There’s been a lot of talk about Morality in games, and the argument boils down to two basic schools: One group think that developing a sense of morals is the ultimate goal of games, and even all arts, while the other group (and sadly, that’s the majority of developers) believe that morality is better left to other media, or maybe even best kept at a personal level, while creating “fun” should be the holy grail of games. I think I gave away my point of view right there: I believe that a great game will and should make the player a better person. In this article I will talk about the factors that have so far kept us from creating a coherent and deeply engaging morality system, and how we might be able to do better.
Many games (Fable, Bioshock, Jade Empire) try to touch on the subject of moral choices, and even come up with mechanics and stories to expound their view on morality, but many of you will agree with me that the sort of morality depicted in those games, doesn’t resonate deeply with us. Some of the reasons that come to mind are:
1. Morality in these games is black and white, with no gray shades in between: “Will you kill the little sisters, or will you let them be?”. Sometimes the underlying game mechanics simply don’t support the morals that are being communicated. This means we can’t make the game much harder to play for a “good” or “bad” player because of balance issues.
2. In other cases the story budget simply doesn’t allow the developers to tell a story from multiple perspectives or play out the results of a moral choice the player has made to its logical end, which is arguably the whole point of moral education.
3. Sometimes, the fact that on average each video game is only played for a few hours is stated as a reason why player’s won’t have the time to see the result of a big moral choice (i.e. they simply don’t connect deeply enough with the game world).
4. Finally, many designers admit, that it’s simply hard to teach a moral lesson within the framework of a fun game.
Wait a minute! If anyone has read The Lord of the Rings, or seen the movie, they will definitely have noticed Tolkien’s deep study of morality, good and evil, and the hard choices that the good and the bad alike have to make. If it can be done in a book, and in a movie, then it can be done in a game. So why is it then that we game designers are so bad at creating a similar experience for our audience?
I have thought long and hard about his, and here are some of the reasons I came up with:
1. Despite all the claims of technical glory and delicious nerdiness, we game developers are a run-of-the-mill bunch of people, and so is most of our audience. We are “normal” in the sense that we rarely have made a hard moral choice (as Tolkien did on the British front in WWI). There is little passion, blood, toil and death in our lives- few cries of Destitute, few tears of sorrow or joy. Growing up and living under such circumstances makes it extremely hard for us to reproduce, or even imagine characters facing tough choices. We pick between Pepsi and Coca Cola, and that’s the truth for middle class people in developed countries (who make most video games). Our tough moral choices are more along the line of to going with an Xbox or a PS3, or installing an operating system from that evil unnamed corporation or rather go with an underdog like Linux, and the most morally corrupt among us certainly will go for a dual-boot solution!
2. What about great writers? They seem to be good at coming up with choices that involve us emotionally, so why not get help from them? Mainly, because there are tens of thousands of games and only a handful of such great writers in each generation. But, also because we are not ready to pay top-bucks for the best writers. Even when we do manage to get hold of an ancient soul, we constantly remind the poor dude of the “limitations” in coding, design, gameplay, etc. to the point where they simply wish they had stayed away from this bunch of pushy nerds in the first place!
3. Though we like to think otherwise, development teams are in many ways a very homogeneous group: we weren’t the best in school, but we were pretty good, and we weren’t social leaders, but we managed to get along with others (mainly so they leave us alone and we can get back to whatever game we were last playing or the fantasy novel we were reading!) Within teams like that, talking about morality and important choices is not the norm. We haven’t been in wars, we haven’t been in gangs, and we rarely have had to kill anyone! We have rarely had to make the choice to steal a loaf of bread from an old woman to feed our five hungry children. This makes it hard to understand the subtleties of tough moral choices.
Here is a question for you: Should all moral choices in games be tough ones?
I’d Like to argue that they should be, because it would be extremely hard to convey a sense of urgency and evoke an emotional response from players, if they weren’t. If I ask a Level 80 maxed out player to part with a bronze coin in return for the gratitude of a begging NPC, I’m not really getting anyone’s attention now, am I?
4. In addition to the homogeneity in lifestyle, developers are also mostly young people between 25 and 35, with little life experience. It hurts to say this, but many of us haven’t been part of any major crisis whatsoever, and tough moral choices aren’t really our daily dish. The fact that a big part of our life has been spent in educating ourselves in technology, and playing games doesn’t help much either. As a rule of thumb, if you are talking about morality outside a fantasy or Sci-Fi universe or mainstream movies, game developers will start to feel uneasy around you.
5. Management, generally isn’t in favor of creating a story from multiple points of view- it takes a lot of resources. The fact is, whenever the player makes a moral choice of any significance, the storyline has to branch. Yes I said it: It has to branch! If it doesn’t, or if the branches join together too soon, and many games go down this hapless road, players feel cheated, and moral decisions start to feel superficial. Can this problem be solved by making more expansive games? Well, good luck explaining to management that your 30 million dollar game actually ended up costing 40 million, because you wanted some of your players to be able to choose between helping or not helping a friendly NPC in times of need. The only moral choice you’re going to have at that point, is whether to quit yourself or get fired!
