Morality in Games: Are Players Prone to Good Or Evil Choices?

Many developers, including for titles like 'Assassin's Creed Odyssey,' keep statistics on how audiences interact with in-game ethical dilemmas.
Courtesy of Ubisoft
Last year's 'Assassin's Creed Odyssey' is a game rife with such moral impasses.

The trolley problem is one of the most well-known ethical thought exercises. For those unfamiliar, it asks how a person would react in the following scenario: A runaway trolley car is approaching an intersection of tracks — one containing five individuals tied to it, the other with one person secured to it — to which you stand by the controls. The dilemma, then, is which choice is the more ethical option, to do nothing and let the trolley run over five people or to pull the switch and kill the single captor.

Versions of the trolley problem have existed since the early 1900s and, over the past century, the ethical exercise has been used extensively by researchers on moral psychology. As technology has progressed, so, too, have iterations of the dilemma and nowhere in popular media are questions of moral and ethical theory more prevalent than in video games.

Beyond just entertainment, games, as an interactive medium, may offer insight into human psychology and how complex choices of morality are processed.

"Player morality is an interesting question. I’d break it into two thoughts – one is morality through game mechanic conditioning, and the second is more hopeful: the majority of people want to be good and be an agent of change in a world that allows them to be good," Chris Avellone, writer and designer of such games as Fallout: New Vegas and Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, tells The Hollywood Reporter

Both Fallout: New Vegas and Knights of the Old Republic II present players with multitudes of moral choices throughout their playtime. As players make choices, their in-game characters are affected by those decisions which, ultimately, affect how the story plays out. This gameplay mechanic is not unique to Avellone's work and has become a standard for many games over the past two decades, many of which actually include a sliding scale that highlights the player's morality as they progress.

"There was a period of time in gaming where doing an evil or bad path in a game would clearly lead to unfavorable outcomes — failures, game over, etc. — or even a good amount of content being missed by the player," Avellone says. "Because of that tradition, I think a certain amount of conditioning occurred in players to choose the good path because they wanted to get the most content out of the game."

Moral choices presented in games are wide-ranging and famous examples include the ending of the 1994 Super Nintendo game Super Metroid in which players can choose to save animals that helped them throughout the game or leave them to perish and 2007's BioShock which allows players to choose between rescuing or "harvesting" Little Sisters, genetically enhanced girls, to raise their own powers.

In more recent titles, the line between "evil" and "good" choices is able to be blurred even further, presenting players with much more nuanced ethical problems that do not have a clear "favorable" answer. Last year's Assassin's Creed Odyssey is a game rife with such moral impasses. 

"We really tried to make all of the choices contextual in terms of the characters you were talking to," Mel MacCoubrey, writer and narrative director on Assassin's Creed Odyssey, says. "Some of them are based in real-world morality where, obviously, sparing someone is much nicer than killing them, but what we also tried to do was make it so that not every time that you told the truth with someone that there would automatically be a positive outcome. You could come into a situation where telling the character the truth hurts a lot more than a lie. We really tried to have the player pay attention to the choices they were making in any given situation."

One of the major issues in fleshing out various ethical choices, however, is the number of real-world hours that go into designing and crafting those branching narratives. "If you allow for evil options and want to make it a viable option, then you are often doubling the amount of design resources the game needs," says Avellone. "Rarely do projects have the budget to do this, so the good path will usually get more focus and the bad path will get less attention and be more limited as a result."

This may well lead to a chicken-and-egg scenario when aiming to unravel players' ethical tendencies. Are game developers more focused on crafting "good" narrative paths because that's what players overwhelmingly choose or are players choosing the moral options because they've been conditioned to do so? 

To help answer that problem, many game developers actually keep statistics on how audiences interact with their game. 

"We have a statistic that shows more people are inclined to play the altruistic choice instead of the mercenary option," says MacCoubrey. "I think, overall, you see that people are more inclined to go toward the friendlier looking option than the more aggressive option, but when you have a choice that seems more neutral — like something more logical versus emotional — they play more 50/50."

Indeed, the data from the game supports this. When broken into categories labeled "Lies vs. Truth" or "Friendly vs. Aggressive," players are overwhelmingly likely to choose the "good" option (over 60 percent compared to 30 percent in both instances). Meanwhile, the "Logical vs. Emotional" category is split nearly down the middle. 

"We had a really interesting mission at the beginning of the game where you find people infected by the plague and a priest wants to kill them, but the family is innocent of anything other than being sick," MacCoubrey says of Odyssey. "You’re faced with the choice of getting involved or walking away and like 68 percent of the players decided to save the family, which I think is really interesting because if you save the family they infect the island."

Last August, researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison developed their own game called Crystals of Kaydor to study whether video games could boost empathy in middle-schoolers. Over a two-week period, students were broken into groups, one of which played Crystals and another which played the commercially available action RPG Bastion from Supergiant Games. The findings of the study suggested that a game designed to "increase empathic accuracy," such as Crystals, produces "behaviorally-relevant, functional neural changes in fewer than 6 hours of gameplay in adolescents."

Crystals, which was made possible by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is a nonviolent game that has players controlling a group of robots who land on a distant planet and must help the alien residents with various tasks through non-verbal communication, driven by realistic facial expressions that convey the alien's emotions to the player.

"The game rewards players for helping. They can’t speak their language and only communicate through human-like emotions," Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who headed the study, says. "It's a way to teach empathy. You can’t act to relieve another person’s suffering unless you know they’re suffering and in order to know they’re suffering, you need to have some degree of empathy."

"Games provide an opportunity to suspend consequences, so you can explore different aspects of yourself in this simulated world in a way you couldn’t outside of it," Nicole Lazzaro, president of video game consultancy firm XEODesign, says. "Our world is changing quite dramatically and I think games as an entertainment platform is responding. Having games without a moral component makes for much flatter games."

The aims of designing a game for the purposes of an academic study and making the next title in a bestselling series are very different, of course. However, commercial game designers are aware of the ethical questions they are asking in their works.

"We always wanted to make sure that we were putting something in that we had put a lot of thought into; that really made sense in the context for the character. They weren’t just big, bad choices for the sake of emotional shock or to put somebody in a precarious situation for no reason," MacCoubrey says. "We wanted all the various choices to fit in the story."

"I’d like to believe the majority of players want to be good and do good deeds," says Avellone. "When I’m playing a game I want to do the right thing, and from what I’ve observed, a majority of players — not all — act the same way."