2010 - Playing with Ethics: Experiencing New Ways of Being in RPGs (full text)

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Chapter 5 Playing with Ethics: Experiencing New Ways of Being in RPGs David Simkins University of Wisconsin–Madison, USA

Chapter 5
Playing with Ethics:
Experiencing New Ways of Being in RPGs
David Simkins
University of Wisconsin–Madison, USA
Role playing games (RPGs) are compelling spaces for ethical play. Participants can take on roles very
different from their own and experience the world through a variety of social contexts. This form of play
can be encouraged by good game design principles including the balanced use of consequence, mir-
roring, social context, and freedom. This chapter examines the structure of ethics in role playing games
and uses case studies of expert role players and analysis of game design to explore the effective use of
the four design principles in popular games.
RPGs and the Ring of Gyges
In Plato’s Republic (1992), Socrates expresses the
danger of power unlimited by social norms and
controls through the story of Gyges. In the story,
this otherwise unremarkable man finds a ring of
invisibility, which allows him to act without fear of
social reprisal. As he gathers wealth and power, he
is compelled to increasingly perverse action because
he is unconstrained by traditional morality. He can
act as he pleases within his environment.
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-845-6.ch005
A player in a role playing game (RPG) plays
one or more characters in a story. They control
the character’s actions and make choices for the
character. In some games, the player’s options are
quite limited, and the players choices, successes or
failures determine whether or not the story contin-
ues. Other games are more open-ended. There are
usually still restrictions, but players are allowed a
much greater freedom to follow their own interests
through the game’s setting, making their own sto-
ries as they go. Games that offer great freedom are
often called sandbox games because they provide
the setting, the sandbox, but do not determine what
actions the player takes within it. In a sandbox RPG
a player is often given the freedom to choose whom
Copyright © 2010, IGI Global. Copying or distributing in print or electronic forms without written permission of IGI Global is prohibited.Playing with Ethics
to kill, what to steal, and which factions, if any,
they choose to serve. A player of one sandbox
RPG, Baldur’s Gate 2 (Bioware, 2000), may
choose to join a guild of thieves. Ultimately the
player’s character may rise through the ranks of
the thieves’ guild, eventually taking over the local
guild chapter, allowing the character to organize
all of the crime within a city. In Baldur’s Gate 2,
and most single-player RPGs, the game allows
the player to save their game at any time, and the
player is allowed to return to any previous saved
game. Many players will try an action and then
reload to a previously saved game if they do not
like the result. This gives the player the ability
to always succeed at any challenge, if they have
sufficient patience and time and have avidly saved
previous games. If the most recent game does not
give them the result they hoped for, they can go
to earlier saves and try again. The Internet also
provides a tremendous amount of information
about games, including step by step instructions,
or walkthroughs, for finishing areas of the game,
and lists of secret areas, items, encounters, etc,
within the game and how to find them. Information
exists about almost all games somewhere on the
Internet. It is, therefore, possible for a player to go
online, learn about all of the options available in a
game and choose the experience they want most.
This combination of knowledge and the ability to
replay events or roll back time gives the player
of a single-player RPG powers within the game
environment that are like the powers wielded by
Gyges in Socrates’ story.
Baldur’s Gate 2 is one of many games that
give the player tremendous freedom. \Some other
examples of RPG games that provide the player
with wide-ranging freedom to create their own
experience include Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
(Rockstar North, 2004), Baldur’s Gate (BioWare,
1998) and Fallout 3 (Bethesda Softworks, 2008).
These games provide the player the freedom to
be deceitful, malevolent and wicked, though
they often also allow the player to be honorable,
benevolent and good. Because the player can
have their character break norms and laws we
normally uphold, the games have been reviled
by some for allowing players to play out immoral
and violent stories. When a discussion of an RPG
game focuses only on social norms broken and
not on the whole of the experience, one might
dismiss it out of hand as reprehensible. Similar
attacks have been laid on other works of fiction,
using the moral breaches of the main characters
to justify banning or condemning the work. One
might rightly point out that games are not mov-
ies. Nor are they written fiction. A game is a new
media type where the player does not just watch
the action, but performs it, and when the player
wields the power of Gyges within the game, the
experience is much different than merely watching
someone powerful act on screen. There are many
aesthetic differences between these media, but in
this chapter I want to focus on the experiential
nature of games, and how it relates to ethics, by
listening to the designers and players themselves.
First, however, I want to expand the conversation
by offering another way to evaluate ethics, other
than comparing actions against existing social
Ethics and Culpability in Games
The ethics of a game environment are significantly
different from the ethics of other spaces in life,
other than at the most abstract level. We may still
strive to treat others as we wish to be treated, but
the application of this guideline is very different
in a game than at work or home. When we kill
a character in a game, even one played by a real
person, we have not actually committed murder.
When we steal from programmed, fictional enti-
ties, we cause no suffering that has moral valence.
