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Hocking interview explores moral choice May 14, 2007

Posted by joshg in mainstream games, morality & ethics.
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Gamasutra interviews Clint Hocking, mostly discussing the motivator of exploration within games but they eventually get to my favorite topic:

To try and teach someone a specific set of values in games is trickier because what games ought to do, in my opinion, is present the entire space of the problem. Instead of saying, “You should be honest,” it should say, “This is what honesty means” through the mechanics. This is what happens when you tell the truth or you tell a lie–instead of trying to make a game that says “Lying is bad and honesty is good.”

That’s what literature can do by creating characters who are very rich and detailed and tell a lie and regret it for the rest of the novel and watch how their who lives fall apart. A game I don’t think should do that. A game I think should give the player all the mechanics that surround that and figure out for himself whether telling the truth or lying is right or wrong.

I’m pretty sure I agree with his insight here, despite being a little confused initially by how he distinguishes the effects of the novel and the game. Yes, the novel chooses what the character believes about the consequences of their actions – the regret is authored. A game design won’t be able to explicitly force regret or guilt for immoral actions, but this doesn’t mean a game system dealing with moral choice must (or should) be neutral in how it portrays the consequences. As he says, the designer gives the player the mechanics that surround a moral choice, and the player then has the freedom to learn what they will from those mechanics.

(a whole lot of my thoughts on this after the break)

What those mechanics tell the player could carry a lot of weight, but in many games it’s likely given little thought. As an example, think of how lying is treated in the average PC-based role-playing game. If a lying conversation option is given in a menu-based conversation system, there’s often some “skill” check to see if the NPC believes you or not. If they do, you are probably rewarded in some sense – you get past an obstacle, or you get away with doing something you would otherwise have been punished for. If you fail, however, you are likely attacked by guards or some such, and placed in immediate life-or-death combat. No jail time, no trial, just swords drawn and your consequences are either to defeat everyone (possibly even getting experience points along the way) or to reload the game due to death or simply to retry the conversation. Or if the system is more tolerant, you may not be attacked but the negative consequences will be immediate, such as the NPC you’re speaking to simply shutting down the conversation and walking away or denying you whatever you were asking for.

What does this teach? The consequences of lying are either positive (they believe you), positive (if you view a bunch of XP and a ticked-off town as success), or an immediate negative which probably prompts a quick quit-and-reload (assuming you saved recently and don’t have to replay an hour’s worth of the game). If you’re designing for entertainment value this makes perfect sense and is actually good design. Failures during game play need to have clear and immediate effect to provide good feedback to the player, and should be easily to correct so that the player can enjoy the experience.

Compare this to the reality of lying as I understand it. If I lie to you, you may not let me know that you believe or disbelieve me. You may not discover my lie until a later time, meaning that consequences may not be immediate. You may lie to me in return as revenge or to counter my attempts to manipulate you. I need to maintain consistency when lying to the same person over time, or the whole effort will fall apart.

There are multiple problems here. Modeling a system to map the effects of lying (as I describe it here) is really really hard. Not only are there technical difficulties in managing sets of beliefs about the world across various NPCs, but you have to find a way to design a game that is worth playing despite the fact that your system lacks clear feedback, may have unseen consequences happen long after your choice, and is filled with ambiguity. Unless you’re theming your game specifically around lying, you’ll probably just avoid this sort of thing altogether.

Can it be done at all? Maybe – and to some degree, it’s probably been done more than I’m giving credit. There are a lot of newer PC RPGs that I haven’t had the time or motivation to pick up and play yet. However, the design choices taken to include lying for narrative or game play purposes may be at odds with what is needed to create a strong moral lesson. So far, most games I’ve seen which are consciously focusing on morality in their design are still so intent on creating a zero-sum game between good and evil that they create a nicely balanced set of choices which completely strips away the pragmatic message of the negative consequences that immoral choices can carry. I’m a little too hazy on how to elaborate on this without ranting that I’ll leave it at that.

