Hocking interview explores moral choice May 14, 2007Posted by joshg in mainstream games, morality & ethics.
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.