Can Games Communicate Morality?

May 6th, 2012

Game designers are sensitive to the accusation that games are fundamentally amoral. After all, a game in which you slaughter scores or hundreds of people is surely not the pinnacle of ethical expression. Indeed, many games pander to the aggressive instincts of young males; violence is accentuated with spectacular animations. Games have a well-founded reputation for tawdriness, which in turn embarrasses game designers. They sometimes seek to counter this stain by inserting some kind of ethical component into their designs.

Yet these ethical components never seem to work: they have a heavy-handed, mechanical feel to them. The player never feels that he’s making a difficult ethical decision; instead, the ethical components of games feel more like decisions as to whether the player wants to wear a white hat or a black hat. There have been a few ambitious attempts to weave more elaborate moral themes into games, but such efforts usually look and feel convoluted.

Game designers should probably abandon, for the time being, their efforts to sanitize their games with a veneer of morality; they’re wasting their time. Here’s why:

What is morality? Philosophers have consumed huge forests publishing books agonizing over the fine points of morality, but I would like to offer a philosophically ignorant – but anthropologically sound – characterization of morality. I suggest that moral laws are nothing more than rules for long-term happiness. Consider some of the ideas presented in my essay
Causal Immediacy. Some causal relationships are direct and immediate: if you put your hand in the fire, it will burn. That’s pretty direct and immediate. Some causal relationships are less direct and immediate: if you eat meat that’s been sitting around in the open for a while, you might get sick. And some causal relationships are so distant that it might take a lifetime to figure them out.

For example, lying is not so much unethical as foolish. In the long run, it is impossible to get away with telling a lie. In the long run, the truth will out. When that happens, the liar is exposed as both evil and false, earning the opprobrium and distrust of society. The greater the benefits the liar enjoyed from the lie, the greater the anger and suspicion directed against him when he is exposed. Lying might seem, in the short run, to be an advantageous policy, but in the long run, it is almost always catastrophic to the liar. In the long run, honesty is the best policy. This is not intrinsically a moral proposition: fundamentally, it’s a pragmatic realization.

The first group of causal relationships don’t need explaining: a child quickly learns them without prompting. The second group of causal relationships are usually taught to the young as guidelines for happy, healthy, or safe living, and because these relationships are close enough to be readily comprehensible, youngsters learn them without much difficulty.

But the third group of causal relationships are not at all obvious, because they involve great distance and many intermediate steps between cause and effect. Many youngsters, unprepared to take a long view of life, have great difficulty comprehending them. How do we imbue our children with these important lessons when the kids can’t understand them? All societies have come up with the same answer: dress the lessons up in fine robes, chisel them in stone, endow them with elevated status, make them sacrosanct. Call them
morals. Emphasize that these rules were not established by mere mortals; no, they were declared by the gods themselves, brought down from on high by great priests or prophets far back in the mists of time. People have honored these moral rules from time immemorial; only the most foolish and depraved individuals dare defy the power of such god-given traditions.

Suppose now that you are a game designer wishing to infuse moral elements into your game. To do so, you must show that a moral infraction will ultimately lead to tragic consequences. This, however, requires you to simulate that lengthy and indirect chain of consequences that is so complicated as to be difficult to perceive. How in the hell do you expect to replicate causality of such vast complexity? The level of causal complexity in games is primitive. Most causal relationships in games are essentially boolean in nature; only the simplest and most direct relationships get the full arithmetic treatment. Fantasies of incorporating morality into our games are about as realistic as a worm dreaming of flying to the moon. Someday, maybe – but certainly not in the foreseeable future.