Of ethics, choice, and morality in gaming, part 1

I thought I’d revisit this topic in greater detail, since it’s been one of great interest to me especially in the last fifteen to twenty years as gaming grew into a more narratively-focused entertainment medium. I’ve spoken to the topic here and there, but most lately in the form of a comment in response to this video by Jennie Bharaj:

Personally, I can’t help but vehemently disagree…while there must be NARRATIVE consequences for an ethical dilemma to have meaning, foreknowledge of the outcome (including unintended and unforeseen consequences) and the weight of the mechanical or gameplay consequences undermine the ethical nature of the decision. Most players in Bioshock, for example, chose to save the little sisters because the short-term ADAM gain from harvesting far outstripped long-term gain from saving, and at the point in the game ADAM hoarding had the greatest impact (the endgame).

The Mass Effect trilogy is a prime example, taken as a whole: players had the foreknowledge the game would be a trilogy and that decisions in the first two would have consequences in the second and third, but had no foreknowledge of what those consequences would be. For many players, there was no capacity to “metagame” during Mass Effect 1 and 2, as even having foreknowledge of that individual game they could only make guesses what would occur in later installments.

I’d first like to add some explanatory context to some terminology I used, since ‘metagame’ has a distinct and different meaning in video gaming. Metagaming in tabletop gaming is the use of knowledge available to the player, but not the character they’re playing, to influence events and actions as they occur in the context of the game itself.

I’ll use an example from a tabletop game I’m currently running (West End Games’ amazing Star Wars D6 RPG) to illustrate this. During the first game session, the PC’s ran into a group of Imperial Army soldiers (distinct from Stormtroopers) led by an officer who had nothing noteworthy about him, save this big commlink-looking thing on his belt. The PC’s figured “fuck it, this guy’s in charge, if we kill him we can sew some chaos as they’ll be leaderless and get away” and started taking shots at him.

That big commlink-looking thing? It was a lightsaber, which the Inquisitor then ignited, started deflecting blaster bolts, Force choked one PC and severed another’s hand. The PC’s didn’t have to know what a dark Jedi was to know it was time to get the fuck out of Dodge, but had they said “oh crap that’s a lightsaber, he’s an Inquisitor and it’s time to run!” with no rational in-character basis, it would have been metagaming.

[Which I’ll add, this game started before any information had been released about ‘Star Wars Rebels’, which is now being colloquially referred to in my group as ‘Star Wars D6 the Series’. Damn TV show is heading most of my best ideas for this RPG off at the pass, stupid Disney/Lucasfilm.]

Metagaming extends to mechanical knowledge as well as narrative information. If the player of a Fighter in a Dungeons and Dragons game has his character reach for their mace in an encounter with skeletons, knowing they have damage resistance against slashing and piercing weapons, but without his character having any rational basis for knowing this (either from having been informed of this by another character, or passing the requisite Knowledge (religion) check), it’s metagaming as well.

I emphasize the point about metagaming, because basing a choice in a video game on foreknowledge of a choice’s mechanical and narrative consequences is metagaming. For example, if in Mass Effect a player chooses to save the Rachni queen for the sake of gaining Paragon points, or with foreknowledge saving her provides war assets in Mass Effect 3, rather than as a mediated decision based upon what their Commander Shepard would do given the available information at hand, that is metagaming.

Metagaming is an exclusively consequentialist phenomenon, as the player is interacting with an intent to maximize desired outcomes and minimize undesired outcomes (whether or not those outcomes are “good”, “evil”, or other arbitrarily-assigned descriptors for morality or ethics). That is a distinct phenomenon than playing a consequentialist character (as is arguably a renegade Commander Shepard), as the player draws from knowledge beyond the scope of their character’s to do so.

Is metagaming forced on players? In some instances, arguably so. The Knights of the Old Republic series’ light/dark side mechanic incentivizes playing as exclusively light or dark, by providing attribute bonuses, alignment-specific equipment, and ability cost (i.e. Force point) reductions for alignment-specific powers; there is no equal mechanical incentive for remaining “mildly” light, dark, or neutral, which means there is no reason for doing so for players with any degree of metagame concern (such as making a powerful character). In the context of the Star Wars game setting (a space opera “good versus evil” setting) and the narrative context of the game (the player plays a Jedi) it is sensible, but it is a constraint on the player which forces players to consider mechanical consequences out of the game’s narrative context when decision-making nevertheless.

Mass Effect 2, due to locking paragon and renegade dialog options based upon dynamic paragon/renegade point prerequisites, is also a chief perpetrator of forcing players to metagame to achieve desired in-character outcomes.

Metagaming is a significant barrier to choice and morality in video games, as it promotes (or even forces) players to consider choice not as a moral dilemma inside the narrative’s own context based upon information available to characters, but rather a choice between mechanical outcomes available to the player. Do all players metagame? No. Is metagaming necessarily a bad thing? No, players have the right to interact with video games however they choose, and it’s not my place to judge. I’m simply here to point out the phenomenon exists and occurs, and its implications for the meaning of choice and morality in gaming.

In part 2 to come soon, I’ll examine metagaming, choice, and consequences in the context of two games which challenge the player to consider choice and ethics in their own narrative context: Knights of the Old Republic II, and Black & White.

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