The Strange Case of Morality in Gaming

Are you sick of me talking about The Old Republic yet? Well, for better or worse, it’s providing the inspiration for another column, though I hope the topic itself is going to be a little bit more generally interesting.

It’s about morality–which is a facet of human existence I personally consider to be what 19th Century British would call a “sticky wicket”. I realize there are people out there that believe in moral absolutes, e.g. “stealing is always wrong”, but it’s a rare case where I find myself able to condemn certain behavior without at least some part of me wanting to walk a mile in the shoes of the perpetrator. Don’t get me wrong, I have some lines I won’t permit to be crossed, at least if you want to remain someone I’d consider a friend or someone to be trusted… but even though I feel instinctively queasy at the thought of a 50 year old man dating a 16 year old, there are states of the U.S., and even entire cultures, where doing so is considered not only legal, but normal.

For that matter, the idea that slavery is morally reprehensible is a really recent idea when compared to the overall arc of human civilization. Racism? Caricatures that were fine and dandy for children’s books and movies of the 1940s are anathema now. The bar keeps being moved. From my standpoint, for the better, but I’m still left with the uncomfortable notion that there must be aspects of society we find normal in the present age that future generations are going to look upon with disgust and horror.

Those are extreme examples, though. It’s pretty easy to take a stand against cannibalism, no matter if certain isolated tribes still consider it an essential part of their society. Closer to home would be the ongoing debate on whether it’s okay for American soldiers and operatives to use torture, as long as it’s only used on “the bad guys”.

Then there’s the personal aspect. You’re generally against torture, but a hypothetical situation is posed: the person you cherish most in the world will die unless a certain bomb is defused within an hour. You cannot get them away from the bomb in time. The only way to defuse the bomb is with a code known by the man you currently have captured. He will not tell you this code willingly.

What do you do?

These questions are perhaps impossible to answer truthfully without actually being in the situation, rather than pondering it in the safety of your own home, your loved one sitting not too far away in perfect health. Simulating dire situations, on the other hand, rapidly gets us into dark territory like the Stanford Prison Experiment, where getting “real” answers may turn out worse than the questions that were being asked.

In the aspect of simulation, we come to the issue of gaming. Specifically, role-playing games, which amongst other things can let you crawl into a different skin for a period of time and act on stimuli in ways you wouldn’t in reality. This doesn’t always happen, but for me, the best, most satisfying RPG sessions are the ones that enable a more or less safe outlet to exploring hard questions and facets of ourselves we don’t normally acknowledge.

It also becomes a sticky wicket. Dungeons & Dragons to this day still uses an “Alignment” system where the creators have come up with certain definitions of what defines the moral spheres of Order vs. Chaos, and Good vs. Evil. In ye olden days, all Paladins had to be strictly Lawful Good or risk losing their in-game abilities, and you were at the whim of your particular DM on whether lying to save the life of an innocent, or ignoring a starving beggar stealing bread, was something that could bring down the hammer.

Computer RPGs bring this to the next level, because there’s no arguing with them. They do what they’re programmed to do, and they’re programmed by people, whose moral outlooks may not be the same as yours. If the computer game is one that’s trying to go beyond “solve puzzles, kill monsters, collect loot” into a deeper experience, problems can arise.

Now, Bioware is acknowledged as the industry leaders in terms of bringing intense role-playing experiences and compelling stories to the computer gaming world. They tend to have a fairly mature standpoint, recognizing that human behavior tends to be more complicated than just “this is always good, that’s always evil”. In fact, many of their games delight in playing with your expectations, providing memorable portrayals of both honorable villains and questionable heroes. Your own character is often left as a blank slate at the beginning of games that can tread down paths of your choosing, a trend that I believe started with the incredible Planescape: Torment (which is still slated for a Low-Rez Recollection one of these days) and continued through Mass Effect and its sequel, a place they even wisely removed connotations of good and evil by instead basing their morality scale of actions on “Paragon” vs. “Renegade”.

