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The state of morality in modern games

Submitted by on Wednesday, 10 February 20106 Comments

As games are an interactive medium, they have the potential to offer a fluid ever-altering experience. However, developers have traditionally had difficulty bringing this type of thinking to fruition and as a result we have all grown up playing mostly linear games. Thankfully there are several pioneers within the gaming world who want to break games free from the shackles of linearity.

One approach which has proven popular is the inclusion of morality systems, giving the gamer the freedom to be as good or bad as they like with their decisions affecting the paths they will take.

In this feature we will discuss why morality systems are used and consider what role they will play in the future.

Why the focus on morality anyway? Games have traditionally revelled in their amorality; at least since 1997 when Carmageddon kicked up a fuss by rewarding gamers with points for driving over pedestrians and causing a bloody mess.

This macabre violence has often troubled anti-game lobbies (such as the Daily Mail), leading them to claim that gaming is the source of all evil in society. What non-gamers often fail to realise is that players generally have a very flippant view when it comes to our gruesome games. We have a sordid sense of humour which the likes of Carmaggedon and its successors cater for. The carnage in Grand Theft Auto had as much of an emotional impact on the majority of gamers as a Tom & Jerry episode.

Carmageddon's goriness was equal to its ugliness

Nevertheless, gaming is now a major international entertainment industry, one which last year in the UK received 44 percent higher revenues than the UK box office takings and DVD/Blu-ray sales combined. The average age of players has risen and there has been a significant increase in the amount of females picking up joypads.

There is an uneasy juxtaposition between the industry’s success and its frivolous views on virtual sadism. If games want to stop being considered one of society’s popular vices then a new outlook must be adopted with regards to its views towards violence.

Many developers appear to be taking note of this issue and are looking to approach violence in their games with more maturity, but this doesn’t mean that they will be shying away from bloodshed. In fact, in many cases it seems like the violence is actually becoming more intense.

This intensity is partly a byproduct of the improving graphical capabilities which developers have at their disposal today, but a significant factor is the inclusion of morality systems which encourage the player to think more critically about the violent acts they are committing.

Pin-pointing the origins of something is never easy, but with morality systems it is hard not to look back to 2001 and the release of Peter Molyneux’s God game Black & White which had the first well defined morality system in a game.

On the surface it seemed like any other God game which had you babysitting your people and doing their bidding, but the twist was that you didn’t have to be a nice God; you could just as easily be a ruthless and vengeful God who ruled through fear.

How the game was played was entirely up to the user and neither way was right or wrong. With Black & White, Molyneux created a new way of imagining games; one which was not linear and had no single pre-defined script. It proved that players could have an immersive experience by allowing them to dictate the mood of the game. It is largely down to Molyneux why morality systems have now become a staple of this generation.

This freedom to be a sinner or a saint (and all the shades in between) is what also makes Fallout 3 such a compelling title. Its effectiveness is largely down to its realism; you control your avatar from birth, and it is a blank canvas which you can impose your own personality – even your appearance. Fallout 3 may be set in an apocalyptic world unrecognisable from our own, but it is vast and full of personalities for you to interact with – it’s a much more personal environment than the one we visited in Black & White.

When Bethesda confront you with a moral dilemma in Fallout 3, they hope you react in a manner which resembles your true desires. This throws up many interesting scenarios; one that is particularly notable is when the fate of the city Megaton is placed in your hands; it has an active nuclear bomb at its centre and a psychopath wants you to detonate it, killing everyone. You are posed with three main options: acquiesce with the maniac’s desire and detonate the bomb, disarm it, or update the local sheriff on the details of the plan.

I spent a long time deciding the approach I’d take, but in the end my good nature forced me to fill in the sheriff. Admittedly, the urge to blow up the Megaton was very strong, but after talking to and getting to know the various personalities inhabiting the city I couldn’t bring myself to do it. There is no doubt that being bad would have been more of a thrill – check out the video above and judge for yourself.

The fact I had to deliberate before deciding what to do marked a drastic change from the days when I gleefully mowed down hundreds of civilians in Carmaggedon. Fallout 3’s solid script and excellent voice acting allowed me to fall into a willing suspension of disbelief and I found it difficult to discard my everyday morals.

In BioShock there are little sisters (young girls who have been infected with ADAM); the player can either harvest them, in effect killing them, to get lots of ADAM, or they can be cured, but in doing so the player would get less ADAM. The fact that saving the little sisters leads to a greater reward later in the game is irrelevant because that is unknown to the player when they first face the scenario. The choice is clear: killing the little sisters will make playing the game much smoother, but surely killing little girls is wrong – right?

BioShock's little sisters may not be little princesses, but harvesting them is still tantamount to killing a young girl

Players face a similar proposition in Army Of Two: The 40th Day, as good deeds rarely offer any substantial reward while bad deeds often lead to the player getting weaponry and money. It seems clear that it pays to be bad in gaming.

The most fascinating example of developers challenging players’ morality was in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and its infamous airport level. It was very difficult for anyone to approach this level nonchalantly: even before its release the controversy had already been brewing in the media. Adding to the hysteria, Activation kindly offered gamers the opportunity to skip the level citing that it contained disturbing scenes.

As everyone knows, the level was disturbing because you partake in a terrorist atrocity which sees the massacre of hundreds of people. Never mind the bad taste of setting it in an airport, it was an extremely graphic scene which showed many wounded civilians crawling over the floor desperately trying to flee.

The debate regarding Infinity Ward’s reasons for adding the level have been exhausted, but what is still interesting is how gamers reacted when they were faced by it. Most I assume decided to the play level through curiosity despite having the option to skip it, but I wonder how many actually fired on civilians. The airport scene was distinctive from the other examples because there were no incentives or disincentives to being bad; to join in on the massacre was completely the player’s choice. I know of many people who found the level particularly entertaining … I, on the other hand, shied away from mass murder just as I’d done previously in Fallout 3.

Clearly this player didn't mind a bit of mindless genocide

It’s almost ironic that I’m squeamish about certain instances of violence in games while being totally indifferent to the hundreds of thousands of murders which I’ve committed in my years of gaming. But when morality systems are utilised in games, I start to feel more responsible for my actions – as if I’m being judged with a spotlight over me.

As technology improves and developers become more knowledgeable, games will come closer to resembling reality. It is likely violent acts in games will also become more unsettling. I can’t see games becoming highly principled and ditching the bloodshed in the future, sure there will be developers who will strive to offer a more serious art form, but violence has long played a central role in the tradition of gaming and old habits die hard. Does it say more about developers for allowing us to commit endless acts of sadistic carnage or should we maybe look at ourselves as we are the ones taking up the offer?

It is likely that as morality systems evolve, developers will avoid forcing players to decide from two extreme poles (sinner or a saint). Instead we can look forward to more intricate systems where the right answer is rarely obvious and nothing is black or white.