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Following up on the essay from last week, I want to again look at a specific moral framework for the purpose of seeing how it can be used to create a richer set of moral choices for players in video games.
As I mentioned in the previous essay, the value of these moral frameworks is to make these moral choices and themes more powerful, giving players something substantive to chew over. Rather than merely “do I agree with this character’s action?”, we are forced to dig into why we agree (or disagree) with that action, which can tell us something about ourselves and what we believe.
And as more games are made that try in different ways to explore moral topics, the real estate for exploration shrinks. While there are plenty of different stories that can be written to frame moral choices, over time the choices themselves will start to blur together from game to game. Should we side with X character or Y character? Should we give money to poor characters? Should we kill bad characters rather than trying to put them through the game’s justice system? There are plenty of different choices that any player is going to be familiar with, and the more familiarity there is, the harder it is going to be to make the choice itself feel fresh. The narrative surrounding that choice can change and still be interesting, but the choice itself will become played out.
But digging into ethical philosophy in some way can open up those moral choices. It can allow us to reframe the choices themselves, rather than just the story around those choices. Even the same choice can be framed in multiple ways to make different points and highlight different perspectives. That concept of different forms of framing certainly isn’t new to anyone familiar with the basics of narrative. But the distinction is that we’re changing the object of that reframing: rather than merely reframing the narrative that goes around the choice, the choice itself becomes the target.
The way we ultimately reframe those choices, though, is by digging into the ideas lurking behind them. The more we open up our language and understanding of the moral concepts that serve as the basis for these choices, the more we can do with the choices themselves. It requires a lot of work, but ultimately any attempt to make a good product requires a lot of work.
So for this essay I’m going to dig into the specifics of a moral framework called “deontology.” This is a framework that people are probably familiar with in some form, though probably not by name. I will provide a brief overview of what deontology is and how it works, and then use that information to help explain how a deontological framework can be applied to moral choices in video games.
The Rules of Morality
Deontology might be one of the harder frameworks to explain. Some parts of it will be easy to grasp, but that ease in turn leads to some confusions about how it works and why we would want to embrace it.
The basics of deontology is that it works through rules. The rightness or wrongness of an action depends on its conformity to a rule of morality. What the rules themselves are depends on a lot of things, so it’s not actually all that simple to say a rule is “don’t hurt other people” and then as long as we’re conforming with that rule we’re okay. Rules don’t always need to be specific, or can be specific but may require particular thought processes to figure out what the rule is.
Perhaps an easy way to think about deontological rules is something like the Ten Commandments from Judeo-Christian theology. These commandments lay out basic rules: do this, and don’t do that (although it’s definitely a lot of “don’t do this”). And being a righteous person involves following those rules. Sometimes the rules are pretty clear-cut (“Thou shalt not kill”), and sometimes they’re a bit more vague (“Thou shalt honor thy mother and father”). Sometimes you know exactly what to do, and sometimes there are several things you can do without needing to do any one specific action.
Arguably the most well-known deontological moral philosopher is Immanuel Kant. Kant proposed a series of basic structures for thinking about how moral rules work, without necessarily proposing a particular moral rule for people to live by.
Kant suggested a few different ideas, but probably the most useful for our purposes is this thing called the “categorical imperative,” and even more specifically this idea that we call the “Universalization Principle.” The Universalization Principle runs as follows:
“Act only upon a principle of action that you would wish for everyone else to also act upon.”
The idea here is that you ask yourself “is it okay to do X?” To figure that out, imagine that everyone performed that action. So, for example, stealing. Is it okay to steal? Well, what would happen if everyone stole? Then we’d live in a world where we would struggle to maintain our existence, since we’d have nothing that we could ever consider to be ours. It’s a world we wouldn’t want to live in, because we’d be constantly trying to protect our privacy from the invasions of others. So as a result, it’s wrong to steal. Don’t do it.
The problem can come in that we might start wondering “well, what about in such-and-such a circumstance? Does the rule still apply then?” This is why I highlighted the idea of it being more of a process. If we think about deontology in terms of very narrow rules for very particular situations, then we lock ourselves into a mindset that makes deontology somewhat unrealistic. It’s by trying specifically to think of what good moral rules would be in the first place that we actually approach deontology seriously.
But why use rules at all? Primarily, the focus on moral rules is that they are easier to establish, both logically and operationally.
Logically, figuring out rules for us to follow isn’t going to take as much effort as figuring out the consequences of our actions. With something like consequentialism, you need to have a wide knowledge of how your actions will affect others, whether those effects will be good or bad, and then be able to calculate all of those effects. With deontology, though, you just need a rule. The consequences don’t matter, at least not directly in the calculus. They matter indirectly: good moral rules will be ones that tend to have good consequences.
Operationally, it’s easier to figure out whether or not someone is conforming to a rule. Insofar as we only care about the rule itself, when the rule is being upheld or broken is a very easy thing to determine. If the rule says “don’t steal,” and you steal, then you broke the rule. Done. Even in its crudest forms, it helps us to figure out when people are acting immorally.
