Nudging Moral Choices in Games

Say that you’re playing a game. You’ve just completed a quest to defeat a necromancer that had been imposing a very liberal definition of “shopping for raw materials” on the citizens of a nearby village. Turns out that the necromancer had an adorable little puppy as a pet and the game gives you these choices:

a) Rescue the puppy and send it to college
b) Obliterate the puppy down to the subatomic level

Choose wisely.

Maybe this isn’t the most compelling moral choice, but it does illustrate the limited ways in which video games often presents us with morally thorny questions. But some recent research on the psychology of moral judgments suggests some additional ways that game designers could construct more interesting choices that are more tailored to the inclinations of their players.

One line of research in particular has to do with a framework that has been used to think about morality in other kinds of media: the model of intuitive morality and exemplars, or “MIME” for short.

The tl;dr version is that there are a handful of morality dimensions that people tend to make quick, emotional, and intuitive judgments about when they see something that can be thought of as moral or immoral:

  1. Care (that is, providing care or kindness to others)
  2. Fairness
  3. Loyalty (particularly loyalty to an in-group)
  4. Authority (deference to a legitimate authority figure, not blind authority)
  5. Purity (think sexual deviance or abusing drugs/alcohol)

Now, different people have different sensitivities to these different moral intuitions.1 Research suggests, for example, that some people are more sensitive to Loyalty and will be more likely to label a character’s actions immoral when he turns his back on a family member. Some people will be more sensitive to Purity and thus frown at a character who does dangerous drugs and/or replaces her eyeballs with cybernetic implants. Note, though, that being high on one dimension doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an either/or situation and someone will be low on others. It’s not like there’s a certain amount of “morality juice” that people use to fill each of the five buckets. People can, theoretically, be high or low on any dimension in any combination.

But the kind of disappointing thing about this MIME model is that researchers have mostly applied it to the Care principle to study people’s reactions to acts of violence in media. Beyond that, the only other dimension to get much attention is Fairness. You can even see this in many of the moral choices found in video games: players are most often called upon to choose who gets a beatdown or who receives some boon or punishment.

But, as I said, a couple of fairly recent papers suggest that the way video games frame and present information can make people more or less sensitive to any of these five moral intuitions. The first was actually published back in 2012.2. In it, the researchers had about 300 people play through part of Neverwinter Nights, a single-player RPG. The researchers had modded the game to present five scenarios (think side quests) that were each designed deal with one of the five moral intuitions: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, and Purity. In the Loyalty scenario, for example, the player character advised an NPC on whether or not to help out with the family business. The scenario on Authority involved orders from a local lord to take extreme measures to clear a blight. The researchers then recorded what decisions players made in each scenario and compared them to measures of which moral intuitions they were typically sensitive to.3

The short version of their findings was that when the game presented any of these five loaded situations, there was a significant relationship between a player’s choice and his/her baseline sensitivity to the corresponding moral intuition. Otherwise, people would do what is called “satisficing.” They would just take a minimally acceptable choice for the sake of moving forward.

To me, this suggests that moral dilemmas in games could be more custom-made for the individual player if designers had an idea of what was important to him or her. What if, during the tutorial for the game, players’ moral intuitions were subtly (or even overtly) measured so that the narrative forked in order to provide the most compelling or even the most difficult moral choices? What if the game used this information to present you with a dilemma forcing you to choose between the two moral dimensions most important to you?4

But let’s think bigger than that. A more recent study took this same idea and asked an even more interesting question: can the way a video game presents moral choices temporarily change people’s sensitivity to these moral dimensions and thus coax them into leaning one way over another?5 This study used the same Neverwinter Nights scenarios as the one above and also measured people’s baseline sensitivity to MIME’s five moral dimensions. But it also used a device to very quickly flash in front of people certain words associated with upholding or violating moral principles.

The idea was to prime players before each game scenario with words associated with the target moral intuition and thus temporarily make it more important to them to consider when deciding how to have their player character react. While not ideal (I’d find it more compelling if they had somehow altered the scenarios themselves or how they were presented), the researchers point to their approach being successful in other contexts and a pretty good substitute.6

What they found was that in some cases it was indeed possible to use this technique to affect someone’s moral choice in a video game above and beyond what their baseline sensitivities were. You could actually nudge them.

More research using methods closer to what might be seen in a commercial game seem warranted, but to me this is a pretty cool idea. If game designers and writers can nudge players into being more aware of multiple dimensions of morality while making choices, it may create some real dramatic tension. Choices don’t have to be between upholding or violating just ONE moral dimension. They can be between having to choose between any two –such as choosing to uphold a legitimate authority figure or choosing to honor your familial obligations. Or choosing between contaminating your own body and helping someone.

