Ethics and the Morality Wheel. Why choices create characters.

One of the appealing factors of MMOs for a lot of players is that you can create your own character.  But what does that really mean?

The standard setup is you can design what they look like, pick a gender, maybe race and age if the character generator allows it, and give them a name. In a sandbox game you can then decide some goals for that character (and show that they are the goals by going off and actually doing it.) In a themepark game your goals are more restricted but you can still say “this will be my PvP alt”, or “this is the alt I’ll level with my bf/gf.”  If you are a RPer (or just like writing backgrounds) then you might also give your character an in game back history. Some games or addons let you share that with other players.

Hopefully the game intro  will then give you some setting framework to hang your character on. In WoW you will start in your racial starting area and pick up extra information about your character’s home culture as you go, for example.

Maybe you’ll pick out a personality or character for your new creation as you go along. (The default in games is the chaotic greedy alignment who doesn’t like taking orders but goes along with whatever gives the best rewards. Sometimes you’ll get the lawful lazy alignment,  where your character follows orders and doesn’t think about it much.)

So what difference does a mechanic like the morality wheel in Bioware games make to that?

A very different type of chargen (character generation) was in Ultima 4 where… you were asked to answer some ethical multi-choice questions in a gypsy’s caravan. The answers affected your starting class, and in the rest of the game you were vaguely encouraged to be virtuous by the game mechanics. It was interesting and different at the time, and felt as though you were really generating a personality … or at least a few traits.


It’s a feature in Bioware games in particular that you will be making a lot of semi-ethical conversation choices as you play through the game. So in a way, you can keep defining or redefining your character’s personality as bit as you go along. I was trying to decide this week why that felt effective to me. So here’s one particular example where I made a choice in a conversation in SWTOR, and although it made no difference at all to the plot, I felt strongly afterwards that my character had become more real to me. Or at least, I knew how to keep ‘playing’ him in conversations if I wanted to keep that character trait.

This character is my agent, he’s pretty dark side which means ruthless, unforgiving, kills at the drop of a hat, all that regular nasty stuff. I usually pick dark side options in conversations. Well, almost always. So the occasions when I don’t are quite memorable to me because I had to stop and think about it.

In this example, I’d been sent off to kill someone. They weren’t especially nice and probably had it coming. But I knew a bit about their history and I’d felt a) I could see why they’d ended up that way and felt a bit sorry for them, because it was a fairly traumatic  upbringing b) the person who was telling me to kill them was way worse, by an order of magnitude.

So during the conversation, at one point, I warned the NPC that their life was in danger and they should get out of dodge. They ignored the warning so I went ahead and fought/ killed them as per orders. I had decided though when I took that light side choice that if they decided to listen and did leave, I’d have let them go.

So here’s what I am wondering. Why is it that a gameplay option that made zero difference to the story (like I say, the NPC paid no attention and I had to kill them anyway) made ME feel different about my character? Like, suddenly I saw him as someone who was a brutal, efficient operative, but not completely heartless or unsympathetic any more. More of a hard man doing a hard job (which is still not a morally strong position) than the total emotionless psycho that he’d seemed up to that point. I’d let the gameworld affect me and my decision making rather than just going along with the ‘yeah, he’ll be pure darkside’ script I’d started with.

Later I added a moral rule that despite being ruthless and all that, he’d probably not kill someone who was injured and alone but would (grudgingly) provide some medical attention instead. That was because he was a healer. Not a nice person still, but there’s an instinct not to hit someone when they’re down if there’s a choice. Again, there was at least one instance where I spoke to someone who was injured, gave them some painkillers, but they died anyway. Didn’t affect the plot; DID affect how I thought about my character.

Ethical Rules in Action

So one of the features of the decision wheel is that you’re encouraged to make ethical decisions all the time, all the way through the levelling stories. But what does that really mean?

Ethics is all about how people decide what they’re going to do in any situation. If a situation demands “what should I do/ say next?” then that’s an ethical decision. One of the ways we make this easier for ourselves (so as to avoid having major moral dilemmas every time we leave the house) is to figure out some basic personal ethical rules that are going to form our own morality.

These might include rules such as:

  • I will not lie.
  • I will be punctual.
  • I will be nice to strangers.

Religions have a lot to say on the subject of ethical rules and will doubtless have some to suggest too (ie. love your neighbour as yourself, judge not lest ye be judged, don’t gossip  – that’s a Jewish one, believe it or not.)

You could get more complex (and most people do) and say:

  • I will not lie, except to prevent harm.
  • I will not lie, unless someone really close asks me to.
  • etc

Professions and organisations often have ethical codes too, to define how they want members to behave.

