Morality Systems in Role-Playing Games

One of the more interesting trends in story-driven games to have happened over the course of this generation is the proliferation of “morality systems”. Certain story-driven games allow players a level of agency over the direction of the narrative and the characterization of their avatar, often forcing the player to make certain ethical choices at certain points of a game: who to save, which faction to fight for, what to do with the hostages. Games like Bioshock, Mass Effect, inFamous, and Fallout make this sense of player agency crucial to their emergent design.

In many contemporary role-playing games, player decisions are monitored and judged by an overarching system, rewarding the choices that it deems “good” while punishing those it deems “evil”. In Fallout 3, this amounts to a points-based system called “Karma”, dividing all possible actions a player can take into a binary dichotomy of good and evil. Giving water to a thirsty beggar rewards the player with Karma points, while nuking the town of Megaton takes them away, and a player’s Karma score determines the player’s overall difficulty of life in the gameworld, with NPC behavior ranging from friendly and welcoming to hostile and confrontational because of it.

Fallout 3’s Moral “Freedom”

Using a points-based system to judge player behavior incentivizes certain actions over others, as behaving in a certain way confers the greatest in-game advantages, making the “optimal” way to play obvious. Fallout’s binary morality system privileges players with high Karma, as doing so confers discounts at shops and powerful allies like Fawkes. Even the semiotics that are used to describe choices privileges certain ones over others, dividing actions between “good” and “evil” provokes an aversion to the “evil” choices while encouraging “good” ones. Designed morality systems like Fallout’s infer the imposition of a designer’s absolutist morality onto a gameworld. Dissent from moral norms is punished by Karma loss, incentivizing only certain kinds of behavior in a story-driven game by quantifying and weighing that behavior on a progress bar.

Fallout 3 worked by a "Karma Bar"
Fallout 3 operated under a “Karma Meter”

Given that the central aesthetic core to the role-playing game is player expression within a highly emergent narrative, the imposition of a designer’s moral absolutes into a game system is ludically contradictory and dissonant. While the player may technically free to do as he or she pleases in Fallout’s world, that freedom is challenged by the fact that Bethesda’s game designers retain the ultimate moral judgment on everything the player does, and decide how they are punished or rewarded in the end. To this extent, Fallout 3’s vision of freedom and morality comes intriguingly reminiscent of the philosophies explored in Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor, where a character posits that by granting humanity the freedom to sin and be unfaithful by rejecting the Devil’s third temptation of power, Christ has damned much of it under the burden of a freedom it is unfit to handle. Thus, Fallout 3′s morality system becomes an elegant expression of its author’s ethical ideologies, even if such a system can work against certain kinds of players.

Mass Effect’s Deontology and Consequentialism

One series that does the morality mechanic particularly well is Mass Effect. Rather than providing players with a morality meter that can be filled or drained with good or evil choices, Mass Effect provides the player with two disparate meters that fill up according to how a player accomplishes her duties as Commander Shepard. Commander Shepard will always be a “good” character independent of player choice, but the specific kind of good that Shepard represents is player-determinant. Shepard’s actions are divided into two categories, “Paragon” and “Renegade”, Paragon actions amount to behaving in accordance to heroic archetypes, while Renegade ones represent a more aggressive, “the-ends-justify-the-means” vision of heroism. To this extent, Mass Effect’s morality system represents less a choice between good and evil, and but rather a choice between “lawful good” and “chaotic good”, (in philosophy terms, ethical deontology and consequentialism) making for much more engaging ethical dilemmas.

Mass Effect implemented two different meters measuring how players solved problems.
Mass Effect implemented two different meters measuring how players solved problems.

While some fans argue against it, Bioware’s choice to disconnect the Paragon/Renegade system from the narrative outcome of each installment allows its designers to prevent themselves from inferring judgment upon player actions in the gameworld. A fully Renegade character can still get roughly the same ending cutscene as a fully Paragon one, and the survival of one’s squad through Mass Effect 2’s Suicide Mission and Mass Effect 3’s Battle for Earth is totally unaffected by the game’s morality system, instead introducing entirely new mechanics revolving around loyalty and effective military strength. This design decision allows Mass Effect’s creators to prevent the game from privileging either style of play, allowing for the game to stray from moral absolutism without entering the problematic realm of moral relativism.

