A History of Moral Choice in Games

All video games are about choice. Some are small, like selecting a weapon, or sprinting rather than walkingOthers, like moral choices, can alter the entire path a player takes through a game. As defined by Bernard Gert, morality is used “normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.”[1] These specified conditions manifest in games as a form of vicarious audience play[2], which allow players to ‘act out’ moral scenarios, asking themselves what they would do in certain situations. These moral choices have become increasingly popular over the last decade, and have evolved across a broad range of genres. The following examines some of the key innovators in this area, and traces the journey moral choices have taken throughout games thus far.

One of the earliest examples of moral choice as a gameplay procedure is Streets of Rage (AM7, 1991)[3]. At the end of the games co-operative campaign, players can choose to either work together to defeat the final boss, or fight each other for a chance to usurp the antagonist. Each choice leads to a separate ending, presented as a cut scene, and re-contextualised the preceding levels, causing players to view each other as competitors rather than collaborators[4].Ultimately, the choice simply determined whether players got a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ ending, but it served to prepare mainstream game players for the idea of moral choice in games.The concept regressed throughout the rest of the decade, largely due to the relatively cheap cost and short development cycle of purely linear games[5].

Four years later however, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (The Dreamers Guild, 1995) explored moral choice through its point-and-click mechanics and post-apocalyptic fiction. It was one of the first attempts of formalizing moral choices in games, implemented primarily through its “Spiritual Barometer” mechanic. Certain in-game actions would cause the colour surrounding the avatars portrait to change to green if the action was determined to be good[6]. ‘Evil’ actions, such as the accidental slaughter of trapped animals, could be reversed on the barometer through other specific actions, which were hinted at through obscure literary references in each character’s psychological profile. Like Streets of Rage, the moral choices here essentially determined which ending the player saw of the game; a poor rating led to the games ‘bad’ ending, for instance. Historically though, the barometer can be thought of as an ancestor to the modern morality meter, seen in many games of the past decade. Fable(Lionhead, 2004) also attempted moral choice as a core design element, rewarding or punishing players with good and evil points for respective in-game actions. While expected to be a revolution in player freedom and adaptive game design[7]Fable ultimately pushed players to one end of the alignment scale or the other, due to its binary approach to moral choice. While it did indeed allow players a greater sense of embodiment, helped in part by the fact the protagonist is silent, they soon discovered that it was much easier to be evil than good, as protecting innocent NPCs would yield a significantly less amount of points than killing them.

While considered a step in the right direction, Fable was criticized for a lack of meaningful impact as a result of the player’s moral choices[8]. Options were either purely good, or purely evil, with very little room for ambiguity. Bioshock(Irrational Games, 2007), attempted to complicate the thought processes behind these binary decisions by offering intrinsic and extrinsic rewards in response to how players dealt with the games “Little Sisters”. By harvesting the children, players would receive the large extrinsic reward of more ADAM, Bioshock’s in-game currency that allowed players easier access to new and upgraded abilities. Saving the Sisters would result in less ADAM, but offered the intrinsic reward of the player knowing they had done the ‘right’ thing. While an innovative idea on the surface, ‘good’ players ended up obtaining an equal amount of ADAM as ‘evil’ players, just slightly later in the game. Fallout 3 (Bethesda Game Studios, 2008) also incorporated moral choices into its narrative, with a similar exploration of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Early on in the game, the player has the option of disarming a nuclear bomb to save the town of Megaton, or detonating the weapon for a large sum of money. However, while the decision at the heart of Bioshock’s morality made the player’s progression more or less difficult, to a point, choosing to destroy Megaton in Fallout 3 resulted not only in the destruction of innocent lives, but also shops, resting locations and entire side-missions. Although most decision-making in Fallout 3 was handled through dialogue, the player is forced to press the detonation button themselves, making them directly responsible.