Lastly, and this might be where my confusion stemmed from in reading the interview: even if someone models something like the above, is that really the same thing as teaching, “Thou shalt not lie”? I have long thought of moral teaching as being equal parts idealism (or absolutism I suppose) and pragmatism – yes, it’s wrong to lie, but it’s also impractical and foolish. Modeling a game to provide open exploration of moral choices may need to set aside the ideal absolute “DO NOT LIE” long enough to allow the player to actually try it, but I believe it could excel at teaching the pragmatic side of why lying is foolish. On the other hand, there are many people who equate “moral truth” with only absolute “DO” and “DO NOT” statements as though they are rote facts to memorize. This approach to moral teaching doesn’t leave room for exploration, which would make it awfully hard to connect games and moral teaching from that perspective.

In any case, it’s great to see this line of thought coming up in an industry-focused publication. While I hope to be doing more R&D-level work along these lines, I would love to see more good examples of morality being given serious treatment in mainstream games.

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Comments

1. baf - May 15, 2007

To a large extent, the pragmatic part of morality has to do with the common good: the benefit an individual gains by lying whenever it yields advantage is less than the benefit of living in a society where people generally don’t lie. Can this collective aspect be simulated in a game? I don’t know. It seems difficult. In a single-player game, the player really is the exceptional individual that every sociopath acts like — the only person who’s real. MMOGs have other characters just as real as you, but for that reason may be less of a sandbox to experiment with moral decisions: when you lie to another player character, you get to see the real consequences of lying because you’ve *really lied*.

Maybe one could write a game where you have to complete scenarios from the point of view of various different characters, taking the effects of each character’s actions into account. So you might be able to breeze through chapter 1 by robbing a merchant instead of doing honest work, but that’ll make things difficult in a later chapter, when you’re playing the part of the merchant.

2. joshg - May 16, 2007

I’m tempted to argue with that a little bit, although there’s obviously a lot of truth to it. But I think there are collective effects within society that react against dishonest behaviour that weigh against the individual. For example, if someone lies for selfish gain and gets away with it 90% of the time, is that really a 9:1 ratio of gain vs loss when assessing risk? In my mind, no – because that one failure can undermine all that’s been gained by the successful attempts. Being branded a liar or a fraud can damage relationships, cause mistrust in business dealings, etc.

I’m also speaking a bit out of having been reading more of the wisdom literature in the Bible. Ironically, the source of most people’s “DO” and “DO NOT” prejudices places far more emphasis on wisdom vs foolishness rather than a naive do vs don’t mentality. Evil acts are not only denounced as “just wrong”, but foolish because they will eventually lead to your downfall. There are theological reasons for this which are probably more important in that context than the social-contract stuff I’m trying to think through, but the message is still striking. (I’m starting to catch onto the theological bits more after reading a nice bit of commentary along with a re-read of Job.)

3. Nate - May 21, 2007

“Maybe one could write a game where you have to complete scenarios from the point of view of various different characters, taking the effects of each character’s actions into account.”

Interesting idea.

This whole idea of morality in games sent me down the track about fifteen years ago of figuring that morality was really metaphysics, or simulation rules, and from there trying to find out what a Christian system of metaphysics would be… and coming up somewhat startled to discover that, for the most part, modern Christianity (at least the fairly hip, trendy, evangelical style that produces most of the books) *doesn’t know*. Which boggled me. There’s like this huge gap… most book and sermon material revolves around “what does the Bible say in context X” or “how do I deal with issue Y” but not around “what are the _actual, physical/metaphysical consequences of doing action Z”. It’s just “don’t do this because God says not to” rather than “here’s what we figure is happening behind the scenes”.

It’s only in the last couple of years that I feel I’m discovering something similar to what I’d consider a glimpse of a consistent Christian metaphysics. Basically I needed to start looking up the mystics and contemplatives. Thomas Merton is probably a good start; I’m also finding A Course In Miracles helpful as well as Jakob Boehme, Mary Baker Eddy, and bits of Swedenborg (he produced vast amounts of esoteric material some of which is possibly too literal to be useful).

