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.