What makes deontology a bit complex is that it’s something you rarely encounter in a pure form. Even Kant – whom I mentioned above – is not a pure deontologist. He talks about things like internal dispositions and the reasons why we follow rules: things that will align more with virtue ethics, as we’ll see next week. But that impurity is not a bad thing. Even when we acknowledge that moral frameworks are complex, we can still struggle with the basic logic of the framework itself. Moral rules are still valuable as moral rules. Abandoning the concept entirely simply because they aren’t perfect effectively throws out the baby with the bathwater.
Video Games and (Moral) Rules
So with that framework, how could we apply deontological concepts to video game choices and narratives?
The same basic methods for how we used consequentialism would apply for deontology. All that differs is the actual substance of the choices. Rather than focusing on the consequences of actions, we’re going to focus on the moral rules that underlie these choices.
Let’s say, to start with, that you wanted to encourage players to think about moral choices by trying to get them to think about the rules that are important to them, not merely as vague ideas but as rules. Sometimes games try to pose questions to players – often during character creation – about what kinds of rules they would follow or hold to be important. This method is crude, but at least starts us off on the pathway we want.
In this sense, it might be useful to think of the mechanism of time. One important component of deontology and moral rules is that they can be used quickly and readily. Something like consequentialism requires time to figure out the various calculations at play, whereas deontological reasoning merely requires knowledge of the rule. That doesn’t mean that every moral rule is immediately accessible and we just need to always make snap decisions to get the right answer. Sometimes snap decisions are wrong. But using those rapid judgments can help to pull out a rule, rather than giving the player time to construct explanations regarding who is likely to benefit or be harmed by one decision over another.
So facing players with tough decisions that call for immediate response: a bad guy is getting away but has left people in danger, and you can only do one, so choose now; two people are in danger, which one do you save; you have a chance to kill a bad guy before he is arrested in the next few moments, do you pull the trigger. All sorts of dilemmas can be proposed to players – and we can even expand these to include more than just two options – that require them to go with their gut.
And afterwards, the game can interrogate the player. Why did you make the choice you did? What was the rule you were acting upon? Why is that rule good, compared to some other rule?
This strategy can be used both for the purpose of explaining why moral rules are important – they are a shortcut that we all use constantly to make decisions, so putting those shortcuts under a microscope is necessary – but also in getting players to think about the rules that they use in particular situations. In other words, it’s a way of both presenting the concept of deontology as a framework, as well as getting players to think more critically about how to approach a deontological philosophy.
But of course, not everyone is going to appreciate deontology. We often chafe against rules, because they feel artificially constraining. The almost innate desire is to put moral rules to the test by investigating them, as I described earlier. And so players can be given choices that force them to think about whether rules might be important on their own, rather than merely for something like consequences or some other factor.
The best approach to this problem is asking players what rules they would hold to be most important. Is there a rule you hold to be inviolable? The sanctity of life? To not do harm? To allow people to make choices for themselves? While we often chafe against rules when they are given to us, we tend to appreciate rules when they are ours.
After this selection, games can confront players with the limitations of these rules, but in a way that asks them not for a mere “exception” or “revising,” but for the wholesale abandonment of the rule. It is one thing if you hold a rule to be true that has an exception to it. You can easily incorporate that exception as just that: an exception. It doesn’t upend anything. But if the rule seems so fundamentally untrue that it has to be eradicated entirely, that is a different proposition. And it is by shifting players more to that latter problem that we can capture the value of rules as rules.
So it is not simply by shattering the player’s understanding of the rule itself, but then using that to question the value of rules overall. Should we just abandon moral rules entirely? While that might seem appealing – both in general or in light of this shattering – there are significant problems. So by then confronting the player with the ramifications of abandoning rules completely, they can be forced into a more substantive problem: how do I understand the process for making rules that can withstand serious scrutiny?
This topic may run up against the limitations of games. Even in the best of cases, games trying to capture a deontological framework in this way are going to have to be constructed by people who can perceive human thought processes in a myriad number of ways, or else will need to seriously constrain their choices, and by extension constrain their audience. Because rules can be not just varied on their own, but even the same rule can be grounded on different rational bases, it’s not going to be quite as simple as “if you hold this particular rule, it must mean that you also believe X, Y, and Z.” Charging down that path leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of how ethics works.
Deontological ethics will probably be one of the toughest things to do well in a game, because of how much misunderstanding surrounds it and because it must run up against our aversion to clearly defined rules that should never be broken. And yet, the importance of rules in our own lives – including moral rules – shows why we need to be given opportunities to think critically about them.
Perhaps the best we can ultimately hope for is not a strong investigation of deontological ethics on its own, but ways to think more carefully about ethics in general. That itself is incredibly worthwhile. But accomplishing even that task ultimately requires a deep dive into the minutiae of ethical philosophy that we often just take for granted.
Next week I will round out this brief series with an investigation of the framework of virtue ethics, which is the final topic of the three major camps of moral philosophy.