One strongly recurring idea (which is not limited to Christianity) in a lot of these mystical texts is that *the self is an illusion*: in other words, anything I do to another person is not just ‘something that I have done’ but is, in a difficult to comprehend but extremely literal sense, *done to my own person*. Therefore, the Christian ethic of ‘do unto others’ and forgiveness is not just an abstract moral imperative but is a pragmatic means of self-help. We are all in fact one shared soul, ultimately indestructible; therefore love is, and remains, the final force in the universe. Everything else on top of this that appears to contradict is an illusion; impermanent and without power to ultimately change the ‘outcome of the game’, but able to slow us down from achieving the final outcome.

(There seems to be a resonance here with the meta-game forces in videogames: the videogame designer creates media assets and generally wants the player to experience as much of the scripted/produced content as possible. ‘Choice’ in such a fabricated micro-universe generally comes down to a matter of sequencing and remixing rather than hard ‘this or that’; we can always back up and experience other paths. This seems more than idly comparable to the Christian idea of God as loving Creator, and ourselves as co-creators.)

So: at a rough level, I would look for ways of structuring a game universe that try to concentrate on skills or actions which are in themselves positive but which when mis-combined can cause bad side-effects (that is, I wouldn’t have simplistic ‘good’ and ‘evil’ tracks, because they promote the idea that ‘evil’ is a positive force in itself, but would try for some kind of emergent complexity). I’d somehow also try to have feedback mechanisms such that injury to one unit/faction/side etc injures the others; either through having a shared group goal, economy or ecosystem or (perhaps) through a simulated alignment/vengeance system (attacking a faction gets them pissed off at you, and ultimately you need their aid for something that can’t be simply taken through pillage and genocide – which is often the standard FPS/RTS approach).

This leads to the idea of strongly collaborative gameplay – which I think also would have benefits in an MMORPG environment. If you had a meta-game setup which encouraged in-game cooperation rather than competition, you would probably attract a different social dynamic and possibly lose some of the nastier side-effects of MMOs at present: black markets, hostility to newbies, hyper-aggression. I’m very interested to see how Uru develops because the Myst games have always seemed to be some of the few that take nonviolence/cooperation seriously at the game-metaphysical level.

4. joshg - May 21, 2007

One strongly recurring idea (which is not limited to Christianity) in a lot of these mystical texts is that *the self is an illusion*: in other words, anything I do to another person is not just ’something that I have done’ but is, in a difficult to comprehend but extremely literal sense, *done to my own person*.

Hrm. I’m not familiar with all of the sources you mention, but I am pretty confident that the view of self as illusion is not really a Christian viewpoint, or (depending on how you feel like defining “Christian”) at the very least definitely disagreed with by most Christian theologians. Mary Baker Eddy did ring a bell for me; she’s a founder of Christian Science, which despite the similar name and the borrowing of a whole lot of Christian terminology and source material is really a very, very different belief system.

Also, while it may not be quite what you had in mind, the classic “heresy” of gnosticism seems to have some similarity with what you’re describing in that it describes a worldview in which the only spiritual reality is goodness, while “evil” is merely the physical trappings which limit us from that spiritual reality. I don’t remember for sure if the material world is exactly illusory in that view, but the denial of both spiritual evil and the desire for a removal of physical reality create some common themes.

Which, er, isn’t to say “Hey, that’s evil!” so much as to caution you as a fellow Christian to be discerning. Like I said, I’m not familiar with all of your sources; Merton sounds like an interesting guy from what Wikipedia mentions. However, if Christianity fails to describe a metaphysics of moral choice, perhaps it’s a blind spot for a reason; or perhaps your criteria for a metaphysics simply doesn’t line up with what God has revealed through Christian scripture.

