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Published November 15, 2018

So I thought I may as well start with one of my own papers. This is one of the papers I’m most pleased with on this topic. In it, Dan Staines, Paul Formosa and I look at the Four Component Model (4CM) of moral psychologist James Rest and colleagues, and consider how it can be used as a set of lenses to consider the design of ethically engaging games.

The 4CM distinguishes four broad categories of mental capabilities that we exercise when we are making moral decisions:

  1. Moral Focus – the extent to which one is committed to one’s moral choices and the degree to which one prioritises moral concerns over others.
  2. Moral Sensitivity – the ability to identify morality in the world, to understand the motivations of others, and to perceive the consequences of one’s behaviour
  3. Moral Judgement – the ability to understand moral concepts and to reason about moral issues.
  4. Moral Action – the ability to overcome temptations and persist in the face of adversity. Doing the right thing even when it is hard.

Many “ethical choices” in games focus on moral judgement. They present you with a clear-cut moral situation with a small number of possible “solutions”. You pick one and it’s done. Moral problem over. There may be some time spent weighing up the different alternatives, but there is little call for moral sensitivity or moral action. The issue is already laid out for you, and the solution is effected through a simple choice. When extrinsic rewards for “good” or “evil” choices are also applied (e.g. through a morality meter) the issue of moral focus is also sidelined.

In the paper we go into detail about how designing to address all four moral components can provide a richer ethical experience for a player. We draw examples of more sophisticated moral gameplay from a variety of games and discuss the design challenges that arise. Rather than present definite answers for how ethical play ‘should’ be designed, we follow Jesse Schell’s lead in posing four ‘lenses’, or ways of considering a game’s design, with a list of questions for each.

For example, when considering how a game engages moral sensitivity, we might ask:

  • How is moral content presented to the player? Is it clearly signposted as moral content or are players expected to “see” morality themselves?
  • How can players express their moral agency? Are they limited to selecting pre-generated options or is there scope for other kinds of morally significant action?
  • How are NPCs presented? Do they have personalities and perspectives with which the player can empathise? Are there elements in the game that might cue the player to dehumanise other characters?

In answering these questions, we can see how a game chooses to present morality to the player. Is it overtly laid out for them, or do they have to use their moral sensitivity to recognise the salient issues and available courses of behaviour? Does the game need ‘moral choices’ at all, or can it be left up to the player to decide their behaviour is moral and how much that matters.

An excellent example of this occurs in Papers, Please by Lucas Pope. This game contains a variety of moral choices from the overt to the subtle. I find the use of the X-ray scanner to be most interesting. It is introduced as a method for detecting dangerous weapons and contraband, but the player soon finds themselves using it to check travellers’ sex. This is a blatant abuse of privacy but is treated as just run-of-the mill processing. At no point does the game directly question the morality of this behaviour. It is left up to the player to notice, and to decide whether it is justifiable. By choosing not to signpost this issue, it relies on the player’s own moral sensitivity to recognise, their moral focus to decide whether it matters, and their moral action to implement an alternative behaviour (in the face of possible financial penalties). [More on Papers, Please in another article!]


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