Gaming morality vs RL morality

Jim Stirling posted a video blog in The Escapist this week discussing why murder is pretty much the norm in video games but rape presents greater issues. I didn’t watch it because I pretty much never watch video blogs, but read enough of what he said afterwards to get the gist:  his current position is that this is OK because there could be good/ ethical reasons to kill (ie. in self defence, if it’s a zombie, etc) but not rape. So he’s taking a fairly sensible perspective, which might be surprising to people who have read his previous outbursts.


This post is not about rape, however. It’s more about how we do lots of things in games because we can, or because they score points or combos, or because they unlock more content or a cool cutscene/ kill scene. My partner is levelling an Agent in SWTOR at the moment and while I’m trying not to spoil the story for him, we do sometimes chat about when I made different decisions on my (dark side) agent than he has on his (light side) one. My Agent was also a kind of intergalactic Martin Sheen so I went for all the seduction options too. My beloved summed this up as, “So you shagged everything shaggable and shot everything shootable.” I said “Yes, obviously!”


The way in which the gaming brain makes decisions is not usually around morality so much as min-maxing, high scores, or winning the game. Maybe there is some power fantasy in there as well, especially in immersive settings. Where morality does come into gaming, it’s often around roleplaying or ‘staying in genre’ or ‘telling a good story.’ Some players always project themselves into the game, or prefer a heroic stance. But if a game awards points for a kill, double points for shooting people in the back, and triple points if you shag the corpse afterwards, then a lot of people would go for the necrophilia without a second thought. It doesn’t seem quite right  to blame players for doing madly immoral things in games if the game was designed to reward those activities.


And that’s why it is down to game designers to act like grown ups when it comes to deciding what actions get rewarded. If you reward it, they will do it.


Another way of talking about games that reward ‘madly immoral’ activities is the concept of moral hazard. This is where people are encouraged to do hugely risky (or just unwise) things because someone else will pick up the tab if things go wrong. In EVE recently, players found an exploit in a new patch and exploited it crazily for a couple of weeks before reporting it. CCP (after being prodded by other players) duly retrieved the ill gotten gains, released a comment about how clever their players were, and let it go. There’s no major punishment in EVE for this type of exploit – other than massive publicity. I assume the rewards for reporting exploits are decent also. Incidentally, EVE players are the craftiest in the world in the same sense that Carlsberg is the best lager in the world.


This is not however a snarky comment about EVE so much as noting that all sandbox games really struggle with empowering ‘good’ players to keep the ‘law’ and control or punish bad ones. The ideal platonic sandbox game would probably have a player run militia and legal system, in practice this is very hard to do without very active support from staff. Partly because naughty players can just log off when the cops are around, but mostly because the information you need to prove crimes is held by the system, and it’s generally hard to think of good punishments other than bannings. Because cop players pretty much have to be in collusion with staff to get the information they need (unless you’re in a hardcore RP game where baddies will volunteer info OOC so as to make a better story), the whole thing is subject to accusations of bias and can easily end up being both ineffective and actively bad for the game.

So even the players who disapprove of exploits have limited facilities to find out about exploiters in game or punish them. Especially if they are part of a large and powerful alliance. This is why people will tend to shrug and leave it to the devs to handle. So again, it’s down to the devs of a sandbox game to keep a close eye on what activities they are rewarding and make some judgement calls on whether emergent player behaviour is something they want for the game or not.

12 thoughts on “Gaming morality vs RL morality

  1. Your coverage of the EVE ‘exploit’ is basically false. Basically, they did something very clever, made a massive amount of ingame currency, and the explanation as to why what they did was an exploit was that they made such a large amount of money, that it had to be an exploit. After the fact, one step in what they did was now pronounced to be an exploit. This particular step had been done before, as part of a different trick, and was never deemed an exploit before, because that other trick made a less obscene amount of money. When players objected to this inconsistency and lack of clarity, the dev said he was too tired at that moment to be consistent, and that they would have meetings and come out at a later date with a new set of guidelines that actually made sense.

    So, when you say there’s ‘no punishment in EVE for this type of exploit’, and we unpack the meanings of each word, what you’re actually saying is that there’s no punishment in EVE for the type of exploit that’s not actually an exploit–which is a good thing. On the one hand, I don’t want to make a big deal about your mention of a game that you don’t seem to play, but on the other, you’re making these strange evaluations of all sandbox games based on one dev design error in Eve online. The devs made an error, they fixed it, that’s it–that sequence of events is in no way exclusive to sandbox MMOs, it could, and has, happened just as easily in a themepark.

    • If you have a link to a better summary, I’d be interested to read it. My understanding was that it involved kill trading via alt accounts which would have been seen as a cheap tactic (or cheating) in pretty much any game I’ve played. People used to sneak off and do this in DaoC and although I’m not sure GOA ever really punished it, it’s pretty clear that you are supposed to get your faction kills vs other players or NPCs who are actually trying to fight. But feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

      And if devs not only fix a bug but also do a selective rollback that implies that they felt players have been getting resources they were not intended to have, it’s the sort of thing that happens after people exploit duping bugs. We can argue about whether or not it was a cheat but if devs thought it was fine they would have let the players keep the credits. The line between exploits and emergent player behaviour can be fine and tends to be tested only on boundary conditions (ie. players keep pushing the bounds and devs push back when they’ve gone too far). But I can still call a cheap tactic.