Or alternately, I suppose the ethical metaphysic which is most emphasized in scripture is a dodgy topic to define in Christianity – what I’m thinking of here is the Retribution Principle which is a common theme in the Old Testament and which basically states “God rewards good and punishes sin”. The problem, of course, is that you can’t create a clear-cut metaphysics out of that concept for multiple reasons:

a) Jesus undermines it when his disciples ask why a lame (blind? I forget) man was born this way, for his own sin or his father’s, and counters that he was born crippled so that God’s glory could be revealed and then heals the socks off of him.

b) the Retribution Principle is hard to match up to reality; ie. the problem of pain / evil.

c) as soon as you create a systematic worldview out of it, you become Job’s friends and God gets really annoyed with you. God doesn’t like being viewed as predictable or controllable, as I see it.

d) the shift in worldview between Old Testament and Christian / New Testament perspectives on afterlife and ultimate judgment tends to shift the concept of just punishment of evil into the hereafter, which makes for no immediately-occurring metaphysic at all.

oh, and plus e) I suppose the wipe-the-slate-clean forgiveness and grace aspect of Christianity sort of complicates things as well.

All of this is why I’m largely focusing on more immediate, practical consequences of bad moral choices; even though I admit they’re hard to simulate and design for, they’re still a whole lot more predictable and understandable than the understanding I have of Christian metaphysics of moral choice.

5. Nate - May 28, 2007

“Hrm. I’m not familiar with all of the sources you mention, but I am pretty confident that the view of self as illusion is not really a Christian viewpoint, or (depending on how you feel like defining “Christian”) at the very least definitely disagreed with by most Christian theologians. Mary Baker Eddy did ring a bell for me; she’s a founder of Christian Science, which despite the similar name and the borrowing of a whole lot of Christian terminology and source material is really a very, very different belief system.”

Actually I dispute that Christian Science is not Christian. So far everything I’ve read in Science and Health seems to be a fairly clear restatement of Biblical principles I’m already familiar with from the Pentecostal faith-healing/evangelism movement (but which predated it by a couple of decades). Perhaps there is some deep heresy later in the book which I’ve yet to encounter; if so, I’ll update my view.

I’m fully aware that it has often been claimed – even by Christian theologians going back to the early anti-Gnostics – that a monist metaphysics of “only good is ultimately real” is incompatible with Christianity, but the more I study it the more I’m pretty sure that this is in fact very close to the core of Jesus’ message. There are just too many similarities and too many resonances for me to ignore. The Gospels’ emphasis on forgiveness, for one thing. You can’t and shouldn’t forgive if evil is ultimately real; you are bound to seek it out and destroy it. (A motivation often ascribed to Christian moralists by atheists). But if evil is an *absence* rather than a presence – something which doesn’t actually exist in a strictly logically necessary sense – then forgiveness can be possible, because it’s about seeing the real (hidden) nature of a person, rather than their current less-than-Godly actions.

I think where confusion (and bitter doctrinal infighting) arises is where people read words like “illusion” and jump to the conclusion that this automatically means “therefore this philosophy is claiming that there is no purpose to living in this world and all moral choices are equal”. But this is not in fact the case. The works I’ve read – including Merton, Eddy and ACIM – combine the curious mixture of ideas that a) Yes, the world as we see it of bits and atoms has no actual value in itself, but b) Our acts, thoughts and intentions in this world have great (eternal, even) value.

See, the central point of Judaism to me – and the central point of Christianity, as reiterated by Jesus – seems to me to be ‘God is One, and that One is Love; therefore love your neighbour as yourself’. Not ‘there are two equal and opposite forces governing the universe: Good and Evil, and they must eternally fight, and the fragile universe of man is poised in between with no assured outcome’. That is dualism, and I believe dualism to be the heresy, not monism. It certainly doesn’t seem to ascribe all power, glory and dominion to God.

Once you start thinking that actually God and Evil are *not* equal counterforces, and that God is both loving and all-powerful, I can see no other solution except to admit that a finite quantity of evil in the face of an infinite quantity of good counts for about as much as an ice cube in a supernova. And then a lot of the Christian doctrines such as St Paul’s admonishment to “count everything as joy” and Jesus “seventy times seven” start clicking into place. Or at least, slide a little further toward making sense.

“All of this is why I’m largely focusing on more immediate, practical consequences of bad moral choices; even though I admit they’re hard to simulate and design for, they’re still a whole lot more predictable and understandable than the understanding I have of Christian metaphysics of moral choice.”