Moving Beyond Binary

Perhaps designing decisions on a dichotomy of good and evil is perhaps the wrong design decision. Choices between good and evil are uninteresting because the optimal choice is always clear given the ethical worldviews we take into these games from the real world. Sucker Punch’s 2009 open-world superhero game inFamous uses this diametric opposition to a fault, implementing binary decision points such as “give food to the hungry or take it all for yourself” and “free the trapped man or murder him”. Decision points like these aren’t interesting because they don’t necessarily confer legitimate penalties on the game’s mechanics. Leaning in either moral direction in inFamous confers different superpowers onto players, making either choice beneficial to the player in different ways. If choosing to give away your food to the hungry resulted in your own hunger, thereby giving you a permanent 10% health penalty, inFamous would be a substantially more interesting game. inFamous’s radically binary division between good and evil reflects a version of morality disconnected from the difficult moral decisions we make in our own lives.

inFamous granted players different powers to good and evil players.
inFamous granted players different powers to good and evil players.

Morality in our globalized, post-industrialized, post-modern world doesn’t work by static ethical standards per se, while universal moral principles exist, they are myriad, and sometimes contradictory. Rather than quantifying decisions on a one-dimensional bar of good and evil, life’s moral quandaries exist in more of a multi-dimensional hyperspace. A single decision may bring us more into a Kantian deontological view of ethics, another might reflect Judeo-Christian morality, another could reflect Randian Objectivism, or even radical Queer politics. Single decisions could align us with multiple ethical theories while distancing us from others. Questions of morality are not questions of “do I want to be good or evil today?” but rather “what ethical systems inform my life?” Perhaps moral decision moments can be made much more interesting if players were provided a multiplicity of progress bars to fill, each one reflecting a different theological/philosophical theory. A system like that would permit players to explore and express their own moral compass without having to abide by the ethical absolutes that designers impose upon their worlds.

Point is, morality is a tough concept to deal with in games as in life, and is central to the human experience. As an interactive medium, video games are in a unique position to explore moral questions by asking players to bring their own lives into the gameworld. The interactivity of the form and the agency that players have in these fictional contexts is suited for self-reflection and introspection, asking players to study and comprehend what exactly informs their own understanding of right and wrong. If morality systems were to be done well, then these games could become some of the most life-enriching experiences that could be offered by the medium.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Great essay.

    Adding morality into a game can be misguided considering that the developers will essentially be judging gamers by the developers own personal values.

    My input.

    • Kevin Wong

      which is a bit of a double-edged sword. on one hand, developers can use their games as a strong platform for self-expression and gamers can engage and converse with the developer through their behavior in the gameworld. On the other, judging player behavior might contradict the idea of “role-playing”.

  2. Spencer Ed

    In response to the comment above, games should reflect the moral values of the developers because this makes the player struggle to understand what moral rules are in effect.

    Author of Ethics of Computer Games made a good argument, “Playing is an act of judgment of the rule systems and the fictional world the player is presented with”

  3. Shadowrun

    Lovely article! For people interesting in this topic, I recommend the following books:

    * A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful.

    * The Effect of Computerized Simulation Games on the Moral Development of Junior and Senior High-School Students.

    * Measuring Aspects of Morality.

    This came straight from my thesis ref list 🙂

  4. Joseph Brennan

    Great article. Moral choice systems in games are very interesting and can vary greatly depending on the game so this was an enjoyable read for me. I’d recommend ‘Spec Ops: The Line’. A genuinely disturbing game that is as morally grey as they come. You are forced to make moral choices, but the game does not enforce a points system to measure your moral alignment, making these choices feel real, rather than an input into a machine.

    Also, while not directly related to morality I think ‘The Stanley Parable’ is a great game to play if you haven’t already. I’ll say no more, but it can be downloaded for free on PC and should run on most machines. It’ll only take an hour of your time, and it is worth every second.

