Moral Choices: Teachable Moments

Words: 2408 Approximate Reading Time: 15-20 minutes

When we place moral themes into art, film, books, video games, or any other setting, we generally do not do so merely for the sake of putting something into that setting. Instead, we explore morality because we wish to teach some kind of lesson about morality. Sometimes that lesson may be small – the various short stories and fables that we may have heard of have such quick lessons. And sometimes that lesson isn’t about telling people what to do, but to convey some broader ideas about how morality works or ought to work.

But as easy as it may seem to teach lessons by just telling a viewer or reader what they ought to do, this method of conveying lessons tends to be counterproductive. People often don’t like to be told what to think, but instead prefer arriving at conclusions on their own. Especially if we are talking about something like morality, where we might have strong feelings on the subject that are difficult to shake.

So if we’re going to include morality systems in video games, we should be thinking about what our objective is. What lesson do we plan to convey? If a player is being asked to make a choice, what is the purpose of giving the player this choice?

Important to how we convey these lessons is that instead of trying to tell players what to think, we should consider tearing down what they thought they knew. Removing those barriers is important in general for helping to prepare a player’s mind for new information. But that process is also important as a method of conveying its own lesson.

To help explain this idea of tearing down a player’s beliefs about morality, I’d like to introduce the concept of aporia. Aporia is a Greek term that refers to the sense of being at a loss, particularly when you are faced with something about which you are uncertain. What makes this sense of aporia particularly strong is when it comes after having felt a great deal of certainty. That is, when you thought you knew something, but are then robbed of that knowledge and left only with the understanding that you really knew nothing at all to begin with.

The tactic of bringing a conversation to this state of aporia was a favorite of the thinker Socrates, and has been used by a number of philosophers to help draw out broader lessons and get people to think more critically about major issues. And as a tool for thinking about morality, it helps us to convey one of the most important moral lessons of all: that we often think we know a great deal, but in fact know very little.

Using a moral choice system to bring players to a state of aporia is a way to demonstrate the very fact that moral problems are complex, and should not be taken lightly. In a sense, a system that could actually accomplish this task could be truly considered philosophical.

For this essay I will explain in a bit more detail what aporia is and how it works. Then I will explain why this aporia is useful and a much better ideal to construct a moral choice system around, especially in contrast to traditional moral choice systems which either do not aim to teach lessons at all, or teach lessons in more ham-handed ways.

Understanding Aporia

To better see what aporia is and how it works, it is best to delve into a little historical example.

Socrates was a philosopher in ancient Athens, in Greece. Socrates liked to roam around the city and start up conversations with everyone. Conversations like “What does it mean to be courageous?”, or “What is justice?” These kinds of questions would usually be subjects that most people would have a ready answer for. After all, what kind of person doesn’t know what courage or justice means?

But when those people gave their answers, Socrates would then press them. He would ask a variety of questions, often based around that person’s ideas and beliefs. In targeting those questions, Socrates continually showed that the various answers actually didn’t work. Sometimes they just didn’t make sense when a specific example was given. Sometimes they didn’t work because the answers contradicted other core beliefs.

Whatever the specific reason, the fact that the answer didn’t work caused a sort of shock. Surely an Athenian – someone who prides themself as an intelligent person and a good citizen – should know the answers to these kinds of basic questions. And yet, it appears that they knew nothing.

That feeling of believing you knew something so important, and then having the rug pulled out from under you, is aporia.

Now Socrates himself pissed off a lot of people doing this, and eventually got himself condemned and put to death. Thankfully, we don’t need to worry about that now. Socrates died because what he was doing was challenging the very core beliefs of the city he lived in, which relied on those beliefs to keep it together.

Applying Aporia

So how would we actually put this knowledge to use? Even if the concept is interesting, we need some kind of method to help apply this, especially in the context of a video game.

And the first thing to note is that one of the things that makes this a major problem within game design is that we are dealing with player interaction. Granted, philosophical texts that deal with aporia (plenty of examples can be found within the various dialogues written by Plato, a student of Socrates) also involve interaction, but it’s a different form of interaction. Whereas these texts are a single thing in their presentation, and the interaction comes from picking the text apart and trying to create a new work out of that process, video games require more variety.

We could avoid this problem by having a more constrained game experience. But that constraint in turn is likely to undermine the very point of aporia. Because to use that constraint removes us from one of the core components of aporia.

And the first thing we need to keep in mind is that to some extent the process of bringing a person to a state of aporia is specific to the individual. That is, you need to have some understanding of their beliefs and thought processes so that you can figure out how to note contradictions and point out how their initial ideas don’t work. And a constrained story is going to be limited in accomplishing this task. It’s not impossible. Bringing out genuinely difficult moral conundrums that force players to really confront ideas that seemed simple on their face, but require more complexity when faced with a new situation, is a way that we can use more linear storytelling to still bring players to aporia. But that in turn is going to require a good knowledge of what those difficult conundrums are. Otherwise, the attempt is going to fall flat.