And if there’s something that game designers can do to at least temporarily make you wring your hands over those choices, would you want them to? Would that make the choice more meaningful and the game experience more special? I think it could.

Footnotes:

1. e.g., see Grizzard, M. & Changhyun, A. (2018). Morality & Personality. In J. Banks (Ed), Avatar, Assembled. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.
2. Joeckel, S., Bowman, N. D., & Dogruel, L. (2012). Gut or Game? The Influence of Moral Intuitions on Decisions in Video Games. Media Psychology, 15(4), 460–485. https://doi.org/10.1080/15213269.2012.727218
3. For more information about the experimental design, see this blog post from one of the authors.
4. This is how you can tell I’m a psychologist, by the way: I actually think that placing multiple choice survey items at the beginning of a video game sounds like a great idea. Because it IS.
5. Tamborini, R., Bowman, N. D., Prabhu, S., Hahn, L., Klebig, B., Grall, C., & Novotny, E. (2018). The effect of moral intuitions on decisions in video game play: The impact of chronic and temporary intuition accessibility. New Media and Society, 20(2), 564–580. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444816664356
6. Ibid, pg 571.

4 thoughts on “Nudging Moral Choices in Games

  1. Most of the Ultima games (starting with IV) include a questionnaire at the start of the game, used to determine your class and starting stats by implicitly ordering the “Eight Virtues”.

    The first three Elder Scrolls games also offer a questionnaire at character selection.

    AFAIK in both cases the questions only affect character attributes and are otherwise not used during the main body of the game.

    • Yeah, I remember those! Ultima 4 had some fortune teller in the forest that you would answer a bunch of questions from and it would determine your character class. But I think you’re right that they didn’t use that information to change anything about the narrative.

  2. I’m tempted to pin this as a question of narrative – not writing, strictly, but narrative, which I’m using here as shorthand for “the way players are brought into or out of line with groups or characters by presenting information about those groups and characters”. Abstracted like that it sounds uselessly vague but “investment” is the goal, as far as nudging moral choices goes, I’d imagine.
    A lot of the issue with moral choices in games is just that they’re so often either designed to be very simplistic (like your example at the beginning) or they’re designed to reflect the player’s instinctive, real-world values in one or more of those five categories (where the player either follows their gut instinct because they Know What’s Right or, occasionally, do the opposite for the thrill). And neither of those options really requires a whole lot of thought.
    Even within the “magic circle” of gameplay, obviously you’re never going to entirely divorce the player from their societal values and morals, but with deeper or more engaging or more challenging narrative and gameplay, you can certainly nudge them into a sort of contained headspace in which they really are putting on the role the game wants and getting more out of it in the process.
    A game that immediately comes to mind is LISA, in which you play a traumatized and morally complex character living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland who is given, at several points, narrative-driven choices that also significantly impact gameplay and thus feel a great deal more consequential. You can choose, for example, to spare the life of a decidedly pretty worthless party member, or lose all of your stuff, which, in LISA, is much harder to get than additional party members. The player is pressured by the gameplay into considering distinctly immoral decisions that nonetheless make sense within the setting of the game – do I let a friendly, innocent man die because I don’t want to spend 2 hours trying to beat the next boss with no items?

    It’s interesting, now, with that question in front of me, to also consider the role of one’s own ease and sense of fun and how that plays into moral choices in video games. The five points provided in the moral overview above are all outwardly-oriented, but at the end of the day morality is shackled to self-interest as well. Dishonored tries to explore this, I think. Killing people in Dishonored is absurdly fun. There are so many gruesome, flashy, snappy-feeling ways to commit murder in that game, and it makes the game easier and smoother to play in many ways. Non-lethal play is relatively difficult and tedious, involves a lot of save-spamming, and practically doubles the length of the game with all the sneaking and reloading you have to do. You are ultimately rewarded for a non-lethal or less-lethal playthrough, both in there being fewer guards roaming around, and in a happier ending, but it’s a grind that’s often not very enjoyable, and for a lot of players, it isn’t worth it to listen to your moral qualms about killing in video games. Dishonored also features a reactive morality system, the “Chaos” system, in which the world around you reacts from stage to stage based on how much slaughter you’ve been gleefully indulging in, increasing things like guard patrols and wandering, zombified plague victims and changing civilian dialogue. It’s not *quite* a multiple choice questionnaire, but it does touch on your point about pinpointing where the player’s morals lie and creating a reactive world around that, if only tangentially!

    • Good stuff. I think the kinds of choices you describe are much more interesting to me as a consumer of that media (and co-creator as a player). I often like it when the game doesn’t try to speak to my morality, but the character’s. Maybe you shouldn’t always get to save the puppy.

      The chaos system in Dishonored is an interesting example to bring up, since it’s not just one choice but a pile of choices that build up and affect what choices you have and the context for them.

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