In our current state, where death of an avatar does
not kill the player, treating the killing of an avatar
like murder would be a misappropriation of a word
from one context into a very different context,
where what is at stake has entirely changed. To
insist would be to act as if ethical language hasPlaying with Ethics
meaning out of any context, which would be
nonsense (Wittgenstein, 1993). The word “kill”
does not mean the same thing when applied to
an avatar or fictional character as when applied
to a living thing. That is not to say that there are
no ethical issues relevant to single-player game
play. When the measure for ethical action is taken
out of game, the relevant ethical issues are more
likely to be whether one’s game play is taking away
from one’s responsibilities as a parent, a romantic
partner, or a member of society. Regular exercise
and good physical health are wonderful, but not
if one leaves one’s five-year-old child alone at
home when at the gym. The actual ethical values
one expresses in game do not hold true outside
of the game. When we make decisions that have
consequences, we practice decision-making in
a moral world. When the world is a fiction, we
have a luxury we rarely have in life. We can try
on one set of moral values and, when we decide
we don’t like them or want a new experience, we
can leave those values and try new ones. Due to
the power of single-player game play, the player
has the power to change the game world so the
other characters in the world accept this change,
treating the character in a new way and reacting
to the character’s new values. By sharing control
of the moral world with the player and allowing
the player to practice or experiment with moral
choices, the designers create a sandbox where
the player can practice living with values. In the
world, the actions we take become a part of our
facticity (Sartre, 1956) and we have to live with
the consequences. In a game world, we can experi-
ment with one set of values, then start over and
play through the same events in the same world
with a different set of values and experience the
differences our decisions can make.
Are Games Moral Spaces?
Tory, one of the participants in this study, expressed
what she took to be a logical conflict when asked
to think about an ethical decision she made in
a game. “Within the context of the game,” she
argued, “a player can do no wrong.” That may be
true, but many of the same sandbox RPGs that
allow for actions that would be considered mor-
ally bankrupt out of game also allow actions that
would be considered truly heroic. In fact, much
of the game play of many of these games consists
of just such decisions: ethical decisions with real
consequences to the main character of the game, to
the other characters in the game, and to the game
world itself. While the player may be protected
from full culpability for the actions their charac-
ter takes, many of these worlds ensure that the
character has positive and negative consequences
for their actions. To think of the game world as
free of ethics is to not think about it on its own
terms, similar to thinking of the moral world of
other fictions as irrelevant to our world’s moral-
ity. Arguably, those watching the moral decay
and depravity of Tony Soprano in HBO’s show
The Sopranos (Chase, 1999) are interested in the
characters not because they live in a world free of
ethics and morality, but precisely because they do
live in a moral and ethical world. The same can be
said of those playing games. Within the context
of the game world, the character’s actions may be
powerfully ethically relevant. Though killing an
orc in Neverwinter Nights may not have ethical
relevance to the player out of game, within the
game, the player might be hailed as a hero for
saving a town from a marauding orc, or perhaps
as a villain for murdering the wise orc that had
been convincing the orc tribes to maintain peaceful
relations with their neighbors. The character has
moral culpability, but the player arguably has no
more than the writers of The Sopranos have for
their main character’s sociopathic actions. Even
if culpability is not shared, there is a connection
between the character and player, and it is through
this connection that the player gets to experience
heroism or villainy. Moreover, it would be wrong
to limit the moral experience to just good and evil.
The player who is experiencing the game world
through and with their character gets to share the
71Playing with Ethics
Figure 1. Types of ethics: The ethical array
character’s emotional life, including their confu-
sion, angst, turmoil and elation. Through game
play, we can choose to take on the character’s
experiences as our own. The ability to share the
experiences of a fictional character provides role
playing with one of its greatest affordances for
learning. The experience opens the door to an
empathic understanding of others.
the theory and design of
Moral Game Spaces
If we accept that single player games are spaces
where moral decisions are performed in a relatively
safe environment, there are still open questions
about how these environments can be designed.
The remainder of this chapter takes a moment to
look at the whole arena of ethics. From a theo-
retical standpoint, this chapter argues that games
offer an ethical experience that is practical and
descriptive. It offers an opportunity to not just
witness, but also live through and perform the
ethical life of another. The chapter then discusses
empirical data suggesting that four elements of
game play enhance ethical engagement, creating
a more convincing and compelling environment
for decision making. The combination suggests
design goals for single-player sandbox RPGs that
offer opportunities for learning about ethics.
Talking about ethics and morality suffers from
an almost unavoidable set of ambiguities. This
discussion of ethics is intended to be as broad as
reasonably possible, and is based on philosophi-
cal ethical theory more than any particular value
system. When talking about ethical traditions, we
might talk about two axes (see Figure 1). The first
is between principles and practice, descriptive and
normative ethics. The second is between critique
and dogma, dogmatic and critical ethics. The fol-
lowing sections provide some explication of both
of these axes, followed by some explanation of
how they relate to ethics in games.
Principles and Practice
While we may think the central question of ethics
to be what ought we to do?, it is equally relevant to
ethical inquiry to ask what do we do? This marks
the difference between ethics of principle and
ethics of practice, respectively normative and de-
scriptive ethics (see Figure 1). Briefly, normative
ethics describes what one does, and uses principle
to defend and justify claims. Descriptive ethics
describes how members of a culture tend to act,
and uses tradition to defend and justify claims.
