Of ethics, choice, and morality in gaming, part 2

In part 1 I explored the player-character dichotomy, the concept of metagaming — the use of knowledge beyond a game’s internal narrative context to influence narrative decision making — and how these factors collude to create a corrosive influence on moral dilemmas and ethical choice in games. Before continuing further to illustrate what I personally believe can be done to remedy the conflict between player knowledge and metagaming, and emphasize the import and impact of ethical choice in gaming, I’d like to explore more deeply two games in particular from my personal experience and gaming history with unique approaches to this issue: Knights of the Old Republic II: the Sith Lords and Black & White.

Knights of the Old Republic II in terms of moral dilemmas and ethical choice on its surface resembles the majority of previous role-playing games with a morality mechanic, as well as other games within the Star Wars universe, particularly its predecessor title. Indeed, the game itself can be played with little regard for its own internal context when engaging in ethical decision-making, and still punishes by omission moral shades of grey. However, one key difference turns the game’s morality system on its head within its own narrative context: Kreia.

Kreia is a gadfly; a serial contrarian who is neither a light side nor a dark side character, who challenges and chides the Exile for acting in accordance with either alignment with equal prejudice. Or so it seems; scratch the surface, and the player learns the source of Kreia’s ire is myopia, and her continual goal is to force the Exile, and the player by extension, to come to the conclusion both light and dark are equally myopic in their own right. This is reinforced throughout the game by Kreia expounding actions and choices have more than immediate, intended consequences; unintended, long-term, and unforeseen consequences exist as well, and although those consequences may have little (to no) bearing on the game itself, Kreia’s words force the player to consider their character’s role in the game’s larger mythos and not merely the game’s own narrative context.

What is interesting about Kreia, is her dialog forces a conflict between player and character: following Kreia’s advice leads the Exile down a morally-neutral path, which due to the game’s mechanics weakens the Exile over time and makes them less-prepared for the game’s later challenges…including Kreia herself, the final Sith Lord. Kreia’s in-character intent is anything but to create an easily-dispatched protagonist; she wishes for the Exile to become a Force-wielding Ubermensch (in the Nietzschean sense, not any pop culture dilution). The only means by which to reconcile this conflict is to intentionally reject Kreia’s advice in-character and become what she despises most; a myopic, dogmatic champion of either light or dark, ultimately a failure in her own grand experiment.

Ultimately, Kreia’s presence and interactions with the Exile (and by extension, the player) grant Knights of the Old Republic II, in the process of actively challenging the player to consider the import and impact of moral dilemmas beyond the context of immediate, intended consequence both within and without the game’s internal narrative context. That, at least in my opinion, makes it a shining beacon for the future of ethics and choice in gaming.

The second game, Black & White, illustrates that morality and choice is not strictly relegated to story-focused video games as is commonly assumed. While practically any simulator or god game may be sufficient to make this point, Black & White stands apart from the rest due to its built-in morality system, as well as the game play role of the Creature and its interactions. Key to Black & White’s morality is the possibility of long-reaching, severe, unintended consequences for each and every choice that seems, on the surface, morally innocuous.

The game has a morality mechanic that aesthetically, but not mechanically, reflects the character’s morality on a traditional good/evil scale as the result of many smaller decisions made over time, based upon the nature of the act itself rather than intent or consequences. Actions that harm villagers, or offensive miracles, are deemed “evil” regardless of the context in which they’re employed. Also of note is that unlike Knights of the Old Republic II there is no player-character, the player themselves assumes the role of the god, with the Creature acting as player-character analog if trained to reflect the player’s will.

Key to analyzing morality in Black & White are the unavoidable unintended and unforeseen consequences of choices made by the player. Consistently good choices may lead villages to overpopulate to the point of unsustainability, forcing the player to dedicate more and more time sustaining villages on worshippers’ behalf, cull villages with “evil” actions, or stand by as populations normalize (i.e. villagers die off) which reduces the player’s power as a god (which is directly linked to the number of available worshippers). Likewise, evil actions can cow worshippers into inaction, or lead to population decline over time as worshippers die to the player’s (or Creature’s) malevolence, forcing the player to intervene with benevolent (and out-of-alignment) acts. The act of extending influence to opposing (or unaligned) villages through the use of miracles and godlike acts is much the same, as drastic changes in villager interaction, and to villagers’ perceptions, can cause radical alignment shifts.

Also key is the Creature, and the nature of player interactions with it. The Creature learns through observation and experimentation, and forms beliefs regarding actions and objects based upon observing its owner at work, through player feedback, and the immediate consequences of its own actions; it develops intent and goals on the basis of those beliefs, which is potential for a great deal of emergent behavior. For instance, one of the first things many players’ Creatures learns, left to its own devices, is that villagers are tasty and nutritious (Creatures must eat); eating villages is thus self-reinforcing behavior, and unless curbed early by punishment Creatures are certain to develop a habit of eating its own worshippers.

More intelligent Creatures are also quick to learn they aren’t likely to be punished if the player isn’t watching them, leading to no ends of mischievous behavior when the player’s attention is diverted, or wandering away from areas in which attention is needed to engage in mischief, and necessitating a great deal of babysitting until the Creature matures.

Creature interaction is where unintended and unforeseen consequences can arise, and in ways that can severely hamper game progress. Pampering the Creature can retard its development of survival skills; abusing the Creature can cause it to become an angry beast prone to lashing out against its environment, or cowed by fear into inaction. Player behavior in proximity to the Creature contrary to the values the player hopes to install in the Creature can lead it to believe engaging in the same behavior is not merely permissible, but preferred. The Creature may very well learn through observation to use miracles it is not matured enough to use responsibly. The Creature can develop bad habits, when left to its own devices, that can be nearly impossible to break.

While each individual choice the player makes in Black & White has initially minor consequences, a series of choices can have far-reaching and oft-unintended consequences which require more effort in the long run to rectify. Players must, therefore, weigh the potential consequences of each choice as it occurs in order to play productively, therefore granting import to each and every choice or series of choices as a moral dilemma in its own right.

In part 3, I will examine one case study — the Mass Effect trilogy — to examine the role of intent, particularly balanced against consequences, and its role in choice and moral dilemma in gaming, before concluding in part 4 with my personal opinion of what can be done in future video games to emphasize morality and ethics in gaming.