The Carrot and Stick Approach to Morality in Gaming


Morality is a tough thing to pin down. The idea of what makes someone “good” or “evil” is largely a subjective one. What some people think as evil or wrong, others’ may find acceptable or justified.  There are a lot of black and white scenarios that people can agree upon with morality in life, but just like everything the real, true majority is varying shades of grey. So how do developers create a morality system that works as intended without portraying everything so simple, so cut and dry? Morality, the difference between right and wrong, or how we perceive it is a complex human experience and it’s tough for developers to put this in a box. Should they be putting in a box and constraining it in the first place? Many times it just feels like the carrot attached to the stick, leading players through their choices rather than letting us decide for ourselves.

There are a lot of games that have built-in morality systems. Things to measure, reward, punish or change the progression of the story based off of how a gamer plays their character. The problem with this system is that it’s so short-sighted and obvious. Players know what direction they are going to go in when they build their characters. The typical Bioware RPG titles suffer from these sorts of problems. It is a conscious decision to become Light or Dark, a Renegade or Paragon. The games aren’t bad, not by any means and in fact are very much the opposite.ME_shep The Bioware brand of RPG all the way back to the “Knights of the Old Republic,” titles are amazing games. The problem is that no one in real life gets out of bed in the morning and decides they are going to be good or bad. Our morality is shaped by the choices we make and the actions we take day-by-day. I doubt anyone, or very few of us decide to be “evil” when we enter adulthood and are given full control over our own choices in life. A good morality system should in-act what we would expect in real life. A good morality system, if it is going to be included shouldn’t even be a part of the player’s interface. However, their choices would still affect the characters they interact with in the world; the character’s morality being a reflection of what has been done up until that point. Let the players decide for themselves what is and is not acceptable in the world their character exists in rather than relying on a visible and measurable points system that the player can manipulate easily. Let the morality system manipulate the players.

This is only one point where quite a few games using a morality system fails to provide any real depth. The player can consciously choose to be good or bad and it’s really just a simple black and white choice for most and that is how they are portrayed in most cases. These systems aren’t bad exactly, but they just feel antiquated by now. We’ve had system like this for over a decade and for the most part they all work off of a similar concept. A player makes a choice for a character and they immediately see the consequences, receiving points in one direction or the other. It would be good to see more games that keeps track of this and hide it from gamers. Make choices various shades of grey rather than simply “good” or “bad.” Just because a player decides to fight for justice doesn’t mean they are good people. A character can do terrible things in a game and still maintain a heroic rank. Simply showing the player a number and rank level for their morality gives a player a conscious goal to work for rather than relying on their gut instincts and playing the character how they feel like it should be played.

backgroundLike many people, I read a lot of comic books. One of my all time favorite Marvel comics is The Punisher.  He’s consider a “good guy,” and a “hero” in the Marvel Universe. However it’s more accurate to call him an anti-hero. He does terrible things for the right reasons, at least in his eyes. It’s not about revenge or justice. It’s simply about punishment for him. He punishes the evil by doing quite frankly unspeakable, monstrous things to people he deems deserving. These are actions that most other Marvel heroes cannot even bring themselves to think of doing. When they do actually commit these levels of violence, there is a real crisis for the character. For Frank Castle however, it’s business as usual. Other heroes in the Marvel Universe don’t even want anything to do with him. They think he’s a mass-murdering monster made flesh. He kills without compassion and is more than willing to murder for something as simple as association. It doesn’t matter if you’re a drug kingpin or just slinging crack on the street corner so you can feed your family. To him, they’re the same and how other major characters interact with him in the world of Marvel is very noticeable. He’s shunned by others and for the most part is viewed as a criminal himself. He deals with people within the universe that the reader undoubtedly know are bad, but the way Punisher chooses to deal with them so viciously and without compromise does not make him a good person. One can easily  make the argument that he is just as evil as the people he kills. It’s a complex moral situation that really makes the readers think and this is in comic books! Things that are only a few pages per issue and cost between $2.50 and $4.00 a pop. If writers can make such an impressively complex and lasting impression in roughly 20 pages of panel and speech bubbles, how come we aren’t getting the same complexity in gaming?