But the more important application is in incorporating that variety inherent to video games. Because the limitation of linear stories is that they can really only spark discussion and conversation. They are the equivalent of texts: we can pick apart the ideas and engage with those ideas, but it’s an experience that requires the player to engage in the first place, and in doing so isn’t well-tailored to any particular player.

In capturing that variety, the key is understanding how people think. Which is obviously incredibly difficult. But it requires learning about different moral ideas, how they work, why people support those ideas, and most importantly, how those ideas can be pressed.

So if you’re interested in exploring a moral idea in a video game, the first thing that needs to be done is to go study the ideas that you plan on incorporating into the game. This means doing things like talking to people who hold those ideas, reading about those ideas where you can, and learning whatever you can about those ideas.

Once you have that understanding in place, you then need to figure out how to actually put it all into practice. That requires, first of all, actually getting a sense of what a player thinks. There’s no value in trying to bring a player to the state of aporia if you’re pressing the player on a belief they don’t actually hold. So you need to get a sense of the player’s moral beliefs.

It is important to stress here the importance of subtlety. It might be easy to just ask a player about their moral beliefs and then tailor the experience that way, but when you clearly invoke these beliefs, the player is essentially placed on their guard. They now realize that you’re going to be judging them in some way, and they will often respond to that notice by changing their behavior. Sometimes the change is drastic, and sometimes it is minor, but nevertheless trying to get a more “natural” reaction to things is important. Hence, don’t shove this stuff into the player’s face.

Once you know the player’s beliefs, you can then do a couple things. One, you could use character dialogue to question them. Press them with examples: if the player deems something bad, would they still agree in a given hypothetical situation? Or try to identify some other beliefs that might be in conflict: if values A and B are contradictory, point out that problem. The second thing you can do is introduce the conflict through the game itself. Create situations for the player that pushes them to make a choice that might violate their beliefs. And if they do so, the player can be called out on it later.

Let’s use a couple of examples to see how this might work. Let’s begin with a simplified version. You pose a question to the player: is it okay to lie? Now assume that the player has said that it is never okay to lie. A game might track that response, and create a scenario later for the player to be presented with a conundrum. Perhaps the player must decide whether to lie or tell the truth, and by lying might save someone’s life (a selfless act) or might get something out of doing so (a selfish act). If the player chooses to lie, then the player’s choice can be shown to them later: you said you believed that it was never okay to lie, and yet you chose to lie. By confronting the player this way not with a random choice and a random action, but by their own moral beliefs and their own actions, a player can be brought to the realization that either they fall short of their own beliefs or that their beliefs were wrong and need rethinking.

Let’s make the example a bit more complex, now. Rather than a very specific moral value – honesty – let’s question the player about a broader value. We’ll ask the player about being good more generally. What do they think is most important to being good? Being kind? Not hurting others? Being charitable? We can provide the player with a range of options, and in the same vein as earlier, we can then present the player with scenarios that pose problems for the player’s answer. If the player said that avoiding hurting others was important, then put them in scenarios where they may have to hurt others (thankfully, it’s a video game, so we don’t have to worry about actually getting people hurt). But then we can again use those choices to ask the player to what extent their choice is really right. If they make choices that conflict with their beliefs, then something has to give, and we can show that problem to the player to get them to think more critically about what it means to be a good person.

In presenting these ideas, it is important to stress again the issue of subtlety. Just like in posing the initial question, when we confront the player with these problems, we want to be careful about how we frame that confrontation. Firstly, as I mentioned in a previous essay, judging the player can tend to put the player in a defensive position, meaning they don’t care to listen to what they’re being told. Secondly, the subtlety is important for allowing the process to be repeated. Players learn pretty quickly when they’re specifically being tested, and insofar as moral choice systems are a kind of test, they will start to adjust their actions in order to get the right answer – or in many cases, what they think the right answer is.

But equally important is that while the attempt to bring players to this state of aporia requires essentially confronting the player with a problem – a contradiction or a failure to actually follow through with their beliefs – we don’t want that attempt to be so important that we undermine the process itself. So while I’ve stressed in the above examples the importance of putting players in situations where they may feel compelled to contradict their beliefs, it is still important that they have a choice not to do so. When the player is forced to do something – when that agency is removed, whether directly or indirectly – then the player is going to be unwilling to accept any kind of judgment. Because essentially, the action wasn’t theirs. So while we want to frame these moral choices around trying to bring about aporia, it’s important not to get ahead of ourselves.

Concluding Remarks

These are some preliminary ideas on how a video game might get players to think more critically about their own beliefs, especially within the context of morality and ethics. The idea of aporia is important because it is a way of teaching things without having to lecture, which is good since a lot of people don’t care for being lectured at.

Of course, the process I have outlined is quite difficult, and requires a great deal of work to put into practice. But as I’ve been trying to reiterate in various previous essays, making a good moral choice system is hard no matter what. Because morality is far more complex than how we commonly think about it, and just presenting a few options that are clearly “good” and “bad” is never going to be much more than a simplistic way of giving players “choices.”

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