4 March 2009

Following reading a reply to a post by the author (Iroquois Pliskin):

As I said, have this same problem with moral-choice games, I just always find them pretty uninteresting ethically. I think one of the things you're pointing to also is that moral choices in games would be a lot more impactful if the moral aspects were handled much more subtly.

It reminded me of a piece i wrote a while ago that was rejected from 'publication'. Enjoy:

Morality in games is generally your black and white, your good and evil – polar opposites. Role playing games and games with role playing elements strive to paint the game world in the shades of grey that reality has as a base coat. The problem with this is that any expressionistic medium is limited both by the person expressing it and the person experiencing it.

Inevitably one of the reasons why so many games fall into the trap of being polarised in their moral choices is because it’s easy - it’s much easier to write and script a game that is obvious in its intent than being ambiguous. Ambiguity could be said to be the nature of genius and many literary and artistic greats show this trait; allowing the user to discuss and imbibe the content, all the while applying their own world logic to it without the hindrance of being shown ‘how it should be interpreted’. Another reason is that the authors are conditioned to behave like this.

Look around in society and you will see the broad strokes of them and us, hero and villain, enemy and friend. It’s a trait that’s hard-coded into our survival instincts and it shows in our actions, our beliefs and the structure of society in general. It takes a lot to break away from this conditioning.

Essentially, I don’t believe that a person can truly express something that they’ve never experienced. They can guess but, at best, it’s still just guesswork. How many authors or actors will go out of their way to experience a way of life, either first hand or through extensively researching that way of life, to be able to excel at their work?
I think that the evidence is in front of us – in all the games we’ve played – the people who make games don’t know how to be bad people. Sure, they can call names and pretend to be violent but those are extremes. Where are the people who take a piss in a housemate’s shampoo because they’ve annoyed them one too many times? The people who are happy burning a business or home to the ground to claim on the insurance when their chips are down? These are the people who we need to be helping to develop games – or at least the people developers imagine themselves to be, to get into their mindsets and alter their perceptions of the world around them.

Going back to instinct and the social programming associated with that; we are designed to work together to produce favourable results - this is how the human race has survived for so long. Good deeds are rewarded on several levels: the burst of good feelings we get, the social reward of people respecting us and liking us and the related feelings we experience (along with the benefits we receive) from those interactions. There are also the negative effects of doing something ‘bad’ in society on whatever level: chemical punishments that our own bodies administer all the way up to social deprivation because of our bad traits or actions.
In many cases, this conditioning helps repress our darker sides, curtails our desires to fight for stupid reasons and try to dominate those around us for selfish reasons. There are those for whom the rewards don’t appeal: those people who get away with ‘bad’ deeds and feel a chemical reward from their bodies for doing those deeds. To back this up, there are studies that have shown that psychological disorders are associated with chemical imbalances: studies that show how some people don’t associate negative feelings of certain events and situations in the way that most ‘normal’ people do. These people do not have the same understanding of the world that the majority do and thus their ways are ‘bad’.

The problem with role playing games is that their authors have this applied to their world view. It’s the reason why good choices in games tend to be disproportionately rewarded and why the bad or evil choices are so simplistic in their implementation: be rude and kill.

If we want to start having more morally questionable choices in games, if games themselves want to start challenging our intellects in the same way that art, film and literature do, then those who make them need to start practicing whatever the equivalent of method acting is for game development. There needs to be a move away from the safe mindset of society and instead look inwards towards the absolute selfishness and cruelty that simmers just beneath the surface of any person. This would hopefully breed a broader moral spectrum in which a game can be played and also allow for more ambiguous characterisation and events to take place.

The best gaming intellectual and emotional experiences that I’ve had have come from games that make me question the intent of the designer and writer – to try to understand what is happening or what happened while I was playing. Games like Portal, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are the first step in the right direction. They don’t force the answers down our throats but instead allow a person to dissect the dangled hidden meanings if their own wish is to do so, or if not, just play the game.
This lenience in game understanding cannot happen when the choices or experiences allowed are polar in their presentation. You are allowed the designer’s intended emotions but not challenged to really think about how those emotions come about. Ultimately the player becomes passive in an intrinsically active medium.

However, if developers continue to push the boundaries of their and our social leanings, to help us question and understand that which makes us what we are... we may yet have our Citizen Kane.


The Lord of Leisure said...

So this is where you've been hiding eh?

Duoae said...

Nah, not really. As you can see i've been mostly absent the last two months :)

Just getting back into the groove. I'm ready to go on the site anytime you want.... i just need a little inspiration and maybe a few games to play :D

Wordsmythe said...

Interesting thoughts, Duoae. They've started my head bubbling into what may becomes a post of my own, regarding the design conflation of morality, ethics, gentility, and honor.

One of my favorite things about Far Cry 2 is that it warps the typical gamer drive to progress the plot and the character's power and brings that into conflict with the player's own sense of morality.

I'd like to see more discussion about the interaction between player and designer, though. It strikes me that moral ambiguity in games only applies insofar as the player is willing to recognize and play with that ambiguity. Since many players tend toward one or the other extreme in their play, it's hard to judge what makes this type of dynamic effective -- and who's to blame if it isn't.

Duoae said...

An excellent point, Wordy, and as an example of that willingness (or perhaps propensity), in contrast to your experience with Far Cry 2 i just found that the 'in your face' barbarity of the situation just made little sense to me and actually turned the game into a simple progression from point A-B because i was given no choice in my interaction with the world (i.e. it was be a bastard or be a bigger bastard).

I still enjoyed the game but any moral overtones pretty much destroyed themselves because at some point early on in the game my mind just blanked it out and the game became pure mechanics. Just as how in Super Mario games the story and setting are pretty superfluous, Far Cry 2 lost any sense of meaning in the greater scheme of things.

It's possible that it is just down to my own feelings on senseless violence and lack of choice that i didn't make a more emotional connection with the game.

On the other hand, perhaps i was just playing the role given to me without thought (and thus found it boring). I mean, you enter the game as an assassin for hire, to kill some guy. You're just as bad as the mercs you end up fighting against. In fact, you could say that your actions in the game are purer than those that bring your character into the game. You're pretty much just trying to survive in the game world and given no choice but do so.

Contrasting to this is the ending of Prince of Persia. While some people felt robbed of their hard-earned work because of the sudden switch-around, i felt that the actions you were forced to do were all the more powerful because you'd been working to the opposite of them during the game. The role of the Prince was his to force the player to experience. The role of your character in Far Cry 2 is linear (as far as i've gotten) and forgettable. It's like they shoe-horned the player into playing a role that they forgot to flesh out - there's no moral, ethical or personal progression seen in the typical character arcs of the three main story-telling mediums of today.