Descriptive ethics is not necessarily more or less
conservative than normative ethics. For example,
sixties counter-culture sought to throw off tradi-
tional norms, and developed new traditions in the
process. As culture develops, so too does tradition.Playing with Ethics
Descriptive ethics is practical. Making a claim to
description as a justification for an action is mak-
ing an appeal to the authority of practice. On the
other hand, making a normative claim is making
a meta-practical claim. Like all meta-claims, they
still lie within a practice, but the claim to author-
ity relates to the foundation or premises of the
practice. The claim is generally to a set of claims
that are thought to be logically prior to the prac-
tice. Here there is a difference between logically
prior (a priori) and historically prior. Arguments
that rely on logic prior to practice propose or as-
sume that there are reasons for the existence and
maintenance of particular practices. They do not
necessarily propose that these reasons predated
the practice, or are historically prior. One may
argue that the reason these practices survived is
because they were stronger, better, more divine,
more true, etc. and that this is precisely because
they were grounded by principles already present
in the best practices, forming a consistent system
that may have never been stated until the culture
was already well formed. Most communities form
in precisely this way. Intentional communities,
which form with the intent to institutionalize an
a priori ethical system, are relatively rare; most
cultures engage in a muddier process of normal-
izing already-existing practice or rationalizing the
current practice into a set of norms.
In this muddy world, description of practice can
be used as justification for future norms. After all,
previous success of a practice can be a reasonable
argument that it is generally beneficial. Likewise,
norms can be used to justify changes in practice.
When creating theoretical approach to ethics, it is
important to notice that the two are intertwined,
but nonetheless, what works as justification for
one, history, does not serve any use for the other,
principle, and vice versa. In the two, what counts
as justifiable warrant for action differs.
Game designers have tools for conveying both
principle and practice to the player. Principle is
available in game mechanics that rate some ac-
tions as moral and others immoral. In Planescape:
Torment (Black Isle), the game modified the
character’s alignment along two spectra, from
good to evil and from law to chaos, based on
the character’s actions. In Fallout 3 (2008), the
game used a counter, called Karma, to measure
how heroic or dastardly the character’s actions
had been. Both of these measures effected how
some of the characters in the game treated you and
also determined access to some special abilities.
The game also portrayed other characters in the
world. The actions of the other characters spoke
to the traditions and practices of the cultures in
the game world. In both games, the player plays
an outsider to the game’s culture(s) and is able to
decide whether to accept or resist the surrounding
practices. Cognitive empathic association with
a culture, coming to understand the values and
motives of a culture, is possible in a game when
the player chooses to have their character take on
a culture, and plays their character in accordance
with that culture’s values and practices. This is
an affordance of games not possible to the same
extent with other media. When the player plays a
character from another culture, they have the op-
portunity to see the world through their characters
eyes, and also to pull back and see their character
from their own perspective, possibly ultimately
agreeing or disagreeing with the wisdom or moral-
ity of the choices they made in character. Though
afforded by games, it is harder to design descrip-
tive ethics into a game world than it is to impose
normative ethics. Much of the onus for creating
the ethical experience is on the player, though
according to this author’s research (Simkins &
Steinkuehler, 2008), discussed later, some design
decisions are more likely to entice or encourage
players to accept a role as a active participant of
an in-game culture.
Critique and dogma
The second axis is the dogmatic/critical axis (see
Figure 1). This is a marker of how much the foun-
dation of the ethical theory, whether descriptive
73Playing with Ethics
or normative, is in question. At the extreme of
dogmatic ethics, the principles or traditions are
unquestioned. At the opposite, critical, extreme,
all principles and traditions are guidelines, open
for debate and adjustment even in the moment
they are applied. At different times and in differ-
ent contexts we may find ourselves in different
places along this axis.
Critical ethical societies require some form
of deliberation to determine what is ethical, but
debate also exists in societies that rely more on
dogmatic ethics.The grounds for debate in a
dogmatic ethical environment are often about the
meaning of the ethic’s first principles or most basic
traditions, not the correctness of those principles
or traditions. Debate in critical ethics is often
about whether a particular tradition or principle
is applicable, and if so how it is applicable, in the
current context. As an example of the difference
between the two, there is an ongoing debate in
Christian theological circles around the meaning
of the commandment against taking life (Bailey,
2005). Many of us grew up with the following
translation, “Thou shall not kill” (Exodus 20,
KJV) or “You shall not kill” (NAB). Nonetheless,
other translations translate the verse as, “You
shall not murder” (NIV, NRSV). The difference
between the two can have serious ramifications
on what is considered acceptable ethical practice.
As long as the argument is about the legitimacy
of the translation of the text while both accept
the ultimate authority of the untranslated text
as the sole authority for doctrine, the argument
stays within the bounds of acceptable dogmatic
argument. A critical critique of the command-
ment might argue that the commandments are not
necessarily still relevant to our lives (descriptive).
It might alternately argue that while the current
validity of the commandment is not in question,
there are alternate and sometimes contradictory
commandments that together serve as guides, and
our role is to use our facilities to interpret those
commandments within our current context to
decipher what is right (normative). Both of these
would be critical moves, allowing for revaluation,
not just reinterpretation, of the text.
There is a common criticism of critical ap-
proaches pointing to an exaggerated view that
there is not just no eternal truth, but that there is
no foundation for truth claims (Latour, 2005). To
make that claim is to miss that there are historical
and material constraints to our existence, ele-
ments Sartre would call facticity (1956). These
constraints not only limit us, but provide grounds
for creating better and worse arguments for critical
positions, and for judging those arguments against
each other. To throw out any form of justification
is to accept a world in which might makes right.
