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February 10, 2010

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Well, I guess, you know these people better than I do but... are they really interested in being mature creators? If so, what's stopping them from being that now?

So what would you say if designers came up with a shallow moment of morality because they hoped to leverage something all people care about in order to make their game seem more meaningful? Is the end result really so different if it doesn't come from the prescriptive stances you've described?

What if, for example, designers gave the player the choice of saving or harvesting a little sister because they wanted the player to care about the game world, to feel powerful and responsible within it, not because they felt that they should shoehorn in a moral problem because it would elevate games? Is the message about morality not the same?

Ben, if only you know how many times the following phrase is uttered in game development studios: "Can't it just be like GameX". The problem is GameX is usually a shit-ton of fun but doesn't have anything extra to say so you copy the mechanics, or you just miss the other parts.

I see less people trying to copy Bioshock's foray into using objectivism as a theme. I see more trying to copy the mechanics of plasmids, and 2 handed gameplay, and "alive" AI. That's not what makes Bioshock awesome (though it's a big part). The world and narrative created is what takes Bioshock from a good to a great game. Yet that's not the piece that's replicated elsewhere.

So, to me, there are a lot of things stopping us from being that now, including internal issues. I can honestly say that I am beyond super excited about the game I'm currently working on and cannot wait until it's announced and we can show it off. I truly believe it's going to be awesome in many ways and that people will enjoy it. I can also honestly say, that if I had $20 million dollars to make any game I wanted, it wouldn't be anything like this game. Hell, it may not even involve guns or violence. Blasphemy, I know.

Clint, how do you feel this reconciles with your thoughts on the "auteur" in game development. Because, to me, a singular vision is somewhat necessary to have some of these themes embedded in them. A driving force at least.

What's doubly maddening about the "developers ought to make socially responsible games" stance is that doing so in the prescriptive method you describe might actually be worse than explicitly trying not to create socially responsible games.

There a number of theories about the psychological development of moral reasoning that posit moral development hinges on being exposed to and discussing complicated, nuanced moral decisions (e.g. Kohlberg's: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kohlberg%27s_stages_of_moral_development). The key is discussion and games likely won't ever substitute for other people. But, if we're conscientious and passionate, we might be give folks something interesting to think about and discuss.

Giving the impression morality is simple or binary or that "good" decisions involve a certain set of rewards and "bad" decisions involve a different set certainly isn't going to improve anyone's moral reasoning. Building games with a specific set of socially responsible checkboxes isn't going to. A ham-fisted morality play (no pun intended) isn't going to. At best, it's squandering an amazing opportunity.

Would you be happy with Mass Effect 2's system of paragon/renegade if the numbers were hidden from you?

I've always wondered why no RPG hides the 'good/evil' numbers from you. Even in games like Mass Effect 2 where you can't even see your hitpoints they still tell you exactly how many paragon/renegade points each encounter gets you. Maybe they tried hiding it and players found it unbearably opaque?

The numbers and mechanics of social behaviour in games should be better hidden, especially since it enables players to easily screw around with the system.
Press (A) to perform sociall acceptable, morally sound action, press (X) to be an asshole. Not the way to go really. And not even because "reality doesn't work like that", but because it reduces this whole aspect to something incredibly shallow.

On the other hand you have a lot of games that give moral choices a shot and still feature the player character brutally murdering hundreds of people.
In my opinion that would be the real challange, making a mainstream game that's a real blockbuster, that's aimed at the same audience Far Cry 2 and Bioshock are aimed at, that's successful financially and does away with the ludicrous bodycounts.
Don't get me wrong, I don't have a problem with high bodycounts in the games I play.
I'm just not sure if the medium as such can go on with this particular design mainstay forever, and if it wouldn't be better for the medium as a whole to think up ways a game can be challenging and fun (and still about guys / girls with guns, action, conspiracy, aliens, etc.) without any player character basically being / becoming a mass murderer.

Keep in mind, I'm not trying to somehow attack the shooter genre for what it is.
But morality is truly a can of worms in a genre that's usually highly amoral to begin with.

I don't really think we will see any kind of significant change to all that. Sadly games as a whole seem to be stuck with most of them being something similar to late 80s action movies, or (ultra strongly simplified) kid's stuff. And of course indi movies.

Who knows, maybe Heavy Rain will manage to change that, at least to some degree.

Here is my "ideological stance":

The games industry needs mature people with mature beliefs in positions of creative control.

The rest will follow.