    • Kevin Wong

      Loved Spec Ops, wonderful deconstruction of autonomy in games and violence in entertainment. I tried out The Stanley Parable at last year’s Indiecade and I’m looking forward to the remake.

  5. Braithwaite

    I believe that we are in a golden age in game design.

    A game that encompasses both stark and nuanced morality is possible; it’s the kind of thing that keeps a show like Law & Order on the air for 20 years.

    Figuring out how to get that formula to work in a game will require lots of determination and a tremendous stroke of luck but I do think it’s possible.

  6. Ollie Holder

    Nice article! The morality system in video games has never truly been perfected, as you say here.

    When engaging with these morality systems in games, I find myself constructing an evil/bad character, rather than the loyal hero. Why? Perhaps because it’s different? Or maybe because it involves more action, by fighting your way out of a building as oppose to talking your way out.

    I recently played Fallout 3 and with my character’s karma being more evil than good, I found myself limited to specific quests and their outcomes.

    Morality systems in video games work but they have yet to construct a sense of equality through the rewards and ‘freedom’ that each of the binary oppositions offers, rather than favouring good over evil

  7. I remember playing KOTOR for the first time and being blown away by the heaping amount of choices given to the player. I enjoy how some modern games have been able to make decision making harder because it forces you to think of the many different outcomes. I think as time goes on, developers will improve upon the morality system more and more, which makes for some exciting times. Great article!

    • Joe C

      Although I prefer the original KoTOR, KoTOR 2 really perfected the ambiguous morality system for me. Whilst your main moral ‘guide’ from the beginning of the game is ostensibly evil, so much of what she advises is cloaked in equivocating language and the adoption of seldom-considered yet compelling perspectives. That has always been the gift of KoTOR though; to both represent the morally grey and shine a light on the moral ambiguity of even the most ‘good’ and ‘bad’ decisions and intentions.

      Furthermore, another thing that both KoTORs did well was judging the character without judging the player. If you played a Darkside character (which I genuinely find difficult to do at the worst of times) events transpire very matter-of-factly; there are benefits to playing an evil character. You are encouraged and scolded alike by your NPC companions, regardless of your persuasion; the games are a constant tug-of-war about the centre line. In essence, morality is not imposed. A much better system, in my opinion, if we consider that morality is subjective, not objective.

  8. Bradley

    When playing Mass Effect, I went with a type of Star Trek philosophy when making choices and most of the time I was Paragon. Although there were times when I chose the Renegade choice. Mind you, I really got into the choices because I thought that it would actually make a difference in the ending. What a disappointment when I found it didn’t, The point of that game to me was seeing how my individual choices would affect the fate of a galaxy, and the point was dodged in the end.

  9. Joe C

    In addition to my comment above, just wanted to say fantastic article.

  10. Joe Harker

    Loving this article. Moral choice systems in games are interesting if not always good. Some moral systems are dependent on pacifist playthroughs like Dishonored. Though I don’t like this because it denies content to the player. The offensive powers and the lethal gadgets i.e. all of them except the sleep darts, can now no longer be used because they’ll ruin the playthrough. I thought that was annoying.

    The best kinds of morality are the ones without a sliding scale of good and evil. Those that measure the players actions by the reactions of people around them. Dragon Age had good choices in this respect. Especially in Orzammar where there didn’t seem to be a clear right choice. Pick a good guy who will be a bad ruler or a bad guy who will be a good ruler.

    • Kevin Wong

      exactly, stealth gameplay derives its core appeals from giving the player a wide range of options to create emergent strategies, and Dishonored gave a lot of those options, making it one of the best stealth games of last year. But punishing the player narratively by playing to the game’s core strengths is ludonarratively contradictory.

  11. Spencer

    Absolutely loved this article – interesting about the harshness of the binary in Fallout 3, I hadn’t thought of it in that way before.

  12. Great article! I think with any type of game, not just RPG, it relies on the player. Anyone can pick up a gun, but to aim and fire it at someone is their decision. Same goes for video games – developers create them for entertainment, but how he player absorbs the game is their issue.

