Friday, October 30, 2009

Moral Choice Beyond Good and Evil

While browsing through the Alganon website for publicly available data on the game, I was angered by the insistence on using the horrible good-evil dichotomy that has become the standard system of moral choice in games.

alganonracesThere are two factions in the game: The Asharr and the Kujix. Guess what they represent? Just pick the easiest possible dichotomy that has been used the most in videogames: Good vs. Evil. Alganon doesn’t stop there, though! It folds all of of the positive “good-aligned” traits—light, nature, heart, mind, order, obedience, and protection—into Asharr and similarly it folds the opposites into Kujix. They went all-in on this cliché. This kind of design laziness borders on the obscene. Reading about Alganon’s weak backstory brought memories of a certain AGDC session flooding back into my thoughts.

Mot and I attended a group session at AGDC ‘09 entitled “The Jesus-Hitler Problem” where we had a series of small-group discussions about how to make moral choice in games less banal and ludicrous. Everyone agreed that the good-evil dichotomy is weak, overplayed, and should be relegated to the trash heap, but few people had much to say about how to replace it. Some suggested avoiding the question all together and divorcing moral choice from game mechanics. Some suggesting having some kind of faction system in games to represent a players alignment with the wants of different important groups in the story.

gcdilemmaIt’s definitely time we ditch the good vs. evil dichotomy in games.  Both sides are stupid. No one actually ever fits into either of the sides accurately. They’re caricatures that have been dulled by overuse. (And I find it ridiculous that people don’t have a problem how MMOs imply that the moral caliber of one’s being has to do with one’s race.) We should keep moral choice as a mechanic, though, because leaving it out doesn’t encourage players to try different paths. The stakes become very low if moral choice doesn’t actually have an effect on the game world—we almost shouldn’t bother with moral choice at all in that case. Faction systems are a better idea, but don’t fit a wide range of genres.

My suggestion is that we keep moral choice, but change its gamut radically. Moral choice shouldn’t run from perfect good to perfect evil separated by a vanilla neutrality of uselessness. For moral choice to be effecting and memorable, players have to be forced to choose between two equally appealing (or equally disastrous) options. There should be a solid case for either choice being good or evil. 

Here are some dichotomies that arise in moral dilemmas; one’s beliefs on a dichotomy need not be either one or the other, there can be some degree of dithering:

  • Idealism vs. Pragmatism (Hope vs. Reason)
  • Material vs. Spiritual
  • Mercy vs. Justice
  • Need vs. Deserve
  • Impulse vs. Reason (Heart vs. Mind)
  • The Many vs. The Few
  • Authority vs. Equality
  • Self vs. Others
  • Present vs. Future
  • Certainty vs. Opportunity (Fate vs. Free Will)
  • Intent vs. Consequence
  • Unity vs. Diversity

If we profile NPCs through using their positions on these dichotomies, we can construct almost lifelike belief systems. Once we have belief systems, we can present the player with options that will either appeal to or disgust NPC groups that with which the player interacts. The tests of morality can occur relatively frequently, probing at the player’s conceptions of each of these dichotomies. Different factions react in different ways depending on how the player has behaved earlier in the game.

Through expanding the moral quandaries and removing the pretense of good vs. evil, we can create arresting moral decisions, and then have those decisions have deep-rooted effects on the way the game progresses. Such a system will be significantly more engaging, replayable, and thought provoking.


Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

I completely agree that the good vs. evil thing is overrated. It doesn't even have to be applied to factions, either. The concept of an evil group of NPCs is cliché as well. I wrote a bit about the nature of Evil in games a while ago on my own blog. I think the ultimate goal is not just to apply the "evil" tag to a group, but to show that they're evil. As someone points out in the comments using WoW and the Defias Brotherhood as an example, making people go through a neighborhood of ransacked houses before encountering an enemy does more to show their nature in a game than giving them a black hat and a scar.

I think you also hit upon a vital point in your last paragraph: "moral decisions". One problem is that you really don't get to make such choices. In WoW, with the Defias Brotherhood, I can only ever fight against them. I can't decide that they are right and Stormwind is corrupt to the core. The only time, at least in WoW, where I can make a decision between a few opponents it's either a minor (and by next expansion, forgotten) decision, or it's a lop-sided choice where making the "wrong" decision just gives you a silly hat and an insulting achievement and the need to re-grind the other faction if you want access to some of the major neutral cities.

pxib said...

It's difficult to establish a moral framework when the only well-implemented action players are allowed is mass murder. "To kill or not to kill," isn't a particularly deep question. Only a few games have dwelled on it, mostly in a meta-game sense. Each character in WoW has, by level 80, killed hundreds of "humanoids". That's how you get to level 80. No starting area doesn't involve a little "demi-human" slaughter.

Orcs and Humans are killing members of their own species by the time they're level five.

