Morality and Games

Jonathan McCalmont tells us that moral choices in video games are no longer fun .

But did he consider that the alternatives he propose are also not fun? He contends that moral choices in video games a la Fable, Knights of the Old Republic, or Fallout 3 are black-or-white, subverting the impact the system is supposed to have. He proposes alternatives like having truly difficult moral decisions to make. Rather than either helping an orphan or killing her, you’d have to choose between saving the orphan and her baby brother. (This is a choice? – ed.) McCalmont wants the consequences of the player’s decisions to be more consequential:

The real challenge facing morality mechanics is realism. Because in-game moral decisions have no real-world consequences, it is all too easy for moral choices to become tactical or aesthetic ones. It is precisely because these decisions are not real that it is vital to make them feel real. They must be based not only in a real understanding of the psychology of moral decision making but also a grasp of how people react to the people they disagree with and disapprove of. It is not until gamers feel as though they are making real moral choices that moral choices will become fun again and no amount of force lightning can change that.

The problem with making moral decisions more realistic is that it would not necessarily the game more fun. Moral dilemmas are difficult, and we hate to make them. Moral dilemmas add depth and dimension to the story, but alone they will not make the game more engaging. On the contrary, they might make the game confusing or frustrating if they are not given a very clear reason for being there, as they were in Modern Warfare 2.

I want moral decisions because it makes sense within the story, not just as a gimmicky platform for prestige or sales. Fable players were disappointed when their moral choices affected their avatar’s appearance, not because the game didn’t do what it said it would do but because that’s all the game did: the story and characters were shallow. The fun behind killing people to get horns only lasts for so long before you’re left with an unmemorable story. And horns.

McCalmont’s morally grey system will be fun for as long as it’s novel, and you won’t even be done playing the first game by then. I believe what McCalmont actually wants is more than a facelift to a tired morality system. We want more than, "do this to get horns." The answer is good narrative development that uses the medium’s proximity to the player to affect our emotions, and this narrative must be threaded into every facet of the game’s development.

Recommended reading: Jason Morningstar’s Grey Ranks explores teenage resistance fighters in 1944 Warsaw. D. Vincent Baker’s Dogs In The Vineyard turns the players into enforcers of a sternly alien and arbitrary morality. Both are narrativist tabletop games.