In this world, the most effective argument is made
by the one with the power to force his opinion
on others. In this struggle we stand beside Plato,
abandoned by Thrasymachus but still trying to
convince him in absentia that justice is not just
the will of the stronger (Plato, 1992). Fortunately,
critical ethics does retain some tools for argument
against power. In a critical ethical discussion, the
basis for ethics is always itself up for debate, but
this does not necessarily leave everything up for
grabs ethically. In critical ethics, as in dogmatic
ethics, some forms of justification are acceptable
within the discourse, just as some are not. For
the critical ethics of Nietzsche, life affirmation,
an aesthetic principle, guides ethical decisions
(1966, 1974). What is life affirming is always
open for debate in Nietzsche, and he does not
allow that anyone could ever close the question.
For Nietzsche, the aesthetic guide to ethics is
always up for debate within the discourse, but
it still serves as a marker one can use to guide
one’s practice and even criticize the practice of
others. Marx also provides a critical approach
to ethics, in which material conditions and the
contradictions that exist within economic systems
serve as the guide (1887). As these contradictions
are worked out historically, the system moves
toward one in which ethics are possible because
alienation is removed–the classless society. The
presentation of ethics in Nietzsche and Marx isPlaying with Ethics
not explicit; it must be drawn out of their work,
and that should not be surprising. As undogmatic
ethical theories, it is more difficult to present an
ethical theory simply. Instead of trying to hit a
moving target, ethics at the moment, they both
take a historical view, neo-Hegellian for Marx
and anti-Hegellian for Nietzsche, which focuses
on ethics as in process, not static (Marx, 2005;
Nietzsche, 2000).
Insofar as games are played in first person,
they afford a critical perspective that is difficult to
achieve in other media. While it is quite possible
to analyze the ethics of a person in literature or
in a movie, the perspective is that of an outsider.
A person playing a game is an insider. When a
game is designed with principles, dogmatic eth-
ics, the player must react to and play within the
constraints set by the game’s design. Similarly,
but less intrusively, when the player’s character
encounters other characters, their actions will
demonstrate their traditions, their descriptive
ethics. It is easier as a game designer to create
situations where the player must react than it is
to create situations where the player can act in-
character. When a player is given the opportunity
to make ethical choices by choosing what to do,
the designer opens the potential for creating a
critical space for the players actions in character.
Furthermore, when the choices a character makes
are reflected back on the character, and the player,
the player has the opportunity to critically exam
their own ethics in light of their character’s situa-
tion. Again, this is a more complex design, but it is
particularly afforded by games because in games,
particularly in these sandbox or open RPGs, the
player is active in decision making.
Games and Ethics
Within games, the characters may have practices
and principles defined by their environment, or
brought in by the player. They may approach
their choices within the game from a dogmatic or
critical perspective. Characters within games exist
across the entire ethical theoretical frame. Still,
more than other media, game designers have at
their disposal tools more suitable to the descriptive
and critical quadrant of our graph (see Figure 1).
Not only do they have tools for engaging play-
ers in ethical decisions, they also have tools for
engaging players in learning about ethics. Games
focus on play (Frasca, 2003). Though they are
spaces where consequences are mitigated (Gee,
2003), and where outside concerns can be lessened
(Huizinga, 1955), even if they are not removed,
play spaces can be highly consequential (Malaby,
2007). When someone cares about a game, it be-
comes part of their life world. Play spaces form
a kind of third place (Steinkuehler, 2005), a play
space that is neither work (or school) nor home.
It is a space in which community affiliation can
grow, even across differences of opinion, politi-
cal opinion, and other interests. In a play space,
people are unified by their interest in the game.
Learning can occur here, in part because play is a
powerful tool for learning (Vygotsky, 1978), and
because the most effective learning is aligned with
the life of the learner (Dewey, 1905).
The focus of the playfulness of games is less
on the lack of significance of the spaces, and more
on the active and engaged participation a player
has in co-creating the experience of the game by
playing it—the role of the player as co-author of
their narrative. The game becomes an affinity space
(Gee, 2004), existing both within and around the
game, where players can participate in the game
as a discourse (Steinkuehler, 2006). The goal of
this play may not be something exterior. It may
not be seen as preparation for life or school or
work somehow, but that does not mean it is not
a goal-oriented activity that leads participants to
improve their skills, allowing them to participate
at a higher or more interesting level of play. None
of this should surprise us. The use of the word
“play” in “playing with a theory,” “the interplay of
ideas,” and “putting a new idea into play” suggests
that play allows us to experiment with new ideas,
coming to increased understanding and bridging
75Playing with Ethics
the gap between what we have experienced and
what we seek to understand (Gadamer, 1989).
These are performative, practice-oriented
spaces. They are active spaces where ideas are
played with. Performance is the central activity
of the game, and this performance provides the
opportunity to experience a new way of being in
the world. As experimental spaces they are also
inherently critical, in that questioning foundational
concepts is always a possibility within the play
space. Games are sometimes focused on particular
principles, and some are infused with pervasive
perspectives derived from a particular dogma; this
is possible because almost all RPGs are intentional
worlds. The interplay and practice orientation of
games do not necessarily support these normative
or dogmatic approaches. In fact, the transgressive
elements of games (Gee, 2003) suit a process of
questioning through playful practices within the
game. In other words, designers should not expect
to easily convince their players to play out their
dogma or norms, though if they recruit the player
into the game as a critical practice of taking on
a new identity, they may succeed in encouraging
the players to play their characters within the
game world’s dogma or norms. This brings us to
the central point of the chapter, developing ideas
on how to invite players to engage with the game
and with the critical and practice-oriented space
the game world provides.
