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In trying to portray morality through the player’s actions – as opposed merely to the narrative – games face a rather unique problem. One key element of giving a player choices about how they play, and particularly with respect to making moral choices, is making the player feel immersed in such a way that they think carefully about their choices and even feel regret if their choices hurt other characters.
This immersion is important because without it, players have no reason to care about their choices. In making those choices, the player may simply desire to maximize rewards. In learning about the consequences, the player may simply find those consequences irrelevant to their game, so that they do not incorporate the information into their future choices. In either case, the point of the moral choice system is defeated.
I focus right now on the second issue, about introducing consequences about the player’s choices. And a common way for a video game to present these consequences is through some form of “judgment.” While there are a few different ways this judgment can be performed, broadly speaking it involves the player making a choice, and then at some point a character scolds the player for that choice. The scolding might be immediate, it might be delayed, it might be a scolding that comes as a result of several choices rather than a single choice. But the basic idea is that the game is essentially trying to say “you did the wrong thing.”
This judgment is appealing in that it very clearly lays out consequences for players, and might be especially appealing if your goal is to really throw a player’s choice in their face. But ultimately, these kinds of judgment from the game are largely bad, and should be avoided unless done very carefully.
In this essay I’ll explore a handful of problems that illustrate how imposing judgment upon the player and the player’s choices end up ultimately undermining the point of that judgment and the choice system as a whole. I’ll then attempt to provide some preliminary ideas for how a working judgment system might work.
But it’s important to note that in order to investigate some of these failings, it’s useful to look to particular examples. Which means that there will be some spoilers for a few games. So if you want to avoid those spoilers, it is a good idea to stop reading here.
The fact that players can make choices means that an author needs to try to account for those choices. And if one of your goals is to present a more neutral point of view or present a broader narrative point (usually one that boils down to “it would be better if you just didn’t get involved”), then you might try to account for those choices by judging the player regardless of what choice they make. So you designate a character to yell at the player if they make Choice A, and another character to yell at the player if they make Choice B.
But this setup severely undermines the purpose of the moral choice system. The starting point to understand about human psychology is that generally people don’t like to be yelled at. And while sometimes being scolded for doing wrong can lead to reflection, that reflection is not a given. Instead, it requires that the individual feel some reason why they should reflect. Things like realizing on their own that they did something wrong, or being criticized by someone they respect. But just having a character yell at the player is not going to satisfy any such requirement.
Now combine that distaste for being scolded with the game’s own systems. If the player is going to be yelled at no matter what, then the player has even less reason to bother with the game. At this point, it does not matter what the game’s purpose is. Perhaps there is supposed to be a general message about extremes, or about not getting involved. But if the player has no way of making the “right” choice, then the player is going to be removed from the experience.
In short, if the game doesn’t care what choice I make, why should I care what choice I make? I may as well just play however I want.
A couple examples can be found in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Far Cry 4. The former game was well-known for exploring the Star Wars universe in a way that made players think more carefully about the philosophies behind the Jedi (the good guys) and the Sith (the bad guys). The overall message was supposed to be about neutrality and not sticking to strict codes. But at some junctures, this message was portrayed by having the mentor character scold the player for whatever decision they make: if you decide to help a particular person, you are told off for helping them; if you refuse to help them, you are told off for your refusal. There is no possibility of making a correct decision. While the point of the scolding is to get the player to think more carefully about their choices, the criticisms made against the player end up being empty.
Likewise, Far Cry 4 places the player in a war-torn country fighting against a brutal dictator with the help of a rebel force. But the rebels are being led by two different characters that constantly bicker and disagree with each other. And at several story points the player is asked to make a choice by siding with one leader or the other, often with each providing a choice that makes sense in some capacity. But when you make your choice, the other character yells at you for your choice and blames you for harming the resistance effort. The point of this scolding is to convey that perhaps the player should not get involved with the conflict at all, but since the only way to continue playing the game is by being involved, the criticisms not only feel empty but almost hypocritical.
The end result is that if the player is faced with the prospect of being yelled at by the game no matter what, then the player less likely to take the criticisms offered by the game on board. Instead, the player is more likely to turn against the game itself.
One way for a game to justify criticizing a player for their decisions is by essentially keeping the player in the dark about the consequences of their decisions.