Here here on treating game designers as mature creators. Let's just create as adults. That's how capital-A Art gets made.

I do think many film makers make movies for a message purpose as their focus. Take "The Cove" or frankly most of Michael Moore's work. I disagree with you that Moore wanted to make a great movie first. I think he wanted to forward his agenda -- but his creative predilections pointed him to film, and he realized that a great movie was the best way to convert the viewer. That can make great art.

And, in fact, that's what serious games are all about. The goal on the serious game side should just be to remind designers that good games will make their message much more compelling than bad ones.

And the rest of the game industry should just make what they care about. The sophistication of movies as a medium did not stop the creation of "G.I. Joe", but nobody worries about film being immature because of movies like that. If game designers treat their creations with adult vision (as I think is happening right now in the industry in a few places), we'll naturally elevate the form by way of their vision.

The only game I've played that gave any kind of meaningful exploration of morality was early-days Ultima Online. In that game you had real, meaningful moral decisions to make; there was the option to steal from players, kill other players and take their belongings, break into player owned houses.

The game had a 'morality meter' in your reputation and that had some system effects, but the interesting and meaningful parts emerged from the complex system of human interactions among the players. Your moral decisions had consequences among real humans around you within the culture of an artificial world.

That game no longer exists, it's since been changed so you no longer have the option to make immoral decisions, and one of the most meaningful experiences in games is no longer available. I don't see single player games reaching that same depth of meaning anytime soon, until they can simulate human interactions with a lot more fidelity. Trying to simulate moral consequences with any depth is pretty much beyond our abilities now, much better to find meaning in other types of simulations that games can handle.

It seems the "Games do not need anything more..." statement forms the Romanticism movement of games, that I think can be classified for the majority of (commercial) games created thus far.

“We should endeavour to elevate the medium of games,” I stand by, but I think is too vague to have enough merit... yet it still leaves room to fill in the blanks.

As John pointed out, there is social responsibility found in social games because your actions are actually making an impact upon a human - no meters necessary - and not towards some artificial character.

Although I completely agree with you that if the Romantics take the “We should elevate the medium by making games that are socially responsible” stance, it would end up on the feature list. I don't necessarily think it's a statement to dismiss depending who it is coming from and what context they wish to apply it.

While the Romantics have been invested in their own worlds, they haven't gone out to experience and discover what the alternative, Social Realism, could possibly be. Fortunately, some of us have.

Excellent post... another one for the archive.

I can't claim to have much (read: any) experience in studio game design, but at least in many conversations I've overheard, people still tend to treat games (in the process of game design) as much more of a software object than an art form. So when the decision/idea/pressure comes down the line to address moral issues, it comes in the form of "how do we keep track of the player's cumulative decisions?" and "how do we relay that information to the player?" These sorts of questions, at least from a software engineer's point of view, always suggest some form of quantifiable metric, which as you point out is a cheap and shallow approach to such a complex topic as human morality.

As Randy Smith pointed out at MIGS this year, throwing numbers at the player just tempts them to game the system. Tacking on a shallow, quantifiable "Morality Meter" doesn't really encourage reflexion or discussion; it's just another gameplay variation of "do I have enough Mana to cast spell X?"

On the other hand, as we all seem to be hinting, I do believe that empowering mature authors with the freedom to explore a topic dear to themselves---without bullet point-motivated, tacked-on morality systems---will achieve much greater progress, however one wants to measure it. Visible morality metrics are just another system to be tweaked; hidden, emergent morality choices would contribute much more.

If we define gameplay as, "A series of interesting choices" and we define character/morality as, "What you do when no one is looking" then there is a fundamental conflict between the two elements.

If we are presenting the player with a choice, then it is inherently implied to the player that we are looking at what they are doing. Their decision is no longer a reflection of their personal character but a concious choice forced upon them. It doesn't matter if we hide the resulting numbers or not, as long as the player is aware that they are being observed the result isn't valid.

What we have is gaming's version of the Uncertainty Principle. We can measure what the player is naturally doing in the game through their interaction with systems, or we can present them with explicit choices, but we can't do both at the same time without inherently corrupting the data.

This is a powerful piece you wrote that mirrors opinions I've held closely for quite some time now. In fact, it is the driving force behind why I got into this business and why I continually try to inject that level of maturity into what I work on. Sadly, as you suggest, it can often be an uphill battle to create games that expand beyond the shoot/kill/leaderboard experience.