This author’s previous empirical work focused on
the elements of games that produced particularly
interesting and engaging ethical decisions within
single player RPGs (Simkins & Steinkuehler,
2008). The data was collated from thirteen semi-
structured (Spradley, 1979), individual interviews
conducted in 2007 as a part of a larger ethnography
of a role playing community. The participants are
between 25 and 35 and each has been playing
computer or face to face RPGs for more than ten
years. The interviews were transcribed and the-
matically coded for the values expressed by the
participant (Miles & Huberman, 1994). The values
were categorized by general type into four aspects
of game design. The four included consequence
(or effecting change), mirroring, social context
and freedom. Consequence is the ability for the
player, through the character, to affect the game
world through actions taken in game. Mirroring
is the reflection of the game world and the game’s
characters to the actions taken by the player. Social
context is the in-game social environment, which
provides the social context for the character’s ac-
tions. Freedom is the ability of the player to have
their character take actions the player would like
the character to take within the context of the
game’s social environment.
While a more systematic analysis of the coded
data appears in the original work the description of
the four elements of game design may be clearer
if seen in the context of the interviews. In each
interview, the participant was asked to describe a
scene from a game that included an ethical decision
that they found interesting and engaging. They
were asked to describe the situation in the game
and what they chose to have their character do
in the situation, and were then asked three ques-
tions about the scene. First, they were asked to
describe how they felt during the scene. Second,
they were asked if they felt they were able to do
take the actions they wanted to take. Third, they
were asked if they would have chosen to take
a different action if they encountered a similar
situation later in the game Despite their choice
of these scenes from games they found particu-
larly interesting and engaging, the participant’s
responses reveal both strengths and weaknesses in
the design of their chosen game. The next section
takes a closer look at some of the responses, and
at the games they chose, as examples of the four
principles, and of ethical systems and decisions
in action in games.Playing with Ethics
Final Fantasy VI
Robert recalls feeling “happy, a little annoyed
and frustrated” with a choice presented in Final
Fantasy VI (Square, 1994). At a bridge, followed
by hordes of enemies, one of the main characters,
Shadow, offers to sacrifice himself so the rest can
escape. Originally, Robert did not see this as a
choice, just a part of the storyline. He thought that
Shadow would leave for a while, only to return
later. As the game progressed and Shadow did not
return, it became clearer that he was gone. This was
brought home later in the game when Shadow’s
daughter, Relm, enters the party. She pines for her
father, even as the world ends. Robert was shocked
that the earlier decision had later ramifications in
the game, and experienced the loss of Shadow as
a powerful part of the narrative. Only later, well
after completing the game, did Robert discover that
the choice to stand with Shadow on the bridge or
let him sacrifice himself was a legitimate one. He
had assumed the game would force his hand, as
this series tends to do. The realization that he had
been free to choose sparked a complexity of emo-
tions. RPGs usually “Railroad you along a given
track,” which doesn’t give much freedom to the
character to determine how the plot or character
development will progress. Robert was happy to
have been given a real choice. Unfortunately, he
felt the choice was not about what would make
the better story, but about what would most benefit
the player wanting to complete the game and keep
his characters alive.
Realizing that videogame makers are starting to
incorporate decisions was a very pleasing thing
to find out because there has always been a lin-
ear track that you follow.... Having played a lot
of games since then, they grotesquely underuse
that. There are still precious few games that re-
ally give you the option to make a decision like
that, and I would very much enjoy playing more
[games] where I am stuck between two very hard
choices and I need to choose what is going to be
best for these people and it is not necessarily cut
and dried. There is always a problem that you
run into with videogames though when you have
stuff like that. Part of playing a video game is the
[question] how am I as a real person playing a
game with a controller going to accomplish the
goal of the game, which is to beat it. There may
be a right decision, the decision that allows my
most powerful characters to survive, that sort of
thing. I don’t know if you can ever reconcile that
with completely flexible systems allowing you to
make serious moral choices, but I would like to
see them try rather than railroading you along
a beaten track.
In both its successes and its limitations, Shadow
on the bridge shows all four of the elements that
build engagement in RPGs, though not in equal
degrees. Heroic memes played a large part in Rob-
ert’s love for this scene in the game. He explains,
“I am a sucker for noble sacrifice.” Like Gandalf
or Obi-Wan Kenobi, Shadow stands alone against
the enemy to buy time for others to escape. Of
course, a heroic sacrifice is less powerful of we
do not come to care about the hero, or about the
people their sacrifice saves. Final Fantasy VI
reveals many of their character’s pasts by showing
their dreams. This helps the player to know the
background and motivation of their characters,
and also gives them more reason to care for them.
The dreams show that Shadow used to be a thief,
along with his partner Baram. His partner becomes
wounded. Shadow decides to leave him behind
while he escapes. The similarities in the choice
between Shadow leaving Baram and the player
leaving Shadow to defend the bridge completes a
cycle of development in Shadow’s character from
one who would leave a friend behind to one who
would sacrifice himself for friends. It also places
the player character in a situation very similar to
Shadow’s, where he knows he left a friend behind
to die while he escaped.
