Morality meters (or karma meters) have long been debated as a way of instrumentalising ethics in videos games. In the past, we have argued that they reduce moral engagement by turning ethics into a mechanical goal rather than something to be valued for its own sake. On the other hand, it has also been suggested that the presence of the meter can invite players to take morality more seriously, and may even provoke players to do the moral thing in spite of the meter. However as far as we know, there hasn’t been any empirical investigation of their effect.
This is the first of a pair of publications that are the result of our recently experiments on The Great Fire game in which we examine address this question. The paper presents the qualitative results of a series of focus group interviews with players, focusing on the player’s experience of moral decision-making, the factors they considered important when making those choices, and how they felt the morality meter affected them. In a later paper, we will follow up with quantitative data showing how choices they made we actually affected.
The Great Fire is a visual novel game set in the cinema of an outback Australian town in the 1940s. Following the traditions of film noir, there is a madman on the loose, threatening the lives of patrons. As Frankie, the usher at work that day, the player must make a series of difficult moral choices that will ultimately determine who lives and who dies. There are eight choices in all, structured to represent a variety of ethical dilemmas (see Table 1).
The game includes a morality meter, visible at the top of the screen at all times. Starting at zero, the meter can move towards Good or Evil depending on the players choices. The meter effects are included with the choice, so players can make an informed decision. We implemented two versions of the meter, one “intuitive” in which the “Good” choices matched the intuitively good decision (based on mainstream ethics and neurological evidence, and also reflected in the most common choices made by players when the meter is hidden), while the other was “counter-intuitive” with the intuitively good choice labelled Evil and vice versa.
Two different groups of subjects played each version of the game and were interviewed afterwards to investigate a) their response to the judgement offered by the morality meter, and b) the factors they believed influenced each of their choices in the game. Note that these responses are naturally subjective, and quite possibly the answers are post-hoc rationalisations (as our later quantitative data may suggest), but they speak to players’ subjective experience of making ethical choices and playing with a morality meter which is important in a game-design setting. I will focus on the first of these questions here, although the second also yielded a variety of interesting results.
With regard to the meter, four main attitudes were expressed, in various mixtures:
- Meter-as-score: These players regarded the meter as a score to be optimised in some fashion. As expected, this was the most commonly expressed attitude, although it was surprising the number of different ways of “optimising” the meter we found. Some players strove to be 100% Good, but other players were just happy to be above zero. Some even expressed concern at being labelled “too good”. Very few players deliberately chose to be Evil, except those in the second group who recognised the counter-intuitive programming of the meter and deliberately chose to do the opposite.
- Meter-as-guide: This attitude was the most commonly expressed among players in the first group who saw the intuitive meter. Players regarded the meter as a source of moral advice, rather than as a necessary goal. This particularly came up in the more difficult life-or-death dilemmas where the moral decision was not obvious.
- Indifference: A significant number of players reported not caring about the meter at all, and reportedly paid it no attention.
- Rejection of the meter: In both groups there was some hostility to the meter expressed, with players accusing it of over-simplifying complex moral problems. Some players also expressed discomfort with the idea of being rewarded for their moral choices.
This variety of attitudes was fairly evenly mixed. Players who were shown the intuitive meter were most likely to regard it as a source of guidance rather than a strict score, while players who saw the counter-intuitive meter were more likely to regard it more pragmatically as a score, even if they thought its advice was morally dubious. In both groups, however, reported indifference to or rejection of the meter was common.
As designers, this result suggests that the player experience of morality meters is complex, and dependent on how the meter coheres with the player’s own morality. If the player finds the meter agreeable, it can be adopted as a source of moral advice. If the meter is disagreeable, it may still be follow grudgingly as a source of points, as if this was expected of the player, although players who will slavishly follow a meter they disagree with are rare (only one appeared in this study). Either way, a large number of players seem uninterested in the meter at all, preferring to follow their personal ethics for their own sake.
In the end, there is no simple outcome in the debate over morality meters. Their effect will depend on players’ personalities, personal morals, and how well they mesh with players’ expectations. No doubt they are here to stay. Our hope is that this research can cast light on how they can be designed well.