  • A doctor should act in the best interests of the patient.
  • The customer is always right.

So really, in a Bioware-type game, you’re being given the opportunity to define a code of ethics for your new character, and see how it plays out in the game. You could instead pick random options, or define a code that involves, “Always pick the top left option” or “Always pick the option that my current companion will like” which is going to end up with a character that feels unpredictable or who always is swayed by the people they are with. And that’s a choice too.

There is a lot more to ethics than this. You can decide “I want my character to act like a good person would act’” (virtue ethics), or “I want my character to do whatever gives the best outcome” (consequentialism), or “I want my character to do the right thing whatever the cost” (deontological ethics), or even “I’d do what a good person in this society would do” (pragmatic ethics.)

That’s one way to build a character in a morality type conversation game. There are also others by which you decide “my character is mostly going to do the right thing, but there are exceptions and these are them.”

Anyhow, here are some ethical rulesets I’ve either designed or worked out in play for my SWTOR characters so far. One of the things I enjoy about the morality wheel is that it does allow you to figure out your character in play.

  • My Bounty Hunter is mostly about getting the job done and having some fun. She’s even quite chilled out and humane. But she has a very short temper and itchy trigger finger so if someone pisses her off during a conversation, they may well get shot in the head. (I decided to be light side, but take every conversation option that involved ((shoot him/her))).
  • My Agent is a stone cold bastard, but he’s loyal to the empire and not as heartless as some of the people he works with. He will hesitate before killing people who are in front of him and obviously vulnerable – which is a weakness in an agent, probably.
  • My Sith Warrior is powerful and chafes against being ordered around,  more of a force of nature than a force of evil. She trended light side initially as a way of acting up against her masters, but sank into it deeper because it’s often quite effective, sets people off balance,  and is a sign of how independent she can be. (She’s not ‘good’ so much as likes to assert her own personality – but I think probably has become a better person than she’d think.)

I don’t know if I think they have more personality to me than my WoW Warrior, but I know that her persona is mostly internalised. With these characters, you actually get to act it out.

15 thoughts on “Ethics and the Morality Wheel. Why choices create characters.

  1. I find particularly interesting that by being presented moral choices, you realized that you start feeling differently about your own character. I never thought about this, but it rings true. The game forces you to ask yourself questions.

    An issue I have personally with such choices in games is, that I cannot usually make my decisions in a natural, intuitive way (either to me or my character, depending on approach) because the gamer in me keeps thinking what this might do to my storyline, what consequences it may have (will it change my rep? stats?), how the quest goal or rewards may differ. if it wasn’t a game, I might be able to focus more on my chosen morals, but I am constantly disturbed by my innate player mindset of optimization. I think therefore I make utilitarian choices a lot more often than I usually would.

    It would be interesting to hear how the approach to one’s own character affects this; I expect big differences between sworn RPers and more casual players, or let’s say the achiever mindset for example.

    • I could see that. This is actually a much more natural fit to the way I prefer to play RPGs than feeling pressured to minmax everything. I don’t enjoy having to minmax gear, stats, spec, etc one bit. I’m like … the anti-achiever. I like seeing content and raiding/playing with friends, so clearly you have to learn to play at a decent level to do that, but there’s a level on which I just don’t /get/ people who are motivated primarily by achievements. I personally am more socially and story motivated, with a touch of world explorer.

      Once you realise Bioware won’t stiff you for an ethical choice, I find you pick up more confidence to try different options.

      I guess having a sub (ie. incentive to focus harder on one game) means I’ve been more likely to explore this type of thing on alts than I would in a single player game.

    • Actually, having to choose between doing the right thing and doing the thing that gets you an immediate reward sounds an awful lot like a real life moral dilemma to me. Much as it might upset “achievers” to do otherwise, having a game give you a choice between ethical decision (leads to awesome reward) and unethical decision (leads to equally awesome reward) isn’t really much of a choice.
      I think it says something good about Bioware that they can and do craft these choices in their game, and something sad about a lot of players that they go for the reward rather than the ‘right’ choice.

  2. Boy, Ultima IV really takes me back to my college days. It was so different and unique in what it tried to do that you couldn’t help but be swept up in the story.

    I hadn’t considered the decision wheel to be the descendent of the Ultima IV story, but you’re right. And that the quests themselves are all about finding your way through a lot of murky, gray area. I really do love the wheel because it doesn’t force you into one path through the story, and you can change the outcome. (Well, for the minor quests, anyway.) Most of the other MMOs I’ve played, you can’t do that. You’re just a pawn in the developer’s story; it’s not your story. The ethical choices you make turn it into your story.