Bioware also, in the early 2000s, managed the Herculean feat of getting the Star Wars universe to a point where embracing the Dark Side was something you could do for reasons other than wanting to cackle and murder people with lightning and force chokes. Their Sith philosophy was based, at its core, on the embrace of passion rather than its denial, and provided that counterpoint to the Jedi practice of isolating themselves from all emotion — including love. Bioware followed Lucas’s crazy ideas from the prequels to their (il)logical conclusion and made something again compelling out of them. For instance, the Jedi code forbids attachments, but not sex. So it’s okay to pick up chicks at the nightclub as long as there’s no actual affection in what transpires. Depending on your outlook, you might have some problems reconciling those actions with “goodness”, but hey, it was Light Side.

The Old Republic seemed to be doing well at presenting the Light Side as choices reinforcing harmony and peace, while the Dark Side was bulwarked by indulging in discord and passion (yes, even the passion of love, but at least it was consistent). The best part of this was my discovery that your choice of faction did not pre-ordain your path: it was entirely possible to walk the Light Side as a Sith Inquisitor, for example, and Bioware’s writing staff is skilled enough to have your storyline still make sense if you do so (although some of your intended victims become very amusingly confused).

But it’s a huge MMO, and Bioware’s quality standard and immersiveness are so high, that I couldn’t help feeling perhaps disproportionately slapped by one instance I felt was not only a terrible example of railroading, but a nasty letdown on the morality aspect as well. Thar be spoilers here, so if you’re sensitive to that I’d say just go ahead and stop reading now. I’m probably not going to say anything earthshakingly profound for mankind, anyhow.

Still with me? Well, it was one of the early side quests for the Republic Trooper, a class meant to represent a professional soldier in a military operating more or less how we would expect our modern Western militaries to operate. Rules of engagement, etc. etc. Well, your first experience with the game is to be dropped into a warzone where separatist rebels are attempting violent overthrow of the Republic-supported government.

Now, as you progress you do get the idea that the local government is pretty corrupt, but the resistance forces aren’t exactly being good guys either. You and the other Republic troops are not the local forces, though, that’s made pretty clear.

Now myself, I’ve never been hugely pro-military and I found the American invasion of Iraq a very pointless and costly exercise. However, I had climbed into the skin of a professional soldier, and I had a job to do no matter if I disagreed with the people at the top.

I was railroaded, and Morally Judged, and it surprised me how viscerally offended I became at this. You see, you are requested to help out a Republic medical quartermaster. Medical supplies were stolen the previous night and a refugee was sighted leaving the area around the time of the theft. Without those supplies, other soldiers currently on the critical list are going to die. It’s made very clear that these are not unneeded surplus, nor is anyone involved here part of the local government that might be skimming. These are Republic soldiers who are quite literally going home in bodybags, within hours, if you don’t get those supplies back.

So you track the theft to a refugee woman who confesses, telling you she stole them because children in the refugee camp are sick. Little Timmy (or whatever his name is) wanders up to whimper “It hurts” during the conversation, just to reinforce this. The woman informs you the supplies were stolen in turn by some separatists, and she’ll tell you where they are, but only if you swear you’ll bring the supplies back to her and not to the medics.

Bioware does love its grey areas, and normally I have no problem with them. Here’s where the problem comes in, and that’s that the game gives only two choices here: tell the woman you agree to her blackmail, or threaten the child’s life.

Yeah, those are your only two options, and you of course get Dark Side points for threatening the child, and get called a monster. Which you probably should for threatening the child, but there’s no other option if you happen to be playing someone honorable who doesn’t want to lie and get this poor woman’s hopes up. It’s plain bad writing.

That’s not the worst part, though. The worst part is that, whether or not you get the information by agreeing with her or threatening to murder kids, if you then turn the medicine in at the base, you get hit with 100 more Dark Side points. And the medic doesn’t go “Hey we’re actually selling these on the black market, here’s your cut,” he tells you how you came not a moment too soon and you’ve saved a lot of lives from agonizing deaths.

There’s not even an option to identify the woman for prosecution, which might be more arguable as going too far. Or any option to request that some of the supplies be made available to ease Timmy’s tummyache. Boom, 100 Dark Side points. Not a small amount. Except did I mention threatening to murder the child only gets you 50?

