Gaming Morality

Posted on 31/08/2010


The recent “in-thing” for any modern game to have seems to be a mechanic that measures how good or bad a player is behaving. Be it a moral meter, a “karma system”, honor-meter or whatever else this kind of contraption is called, the player’s actions are being measured to be either good or bad. Very few games have a third option and most of these mechanics work in very similar ways.

The most commonly used moral pattern is a black and white one. The player either does something inherently good, or something inherently bad. Save the dragon, slay the princess. Shooting a criminal is good, shooting an innocent bystander is bad. Good moral points make people react positively, bad morality points do the opposite.
Most games use these systems in a total way, meaning that the character’s reputation is in effect all the time no matter whom he encounters, even if he never met the other character at the far end of the world. The moral stat is universally recognized and acted upon.

Even worse, some games implement these systems in a way that each and every action is judged absolutely. Accidentally shoot an innocent bystander who thanks to his dumb AI runs into your line of fire while you were aiming at the bad guy and you’ll instantly get bad points for it, the same amount of bad points the player would have gotten had he shot the innocent not by accident. These systems provide a very narrow stretch of outcomes, and have themselves no room for interpretation at all. Most moral systems – as with pretty much all NPC AI in games – cannot judge a player’s motif behind an action in game.

David Cage’s Heavy Rain is one of the rare games to go a step further in terms of character relations, reputation and morale. The developers could take a big part of this step due to the game featuring several player controlled characters interacting with one another.
Heavy Rain is a poster child for a lot of things. In this particular case, Heavy Rain does feature a moral system of sorts, that also acts as inter-character reputation and relation system. The interesting part is, there are no stats. The system is there and it does come with consequences, but it is not gameable in any direct way other than by just playing the game and reacting accordingly, rolling with the blows.

The usual way of implementing morality systems in games shoves them right in the players face. Ever since the Light Side / Dark Side of the force meter in Knights of the Old Republic the player could always precisely read where they stood in the game world. Also, most games that did featuer morality mechanics had a two-way dichotomy, either acts were good or bad. No grey areas allowed.

Part of this, as Albor & Juster of the experiencepoints-podcast have noted in their ‘Space Jesus’ episode, can in fact be traced back to the judeochristian upbringing of the developers and the cultural background within which most games are made these days – by Americans for a predominantly American audience.
Japanese games are indeed an different here, but rarely feature any kind of actually gameable reputation and morality. Interestingly it did take Frenchman David Cage to include moral grey areas – as well as getting rid of the traceable game stats.

The Internet demonstrates D&D's alignment system with some help from the Goddamn Batman

Another part to this, which surely is also rooted in judeochristian morale, is the desktop RPG background a lot of developers have. Desktop RPG is still today dominated by Dungeons & Dragons, which prominently featured an array of alignments, on which each and every Character could be placed. Another easy to read chart of reputation and morale, handy for sure, but when video games have morality systems that play on this, things get all too obvious all too fast.

I’ve said it before that I’m usually against all notions that games must at all cost mimic reality as closely as possible, but morality and reputation mechanics are a big exception to this stance. It’s the easy way out to implement these systems as an obvious game within the game. However I’m not against implementing those systems as such in general.

Moral standing and reputation are something that’s hard to grasp in reality. Even in other forms of narrative characters hardly always know exactly how good / bad they are and how much people like them or even what impact their actions have on these things. Some players may find real life frustrating because of that, but being able to fool around with a not instantly recognizable game mechanic is a lot more fun to me than seeing the numbers right away.