One way in which we judge the morality of a given choice is by its consequences, but even that is too vague. To what extent do you hold someone accountable for the consequences they not only didn’t foresee, but couldn’t have foreseen? This is a radically complex topic of debate within ethical theory – what is it that actually makes a decision good or bad? Is it the results of the decision, regardless of the intent? Is it the intent, regardless of the results?
However, video games can’t really measure intent that well, and so rely entirely upon consequences for their judgments. Yet when such judgments are given through the lens of “here is a piece of information that was kept from you, and now you’re being yelled at for not foreseeing it,” the criticism falls flat.
As an example, I turn again to Far Cry 4. One choice in particular always stuck out to me as an excellent example of this problem. At one juncture, you are faced with a problem: the evil authoritarian leader is growing poppy to make opium as part of a drug trade, and so you need to stage an attack on it. One of the resistance leaders wants you to burn it all. The logic being that getting involved in the same drug trade is going to be bad for the people. The other leader wants you to save the poppy. The logic being that you can use the money from selling the drugs to help finance the resistance and help the country prosper economically. It is, as presented, a decent moral choice.
So I ended up choosing to burn the poppy. After completing the mission, the other leader yelled at me for my decision, on the grounds that the poppy could have been used to make medicine for the soldiers. This seemed like an excellent point, but one that was not made at the time the decision was being offered. It was information kept from me for no apparent reason, but in doing so it made the scolding feel contrived. It is information that, if I possessed it, might have shifted my final decision.
It might feel like a useful shortcut in storytelling to hide information. After all, if you present all of the possible arguments in favor of a given choice, and those aren’t convincing, then scolding the player afterwards is also going to feel empty. Because if the arguments didn’t convince the player then, they aren’t going to convince the player now, presumably.
But that very shortcut is what makes the setup bad. It ignores a core part of the complexity of what it means to make good moral choices.
So information shouldn’t be hidden from the player in making choices unless there is a reason to keep that information hidden. If information is going to be kept hidden, the player should not be attacked for not knowing this hidden information.
Note that in this rule, there are two important caveats.
One, there can still be useful storytelling purposes for a character to engage in criticism of a player’s choices based on unknown information, but that kind of criticism has to be framed in a proper manner. Namely, that judgment has to be framed around something that would make sense as a secret. Perhaps a character did not want to reveal something because it was embarrassing or traumatic, and thus they didn’t want to talk about it, but your choice essentially forced their hand. As long as the player can understand why information would be kept hidden, it might still sting to be judged, but at least that judgment makes some degree of sense.
Two, it’s still possible to not directly convey all information to a player, even in a moral choice system. But if information is going to be relevant, it should be discoverable in some way. Perhaps this might mean demanding that the player engage in some exploration and legwork, looking at the world or talking to characters or reading notes in order to figure out what the “correct” decision is. And if players don’t do that work, we can give some justifiable claim for judging their choices. But that justification disappears if the information is going to pop into existence after the choice has already been made.
One of the most important elements of video games is the possibility of interaction. That is, that the player can effectively make choices that turns their own gameplay into a unique experience. In a way, those choices allow the player to effectively stamp their personality upon the game itself.
But one important disconnect that has not yet been overcome is the limitation of choice. While players can make numerous choices, the variety is often still constrained. And when it comes to making moral choices, players can often come up with very interesting ideas about what is right and wrong.
And so we reach a problem of individual reasoning. If the player is being criticized for their choices, they often get no chance to explain their reasoning (i.e. why they made the choice they did). When a player is judged, in fact, they are often forced to simply stand there and take the criticism without an ability to really react.
But leaving the criticism hanging like this necessarily leaves a bad taste in the player’s mouth. Because the game is essentially attacking the player without giving any chance for the player to explain. Or just as often, when the game does give the player some chance to explain, those explanations tend to not reflect the player’s actual reasoning. And so the player is prevented from making the game their experience.
Some games might try to get around this problem by having a large number of options – the more possibilities for dialogue, the more likely you will be able to provide a response that will reflect a given player’s rationale. But even this method is severely flawed. At the end of the day, the variety that is possible from an individual’s reasoning is only rarely going to be reflected by a game’s choices.