For us to push these boundaries we need to alter the expectations and attitudes of publishers and players. For far too long both have been like a serpent devouring its own tail, as the publishers seek to make games that the broadest demographic wants and players run out and buy whatever has been hyped the most. Neither gives a good goddamn about morality or maturity in games.

What's worse, is the vast amount of socially handicapped and emotionally retarded developers who want nothing to do with projects that seek to do anything more than killing and blowing shit up. These things combined make it often overwhelmingly difficult to break out of the mold.

It's not impossible though. We just need to keep pushing.

Cool article. Maybe we just learn by example. When a game does it right, everyone will want to make another one. It's just that there aren't many shoulders of giants to stand on and be inspired by yet.

I think "lack of humanity" is a key phrase. Its hard to achieve social immersion in singleplayer games. Movies do this well. I know statistically that nearly all movies have happy endings. And yet for 2 hours, I honestly believe the hero may not choose justice, sacrifice, empathy etc

Problems like simplicity, gaming the system, and the Uncertainty Principle might go away if the player is in the right state of mind. With the right suspension of disbelief, the player might believe that they're not being watched, or that even a simplistic choice can be symbolic, or not think to try to game the system. But I've often thought that maybe the choice that is inherent in games also inherently disrupts that very suspension of disbelief. That would be depressing

"What's worse, is the vast amount of socially handicapped and emotionally retarded developers who want nothing to do with projects that seek to do anything more than killing and blowing shit up."

I don't mean to single anyone out, but I was pointed at this article from GameSetWatch and was linked to a post by David Jaffe criticizing "arty farty" games. Reading through a couple of more of his posts, and it seemed pretty obvious what camp he fell into on the issue.

I think it is, as stated above, incredibly difficult to shoehorn morality into a shooter, and any mature player will see through the issue rather quickly (Mass Effect 2 suffered slightly from this, with countless faceless enemies falling to your guns, but forcing you into 'difficult' decisions about killing another character). I'd like to think that Heavy Rain would make a difference, but on the other hand Fahrenheit was soundly ignored, so I doubt it.

I do see glimmers of hope elsewhere (The Void, for example), but I think any sufficiently advanced system of morality will have to be fundamentally ambiguous. If you give players free reign in a world with only a vaguely defined goal and leave the rest up to the player, then it will be very difficult for the game to be consistently compelling or accessible.

To put it another way, if GTA4 could be completed without killing anyone then a large number of people would probably play it guns blazing. That particular moral choice of killing is diluted on every subsequent iteration. Once you cross the threshold of killing someone, it barely matters if you then kill lots of people.

For that particular choice to stay compelling would require constant feedback admonishing you and a vast amount of extra content for the good, the very bad and the somewhat bad. I don't think singleplayer games can breach that content wall effectively.

Real morality issues can only come into play when dealing with real people - EVE Online being a prime example of a game that embodies shades of grey. It seems a shame that more online games don't allow you to be the villain.

First of, great article. Yes creators should be empowered, but creators should also inspire, explain and convince to get empowered. Something that takes time and successful predecessors (so keep it up :-D)

The thing with games and maturity is that they are almost the opposite. What is considered good game design (although this is changing slowly) are things such as clear feedback, rewards and what not. Games are constantly judging the player and saying if they are doing it right or wrong, like a little child is being taught, didactics indeed. This is terribly comforting and there's nothing wrong with it. But it is miles away from being mature; being responsible.

I believe that single player games can provide that sense of responsibility if it where to allow the players to make mistakes that where irreversible. A pet raising game where the pet could actually be hurt or even die? It is all about investment. Whether that investment comes from the player itself (single player) or from other players (multi player games, such as the ultima example from John Krajewski) it is all about handling the investment.

Ico is such a classic example as players we are made responsible for Yorda and then the game just plays with our emotional/time investment. Control is being taken away. And we just get to watch. Now that's powerful.

Imagine if Half Life 2 Episode 3 would ever be released and at the end of it Alyx would die. Especially if it was released earlier after the thing happened in Episode 2 and people still felt emotionally attached to her. Also really powerful. What if we had influence over that scene? What if we had influence throughout Episode 3 to that final outcome? What if we have to push Alyx to pursue our own means (say, save the world) but then we push too far? We save the world and loose her, that would seriously be quite emotional.

The good thing is that players already are heavily committed to invest in games. It is up to us to handle it maturely I guess...

Hmm, I hope my ramblings make any sense :-)

The problem with any of these systems is that there is a baseloine morality. Anyone who designs a game and works morality in has to make a decision about whether or not there will be ramiifications for decisions. Those ramifications are game calculations, how numerically bad do you have to be to be punish to the point where the game is unplayable?

