Morality and Games

Project Description

More games now feature increasingly interesting and complex ethical dilemmas beyond questions of whether or not to use violence. For example, Brendan Keogh writes that Yager Development’s first-person shooter game Spec Ops: The Line takes an unusual moral stance for a big budget videogame, forcing the player to question why violence is such a normal part of most games: “the violence he [Walker, the central character] causes actually affects him. He spends the entire game in denial, to be sure, but the acts themselves get beneath his skin and his consciousness to affect him on a fundamental level. … As Walker is forced to commit increasingly terrible acts, who he is changes. … Perhaps what is most disturbing about Walker is that the more damaged he becomes, the more like a normal playable character he appears” (Keogh, 2012). Such examples demonstrate that games can be a way to think about – and play through - complex societal and cultural quandaries that rely on moral reasoning. Games are assumed to be a good place to explore such issues, because many developers and game scholars see games as encompassed by a ‘magic circle’ where the normal rules of life do not apply and players are free to experiment with actions they would not take in daily life - either simply to play at being a different person, or to see what the consequences of such actions might be like (Huizinga, 1938; Salen & Zimmerman, 2003).

But most games that succeed in having players explore such moral complexities force the player to inhabit a particular subject/character position – games that offer players the chance or option to walk dark paths often fail in enticing players to do so. This research-creation project therefore intervenes in the design process of games, to experiment with game design techniques and mechanics that could better persuade individual players to fully explore morally ambiguous situations through play, pushing individuals to see how such actions are often the result of choices, rather than rules to obey or uncomfortable situations in which to exist. That will lead to better knowledge of how to create videogames that allow for players to understand complex societal issues as well as individual actions that seem morally suspect. It does this through the development of a digital game – Ambiguity – that situates players as police officers in multiple real-life situations, and encourages them to explore how concepts such as justice, freedom, honor, duty, obedience, and lawfulness can be differentially expressed via gameplay. I am currently experimenting with paper prototypes loosely based on these ideas, and this project would allow me research assistants to develop the idea through to completion.

The central objective of this research-creation project is therefore to explore and innovate in the design space of games that feature ethical or moral dilemmas. It will determine how best to create scenarios that encourage players to experiment with ambiguous moral situations, in order to push individuals to confront how such situations and people exist in daily life. In doing so it responds to current challenges that game developers are facing not in how to create such content, but rather how to persuade players to experiment with that content in their play. In that way it will create new methods for game designers to use when creating future games; it will also provide scholars in game studies with better understandings of the situations in which players are more likely to experiment with morally ambiguous acts in videogames.

Many game designers are already experimenting with creating believable scenarios for players to engage in (and therefore learn about) evil acts and how they come to be. Designers have created several different kinds of systems and methods for implementing ethical dilemmas in games that I would categorize as: (1) morality meters (2) gotcha games (3) corrupt systems and (4) karma systems.

Clearly game designers have created – and continue to create – games that push the boundaries for moral and ethical dilemmas. But research has overwhelmingly found that most players default to morally good choices, or remain determined to ‘play the hero’ and do not explore ambiguity and moral uncertainty in their gameplay (Collins, 2015; Weaver & Lewis, 2012). Practically speaking this means a significant part of a game’s content may remain unexplored. Conceptually it raises questions about how and why we are uncomfortable stepping outside of our normative moral structures to explore different ethical systems. Design-wise, it means we are failing to design systems that encourage players to take such chances. Even if developers are creating games that are more nuanced in their approach to morality, the majority of players remain firm in their stances not to engage in morally reprehensible acts. This suggests that players do not see games as bounded by a magic circle where they can leave behind their everyday ethical frameworks. In response this research-creation project explores design as a way to push players into those actions, asking what game design techniques can be developed to better persuade individuals to play with moral ambiguity, in order to learn from or better understand such experiences. This research-creation project seeks to construct a ‘magic circle’ for games in order for players to explore contentious issues, through new game mechanics.




Collins, Brian. (2015). Binary choices: How players engage with morality in games. Digital-tutors, http://blog.digitaltutors.com/binary-choices-players-engage-morality-games/. Accessed August 31, 2015.

Consalvo, Mia. (2014). The Player’s dilemmas: Invocation of the magic circle and ‘it’s just a game.’ Keynote address, Swedish Game Developers Conference, Skovde, Sweden, June 2014.

Consalvo, Mia. (2009). There is no magic circle. Games and culture, 4(4): 408-417.

Entertainment Software Association. (2015). 2015 Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry. www.theesa.com/about-esa/industry-facts/. Accessed September 16, 2015.

Entertainment Software Association of Canada. (2014). Essential facts about the Canadian video game industry. http://theesa.ca/facts-research/. Accessed October 12, 2015.

Huizinga, Johan. (1950). Homo ludens: A study of the play-element in culture. Boston: Beacon Press.

Keogh, Brendan. (2012). Read an excerpt from Killing is Harmless, a book sized reading of Spec Ops: The Line. Kotaku, http://www.kotaku.com.au/2012/11/read-an-excerpt-from-killing-is-harmless-a-book-sizedreading-of-spec-ops-the-line/. Accessed October 15, 2015.

Nagler, Dan. (2015). Designing morally difficult characters, responsibly. GDC Vault.
http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1021918/Designing-Morally-Difficult-Characters. Accessed October 12, 2015.

Project Horseshoe, (2009). Choosing between right and right: Creating meaningful ethical dilemmas in games. http://www.projecthorseshoe.com/ph09/ph09r3.htm. Accessed October 12, 2015.

Salen, Katie & Zimmerman, Eric. (2003). Rules of play. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Sharp, John. (2015). Works of game: On the aesthetics of games and art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Weaver, Andrew & Lewis, Nicky. (2012). Mirrored morality: An exploration of moral choice in video games. Cyberpsychology, behaviour, and social networking 15(11), 1-5.



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Morality and Games

Updated on 2017-07-05T21:15:51+00:00, by mLab.