The refrain I get on this Dark Side bullshit is that “Soldiers know what they signed up for”, but it doesn’t wash for me. It’s not a matter of harmony vs. discord or peace vs. passion here (if anything giving all the medicine to the refugees speaks of a more emotional response), it’s some portion of the dev team making the call that letting a soldier die in agony is morally preferable to the universe than helping a child perfectly capable of walking around and complaining to not have a headache. And that’s not even counting the original theft.

That’s exactly the scenario presented. Soldiers, no matter the circumstances, are at best expendable. Yes, even if you happen to be a soldier yourself, who might be thinking “Gosh, what if I was the one dying in pain because someone stole the antibiotics?” More than anything else in the game, this was somewhere I think Dark Side and Light Side values did not belong, and poor writing showed the wires on some sort of blanket agenda that went beyond anti-war to anti-military. Which is a problem when half your protagonists on that starting planet happen to be soldiers, and I’m not even counting the people who in real life are military or have loved ones who are.

The irony of course is that none of this would matter if Bioware weren’t normally so good at hiding the railroad and navigating the quagmires of human experience with a surprisingly even-handed view. With nearly every other Light Side/Dark Side choice in the game, I can figure things out as logically consistent to the Universe they’re presenting (which is leaps and bounds above what Lucas ever provided), so the occasional misstep really glares, and makes me glare back.

Most games still can’t (or shouldn’t) even approach the territory that Bioware regularly explores. I suppose, in the end, I should be thankful I even have something to complain about.


About Clint

Clint Wolf is an opinionated nerd, who writes a comic (Zombie Ranch) about cowboys who wrangle zombies. We didn't claim he made sense.
This entry was posted in Armchair Philosophy, Home of the Bizarre Rant, Level Up, Nerd Alert and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Strange Case of Morality in Gaming

  1. Justin says:

    It’s funny, because I’m actually becoming sick of morality in tabletop games. At least as it’s evolved. GM guilt trips, orcs are people too — gaming has become about escapism for me, and frankly feeling hemmed in at every turn just isn’t any fun.

    Which is why, from now on, I’ll only play Neutral Evil characters.

  2. Clint says:

    In 4th edition D&D I just tend to go with “Unaligned”. D&D has always been such a weird game to wedge morality issues into, considering it started life as a wargame and to this day has never really placed emphasis on *why* you’re killing the orcs. There are other games out there much more suited to depth of character motivation and choices, although even ones like Vampire stumble when they have to codify a Hierarchy of Sins and place shoplifting there as a greater moral crime than beating your wife and kids half to death.

    Even then was that weird system as listed where you wouldn’t lose humanity for killing someone in cold blood, so long as you managed to roll well enough to succeed in feeling guilty about it. But at least morality was a major theme of VtM. Notice that Werewolf and Mage, for instance, entirely dispensed with the Humanity rating and just let characters be moral (or immoral) as they wanted to be, without the game system itself coming down on them.

    • Justin says:

      That was the major theme of Vampire (or a major theme, anyway). But yeah, they definitely stumbled in the actual hierarchy itself. As you point out, these things are designed by humans, and thus can be somewhat weird. Not that God did any better — after all, he left rape and slavery off the Ten Commandments in favor of how important it is to kiss his ass. You know, if you believe fairy tales.

      Yeah, Unaligned dispenses with that nonsense, and I have also wholeheartedly embraced it for precisely those reasons. I’m just finding it less and less fun to play heroic characters because lately the trend seems to be realistic style games, where you can’t just kill the evil overlord. You have to wonder about the welfare of his orc army, what sort of government will be put up in his absence, etc.

      The only recent computer RPG I’ve played was Fallout 3, which I found completely unengaging. I don’t know how much of that was the morality system, to be fair. But take Arkham City. Batman is a complete maniac. He flies around Arkham City handing out concussions like condoms at a freshman dorm, but he’s the Good Guy who never kills. You’re going to tell me none of those cons died of internal bleeding? But I loved every second of that and it’s only looking back that I make the more cynical connection.

