It is common in game design education to cite Sid Meier’s definition that a game is “a series of interesting decisions” and explain that one of the properties that makes a decision “interesting” is consequence. This is often taken to mean that choices have to affect the on-going state of the game in some way, so the player has a sense of agency in controlling the outcome of the game. Choices that have do not alter the course of the game can be seen as irrelevant and time-wasting.
There is however, one kind of ‘inconsequential’ choice that we see quite commonly in games: cosmetic customisation. Players put great store in customising their avatars as a vehicle for self-expression and identity creation, even when these customisations have no gameplay value. In fact, the disconnection from gameplay is important, as it means we are free to represent ourselves however we want, and do not have to bow to pressure to ‘optimise’ our character’s identity for better performance in the game. These choices are meaningful, but only in the minds of the players, not in the their effects on gameplay.
In this paper, Nay and Zagal consider these ideas in the context of ethical gameplay. Again, we are used to thinking of ethical choice as having to be ‘consequential’ in the sense of affecting gameplay in order to be meaningful. However the authors argue the opposite: that such ‘consequential’ choices can drive players towards choosing based on pragmatic consequences rather than ethics. In the worst case, they can force the player to do what the developer has preconceived as the “right” thing, rather than to reflect on their personal ethics, or the ethics of the character they wish to play. For example, they cite the Paragon / Renegade morality meter in Mass Effect 2, which rewards players who maximise the meter in either direction. This effectively dictates that there are only two “right” ways to play, pure Paragon or pure Renegade, and a more complex Commander Shepard who tries her best to be diplomatic but has occasional angry outbursts is not a personality the game rewards.
The alternative, they argue, is more “incosequential” moral choices, i.e. choices that reflect the player character’s moral outlook without any ultimate effect on the progress of the game. Like avatar customisation, these provide a way for the player to craft a moral identity for their character without having to worry whether their game will suffer for it. Examples they cite are The Walking Dead 2 and Life is Strange. Both games play out more or less on rails and many of the choices you make have no lasting consequences for the narrative, but colour the player’s perception of their character as heroic or cowardly or compassionate or pragmatic.
Philosophically, they connect this idea with the theory of virtue ethics which focuses on the ethical character of the individual rather than on the consequences of their actions. Intention matters more than outcome. This is, of course, a topic of great philosophical debate, but as a design principle I think it is a fruitful one. Ethical identity is much broader than simply choosing to do the “good” or “bad” thing. Allowing players to craft a complex ethical identity within our games will lead to greater reflection and moral focus when it comes to the decisions that do matter. It is not a matter or either-or but a mixture of both consequential and inconsequential choices that will lead to the most meaningful play.