6. Unfortunately management isn’t the only source of evil in game development. The real demons, and I am talking about the marketing guys here ;), have grown wary of the terms “morality” and “good and evil” in games, and they can be quiet vocal about it. Nowadays, the whole “morality thing” has actually developed strong negative connotations. While being a “hero” (City of Heroes) or the “ultimate villain” (Overlord) certainly remains a selling point for most genres, being able to make moral choices and subtly affect the world and NPCs around you, is not! The fact that some self-elected guardians of morality have been bombarding the us with crap about how some games turn you into killers hasn’t helped much either. It is certainly easier to criticize a game for turning innocent babies into monsters than to come up with ways to create games that do the opposite of that!
7. The nature of morality and moral growth is such that it is tested and proven over an extended period of time (what we call “the hero’s journey”). We need to follow Frodo for a couple of months and over a long distance from the Shire to Mount Doom, in order to truly understand him and his choices. In Saruman’s case, we’d have to follow his life story all the way back to the Silmarillion. If you hope to squeeze moral choices in, they better be a very few well-developed ones, rather that a couple hundred “will I kill the sucker or not”-style choices. Some games try to ignore this fact, and that’s how we end up with one-line deep philosophical observations by special forces soldiers in the heat of battle (Crysis) that seem out of context, and more than mildly annoying.
Unlike stories and films, video games are moving towards more interactivity and freedom in gameplay and movement all the time, and as a result directing players through the experience has to be done with a lot of subtlety or you will bring down the wrath of a thousand game critics down on yourself. The fact that we can’t direct the player to the point where they have to make the choice, and then onwards to points where they clearly observe the consequences, compounded by the fact that we can’t rush them either (and we don’t really have much time in a non-MMO game anyways) makes it very hard to give the players a deep experience of their moral choices.
Writers in most game companies are the people who either work from home, or are tucked away in a corner of a room somewhere between the cantina and the social area. Most game writers are fully aware of how hard it is to create any coherent experience –read: STORY- in a game, because communicating with the huge number of technically-oriented designers and coders is very hard. Now imagine having to communicate all the subtleties of a setting where the player has to make an important moral choice, and later on see a multitude of results stemming from that choice, to a person who only cares about how many bytes the NPC brain will transfer to a server already bending under full load. I believe most game writers, simply aren’t empowered enough by game directors and lead designers to enforce that kind of plan, or in many cases, simply aren’t up to the challenge. Even if they were, there is no clear career path for a writer in the game industry. As a writer, you really need to be good to begin with, or you will always remain in your little corner: you either have influence, or you will never get to have any!
To those meticulously fussy technically-minded bit-pushers in the industry who think they can do it better than any writer can, I must say: creating the experience of a moral choice, is not as easy as implementing an “Escort Mr. X from Point A to B” quest, because it has to be a large coherent package. Beware the “Law of Idea Dissipation”!
OK, so I made that law up, but I will explain what I mean: In a team of developers, any great idea (brilliant or terrible ones, for that matter), moving from writers to final implementation is always chipped away at, leaving very little substance when it arrives at the player’s screen. E.g. once a great idea, which promises to revolutionize games as a medium, is written down on paper by the writers or designers, it looses some of its very important details simply be being written down. Then the artists will add some irrelevant details and change others. Then the level designers pick that up, and mostly due to tech limitations, chip away some of its finer details. Then the scripters come in and do away with all the hard-to-implement stuff, which the coders really don’t think valuable enough to implement. If you are doing agile development, this horrible law is applied over and over, until the original idea is iterated –read: OBLiterated- over and over.
Wait a minute, you’ll say: Where is the lead designer/game director to watch over the fidelity of the implementation? Sadly, the answer is: She is stuck in tens of meetings every day, just trying to make people move ahead (or slow down in other cases). So…why not have more leads to control the flow and fidelity of features? Because the more people you get, the more opinions and filters you are adding to the mix! I hope I managed to draw a picture of how hard it can be to champion a revolutionary, multi-faceted and expansive feature, and a good moral choice system is such a feature, from design to final implementation.
Ok, so we talked about the problems we face in integrating meaningful moral choices into our stories and gameplay, but is all hope lost? Considering that development teams are getting bigger and bigger, and large development houses are getting more and more risk averse, will we ever see a good implementation of moral choices?
Unfortunately, I believe that we have lost the game, at least for now. If we start to get automated content and code creation tools along with cheap third party graphic, AI, animation and story engines, and I am pretty sure that we will get those tools within the next two decades, developer team sizes will start to shrink and games will start to be focused around core ideas again, or so I hope. That should enable us to get great moral choices into our stories. Until then, you will have to do with what you get with Fallout 3, Bioshock and Mass Effect 2 and the likes, which are a lot of fun admittedly, but will probably not turn you into a better person, or raise your emotional intelligence scores!
The final question to ponder then is: “Aren’t games supposed to be like playgrounds…a way to safely learn to deal with the perils of the real world? Are we mistaking the territory (moral choices in the real world) with the map (moral choice systems in games)?”
I’d argue that games have the potential to step over the boundary, and since they are starting to mimic the social structure (e.g. in MMO’s) of real humans, the wall between “simulated reality” and reality is starting to blur, and definitely will vanish at some point in the future. Do you agree?