  13. SKAlocaust

    The article is interesting, but the games selected to showcase the idea of morality systems were pretty lackluster(in their morality systems, not overall game-play). After playing Fallout 2 and Baldur’s Gate 2 I thought there would be more growth in that area of gaming. Alas, the emphasis on graphics over content seems have left us with a lot of outstanding visuals and half-done core game concepts.

    Anyways, I found his take on Fallout 3 pretty misinformed. Sure, the “world” seems to reward good behavior more than bad(pretty unsurprising), but bad behavior has many of it’s own benefits. Killing friendly NPCs can reveal unique items with one of a kind benefits. Not to mention how you’ll have more money, experience and items. I personally found it easier being “Bad” in F:3 than good. Low on caps? Kill someone. Want stimpaks? Kill a doctor. You can really just steal anything you ever need. I kind of think they gave out some of the stronger rewards for good behavior just to keep everyone from playing “bad”.

    He also really seemed to miss the point on Infamous. Cole isn’t a “man” anymore, he’s a SUPER HERO/VILLAIN – he has to make the choices super heroes and villains make. Of course they’re not going correlate with our lives. People who fly around and shoot sparks out of their finger tips aren’t going to incur a game-long life penalty for not eating food. They’ll just fly somewhere else and get more food. Comic books have explored their heroes facing real world problems, sure… but usually not in the first editions.

    Not to mention it was more of an action/exploration game at it’s core – not an RPG – game-play bares more resemblance to a cross between God of War and Grand Theft Auto than any RPG I’m aware of.

    Personally, I enjoy morality systems; they enrich the experience by giving me more options. I’d really like to see them handled better, but I don’t see much of a downside to them as a concept. Maybe making your moral standing(and the rewards/drawbacks) more hidden until game completion could be an interesting way to go.

  14. Lachlan Vass

    I don’t care if I’m playing as a paragon Shepherd, I’m still going to punch that damn reporter in the face every time.

  15. Morality is bullshit. Herd animal atavisms of a species long overdue for culling
    Relatavism and absolutism are both ciecular rationalizations for nonsense and self deception. I always immediately excise any of this memetic cancer I find in an rpg. Theres no justice, just people and powerx and if you cant accept that you can go fuck yourself.

  16. Interesting article. I agree that it is hard to have a truly free morality system in a game. I really enjoyed playing games such as Fallout 3, New Vegas, and Mass Effect 2. While it was always tempting to commit crimes in Fallout I felt that the punishment system was too unrealistic. despite being given the choice to be evil the game does drive players into doing the right things instead of exploring a darker walk of life as say a cannibal or drug addicted lunatic. Mass Effect’s system I felt was more realistic and introspective. In life no will ever know every good or bad deed you commit. Without a punishment system players can introspectively rate their own morality much like the real world.

  17. Jamie Tracy

    I love games with a “morality system” I just wish they had more impact. I want the story to completely fragment not just, you’re a Sith or you’re a Jedi. I want major plot points to be altered and completely different every time you play the game. I fear that the age of DLC is killing this system as the replay value is lessened because every couple of months these top tier games release new content.

    I did enjoy Tell Tale’s Walking Dead game system in that it gave you a short amount of time to make a decision. That is a system that is on the right track.

    • Speaking of Walking Dead, I believe that, more important than giving you time do decide, is the fact that the choices doesn’t have the duality of good/bad thrown on your face. You never really know what is the good or the bad answer.

  18. Jemarc Axinto

    The only moral system game I’ve really enjoyed for its form is the first “Fable” game. Not for any type of deeper value, but primarily because it was just plain old fun. Although with how games have evolved I do agree that moral ambiguity would add another, delicious layer to the game.