  3. The fact that you get choices l is one of my favorite things about SW:TOR (along with the voice acting, the game’s sense of humor, and the fact that it’s Star Wars), because it really does allow you to play out a character in ways that no previous MMO I’ve played does. As a bonus, you even get slightly different story outcomes depending on what you choose (which has got to help with replayability). Hell, turning down quests even occasionally leads to awesome lines from NPCs.

    I’ve never been a roleplayer in MMOs (too shy), but here, I can roleplay with the game. And oh man is it entertaining.

    I do have to admit Syl’s concerns about the choices having an undesirable effect if you’re an achiever is…well…valid. At least for some classes. My Agent (alignment: heroic stupid, I mean, Light Side) has been Force lightninged and lost quest rewards for being a heroic idiot instead of a proper Imperial (and loses affection with Kali for being decidedly un-bloodthirsty). Me, I don’t care, I’m too busy being entertained/amused. An achiever might care quite a lot. But that’s also the only character I have who’s suffered negative effects. (And that includes other Light Side Imperials, as well as rather gray Jedi.)

  4. This is actually why I so very greatly dislike games with moral choice systems, as my own philosophy is often more consequentialist, which is almost never implemented in gaming. Instead you’re prompted with moral choices, with a forethought of less than a minute, and asked to behave in a good or evil way, future consequences be damned.

    When I play these types of games I find myself constantly confused by how I’m assigned good or evil ‘points’. Be a bit brutal to someone to prevent widespread famine and starvation? How evil of me! Stop a bandit gang from kidnapping a young woman, provoking a huge battle between the gang and the town, leading to the deaths of the woman, all the bandits, and half the town? But stopping them from taking her was good, right? A merchant is charging too much for medicine? Intimidate him into giving meds away for free! Do it for the children (and good points)! And then no other merchant dares to sell medicine here again, and disease runs rampant.

    I’ll be more forgiving of these types of games when they stop penalizing me for supposedly evil acts that make the world a genuinely better place to live for everyone.

    • Why would you feel that it’s a penalty? Is it the idea of your actions being judged without any account of the consequences or the reasoning, or does the good/evil have any effect on the game mechanically?

      I also don’t really want to Godwin this discussion, but fanatical people can do some pretty horrible things in the belief that they will eventually make the world better (ie. warcrimes, murder, and so on.)

      • Certainly they can, but those are usually failures of proper moral deliberation. They might have thought they were doing good things, but because things turned out bad, they were actually evil. They failed to properly anticipate. There’s also room for endless disagreement about what exactly constitutes a ‘better’ outcome. Far less suffering vs some fewer deaths? A higher average happiness or reduced variance from a lower average? Greater equality or fairness? All those.

        And often the best way to achieve a better future outcome is to adopt a moral creed to use in decision making, an ethical code such as you described. ‘Do as you will, but never to harm.’ ‘Don’t interfere with someone else’s choices, where they do not impact you.’ ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and so on. Such a code might even be ‘I want to act such as I think will lead to improving the world’. But even then, that alone doesn’t make your action good or evil, what matters is the actual consequences.

        The point is that at the time of a decision it’s not possible to know whether that decision was good or evil. You have to see what happens as a result. Even if you act with the best of intentions, intending to cause the world to be a better place, but because of your action you cause greater harm than would be otherwise, then you did something evil. This makes applying it to gaming difficult. Giving you 20 lightside points for healing a dude is easy. Healing a dude, and then having the simulation keep track of all the effects that has, tally them up, and decide that on the balance you get 8.45 lightside points is more difficult.

        As for why this matters, I suppose that I fall into the camp where I think ethics in games that matter beyond simple cosmetic effects could lead to interesting gameplay. That becoming more good or evil should have some impact on how you play, on options available to you, on the way other characters react to you. But that’s only fun if morality has a bit more nuance to it than simply ‘slaughter helpless orphan children for the lulz’ vs ‘rescue cute adorable kittens from being victimized by the evil corporation’.

  5. I’m a huge fan of the morality wheel implementation in SWTOR.
    What is particularly interesting is that ‘Light’ and ‘Dark’ decisions relate to the Force and Jedi/Sith codes, rather than traditional Lawful Good/Chaotic Evil.

    So there are times where I feel my ‘good’ characters have been necessitated to do ‘Dark’ things in order to follow their codes of ethics. And sometimes choosing the Light options leads to unforseen negative consequences.