      My experience of player run police/legal systems in sandbox type games mostly comes from MUDs/MU* which are a much smaller scale than EVE but a) I think the principles still hold and b) I was a staffer so I know a lot more of the details about how we worked with players on that. ie. I’ve staffed and played on games that had functional player police factions.

      Text games can have some pretty advanced sandbox systems on the social side of things. Because they’re smaller and staff tend to work much more closely with players, it’s also easier to allow players to make sweeping changes to the game world. (eg. if you murder someone in game, you can ask staff to change the description of the area to include corpse/ bloodstains etc until it is discovered.)


        Kill trading between alts is fine. The problem came when the goons got a hold of the formula that dictated the LP payouts in faction war, which included the value of the cargo in the equation. The more valuable the ship, equipment, and cargo was, the more LP you’d get for blowing it up. The other thing the Goons managed to figure out was how CCP determined the value of an item. A rolling 90 day interval check on contracts and orders. So the goons bought a bunch of useless items that no one would pay for, and traded them within the alliance at massively inflated values to skew the value the CCP perceived them to have, without actually losing any significant amount of isk. Then they loaded up freighters with millions of these useless items that CCP now thinks is worth thousands of isk each, and they have an alt fly them into a faction war zone, where their mains frag them for absurd amounts of LP, which they convert into thousands of faction battleships and +5 implants that they could sell for hundreds of millions each.

        Essentially, they committed complicated in game insurance fraud.

      • Oh, and CCP did roll back all the assets that GSF earned off the market manipulation, along with, if you believe some of the aggrieved goons, significant assets that were possessed prior to the scam.

  2. Trouble with talking about murder/rape in games vs in real life is that irl, very very few of us have any urge to murder/rape at all. It’s easier to take it back to a more relate-able criminal act, like theft.

    In real life, almost everyone will encounter opportunities where they think they can get away with stealing something. Usually something small, food items from stores, office supplies, a dollar or two someone accidentally left lying about. Things they can justify to themselves as not outright hurting someone they know. And yet, despite all the opportunities for theft, very few people will actually steal stuff. The chance of getting caught and severe punishment and long term problems from being caught are sufficient to deter all but the most casual or very secure thefts for most people.

    For the same reasons, I don’t particularly worry about my neighbors coming over and killing or raping me. Not because I could particularly prevent them, but because the cost of doing such is so high that all but the most severely mentally unstable will choose not to do so. In real life, doing bad things is enough to screw up the rest of your life for good, and there are no do-overs.

    The difference in the game world is the relative lack of consequences. Having a group of your friends call you a ninja and not want to play with you anymore is quite a bit different from spending a few years in jail and having that loom over every job interview, date, etc. Without those consequences, there’s nothing to deter people from treating each other horribly. And so in games that allow it, l absolutely do expect some non-trivial percent of people nearby to actively seek my harm, attacking and stealing from me. A friendly, successful sandbox won’t have cops, it’ll have severely reduced means of players being able to hurt each other.

    But all this isn’t about morality, it’s about influencing player behavior. Morality is more about whether the act itself contains badness/evil/whatever. If you think killing in-game npc’s is immoral, then whether game developers give you points for killing or not is besides the point. Are you suggesting that games that allow you to role-play killing others are inherently immoral? I’m afraid I cannot agree. Killing in real life and killing in a game are different acts with different values and morality. I don’t think you can point to a real world act and infer anything about a similar in game act. The context matters.

    • “Are you suggesting that games that allow you to role-play killing others are inherently immoral?”

      No, I think I am agreeing with you that the way we make decisions in games is more about game rules than it is about ethics and morality. I maybe didn’t make this clear but this is why I was puzzled by Jim’s argument in his video that the reason murder was OK in games but rape was not was because there might be ethical reasons to murder someone but not to rape. ie. I was puzzled because I don’t think ethical reasons are why we do things in games on the whole.

      Like kiantremayne says below though, how you treat other players might have an ethical aspect (is griefing immoral?). Also some players do project an ethical framework onto games, you see people talk about honorable fights sometimes.

  3. I’m not sure that anything you can do in a game to an NPC is what I’d call immoral, although it can be distasteful – both WoW and Rift had quests where you have to go and torture NPCs (and SWTOR had at least one where you didn’t HAVE to, but you could).

    How you treat other players though… that CAN be immoral, and to link back to your last post, quite frequently player behaviour in PuGs, especially, does fall short of a high moral standard. I think what I find depressing isn’t that a lot of players don’t just act like dicks and treat others badly (which I would deem immoral behaviour) if there’s something in it for them… they’ll do it for nothing more than shits and giggles if they can get away with it.

  4. I think you meant Charlie Sheen. An intergalactic Martin Sheen would involve more Catholicism and anti-war demonstrations.

  5. I like your arguments for why ethics rarely plays a strong role in the decisions players make during gameplay. Designers are responsible for rewarding the actions of players and if they want to send some kind of ethical message, it must be by design. I whole-heartedly believe this.

    The sad news is designers are far more likely to “punish” players for wrong-doings than to own up and admit to the faulty design that caused the situation. It’s just more proof that there are exceedingly few good game designers out there. I’m convinced none of them work at the major studios that rule the industry.

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