Death in the Final Fantasy games comes in
two forms. Any character can die in a combat,
77Playing with Ethics
but those deaths are not final. Either in combat
with magic or automatically after combat, the
dead character revives. While combat death is
temporary, a character’s death in the narrative
is permanent. This contradiction in the meaning
of death is nevertheless consistent, and carries a
different reaction among the characters in game,
none of whom seem overly concerned with combat
death, but all of whom react strongly to death in
the narrative. Narrated deaths in Final Fantasy
games tend to be rare events, and narrative deaths
are mirrored by other characters in the game.
Shadow’s daughter Relm is the primary mirror
for the significance of Shadow’s death.
ciples (Frasca, 2003). However, in RPGs it is to
some extent a false dichotomy. The play of the
game is about telling a good story as much as it is
about completing goals. Game play is a powerful
motivator for learning and for engagement (Squire,
2008), but so is storytelling (Bruner, 1986, 2002).
Robert offers a solution.
Shadow had a daughter, Realm, and at one point
you have her in your party, and she is pining
for her father, and the whole world has been
destroyed, so it is not so surprising that she is
separated from her father, but she is never going
to find him again because he is dead because of
the decision you made. I don’t know, because I
didn’t ever play through it again, but theoretically,
in fact certainly, they should be able to meet up
again, if he was still alive. They set [Shadow] up as a character you would
love, or hate, or at the very worst love to hate. It
was not quite heartbreaking to find out he was
gone, but it was certainly sad, especially when
interacting with his daughter. Finding out later it
actually hit a bit more. Finding out that it wasn’t
actually a risk cheapened it a little bit. That made
it, ok there was a right solution to this and I made
the wrong one. I made the decision that seemed
most in character. It was the most interesting to
me... [so it was frustrating] finding out that it
would have all been fine if I stayed. There would
have been no negative consequences if I stayed....
I would love to play more stuff where I am stuck
between two really hard choices and I have to
choose what is going to be best for these people
and it is not necessarily cut and dried.
The death of Shadow is reflected, mirrored,
in the need Relm has for reconciliation with
Shadow, the father who abandoned her as a
child. By showing that this loss is significant
to her life, she deepens the impact of Shadow’s
sacrifice. The choice has consequences not just
to the world (consequence), but also to the other
characters in the world (mirroring). In a game,
changes to the world can easily turn into right or
wrong choices rather than choices in storytelling
and character development. As a player holding
the controllers and playing a game, it is hard
for Robert, and many of the participants, to feel
comfortable with a decision that reduces power
and capability in the game.
This dichotomy between story and game is
traditional. It is highlighted in debates between
ludology and narratology as game design prin- The design choice on the bridge was unusual for
the Final Fantasy series of games. While they are
RPGs, they are close to the opposite extreme from
sandbox games. The plot of the game is largely
fixed and the player plays out the challenges the
group encounters along the way. In this moment,
the designers gave the player a legitimate choice, a
choice with consequences. This choice succeeded
in giving Robert a satisfying story. Later, when
he discovered that he had lost resources he could
have kept by helping Shadow defend the bridge,
he felt somewhat cheated. Rather than feeling he
had helped create an interesting story and honored
a friend’s heroic sacrifice, one set of ethical values,
he instead felt he had failed to satisfy another set
of ethical values, winning the game while protect-
ing resources. Ultimately, his wish is to encounter
more stories where the focus is taken off of the
78Playing with Ethics
out of game ethics and on hard choices that lead
to ethical sacrifices within the game
This scene shows a success in mirroring,
through Relm, but a failure, at least from Robert’s
point of view, in consequence. The consequences
detracted from the significance of the decision,
rather than adding to it. It was an unusual success
in freedom, but that was largely undermined by
the tendency in this series of games to remove
any meaningful decisions.
Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
As a tool for engaging in ethical decision making,
Final Fantasy was limited because the plot was
fixed. A single decision that profoundly affected
the game gave Robert a craving for games that
offer much greater freedom, and more balanced
consequence for that freedom. Elder scrolls IV:
Oblivion (2006), the fourth installment of the
Elder Scrolls series, is on the other extreme, and
is one of the most open-ended sandbox RPGs
available. In an interview with Gamespot (2004),
Todd Howard, executive producer of Oblivion
at Bethesda Softworks, described the designers’
approach to creating the game:
All of our Elder Scrolls games follow a similar
philosophy: “Live another life, in another world.”
With each game, we go back and look at how we
can make that come alive for the next generation
of hardware and gameplay. So the “big-world,
do-anything” style remains, and I think that’s an
essential element to what we do with the series.
The player needs a certain size and a large num-
ber of choices to really make role-playing feel
In Oblivion, the designers included a fame and
notoriety system that recorded what the world
tended to think of you. Similar to other games,
such as Fable (Lionhead Studios, 2004), the game
assumed that most of the characters in the game
can judge the player’s character’s virtue on first
meeting her Some may like a character despite,
or because of, a ruthless past, but the character’s
history affects all future interactions. Though
simplistic, this allows the game to create factions
that will be allies or enemies for your character
depending on your actions in the game. Over the
course of many games, the Elder Scrolls games
have created a world with a wide diversity of
cultures, each with its own religions, norms and
political systems. In the empire that provides the
setting for Oblivion, blood sports are acceptable
entertainment. One can, voluntarily, enter the
ranks of the gladiators and fight through increas-
ingly challenging foes. The final enemy is the
arena’s current champion, an enormous warrior
who remains undefeated after many battles. Tom
encountered the champion in the training area be-
tween matches. The champion is called the Gray
Prince, and though he never knew his father, his
mother told him his father had been royalty. He
asked Tom’s character to find the truth of his father.