    It all leads to me caring a lot more about my SWTOR characters than I have in other games.

  6. And here i am, finding that SW:TOR gave me less of a profile to my character than several other games. Of course, this might be because i’m in online games since almost two decades now, and yes, my statement is in reference to those games where my character was a character and not just a toon.

    I won’t go into detail here, since that would be just become a wall of text, thus just in short: my so-called “character” in WoW for example was a toon, it was defined by the class and interchangeable by any other “char” of the same class. (Give and take a little on basis of player skill, but that’s it. )

    This contrasts with being known as lawyer (the real worst fo all evil) in Neocron 2 (hands up, anybody here who ever played that pile of bugs? ) or having served in a regional militia for several years (RL!) in a Xyllomer (again, hands up if anybody here even ever heard of it) at some time being judge and lateron being acting regent in that area really makes a character. (I could bring up more, in different games, but interestingly enough, most of them were rather small. )

    The basis for that, in short: interaction with other people. I played my character, it formed. Sometimes it surprised myself, realizing that my character in some situations decides quite differently than i’d ever do so. Now in contrast, TOR: nobody ever cares for the decissions of my character. While you “decide” all of the time, i can count on one hand when the decissions of my character ever mattered. And still have several fingers left. At the same time, the game makes sure that nobody but you can ever be affected by your decissions. And yes, it strongly encourages to either go the “moronic, naive always-good” or the “brainless, psychotic always-bad” route. Both of them are rewarded, anything in between is punished.

    So, yes. If you come from a toon game, like WoW and the likes, had little to no RP interaction to other players in your past games and just find your char to perhaps be a character for the first time, SWTOR might be an improvement. It’s tried and proven in single player games, after all. But in terms of an online game and knowing what already was done over 20 years ago, the only thing SWTOR can be credited for is: players who never before saw the difference between character and toon suddenly are surprided by geting a microscopically small infusion of character into their toon. So yes, perhaps that’s a merit of TOR: giving players of other MMO”RPG” a touch of “RPG”, albeit at a strictly limited dosage, but somebody who’s been into online RP for quite some time, the system is more restrictive and punishing than having nothing at all.

    • Xyllomer sounds intriguing. I’m so sure there are a lot of smaller games with this level of interaction, if we only could find out about them.

    • Some of us will never have the guts or social whatever to get involved with that kind of RP. That doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy it when we can safely RP with a game.

      (Which, no, is not as good as a tabletop RPG, but it’s still miles away from WoW. And, no, don’t expect me to be able to explain why I can do tabletop RPGs but find the online equivalents frightening. People are weird, and that includes me.)

  7. Addendum: i am aware that you have a MUSH in your playlist. That’s one of the reasons why your enthusiasm surprises me so much, i’d very much expect you to know better RP and have better connections to your characters than TOR offers or even allows. 🙂

    • *laugh* Fair point. I used to play MUSHes extensively and staff on them before I got into MMOs. To be honest, I find a lot of that social interaction in guilds these days, although often without the roleplaying. (ie. I was a main tank in Wrath when we killed the Lich King in a 25 man raid, that was pretty meaningful to me and my character and my guildies, and partly in a RP sense also.)

      But it’s OK to like different sorts of games too. No, there won’t ever be a programmed RPG where you get the depth of character interaction that you do in a RP MUSH. On the other hand, the NPCs tend to stay in character and not stiff you because they don’t like you OOC or you’re on the wrong timezone or you didn’t want to cyber with them, which does occasionally happen in MU*.

      I do find that Bioware type RPGs and SWTOR in particular are offering a more character based experience than typical MMOs, and when I wrote this, I was pondering how it felt to have an actual emotional reaction towards a character and NPCs in a game like this, because that’s unusual.

      So I’m not disagreeing with you exactly, but I still enjoy SWTOR for what it is.

  8. What I like about the SWTOR approach is that you have multiple choice-wheels available to you that still do not crowd out the players ability to make moral decisions.

    The Light/Dark mechanism, as mentioned, is not really a choice of good vs. evil. Sometimes we need to be like Qui-gon and cheat at dice.

    Similarly, the player can look to Aric or Qyzen for a thumbs up, but earning their affection isn’t the same as making the “right” choice.

    Each of these choice mechanisms affect your character, giving your decisions real consequences. However, none of the penalties is so great that it overpowers the player’s ability to choose.

    In fact, establishing a moral code and finding where it leads me gives me a strong method for differentiating between characters. It makes them more distinct and allows me to enter their differing personalities as I play

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