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Games, art, morality, themes, and mechanics

I don’t know why I’m being sent issues of Game Developer magazine, but I’m vastly enjoying them. It’s fun seeing how people so deeply embedded in their craft talk amongst themselves, eve3n though much of it is over my head.

It’s not all tech talk, though. There are thoughtful reflections on the meaning and role of games. For example, in the March issue, Soren Johnson has part 2 of an essay that argues that “a game’s meaning springs from its rules, and not necessarily from its theme.” In fact, he says, the two can be in conflict, which is not a good thing. So, Left4Dead’s theme is zombie survival, but it’s actually about cooperation. Grand Theft Auto’s theme is “crime and urban chaos, but the game is actually about freedom and consequence.” (The magazine charges for online access, but you can read a report of Soren’s talk on this topic here.)

In the same issue, there’s an editorial by Brandon Sheffield called “Making Decisions Matter in Morality-Oriented Games.” (You can read it here.) After observing that in Bioshock, although you make a moral choice about harvesting or helping “little sisters,” the choice turns out to have very little effect on the game. But, he also writes:

I believe if one is going to present choices or issues in games as ethical, those choices have to matter in the game world. But I get antsy when games present me with choices that clearly open one door while closing another, as I want to see all of the game’s content, since I’m unlikely to go through it multiple times.

Well, you can’t have your little sisters and eat them, too. If the moral choice is going to affect the game, then you necessarily won’t see all the game’s content.

This is more of a problem with games that are pathways through a narrative. In an open-ended online multiplayer game like Left4Dead, moral choices affect games constantly, and in far more complex ways. For example, on the normal difficulty setting, friendly fire incidents don’t hurt your teammates too much, but on advanced, you can pretty easily kill a teammate by accident if your aim isn’t good. (Um, not that I’ve ever done so.) If you kill your teammates on purpose, you’ll get kicked out of the game; that’s not a choice within the rules so much as an infraction of the rules. But, even if you’re trying to be a good teammate, you will have to decide whether it’s worth the risk of hurting a teammate in order to rescue another teammate under attack next to her/him. Likewise, you’ll have to decide whether to risk your own health by going back for a teammate under attack. These are not the sorts of examples we normally give when talking about moral questions, but they are quite like the moral questions we generally have to face in the world — balancing risk, skill, and probability while trying to accomplish an aim we are convinced is right. That is, they are instrumental moral questions, not questions of ends. Moral questions are unavoidable in multiplayer games because multiplayer games are by definition social, and all social interactions have a moral dimension.

5 Responses to “Games, art, morality, themes, and mechanics”

  1. Mary Flanagan stated that in games mechanic is the message. Interesting insight on multiplayer games, where, as you point out, the level of moral choices is still highly dependent on rules.

  2. […] Joho the Blog » Games, art, morality, themes, and mechanics In an open-ended online multiplayer game like Left4Dead, moral choices affect games constantly, and in far more complex ways. (tags: gaming gameplay narrative via:moleitau) […]

  3. if you ever find yourself in front of a ps3 or xbox for a weekend and want to explore an interesting game that shifts the plot based on your decisions, try “heavy rain”

    here’s a quote:

    “With Heavy Rain, the studio took this control mechanic to a completely different level by removing the win/fail result and instead turned it into what can best be described as a branching narrative. You can’t ever actually fail in Heavy Rain. There is no Game Over screen, and nothing will force you to have to replay anything. No matter what you do, the game, its characters and the story move on. ”

    i’ve been gaming since intellivision in 1977 and this is by far the most intriguing use of the medium i’ve encountered.

  4. […] and recently he read through a couple of issues of Game Developer magazine. His reflections on the roles of morality in gaming and games reminds us that the real world is rarely simple enough for good/bad choices. And […]

  5. hanks it helped alot to clear some stuff about games.

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