Having a "good" and an "evil" faction (and indeed the exaggerated way such choices are presented in games without factions) is indeed ridiculous... but it's a lot of work to establish that a philosophical disagreement over "Material vs. Spiritual" is worth killing for.

evizaer said...

This article was not only about MMOs. It was about games in general.

You can definitely work material vs. spiritual into a game situation. One of the questions Confucius answers in the Analects involves whether we should value the living over our ancestors (read: spirits). Showing reverence for the dead and sacrificing to the spirits of those in the spirit realm played an important part in the folk religions of thousands of different societies. The question of material vs. spiritual can have wide-reaching effects on how a society behaves--just because the west doesn't have to deal with this problem overtly (you can definitely make a case that it has some impact with regards to secularism vs religiosity in modern society) doesn't mean it can't play into the behavior of NPCs and PCs in a game.

Anakh said...

When I try to design areas or worlds for a paper and pencil roleplaying game, working along multiple axes of these choices helps to produce all kinds of options - I've often wondered why we rarely, if ever, see this in computer games. Certainly the hackeyed good v evil is easier, but it wouldn't be that hard to expand the field of moral decisions even a little to make a game a lot more interesting. If you look at Star Wars for example, in the movies there is clearly a Authority vs Equality thing going on, but strongly overlaid by Good vs. Evil. Take out the GVE and what do you get? An empire that provides law and order but with dissident elements that want to run their own lives. Work from there to play up the Justice vs. Mercy dichotomy, and you have people working inside the empire to soften its policies and perhaps end the constant executions. What if the empire is primarily a theocracy with many priests focusing on theological matters? Easy tie in for Spiritual vs. Material - perhaps traders guild that are constantly pushing against the system to expand and grow. Just a few different choices add up to a much more interesting world than the base GVE.

pxib said...

Of course subtle motives make characters and their stories more interesting. The more thought that goes into the world design of interesting politics, the better. My point is that other than making the quest text worth reading, it does little to enhance gameplay.

Until there are more ways to gain money and experience than wholesale slaughter, one can't delve too deeply into motive. "Should I kill idealists or pragmatists?" walks all over another question: "Should I kill?" Most games have mute protagonists -- murderous sociopaths who divide the worlds into three types of people: those whose orders they obey without question, sub-humans they either kill or ignore, and merchants with whom they trade and train.

Simple ideas of good and evil fit that framework well. The more complex motives become, the more the PC's bloodthirsty madness will seem jarring.

Domino said...

Interesting points. This post inspired me to a few related thoughts also.

Anakh said...

Excellent point pxib. I have been thinking more and more lately that the MMO and single-player RPGs seem to be going along opposite paths lately. In the single player game, more and more emphasis is being placed on the character being able to "become" good or evil through his choices - the "choices and consequences" model that has been frequently discussed.

Usually this seems to be done by having a protagonist start in the middle of the moral scale, and through his actions is moved toward one end or the other of the scale. When presented with obviously evil actions like killing and robbing, the player must choose to accept or reject them, and in some games is given further options, perhaps to turn the choice-giver in to the police.

Compare that to the MMO model, where quests that order the protagonist to kill, rob, or maim are accepted without a thought, and all along the player can proclaim to be good, because the game tells them that they are. How different would it be if MMO players were presented with many quest options, and which they chose to accept or decline would define their path between good and evil?

Tesh said...

Note that some believe, as do I, that there really *are* moral absolutes, but that such are more the realm of theology rather than entertainment, and without agreeing on those absolutes, there is little shared vocabulary with which to have a good conversation. Exploring the middle ground makes for more thought-provoking gaming (as well as being easier to write for a wider audience who may not share theological/moral foundations).

So yes, exploring situational ethics and how they intersect with morals and principles is a great thing for games. I've written before that *games are interaction*, and letting the player make those choices *and see the consequences* is something that games really should capitalize on. No other storytelling medium has that flexibility.

Gravity said...

Just came across the site thanks to Wolfshead; and wanted to say 'hi' and note this good post.

Tolthir said...

Nice post!

I've been trying Fallen Earth out, and it seems to use a faction system to good effect. There are six factions in the world, none of which is totally good or evil. For examples, Vistas favor protecting the environment (good) but also engage in eco-terrorism (bad). A player can choose one (or potentially more) factions to ally with through their choice of quests.

I'm not far enough into the game to assess how well it works, but it seems like it has the potential to make moral choices more interesting.

Great blog, by the way.

Calain said...

I just found this post over a blog entry of Domino.

There is actually a good single player game that does that in a very good way:
Gothic (and it's successors) from the German company "Piranha Bytes".

In the original game you can choose between an "order", "anarchy" and "spiritual leadership" faction. None of them are really evil or good.

I really loved the game 'cause of that.