Kyle E. Miller
September Editorial: Your Morals are Wrong!
How morality systems can evolve in Western RPGs.
09.25.11 - 11:26 AM

Bloggers, critics, and gamers in general have seemingly exhausted the topic of morality in video games with articles and critiques of every color. Mostly, gamers seem to have decided they don't like moral systems, citing immersion-breaking, the illusion of choice and consequences, and black and white thinking as the reasons why. The nature of the ethical systems used in games, however, has gone unchallenged. No one questions the rules and tenets behind the moral system used in an RPG. More than once I've found myself challenging what an RPG perceives as good; what moves the little morality marker up toward the shining light. "This isn't my moral system," I think, and there goes ownership over the role I was allegedly playing.

History has seen the invention of countless thoughtful ethical systems (and some unthoughful). Many people aren't familiar with any of them from an academic perspective, but instead glean what they need to know from parents, Sunday mass, or occasionally secular books. In the today's Western society (this article pertains only to Western RPGs), there seems to be a generic ethical system taken for granted. This moral system is clearly based on Judeo-Christian values, and it affects everything from legislation... to video games. All things considered, this is pretty strange.

Because I don't subscribe to this ethical system, I end up feeling alienated, vexed, and mildly offended. For example, when a game makes a vast generalization such as self-sacrifice being the greatest of virtues, I pull back from the game. I withdraw a bit. Even within the same collective ideology, few individuals believe precisely the same things, so I know I'm not alone. You can argue that the world in the game is like ours, but most of the time that isn't the case. A post-apocalyptic world would almost certainly have different values than a (relatively) stable modern one. I want some escapism, regardless, and in games that have no mention of God or Jesus, I find their fundamentally Christian values suspect.

RPGs also seem to assume that the protagonist subscribes to whatever value system is present in the game. When your character kills an innocent man, he knows he was wrong. Good Jedi masters know they're obeying the rules. Most Western RPGs also work on the simple concept that you are creating and playing a role with the protagonist. But no matter what sort of character you create, they see morality in the singular way already designated by the game.

Thus, not only does the assumed moral system risk alienating players and removing nuance, it hampers the ability to do what the genre was designed to do: roleplay. We need a solution, then. A solution to the generic ethical system thoughtlessly employed by almost all RPGs. This goes beyond my inclinations and preferences and into the realm of creative and progressive game design.

We could throw out moral systems altogether. Today, I prefer the RPGs that have done so in favor of a more freeform exploration of morals, but this doesn't have to be the case in the future. A system of morality has its thematic appeal if done correctly. Including one even has a unique advantage over not including a moral system: mechanical effects. No matter how many sarcastic comments Geralt makes and no matter how many peasants he beats for coin, his character never changes, he never gains access to special peasant-beating abilities, and his eyes never turn red with demonic malevolence. His actions shape the story, but there are no gameplay consequences. I enjoy the freedom such an RPG allows, the lack of choosing one side, and the profound moral questioning. But, for a change, it's nice to get access to evil powers when I decide to choke people to death with the Force.

There ought to be another solution besides throwing out moral systems altogether then, if they have their place; if they really can augment some gaming experiences. I propose more creative approaches to morality. Or simply protagonists with a different mindset. Some RPGs attempt this. Mass Effect, for example, doesn't have good and evil, but paragon and renegade. This is a way of saying that Commander Shepherd is never evil, only rebellious, unconventional, and ruthless. In his own way, he's still a hero. Bioware made another attempt long before with Jade Empire, which has a setting-based approach: Open Palm and Closed Fist. Both of these have a way of coming down to good and evil, however, and neither really tests the status quo.

I propose taking the setting-specific morality systems even further. Consider the world of Fallout 3 the prototypical moral testing ground, the ultimate extreme environment. Would anyone in that world really believe that stealing is always wrong, even though resources are scarce and families are struggling to survive? In that setting, maybe stealing doesn't affect a character's morality or reputation at all. It's neutral, neither moral or immoral; it's just something people do to survive, like hunting. Other environments might have various other effects on the morality of the people. Think about extraterrestrial racism in Mass Effect. This could even change over the course of the trilogy as the world changes its views on aliens. In the beginning, racist comments could be viewed as positive, while in a later installment, racism has become taboo thanks to Shepherd's interspecies team of heroes.

And imagine the possibilities with individual protagonist's ethical systems. I can imagine an RPG with a protagonist belonging to a strange religious organization with a completely new ethical system. Perhaps killing animals is a sin, and every wolf slaughtered brings the player closer to the dark side, even if they attack him first. Playing the game would require us to step out of ourselves and examine other belief systems. This could only promote tolerability as well as provide countless imaginative game design scenarios. Switch the religious group to a thieves' guild, a fantastical tribe, or a whorehouse; the opportunities are endless and exciting.

Consider something more dynamic: a system in which your character type determines which morality system the game uses. As mentioned above, most WRPGs allow you to create a role and play it. Why shouldn't morality be another facet of character creation alongside hideous hairstyles and width of nose? A more advanced system might use the skills and traits you select to determine your morality for you. If you choose roguish traits and thieving skills, then stealing doesn't affect your moral meter. Passing up a reward, on the other hand, pushes you closer to the negative end. Of course, this is not a reputation system and couldn't replace one, but it could work alongside one to give bonuses or penalties to character abilities and skills.

Of course, this brings difficult philosophical questions to mind. Can morality be relative? Should it be? Shouldn't humanity cling to one universal system of ethics? can any one ethical system really work across time and space? You may think I'm overanalyzing and poking the wrong nest of hornets, but intellectual exercises and challenges to norms and accepted morals are necessary to keep us from becoming dull and complacent. Not only that, but this would open awesome new avenues for game design. New quest types, unique NPC hurdles, profound character evolution, and new gameplay obstacles are among the possibilities.

The next time a game distills morality to a meter and your actions cause a change there, think about whose morality the game is using. Think about the tenets behind the movement on that meter. Better yet, think about whose morality the game could be using instead.