Yes, that seems like a very sensible decision. I think any ethical simulation (from fairy tales to crime novels to The Sims) is going to in some sense physicalise a metaphysics, and that’s a thing that the writer needs to both accept as a necessary tool/shortcut at the same time of being aware of its limitations. And there’s probably a continuum from “crime never pays / a true heart always wins” to “good and evil are abstract entities duelling on an amoral battlefield” that each convey snapshots of what we understand Reality to be about. The former probably suits stories and the latter probably suits games – but there’s still something about seeing Good and Evil depicted as equal opposites on a gameboard that gives me the shivers, and not in a good way.

6. joshg - May 28, 2007

You can’t and shouldn’t forgive if evil is ultimately real; you are bound to seek it out and destroy it. (A motivation often ascribed to Christian moralists by atheists). But if evil is an *absence* rather than a presence – something which doesn’t actually exist in a strictly logically necessary sense – then forgiveness can be possible

How do you reconcile that with the many Biblical accounts of evil being actively punished by God? The reality of the scriptural account seems far messier than those two logical extremes can account for, which is why one of the difficult but very necessary (apparent) paradoxes of Christian theology is balancing God’s justice with God’s love.

For what it’s worth, I’m not jumping to the conclusion that Christian Science is amoral. It’s also not good theology to frame Christianity as dualism, and I certainly don’t hold to it although I’m aware that many people get that impression from a casual understanding. I don’t get why you’re assuming that the only valid options are dualism or monism.

One of the hardest questions inherent in Judaism and Christianity is how to face the problem of suffering and evil in light of an ultimately good and singular God. I don’t think writing evil off as illusory is a satisfying answer to that question. It isn’t rationally consistent with the scriptural response towards those who are unrepentant in their evil, and experientially it strikes me as a cop out. Ultimately though, I don’t think the questions of suffering and evil are meant to have a satisfying rational answer. Jesus’ answer was not rational, but deeply existential and experiential: God incarnate came and suffered with us, and God inhabiting us suffers with us and empowers us to overcome evil. I can’t accept a theology which fails to recognize the amazing depth of love and passion behind those truths, and claiming that evil was is an illusion all along strikes me as undermining the existential (and spiritual) struggle Christianity addresses for the sake of fitting into a rational box we can feel comfortable with. Pushing Christianity into a dualist box is a similar mistake made in the opposite direction.

I hope that didn’t come across as being harsh towards you. I’m a bit protective-teacher-ish when it comes to fellow Christians stepping into what I see as dodgy beliefs, but I also know it’s important that you’re asking these questions and working them out between you and God.

Plus, I’ll confess, on an issue like this it’s awfully hard for me not to make sure I have the last word on my own blog. 😉

7. Nate - June 2, 2007

“It’s also not good theology to frame Christianity as dualism, and I certainly don’t hold to it although I’m aware that many people get that impression from a casual understanding. I don’t get why you’re assuming that the only valid options are dualism or monism.”

Well, because it seems to me that the choice between dualism or monism is the same as that between monotheism and polytheism: is there One Power or many?

I agree, though, in that I think that both ‘monism’ and ‘dualism’ are fairly limited sort of statements which at best are snapshots of a higher-dimensional reality not easily expressed in words or logical formulae. I think you have to feel your way toward an intuitive understanding of these things; our tools of language often fail us. Depending from what point you view the world, you could get an answer of ‘God holds everything in His hand, everything is under His control’ or ‘our world is a metaphysical war zone and we must make moral choices every day’ and you’d be right with both. The only answer that is wrong, I believe, is any philosophy which says ‘there are wrong moral choices which can never be reversed; there is a point beyond which there is no possible forgiveness’.

8. The Plush Apocalypse » Blog Archive » Authoring regret - October 4, 2007

[…] on Emily Short’s excellent blog, Josh Giesbrecht at faithgames looks at the topic of moral choice by way of some of Clint Hocking’s thoughts on the […]


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