We are a society that still can't figure out how we feel about Nuremberg, can we really do a good job of quantifying morals?

The other option seems to be this urge to evoke an emotional response by whatever means necessary. While this is certainly artistic in nature, it is perhaps inconsistent with it being a game. Somehow we feel the need to put morals into a first person shooter, but we shall leave sports games alone because they are sports games. I can only imagine a Madden game allowing you to play a player injured and punishing you in the future if that player ends up in early retirement.....or not. Just seems moronic.

Really all we come to with dicussions like this is the realization that we like good writing. For me, Bioshock and FEAR both had great moral moments where thanks to the storytelling I didn't want to kill the character the game required me to kill. This was about the storytelling, not any stupid moral dialogues boxes I checked along the way.

So good writing is good and we shall refer to good writing as mature and creative. This seems hardly worth all the bad writing we have expended on it.

I think what often happens, and this might sound surprising, is that the gameplay does not back up the undertones of morality. So often you're thrust into these ludicrous situations with morally binary outcomes, with little justification or flow. Like Modern Warfare 2 did to CoD4 with shock moments, Bioshock 2 has effectively robbed Bioshock of its moral credibility and storytelling. This is not to say that it's a bad game, far from it, but the moral choices involved are nothing short of preposterous. To kill this woman or not the kill this woman - sure she's been a bit of a bitch to you, but she might as well be a robot who stole your teddy bear, rendering the situation somewhat redundant.

If gameplay wants to have more of a moral impact upon the player, the moral subtext needs to be constantly flowing, a subtle reflection of all of your actions instead of base gameplay leading up to prescribed points A, B and C.

As a bigot, there is much in this post I agree with.

Firstly, only towelheaded latte sipping Chinese homosexual lizard women beggars think that 'Games need to be socially responsible.' This notion that somehow games will soon be subject to the whims of the politically correct brigade terrifies me. I can't say the n-word in polite society anymore, and soon I won't even be able to shoot one in the privacy of my home, at least, if it wasn't for courageous articles like yours. We can't let the effete African Jew cripple lobby near our games, otherwise it will mar gaming transcendence.

Speaking of Jews and their global muslin conspiracy, it warmed my heart to see you mention Chaplin. What I like best about Chaplin was that his movies never paid any mind to social urgency. His comedy was without any element of Romantic humanism in its attempts to rehumanize the individual. And a social realist project to recognize and uplift the suffering and mechanized members of our society was never Chaplin's aim. They were just funny films about a man with a short moustache who tripped alot and no feminists to constrain him. The second best thing I like about Chaplin is to imagine him being boiled into soap, as all queers should be.

I suppose in conclusion, I'm glad to see this philosophy of inarticulate reactionary escapism gain greater prominence. It may no longer be possible to elevate the Aryan race given the unfortunate proliferation of the coloreds and decadent homeless not capable of recognize a bootstrap if they saw one (let alone pulling on it!), but perhaps through the creation of a transcendentalist narrative that eschews any subversive recognition of our collective realities we can have a master game for those left among the master race.

Belly

I appreciate your powerfully sardonic response, but am finding it hard to separate what you're actually saying from the wit.

I think, in conclusion, you suggest that I am arguing for an escapist medium that somehow dodges the responsibility of making games that engage us as moral animals.

I'm not.

I am merely arguing that the motivation in designing a game (or a feature in a game) should not explicitly be to 'instruct people in morality'. I think there are numerous reasons we should not do this. The post is about what I think is the *most important* of those reasons (and perhaps the only relevant one); that aiming to moralize rather than aiming to create something beautiful is missing the point because the creation of something beautiful is morally instructive by nature - while moral instruction for its own sake is didactic and self-defeating.

I think Chaplin is a nearly perfect example in that his greatest perceived failure was his explicit attempt to moralize in 'The Great Dictator', while, for all of the reasons you point out (between the lines) the ways in which he truly spoke to us, and the ways in which his films tranformed our culture tended to arise from those great works where the 'moral instruction' was implicit and arose from his creative expression as a filmmaker. They were 'bottom up' expressions of his feelings about 'the downtrodden' and 'the oppressed' as opposed to 'from the pulpit' statements of an agenda.

His greatest acheivements were in showing us the world as he perceived it - not those in which he showed us how he felt the world ought to be. I would generalize to say that the same idea is probably true for the vast majority of humanity's great works.

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