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Morality as fashion February 9, 2006

Posted by joshg in mainstream games, morality & ethics.

If someone was to ask for a game that deals with morality, the avid gamer might come up with a few off the top of their head. Games like Black and White, for example.

In Black and White, the player acts the part of a small-scale deity, and becomes known as either a good or evil god through their actions. (If that offends you as someone who takes the topic a bit more seriously, I sympathize; but please do read on anyway.) A player who treats villagers and their pet well is recognized as Good, and their lands are filled with bright skies, flowers, etc. Those who abuse their minions and emphasize destruction and punishment are labelled Evil, and their lands become dark, shadowy places (perfect for an afternoon of deep brooding).

Many reviewers and gamers took this as an example of expressing morality within the context of a game. I used to myself, until someone pointed out this problem: the game has no moral message at all.

Good and evil are presented as opposing sides to choose from, but the game presents both sides as equally acceptable. Your “conscience” is presented as two characters, a white angelic-but-cute old man and a black-red creepy-but-cute chubby devil. They tell you, “We’re your conscience.” That’s both of them together, not the good conscience vs. the evil temptor.

Perhaps more importantly, there are no negative consequences for choosing evil. Oh, you’ll get a tsk-tsk from the good side of your conscience, but there’s nothing that catches up with you in the end for doing wrong along the way. The game is designed to be equally playable as either good or evil, with tradeoffs and challenges either way. Which is fine, from a game design perspective, but it certainly isn’t portraying a reality with a moral message.

One could argue that being morally indifferent can actually be a message, and I would agree. (Not a message I’m very fond of, but a message nonetheless.) However, I find it hard to believe that Lionhead Studios, the makers of the game, are consciously promoting this message through their game. The game doesn’t take itself all that seriously, and the goal seems to be simply to let people have fun expressing themselves while playing however they want to play.

None of this is to say that there aren’t other interesting lessons we can learn from Black and White in terms of portraying faith. While it’s decidedly neutral on issues of morality, it demonstrates other ways to turn theological issues into gameplay mechanics. But I’ll leave that topic for another day.

Next we’ll look at a game series that began with the morality-as-personality-test mentality, but then took a turn towards something more.



1. Carl Muckenhoupt - March 2, 2006

I’d disagree that there’s no negative consequences for choosing evil. Evil in this game basically means hurting people, thereby making them worship you out of fear. The downside to this is obvious: that your people get hurt. Every villager you throw off a cliff decreases your population a little, thus weakening your position. Even enemies are potential converts.

But that’s not much of a moral lesson, because (a) it’s still possible to overcome this problem and win the game as evil by careful planning, and (b) choosing the Good side has similar problems of its own (chiefly that it’s easy to make it so your people expect you to save them all the time). If there’s a lesson here, it’s that random acts of arbitrary cruelty aren’t as effective as targetted acts of calculated cruelty. Which is essentially the same moral lesson as you get from Grand Theft Auto.

2. joshg - March 2, 2006

Good point. I’m still not sure that losing worshippers is always a negative consequence, though (from a purely gameplay perspective). I often found that while playing Good, I ended up with overpopulation and had trouble keeping them all fed, causing them to lose faith.

And of course, they became reliant on the old Create Food miracle. I guess that’s the counterpoint of the lesson you stated above, though – it also teaches that measured, targetted acts of kindness are more effective than random, generous acts of kindness.

3. Karl - April 6, 2007

The thing that I found annoying about Black & White was the simplistic nature of the relationship between people an God. People were limited to three interactions with God: begging for help, worshiping out of gratefulness, and worshiping out of terror. I quickly became tired of people whining for help. Couldn’t there be something more sophisticated?

I think games like the Sims or Civilization imply a more plausible God concept, i.e. that of a God able to invisibly interact with the world rather than as a giant animal hungry for worship and power.

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