely accusing her of unleashing a hellhound on the village. The player is given the choice of handing her over or stopping the mob. The decision, however, is complicated by the fact that the witch is not a typical innocent bystander. She is known to sell poisons and partake in dark arts, possibly making her worthy of some form of punishment.

One decision saves the life of a person falsely accused, but also allows that person to continue a harmful trade. The other decision allows for the execution of an innocent, but also insures that said innocent ceases their destructive craft. Both positive and negative consequences are presented for each possible decision, even though they might not have any direct impact on the player. Further, no arbitrary morality system exists to circumvent the player’s values.

Morality in videogames is an increasingly popular topic, and is essential to the growth and legitimization of interactive entertainment. However, moral systems serve not to increase the moral impact of in-game decisions, but instead detract from the allowance of true impactful decisions. The focus on such systems in videogames needs to be removed and placed upon decisions with both positive and negative consequences. Every individual has his or her own moral code; players do not need arbitrary and inconsequential morality metrics.

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