Unfortunately for the Gray Prince, his father was
a malicious liar. He was not nobility, and worse,
his diary details a long history of corruption, de-
ceit and treachery, including the seduction of the
Gray Prince’s mother. When Tom returned to the
Gray Prince with the sad news, he was surprised
at the result. The Gray Prince accepted the news,
but asked the character to challenge him for the
position of grand champion of the arena. Just as
the fight began, the Gray Prince ran to Tom’s
character, sheathed his weapon and asked to be
slain. Killing the Gray Prince won the character
the title Grand Champion, but it also marked the
character as a murderer.
In response to this murder, or in fact any murder
in the game, assassins approach the character and
offer entrance into their order. To enter the order,
the character must kill a person in cold blood,
someone who has done nothing to deserve it. The
game does not require the character to accept the
invitation, just as it does not require the character
to fight in the arena. In fact, the game consists of
hundreds of quests, and it is quite possible for a
79Playing with Ethics
player to play through and never even know that
fighting in the arena or joining the assassins’ guild
was a possibility. If one chooses to take this path,
some options are opened to the character and others
are closed. The world responds to player actions
both in reactions other characters’ reactions to
the player character and in the options available
to the player in the future.
Oblivion excels at offering players opportu-
nities to take consequential actions. The social
context of the game world created constraints on
acceptable action, but also allowed an otherwise
heroic character to engage in gladiatorial fights,
uncover the wickedness of some of the characters
in game and decide what to do in response to the
revelation. The Gray Prince responded emotion-
ally to the revelation of his past, and created new
opportunities, through the approach of the assas-
sin’s guild, for Tomto determine his character’s
path. Unusually for a sandbox game, the greatest
frustration for Tom in this series of events was a
limitation of freedom. Once the Gray Prince de-
cided to die in the arena at the player character’s
hand, the game design did not allow the player to
refuse. A failure to attack the Gray Prince would
leave the player unable to leave the arena and
continue the game. A better design would have
found a way to have the Gray Prince truly force the
player’s hand or would have accepted the player’s
refusal and had the other characters in the world
respond appropriately. Freedom in a game, as in
life, is a freedom to make the choices you want,
not to control the consequences. Though it may
not have been popular, it might have been better
to have the arena authorities ban both the Gray
Prince and the player character from the arena for
life for refusing to honor their contract to fight.
options and Ethics
Ethical decisions are not possible in a vacuum.
They exist within the context of the game world,
but we also bring our own interests and preferences
to them. Several of the participants in this study
mentioned that they preferred to play good, heroic
characters in games or expressed discomfort with
taking egregiously wicked actions in character.
Others expressed an interest in playing an anti-hero
or a villain, taking actions they would never take
outside of a game. The participants in this study
had a tendency to equate ethics with how righteous
one is according to a normative definition. Even
the game designers tend to use this shorthand
when defining ethical relationships within games.
Whether called Karma, alignment, or another
word, even games that include multiple morality
systems within the game world, like Oblivion, tend
to use a simple system to rate a character’s righ-
teousness. This can be useful. It can help players
have some idea that what they are doing is indeed
having an effect. It can also serve asshorthand for
a more complicated behind-the-scenes system of
reactions. This kind of out-of-game mirroring is
useful, but it can become a liability as well. In an
essentially Manichaean moral system, like that of
the Star Wars universe in Knights of the Old Re-
public, a simple moral spectrum may make sense,
but in a world like that portrayed in Fallout, it can
disrupt and oversimplify an otherwise complex
social context. In Fallout, the characters live in a
Hobbesian anarchic universe where life is solitary,
poor, nasty, brutish and short.. Previous games in
the series emphasized that life in the wasteland
forced most into a pragmatic attitude where ethi-
cal sensibility is a luxury few can afford. Still,
players accrue positive karma by helping others
and negative by hurting the innocent, leading to
a binary moral system somewhat at odds with the
prevailing social context. In Fallout 3, the critical
path of the game requires regular interaction with
other heroic individuals, and “Three Dog,” a radio
personality one can listen to through most of the
game, encourages the player and others in the
wasteland to “fight the good fight.” Players are
given a great deal of freedom to play the character
as they choose, but in practice it is difficult to
play through the game without becoming either
extremely good or extremely evil, as measuredPlaying with Ethics
by the game mechanics. Instead of a world of
compromise and gray, it becomes a dark world
where a few good people fight heroically against
an evil majority, who largely lack either names
or personalities.
While it might serve the purpose of creating
a more vibrant and interesting social context for
ethical decisions, proposing that games move
toward a greater moral complexity may be out-
side the interest of game companies. From this
interview data, it seems that many participants
are more comfortable with crisper lines in games.
Eileen, another participant discussing Oblivion,
[I play] different characters with different opinions
of the world, different goals and points of view.
[For one character] I specifically chose a race
that was good at stealing and sneaking and was
actually treated differently in game, which I found
kind of cool.... Really what I was playing was a
bunch of stereotypes, and I truly was playing
the stereotypes... Some of [the reason for] that,
I suppose, is that it is a game, in real life things
aren’t so clear cut right or wrong, much harder
to have the corner on truth, so to speak, and to
know that you’re in the right.