And it is important to note that we do not need to demand that the game be perfect in capturing the reasoning of a player. Only that it capture the variety of human beings in a way that most players can make choices that feel reflective of not only their decisions, but the reasoning behind those decisions.
But what is particularly important here is that when a player is being judged for their choices, it should be asked to what extent the player may have a sort of right or reason to respond to that judgment.
Which means that not every game will need to give a player the opportunity to respond. Sometimes such a response might not fit with the game’s structure or narrative, or might not be warranted because the choice is genuinely wrong (yes, sometimes that can happen).
But often when a player is being judged – indeed, when we can categorize such judgment as truly “scolding” – the lack of an opportunity to respond causes the player to recoil from that judgment. It feels empty because it’s not about the player interacting with the game, but instead the game just telling the player what it wants to convey. In a sense, the player is a mere ornament at the moment they are being judged. In another sense, the game ceases to be a game at that moment.
Sitting in Judgment of the Player
So if these are the problems, what would need to be done to have the game essentially provide judgment of the player’s choices as part of a moral choice system?
One lesson we might take away is that we should remove judgment entirely. That it can’t ever be implemented properly, and so should be avoided. But this would be the wrong lesson to learn. Because judgment is important for morality. So while often many methods of implementing judgment miss core components of how morality works, leaving out that judgment entirely would do the exact same thing.
It might be better to take away the broader lesson that “scolding” – having a character effectively walk up to the player and say “you did wrong and I am going to try to make you feel bad about your recent choice” – is something that should generally be avoided. There are ways to make such scolding work, but doing so requires careful implementation. Namely, it becomes necessary to avoid the pitfalls mentioned above, or else the scolding becomes empty.
But judgment itself is still useful, so how would we want to go about incorporating it?
Firstly, you want moral judgment to be subtle. What you actually want is for the player to essentially sit in judgment of themselves. Because when we are judged by others, we are less likely to take that judgment seriously. Not that we immediately disregard judgment that comes from other people, but there are particular requirements that basically need to be met first. But if we judge ourselves, we tend to take those criticisms seriously.
So making the player come to a realization about the consequences of their actions, or the fault of their reasoning, on their own is the key. A common rule in visual narrative design is “show, don’t tell,” and that rule is important here, too. Let the player draw their own conclusions, and if they messed up, let them figure it out on their own.
Secondly, if we’re going to tell a player that their choice was wrong, then we need to be careful how we go about declaring that. If a choice is going to be called “wrong,” it has to very definitely be wrong. When we take a morally ambiguous decision and declare one choice wrong, and then chastise a player for choosing that option, then the player is alienated from the system. Because at that point the game doesn’t really care about “morality.” To put it crudely, the game is pushing its views upon the player.
Moreover, we want to make sure that when a player is going to be scolded, it has to be put into a context that makes sense. If a character is going to scold the player for a decision, it should be framed in such a way that the player is willing to accept it. So for example, if the criticism is not couched in the form of “the game is essentially telling you that you are wrong,” but rather in the form of “this character disagrees with you,” then it’s easier to take on board what is being said. Because at that point, the judgment is not framed in our minds as an “attack.”
Much as morality is in interesting concept to explore in video games, there is much work still to be done to make it really work. Even with designers going for more and more complexity, we are still largely stuck with a set of systems built around oversimplified concepts of morality. Which is understandable, because as I’ve mentioned in earlier essays, most people don’t have the time to develop expertise in the subject. But it does create a major problem when video games are purporting to explore morality in interesting ways.
So when we think about giving players choices and having the game judge the player, we need to think about what’s really being accomplished with that judgment. Often we might think of judgment as a tool to help steer players in an intended direction. If you judge a player for a bad action, they will do fewer bad actions in the future. If you judge a player for whatever choice they make, the player will decide to not make any choices at all. But while we might think these will be the results, what is more likely to happen is that the player will essentially revolt against these judgments. So the player will decide to ignore the game, ultimately defeating the purpose both of the judgment and of the moral choice system more broadly.
Hence why it is so important to think of judgment not as a sort of cudgel to get the player to do what you want or adopt a lesson you want to teach. Instead, it should be treated as a subtle tool to help lead the player to insights about how they think about moral choices.