  3. Clint says:

    I don’t think it could have been the morality system in Fallout 3 since they pretty much imported it directly from the earlier games, and I remember you really liking those. Fallout just deals in Karma and Reputation, and I actually don’t mind their implementation of that since mostly it just skews how certain NPCs and factions see you. Fallout: New Vegas has its faults, but I particularly liked how they split up your reputation between various factions and that was more important than your general Karma. So it kept away for the most part from universal declarations of good and bad and left it as the subjective views of the people and places you interacted with, and that’s important for a game like Fallout where the wasteland can be a pretty grey place.

    I hear what you’re saying about the escapism. Think of the original Star Wars and all the jokes we make these days about all the innocent technicians and cafeteria workers, etc. that must have died on the Death Star. We never thought about that during the film, because it just carried us along on a joyride. You start thinking about it and you rapidly get into a moral quagmire of questions the movie does not really care to answer. It wasn’t the point.

    On the other hand, Bioware with TOR has a lot more than 90 minutes of movie time to fill up, so I’ll still argue it makes for more compelling story to find the grey areas of Star Wars amongst all the simplistic Light and Dark. It’s pretty much necessary for writing any of the Sith side storylines because serving the Darkity Darkness can get old fast as a character motivation. Also as of this time the only real consequence of Dark Side versus Light Side is certain equipment you can use (you can even toggle off looking more and more like an Albino scrotum as you fall into Darkness). I just always want to see some properly thought out choices when dealing with this stuff. There’s always going to be a certain amount of “hemming in” when playing CRPGs, even moreso than with a human DM, but the less you feel railroaded or straightjacketed, the better.

    • Justin says:

      It might have gotten lost in the commenting, but I do fundamentally agree with you that this specific moral choice is utter bullshit.

      I think I need to delve deeper into console RPGs before I can have anything that even resembles an informed opinion on the subject. Although, to give the devil his due, my favorite game of the last decade had a nakedly good/evil morality choice that was laughably free of any kind of gray. And it was awesome.

      • Clint says:

        Yeah: “cure the little girl or HARVEST HER BODY AND SOUL”. Of course that was only of the only real choices you were able to make in the game, too. Would you kindly agree?

  4. Clint says:

    Also the Arkham games have an advantage because Batman is a very well developed character, not the blank slate avatar of most CRPGs. We know his M.O. and so don’t really need to figure out what he’s all about or give players choices like 1) Set Joker Free, 2) Arrest Joker, 3) Kill Joker. That would be more or less completely missing the point of Batman. Batman fights crime from the shadows because HIS PARENTS ARE DEEEEAD! All else would just be getting in the way of techno-ninja asskicking we signed up for.

  5. Erik says:

    Okay, I’m late to the party here, but I find the lack of a “gray” Force user a flaw in TOR. In KOTOR II, I played the Exile as a completely balanced gray Jedi in my first run and really enjoyed how the storyline seemed to take both disciplines to task for their absolutism. TOR seems to encourage absolutism and that mission you mentioned, which smugglers also get, is a clear indication of that undercurrent in the game. As it happens, I’m playing my Sith and my Jedi as strictly absolute because it’s sort of amusing and, like Justin, I’m more in the mood to escape. I’ll save the moral quandaries for Mass Effect.

    • Clint says:

      I think one of the possible problems is the amount of cooks they must have had in the kitchen vs. their single-player games. People like The Exile and Shepherd have one storyline to follow, while TOR has eight different storylines to cover, not even counting all the side quests. The more people you have involved, the more conflicts you’re going to have even within the Dev team itself on what constitutes Light and Dark. I think some teams have a more coherent view than others. For instance, there’s some fridge brilliance I discovered, which is that in at least three cases I’ve found so far, choosing the Dark Side option lets you avoid certain extra encounters you’d otherwise have to run around dealing with.

      I find that brilliant because:

      “Is the Dark Side stronger?” “No, quicker, easier…”

      And arguably, more seductive, since sometimes you just wanna see what happens when a Jedi responds to “Hah! You won’t kill me!” with a lightsaber to the head.

      I’m actually having a decent amount of success playing a Grey Jedi, up to level 30 so far with an alignment total that’s never strayed more than 300 points positive or negative. I get no benefit from that so far except being able to carry a red and blue lightsaber at the same time, but his choices are fitting the character concept I had for him and that’s gratifying.

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