  19. The ideas of this article are very mind provoking. It is very true that “free choice” is an exaggeration if what constitutes good and bad is decided by a programmer whose morals may day and night compared to my own. I think the popularity of these games comes from are dark secrets as human beings. I am the type of gamer that will play through these games twice just so I can experience the good and the bad…… But I won’t lie I always decide to cause as much chaos as I can first time through. It allows me to put that brutality I….or should I say we have as humans on a canvas that has to repercussions other than a missed power up. I know I am not alone but I may be the only one to admit it

  20. Morality systems in games are either a hit or miss for me, but it usually boils down to aesthetics. If I spend a lot of time making a character, I’m less inclined to choose the options that will leave him a scarred and demonic mess, which was the case in Fable and Mass Effect 2. That’s why I preferred the morality system in Fallout 3. Even though some of the choices may seem like a developer pushing their own sets of belief on the player, it made sense for the characters to look more kindly on a giving person instead of a selfish person. However, the morality system in Fallout New Vegas was completely ruined by receiving good karma every time you killed a raider. Across several different characters, I could not have bad karma even when I tried.

  21. This is a very insightful article Kevin, and I hope you don’t mind me using it as research for a similar piece that I’m writing. While RPGs tend to function on a moral plane, most other games are free of such choices. The Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, and Halo series all operate outside of this moral balancing act and therefore don’t provide the player with these kind of challenges. Perhaps, as you said, RPGs are more enriching than most games are.

  22. Mo Sadek

    Another game I found pretty interesting was the original Fable game for the xbox and PC. Certain magic would make your alignment head towards evil. The best part was the physical changes that happened to your character. I found the horns and flies hilarious.

    It’s pretty tough to ethically play games. I played Mass Effect with a Act Utilitarianism viewpoint, doing what was best for the greater amount of people. It seemed pointless at the end in Mass Effect 3, as the entire universe ended up in shambles anyway. Oh well!

    Great article, I really enjoyed reading it!

  23. At the risk of repeating couple of your points, my main problem with a morality system in games isn’t even that it implies moral absolutism, at least within the world of the game (which only made sense in Star Wars: KoTOR), or that it forces the player to follow the moral code of another: it is that the moral system almost never makes sense. I can think of only one game I’ve ever played, Plansecape: Torment, which allowed me to play as a character who was convincingly but indubitably evil (although Neverwinter Nights 2 had an evil companion with realistic motivation). In all my other experiences the ‘evil’ choice has entailed unnecessary slaughter for no apparent reason, while plenty of choices that would be considered evil (usually refusing to help the desperately needy unless they pay up, or helping out criminals) are seen as just fine.
    I also think that having this moral judgement interposed between us and our character limits the conection to the character’s thought that is a key element of role playing. Dragon Age: Origins is one of my favourite games because it was possible to be anything, from paragon of nobility to ruthless hero to utter psychopath, for reasons that were completely up to the player.

  24. kzikid312

    Worst case scenario: the corporations figure out that they can glamorize evil and repress morality by making good choices be lame in games and the bad ones “good”, subconsciously programming society into making pleasure an end rather than a means and introducing them to the fact that what they want is currently unknown to them.
    Oh wait that’s already happening.
    I feel like this is going to have some serious consequences (not to take the consequentialist approach) but is also going to take away from the value of life, killstreak after killstreak.

    I wonder if there are any statistics on the long term moral implications of evil being glamorized in interactive technology such as games etc.

  25. H4zel

    I definitely agree here – I find these decision-making type RPG’s to be more effective in games such as Mass Effect – because there isn’t always a clear line between good and evil in the real world – it’s not always black and white and I think the folks over at Bioware do a great job of encompassing the grey area. I know myself in the play-through of the game, while mostly Paragon, there were times I strayed to the Renegade side because in those situations, it felt right to do and it felt like that’s what my Commander Shep would do.

    It’s always interesting when games test your sense of mortality, and I only wish more games were as immersive in decision-making processes.

  26. Something I like about the Tell Tale games (especially Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us) is that there is no meter of morality, just consequences for your actions. At times you have to side with one group and alienate another, and it’s not a matter of good or bad, but rather who is right in this instance. While the larger story plots often occur either way you choose, most of the alliances and relationships you build come to a head in the final episode.

  27. tateltael

    Since games often times have a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ morality system, what if they offered choices that were much more difficult? The lesser of two evils types of questions would be interesting to play through.

  28. I think seeing the world in grey is literally impossible in practice. You have many small black and white choices. This creates the impression of something grey as a mosaic of black and white.

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