This paper is part of our ongoing project investigating the effects of morality meters in The Great Fire, a visual novel game containing a number of challenging moral problems. We report the results of an empirical evaluation of 183 participants’ behaviour when playing the game, and how that behaviour is affected by the presence of a morality meter in the game. Such meters have been a common design feature of ethically-significant games since Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic was published in 2003, and have been a source of contention in both academic and fan discussion. The primary concern is whether such a meter reduces an ethically nuanced problem to an artificial points-scoring exercise between arbitrarily defined Good and Evil outcomes. A lot of ink has been spilled over this question, but to date there appears to have been very little empirical data to back it up.
In this work we are interested to discover how a morality meter might actually affect player choices, if at all, and how the morality of the meter might influence this effect. We implemented four different versions of the game:
- A baseline version with no meter.
- An “intuitive” meter than recommends actions most people might judge intuitively good.
- A “counter-intuitive” meter recommends actions most people might judge intuitively bad.
- A “mixed” meter that matches the “intuitive” meter for the first five decisions then switches for two “trolley-problem” dilemmas late in the game.
The results showed a lot of variation in behaviour, but the main conclusions were that the effect depended on both the type of decision and the moral content of the meter. For decisions with obvious moral and immoral alternatives (e.g. stealing money from a homeless man) players chose the moral action regardless of what the meter recommended. However for decisions where the best moral alternative was unclear (e.g. in ‘trolley-problem’ dilemmas) the meter could have more influence, but only if the meter was established as a moral standard. Players tended to ignore the advice of the counter-intuitive meter but both the intuitive and mixed meters were able to sway players to select the (conflicting) actions they recommended.
The take-away seems to be that the effect of morality meters is more complex than originally expected. Few players seem willing to make choices that oppose their personal morality no matter what the meter recommends, however when the choice is more ambiguous players seem inclined to take the meter as a guide, so long as it has already established itself as meeting their moral standards. This opens up a lot more questions for future research. How conscious is this effect? How much is it influenced by other strategic implications (e.g. if there are gameplay rewards attached to the meter)? It turns out there is a lot more to understand about this simple game mechanic.