The same year saw the release of Grand Theft Auto IV (Rockstar Games, 2008). Throughout its plot were key moments of decision, mostly involving the murder of one character over another. Moral choices in GTA IV were not about ‘good’ or ‘evil’; they were about your relationship to each character and whether or not you genuinely felt they deserved to die. In previous games that dealt with moral choice, players typically had to “activate” their morals when making the ‘good’ decision (i.e: the option is chosen because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do) or “disengage” from their morals when making the ‘evil’ decision (i.e: the option is chosen because it’s ‘just a game’, or they were ‘just following orders’)[9]. Players found themselves struggling with GTA IV’s choices[10], and having to incite their real-world code of ethics to make these decisions. Spec Ops: The Line(Yager Development, 2012) continued the idea of explicit, non-binary choices throughout its single-player campaign. Like Fallout 3, it complicated its choices by giving them ambiguous context, but as the campaign progressed, Spec Opsfurther broke down the established form of moral choices, blending them in with the rest of the gameplay. The immediacy surrounding these moments caught players off guard, as eventually it wasn’t clear that a choice could be made at all[11]. While certainly a comment on how protagonist Captain Walker justifies his actions, (“I didn’t have a choice”)[12], this evolution of moral choice can also be interpreted as a statement on the ultimate futility of the concept as it is presented in games[13]. Every ‘choice’ you make has been afforded to you by someone, whether it be Frank Fontaine in Bioshock, John Konrad in Spec Opsor the designers of GTA IVFallout 3 or Fable.

Just over two decades after the release of Streets of RageThe Walking Dead(Telltale Games, 2012) was released. The game utilized moral choice as its mechanical and narrative backbone, constantly throwing difficult decisions at players. The permanency of each decision warranted deep consideration, but this was made impossible by the fact that choices were timed, similar to the system introduced in The Witcher 2 (CD Projekt Red, 2011). Intense, dynamic music also accompanied these decisions, bringing with it a sense of urgency. While a good deal of games with moral choices feature ‘blank slate’ protagonists without identities of their own, The Walking Dead cast players as an authored character, Lee Everett, similar to the approach GTA IV and Spec Ops took with their respective protagonists. Because players have some control over how they behave, the subjective viewpoint of these characters is somewhat removed,further complicating the true authorship of each character.While players use the bodies of their characters to enact the action, the identities of the characters, dictated by the games designers, ultimately determines which actions are available in the first place.

As we view the linage of moral choices in games, we can see that early concepts such as binary choices and morality meters are slowing being displaced. While these systems were useful in the past to track the adherence of users to certain moral principles, as humans we know that morality is a dynamic, abstract set of ideals, unique to each individual who possesses them. Perhaps to achieve true moral choices in games, developers should no longer be determining which actions are ‘good’ or ‘evil’, and instead rely on less-constructed tests of morality. Plenty of interesting examples can be found in the MMO space, where the behavior of players mirrors more every-day ethics, rather than the life-or-death decisions faced in video games, but almost never in the real world. The ultimate goal of moral choice in games is to invest players in the narrative of the game they are experiencing, and to tell them a little bit about themselves in the process. Most moral choices only tell us that we can tolerate a second play-through of a game, rather than revealing who we are as human beings. However, as games like The Walking Dead and Spec Ops experiment with the form of moral choices in games, we edge toward a medium that can truly contribute something meaningful to the global cultural conversation.


  [1] Bernard Gert, “The Definition of Morality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (Fall 2012), http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition/.

  [2]  Brian Sutton-Smith, “Play and Ambiguity”, The Ambiguity of Play (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 5.

  [3] Tracy Fullerton, “Chapter 3: Working with Formal Elements”, Game Design Workshop 2nd ed. (Burlington: Elsevier Inc., 2008), 66 – 68.

  [4] “Streets of Rage”, Hardcore Gaming 101, accessed October 21, 2013, http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/streetsofrage/streetsofrage.htm.

  [5] Ernest Adams, “Storytelling and Narrative”, Fundamentals of Game Design 2nd ed. (San Francisco: New Riders, 2009), 194 – 204.

  [6] “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”, Hardcore Gaming 101, accessed October 23, 2013, http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/ihavenomouth/imustscream.htm

  [7]  “Fable”, Computer and Video Games Australia, accessed October 24, 2013, http://www.computerandvideogames.com/90363/previews/fable/

  [8] “Fable Review”, Eurogamer, accessed October 24, 2013. http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/r_fable_x

  [9]  Daniel Shafer, “Moral Choice in Video Games: An Exploratory Study.”, Media Psychology Review 5, no. 1 (2012). http://www.mprcenter.org/mpr/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=218&Itemid=18

  [10] “Grand Theft Auto IV Review”, Giant Bomb, accessed October 21, 2013. http://www.giantbomb.com/reviews/grand-theft-auto-iv-review/1900-25/

  [11] Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, “Immediacy, Hypermediacy, and Remediation”, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000), 23 – 24.

  [12] “Spec Ops: The Line – White Phosphorus”, YouTube video, 6:11, posted by “GamingP0rtal,” June 26, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-b7TaLjdXMc.

  [13] Brendan Keogh, “Foreword”, Killing is Harmless (Adelaide: Stolen Projects, 2012), 7.