EWG Editorial: Moral Choice-Making in Video Games

-Samer Farag

I’m playing Mass Effect. After an intense fire-fight, I speak to an Asari. I barely register the conversation. In fact, I can’t-I’m pressing “A” so quickly, the dialogue has no time to appear on screen. After a minute or so of this, the conversation ends, and a pop-up appears displaying “+7 paragon points.” Satisfied, I move on.
What part of this was satisfying to me, the player? Was it the fact that I had saved this woman’s life? That I had fought single-handedly to prevent her demise? Was it the rich dialogue at hand, displaying Bioware’s penchant for words? It was none of these things, in fact. What satisfied me were the seven paragon points.
This is the problem I have been having with moral choice in games as of late. The choice is less focused on the outcome, and more focused on the reward or change in the character.

Mass Effect is not the only culprit, mind you: Infamous 1 and 2 both have this issue as well. As Cole Macgrath, the super hero of a city, doing good turns your electricity powers blue. Likewise, doing bad causes them to turn red. Moving to one or another end of the good/evil spectrum allows you to gain bonuses to your powers.Thus, it is encouraged for the player to be very good, or very bad, to be able to obtain maximum profit. Immediately, focus has now been placed on the reward, rather then the repercussions of Cole Macgrath’s actions. It isn’t that you don’t care about the citizens and clearing out the poison in their water supply-Rather, that the first thought that enters the player’s head is, “which one gets me the good points?”

This is improper in terms of reality in a few ways. Firstly, assuming you are attempting to be of good moral standing, you realize that this isn’t how the world works. We are taught not to ponder the reward, but rather the action and its consequences. What will happen if we do what we do? Or, how will my actions benefit me? Rather than act mean simply for the sake of acting mean-as is sometimes the case with Renegade Shepard-we may act mean because of what we wish to happen, or what we believe will or should occur because of our actions. Likewise for being “nice,” i.e. “paragon.”

Which leads me to my second issue: Most games completely ignore the gray area that is moral choice. They devalue it, making the concepts “good,” or “bad,” both two philosophical concepts that could be endlessly debated, into a blue or red bar on a scale. This is an oversimplification of a complex process. And it needn’t always be the case either:
Deus Ex.

If you play video-games, you’ve heard of it. If you’ve played it before and are reading this, you’re probably reinstalling it right now. DE was a phenomenal game not only for being one of the first Action-RPG-FPS hybrids, but because it offered a look on “choice,” that is unfortunately rarely used these days.

In Deus Ex, you are an agent of UNATCO, on a mission to…well, the story is the best part so I won’t spoil it for you. What is important to take note of, though, is that the entire game is filled with the ambiguity that is lacking in games today. Every choice you make, every action you take, every position you stand for: All of these decisions have their positives and negatives, and, more importantly, do not have a “good” or “bad” label attached to them. You are not filling in a role of virtue or anger, you are simply being. You are acting based on the information you have, and the choices you want to make, rather than the choices that will fill up one bar or another on the moral spectrum.

I do not mean to say that I have an answer on the issue of moral choice in gaming as of now. Making a game that does involve all the gray area that takes place in morality is most likely taxing, as well as not always congruent with the game that is being made, such as Mass Effect. I only mean to say that I believe we as gamers, developers, and designers, should reevaluate how moral choices can be made in video-games. If we do this, I believe we may be able to hit another storytelling breakthrough in this media we all love so much.