Many of the moral choices in gaming wind up being very noticeable and consequently is very easy to manipulate. To break it down simply, you end up either being a squeaky clean quire boy or a dickhead. Some players want to be evil, not a dick. It’s really easy to be a jerk. Lets think about some of our favorite villains in fiction. Most of them aren’t assholes, at least not outwardly or in a way that is immediately noticeable. In fact, some of our favorite antagonists are quite charismatic. They are characters that can often be related to. Darth Vader is undoubtedly evil. He however didn’t start out like that. He doesn’t choose to be evil, it’s only when the things he cares about are taken from him that he falls to the dark side. It wasn’t necessarily a choice for him as much as it was him choose  a series options that he saw available. These choices caused Anakin distress which pushed him further down the path towards the dark side. He didn’t decide to just become Darth Vader one morning.walt It was a series of complex, yet small and seemingly insignificant choices that eventually built off one another and led him down the path he walks.

A more modern favorite example may be Walter White from “Breaking Bad.” He’s undoubtedly a terrible human being at the end of the show, however he was not that person when it starts. Far from it, in fact Walter White is much  more akin to Cranston’s previous character, Hal from “Malcolm in the Middle” than his slow evolution to the embodiment Heisenberg, Walter’s alter ego. Mr. White didn’t wake up, decide to cook meth and kill people on the side because it was fun. He killed people to protect himself, his business and his family. He made decisions available to him based on what he’d gotten himself into throughout the show. If  Walt had a morality bar chilling out in his sunglasses the entire time, watching his ranks being affected in real time we wouldn’t have ended up with one of the greatest crime dramas in the history of television.

Ironically games that portray a good morality system didn’t really intend to have one at all. Skyrim for example definitely has the ability to make a player feel like their character is good or bad. All of this is based off of the missions they take, how they are completed and of course what gods you choose to help. If you are not familiar with the quests however, you don’t really know what you’ve gotten yourself into until you’re in the thick of it all. What the player ends up doing to complete the mission may not exactly be something they’re comfortable with. Actions that may clash with the view they had for their character that cannot be taken back. For most of us, the hero of Skyrim is somewhat tarnished by our actions throughout the game. This is entirely dependent on how the player views themselves and the choices made. How they are viewed by the player and other characters in the game is entirely up to the gamer, but sometimes it’s not necessarily obvious. 2013-07-22_00001Despite there being no inherent morality system, there is a feeling of the world changing because of choice. Characters you kill stay dead, their homes stay empty, in some cases opening up more game options. These choices create a convincing illusion of satisfaction and regret that is tough to beat. Your choices aren’t being colored or manipulated by anything. It all comes down to what you feel is the right choice to make at the time. Whether to kill someone or let them be, to steal something or buy it from the vendors. The choices we make shape us and when you can see the immediate result of those choices it diminishes the results. A game that is shows the dark side of morality where the player has no choice is “Spec Ops: The Line.” This game is gruesome and the player does some terribly violent things to both civilians and your enemies. There is no choice of morality in the narrative of the game, however the main character does everything possible to justify his actions and in many cases the player follows him down that path. Even in the light of all the atrocities the player’s committed as that character. Ultimately Spec Ops takes the character for a no holds barred ride into the deep and dark recesses of the human morality. It does a good job at convincing players they are doing things for the right reasons, when in reality they couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a very jarring and raw game that is built off the emotions tied to morality and what is right and wrong. The game plays off of the discontent the player feels when their protagonist tries to justify those actions.

The video game world seems to be evolving constantly. Game mechanics come and go, but the introducing morality that is decided by a player’s choices seems to be here to stay. It only need to advance now. As it stands, it largely feels like the mechanic is a consistent, measurable and visible choice. The most exciting experiences in gaming are the unexpected aspects of a story-arc. Things that surprise a gamer or sneak up on them are often the most satisfying bits. These experiences are marginalized when a character has visible control and can map out their moral progression. There are plenty of games that are strengthen by including a morality system, however it would be further improved by removing some of that gamification that we often see pinned to it. Don’t show the player their progress and introduce choices that are more morally grey. Not in just choosing what to do in the game, but how they go about it and how their goal is achieved. Does the end justify the means or is that something people tell themselves so they can sleep? These distinctions can make all the difference in the gamer’s experience.


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