Tobold kicked off a good discussion yesterday about morality in MMOs, especially in the context of giving players choices. Now, BioWare — his main example — is no stranger to such an approach, having used it in pretty much every game they’ve done. With KOTOR they put it to a meter with good and bad (or light and dark side) points moving you up and down the scale, a system that they’ve held on to in several subsequent games and also for the upcoming SWTOR.
The quote that caught my eye was when he said, “The other problem is that by clearly attaching good and evil points to decisions, the players are bound to the ideas of morality of the developers.” It’s a good point, and I want to explore it a bit further.
In general, game companies are not where we should be looking to for our moral compass. They’re made up of a conglomerate of personalities, belief systems, religions, and philosophies just like most other companies. The companies don’t want to alienate players of any walk of life, because hey, they’re paying customers and who needs the controversy, so there’s a delicate walk to be maintained when advocating a moral stance — either implicitly or explicitly — in a game. I’m not saying they shouldn’t, but that there’s some… diplomacy involved.
This is where you get games like WoW and RIFT that have completely opposing factions who are both “good” from different points of view. They needed factions but didn’t want to portray either as evil, so they doubled-down on being fantasy Boy Scouts.
I actually like that BioWare doesn’t shy away from tricky moral and ethical dilemmas in games, and I agree that sometimes they’re hampered by simplifying it down into “good” and “evil” with no other categories. However, let’s not do the same to the company, since with games like Mass Effect you don’t pursue a good or evil course, but have the option to be as ruthless or virtuous as you like in achieving your goals. In essence, you’re still the hero in the games doing the right thing, but the avenue of how you get there is determined by what your morals (or preferences) dictate, not theirs.
I agree that game studios shouldn’t be judging my morals, as in penalizing me for not believing in something they do or for doing something that they dislike. However, I’m all for having them set up a situation that allows me to exercise my morals and see — as in real life — how it plays out. Sometimes doing the “right thing” in life doesn’t have an immediate positive response, and sometimes doing something wrong can be beneficial to you. But having the ability to make that choice according to what YOU (or your character) want or believe instead of being forced to do X in order to complete a quest is a step back in the right direction of roleplay and immersion.
Sometimes, as in real life, the right thing to do can be extremely hard to discern, and require more than seeing if the text is blue or red to indicate good or bad. Sometimes there are many ways to do something right or wrong, to take big or small steps along a moral path, and I’d be all for games mirroring that complexity.
Ultimately, games are games. If SWTOR allows me to choose my character’s decisions without constantly hitting me on the nose and saying “BAD gamer!”, then awesome. Yes, I’m not a big fan of light and dark side gear and powers, since that will have a stronger influence on how people “game” the system than to simply play and choose according to what they or their character would do in that situation, but it’s still more than we usually get, and that’s something.
Plus, wouldn’t it be really cool if BioWare makes these choices and stories so compelling that it tears people away from grinding light/darkside points to do what they want to do?