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Forced morality in games will never, ever work

4:00 PM on 06.03.2010 // Andrew Kauz

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A man rides his horse swiftly along a dusty path, six shooter in hand, when he hears a cry in the distance. The sound grows closer, and a woman comes into view; she is visibly panicked. Soon, the source of her panic becomes clear. Behind her, four bobcats snarl and nip at her ankles, inching closer and closer to the poor, defenseless lady. The man knows what he must do, for he is a man of honor. He raises his six shooter, aims for the bobcats, and fires.

Just as the first pull of the trigger has been committed, the woman makes a sudden turn, putting her directly in the path of the man's bullets. The first one tears through her leg, while the rest find their mark somewhere around the woman's abdomen. She falls to the ground as the bobcats scatter in fear. The woman is dead...

...and a message appears: "Honor -50." The man stares in disbelief, knowing his reputation is forever tarnished despite the lack of witnesses to his crime, and most of all, despite his noble intentions. He had done everything a noble man should except anticipating the woman's unpredictable movement. As he turns away from the grisly scene and mounts his horse, he mutters a single thought.

"Morality systems in games are such sh*t." 

The event above (a personal experience from Red Dead Redemption) is actually a fairly minor misstep on a path that an increasingly large number of games are choosing to tread. The line for forced morality, brought about when a game implements a system to track your morality (whether it is good vs. evil, honor, or whatever the game wants to call it), seems so clearly defined in games. Do something good and you'll get "good" morality points. Inversely, do something bad and expect horns to start popping out of your dome before long.

But what my Red Dead Misreckoning does demonstrate is the major failing of any videogame morality system: it can only analyze what I did, not what I meant to do. It's an incredibly important distinction to make; morality is an inward trait, something that exists only in the mind. In the case of a videogame, this morality exists in the world as some sort of hovering presence standing ready to judge you at a moment's notice.

It's a disconnect that is always going to prove problematic for a videogame that tracks your morality. How often do you have people judging your morality in the real world? You know, other than those people who tell you you're evil for playing videogames. Hell, we don't want to fraternize with people who are constantly judging us in real life, but we want to spend twenty hours with a game that does the same thing?

That just doesn't seem right. The real world cannot calculate morality, so why should a game endeavor to do so?

There's also the issue of moral choices in games. You know the type: press this button to be good, press this other button to be bad. Enough has already been said about the failings of these systems, so let's just leave it at this. Does anyone actually find these compelling? The answer is probably no, as it's just another way to force feed us morality, the videogame equivalent of finding a basket of newborn kittens on your doorstep and asking yourself, "Hmm, now should I take the kittens inside, bathe them, and call the humane society, or just set the basket on fire and cut myself?"

Do we, as players, really want to be judged? I know that in my case, the answer is no. I don't need a poorly implemented morality system to tell me I'm being good or evil and maybe put some ugly scars on my face if I'm being too naughty. Honestly, I'd just prefer a menu option at the beginning of the game asking me, "Do you want to be good or evil?" It would essentially amount to the same experience that most morality systems offer, except with fewer button presses.

Really, morality isn't about good or evil. I mean, in our daily lives, how often do we think of the good and evil in our actions? It's rarely that simple. We aren't usually given the sort of choices that amount to A or B, black or white.

The focus needs to be on choice, not morality, and this choice doesn't always have to be forced. It can be ambient choice: a single, unplanned moment in a game where the player has to make a choice.

For instance, hunting plays a rather large part in Red Dead Redemption, and there's a large variety of animals that you can gun down and skin. Pretty straightforward, right? It was for me too, until I came across a fox.

Don't ask me why, but I've always had a soft spot for foxes. They're just so damn cute (though, I admit, they're no red panda). So with my revolver trained on a fox, I found myself unable to pull the trigger. I just rode away, despite knowing that a nice fox fur would probably net me ten bucks or so. I eventually did kill a fox to complete an ambient hunting challenge, and I felt like an asshole for a little while. I got over it.

Yes, this is a silly and simple example, but even this moment felt far more compelling to me than the honor system in the game. There's a very basic explanation for this. It was my honor system kicking in, not the game's. I knew that, if I shot a fox, the game would just continue on like nothing happened. No sheriff would come and try to shoot me, and no wandering peasant would spit judgment at me as he passed. The world would not change, but I would. I'd be just another asshole who shoots foxes for profit.

So why not just let morality and choice come out in a game when it naturally should? I'm not saying that developers should not integrate choice into games; Heavy Rain, for what it is, proves that programmed player choice can be compelling even if the game doesn't sit there and hand you a treat for your good behavior. It inserts important choices where they belong and lets you live with the consequences.

The system isn't perfect. Many of these consequences aren't quite far-reaching enough to give them a true sense of gravity (many of the things you do actually don't end up mattering much, if at all), but it's better than choosing good every time to try to max out your good alignment and get that 50g achievement, no? Heavy Rain may not be a game about morality exactly, but it sure as shit is one about choice, and it does so without giving us some ridiculous meter that assigns numerical values to our choices.

Morality systems appeal to what a game wants us to think about, but in most cases, they're the sorts of choices that we thought about and decided on in, like, fifth grade. So, let's just forget about the whole morality thing now. It's never going to feel compelling. Instead, make choice an important part of the game experience, and leave the judging up to the player. We're smart enough for it. I promise.

Andrew Kauz,
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