Still, this may be an argument for a wider di-
versity of feedback for specific actions in games.
Fallout 3’s use of Three Dog and his radio sta-
tion provides fantastic mirroring of the player’s
actions. As the player progresses through the
game, completing main and side quests, Three
Dog comments on the character’s progress. The
result is an intermittent running commentary on
the effect of the character’s actions on the people
of the wasteland, coming from a single perspec-
tive. Interestingly, if you choose a different radio
station, you may hear an alternate commentary
on your progress, either from Agatha, a violin-
ist thanking you for returning her Stradivarius
violin to her, or from the Enclave, who claim to
be the preservers of the United States govern-
ment through two hundred years of post-nuclear
turmoil. The extent of the viewpoints offered is
limited, but this offers a possibility beyond sim-
plistic moral spectra. They could have opted to
have each community in the game express its own
opinion about the character’s actions, limited by
their knowledge. This is certainly more complex
to design and implement, but it provides the pos-
sibility of a much more interesting and nuanced
ethical world without sacrificing the player’s
ability to choose a stereotype, or an archetype,
they wish to inhabit in the game.
RPGs offer a game experience different from
many other games. Taking part in another culture
as an insider offers opportunities to learn about the
culture, about the dynamics of cultural interaction,
and about one’s own culture by comparison. All
of this interaction depends on creating an ethical
space that is interesting and engaging. In games
where the play is interesting, but the ethics are
boring or problematic, a player may reasonable
choose to play another game or simply ignore the
uninteresting parts. The interviews here suggest
that players can enjoy the process of experimenting
with ethical decisions when they interact in with
an environment that feel alive, fair, and focused on
story not success. To this point all of the examples
have focused on single-player games. Technology
is allowing computer games to increasingly go
online, and therefore multiplayer. Social RPGs,
whether face to face or online, are increasingly in
a position where they must deal with the complex-
ity that comes with social interactions, especially
when those interactions include ethical conflict.
Design affects a player’s desire and ability to be
drawn into the game world. Though I am par-
ticularly interested in how this helps the space
become interesting for ethical play, engaging
play is a goal in its own right. The experiences
shown here suggest that increasing consequence,
81Playing with Ethics
mirroring, social context and freedom helps to
draw players into the game. Design is an art, not
a science, and good games are not created simply
by including the four elements described here.
The best games, according to the participants,
often fail to provide a satisfying experience in
one of the categories. The whole experience
is often compromised when part of the design
contradicts others. Even in a successful sandbox
game, like Fallout 3, the choice to include a robust
descriptive mirroring system, feedback from other
characters including the radio programs, with a
relatively clumsy normative mirroring system,
Karma, ultimately makes a potentially frustrating
combination. Specific decisions about how much
of each element to include in a particular game
remains a design choice. It seems more important
to design the four elements of the game to be
coherent. Future research could add a great deal
more detail to how these elements interact, and
would include the enormous complexities that
come with multiplayer games.
Social games add complications to the dynamics
in almost every aspect of game play. Rather than
a game world created by designers with coded
constraints, social games have aspects that no code
can simulate. These interactions help to create the
game world outside of the control of designers.
In other words, as much as single-player games
are co-designed, multiplayer games require ne-
gotiating the game world among all participants,
designers and players, and the impact of players
on each other holds at least as much importance as
does the design of the game space and the player’s
individual choice. Designers must struggle with
creating and nurturing a sense of community. Cre-
ating a coherent social context and communicating
that context increases in importance just as the
designer’s power to control the context wanes. In
social games it is even more important to recruit
players into the game’s social context, to encour-
age them to play within it instead of rebelling
against it while still allowing players sufficient
flexibility to express their own vision. It is, after
all, the community of players’ play space.
These additional challenges to organizing and
designing multiplayer RPGs appears to coincide
with an enormous increase in the possibility of
engaging participants in legitimate social experi-
ences, including legitimate ethical experiences,
within the games. The level of nuance and in-
dividual presentation of character far surpasses
what any single-player game has yet wrought, or
Notable single-player sandbox RPGs
Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura Troika Games
Baldur’s Gate series by Bioware
Elder Scrolls series by Bethesda Softworks
Fallout 1&2 Interplay
Fallout 3 Bethesda Softworks
Jade Empires Bioware
Knights of the Old Republic series by Bioware
Mass Effect Bioware
Planescape: Torment Black Isle Studios
Ultima IV Origins Systems
Vampire: Bloodlines Troika Games
82Playing with Ethics
is likely to achieve. It also opens the door for an
overlap between in-game and out-of-game ethics.
While any in-game action within a single-player
game has no effect on others, all in-game actions
in a social game affect the other players and their
characters; that is part of the point of playing
together. This means that the rule for acceptable
portrayal of antisocial behavior in game needs
to be governed by out-of-game consent of all
players affected. There may be a “magic circle”
around games (Huizinga, 1955) creating a sacred
space where playfulness can occur, but if so it is
not something that happens automatically or that
persists without maintenance. A boundary between
in-game and out-of-game space needs to be nur-
tured, protected and enforced. Future research
will hopefully help us maintain the balance of
care and challenge that could make social RPG
experiences excellent environments for learning
about and playing with ethics.
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