Moral Decision Making in Fallout3

Here’s an article by Marcus Schulzke that I found interesting but didn’t have room for in my presentation:

More than anything else, the Fallout series is unique in giving players an open world in which they can make genuine moral choices. Moral dilemmas are not presented for passive contemplation – they are an integral part of gameplay. As Sicart points out in his study of virtue ethics in games (Sicart 2009), virtue ethics is player-centric.

I like it because it highlights how one could use a more entertainment-oriented game as a teaching tool and because it helped me articulate what I think goes into role playing games that are fun to play, as opposed to ones that fall flat.

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7 comments on “Moral Decision Making in Fallout3

  1. “Moral Choice in the Virtual World…”

    I found this article interesting, I have not been interested in computer games since the early 80s or late 1970s, when they began in their infancy. Just like skateboards that were popular when I was a child, it was something you did as a youth…but then you put away your childish things and became a man. I sometimes see young men riding skateboards in their early 20s to early 30s and I think to myself, I guess you haven’t grown up yet. But then again we are all children at heart. And for some people that includes computer games.

    I for one am not interested in computer games…but we all have our interests and play things and if it makes you happy and others alot of money…then all power to you. Who am I to place my thoughts on what you like on you…

    What I did like about this article was the take on morality and computer games. As a volunteer in the criminal justice system, I get to talk to many men who find themselves behind bars because of lack of judgement, poor moral choices, plain stupidity or being under the influence of liquor or drugs when the committed their infraction, crime, etc. Many times it is because of the slip of a moral code. There is what many people have called the “Golden Rule,” Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

    I guess that would or might be called a making a moral decision. The writer discusses video games writing, “Unlike many video games, which have only minimalist plots and rely on graphics and action to promote the game (Piot, 2003), the Fallout series has an engaging story. It takes place in a world torn apart by nuclear war…”

    The part thata caught my attention was, “One of the qualities that sets the Fallout series apart from other games is that the quests are not only open but that they also attach moral weight to the player’s choices.”

    The writer goes on to say, “Moral choice is a part of many video games…” He suggests the following, “Players must choose whether to kill little girls called Little Sisters in order to harvest them for ADAM, a mutagen that gives the player more strength. Saving the Little Sister also results in some gain, but not as much…”(Tavinor, 2009).

    He then brings on another point that leads back to morality, “In most games the moral choices the player confronts are distant from everyday life…” Then what is pointed out is “More than anything else, the Fallout series is unique in giving players an open world in which they can make genuine moral choices.”

    Making Moral choices, Calculating Morality…

    “Moral choice engines depend on weighting moral and immoral actions. The fact that games can quantify moral choices is itself an accomplishment as earlier attempts to do this in the real world were plagued by problems of incommensurability.”

    Then we are told later that “Bentham considers the source of the pleasure irrelevant and thinks that only the amount matters. The problem that he runs into is using this as a criterion for judgment…”

    He then moves on to another point, “Different people value different goods; everyone has their own incommensurable objects of happiness. It seems very difficult to weigh one person’s happiness against someone else’s and because there is no objective measure of the amount of happiness a person receives to serve as a basis for comparison.”

    He writes that “Our moral choices must be made quickly..” I believe that when you live in the fantasy world of computer games you start to think in a certain way because you are only play a game. So, in other words you get desentiszied and killing or murder is wrong but oh what the heck, it is only a game. “Morgan Luck writes that ‘Most people agree that murder is wrong. Yet, within computer games virtual murder scarcely raises an eyebrow,’ (Luck, 2008).”

    In the world of fantasy or computer games, what is practiced behind close doors might lead to opening a door of more than moral choice and moral decision but of a world of iron bars and a closed door. Becareful that your moral compass does not get skewed. A game is not “always just a game” but sometimes it may lead to risky behavior. Great article.

    • Joe–I’m glad you liked the article. One thing I’m a little concerned about though, is that you don’t discuss any of the moral weighting that actions receive in Fallout. For example,

      Nearly everything the player does in Fallout 3 affects Karma in some way, either increasing or decreasing the number of points depending on the morality of the action. Stealing incurs minor penalties, killing results in more significant drops in karma, and destroying an entire town – something the game allows the player to do – exacts a heavy karmic price.

      While it is accurate to say this a fantasy world, I think it’s important to note the main point of the article: in this fantasy world, actions have moral consequences. I’d be curious to hear what you think about the opportunity the game presents to practice morality, particularly as it relates to the point youth behind bars. Do you think the opportunity to see actions and consequences being modeled is constructive?

  2. “Moral Choice in the Virtual World…”

    I found this article interesting, I have not been interested in computer games since the early 80s or late 1970s, when they began in their infancy. Just like skateboards that were popular when I was a child, it was something you did as a youth…but then you put away your childish things and became a man. I sometimes see young men riding skateboards in their early 20s to early 30s and I think to myself, I guess you haven’t grown up yet. But then again we are all children at heart. And for some people that includes computer games.

    I for one am not interested in computer games…but we all have our interests and play things and if it makes you happy and others alot of money…then all power to you. Who am I to place my thoughts on what you like on you…

    What I did like about this article was the take on morality and computer games. As a volunteer in the criminal justice system, I get to talk to many men who find themselves behind bars because of lack of judgement, poor moral choices, plain stupidity or being under the influence of liquor or drugs when the committed their infraction, crime, etc. Many times it is because of the slip of a moral code. There is what many people have called the “Golden Rule,” Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

    I guess that would or might be called a making a moral decision. The writer discusses video games writing, “Unlike many video games, which have only minimalist plots and rely on graphics and action to promote the game (Piot, 2003), the Fallout series has an engaging story. It takes place in a world torn apart by nuclear war…”

    The part that caught my attention was, “One of the qualities that sets the Fallout series apart from other games is that the quests are not only open but that they also attach moral weight to the player’s choices.”

    The writer goes on to say, “Moral choice is a part of many video games…” He suggests the following, “Players must choose whether to kill little girls called Little Sisters in order to harvest them for ADAM, a mutagen that gives the player more strength. Saving the Little Sister also results in some gain, but not as much…”(Tavinor, 2009).

    He then brings on another point that leads back to morality, “In most games the moral choices the player confronts are distant from everyday life…” Then what is pointed out is “More than anything else, the Fallout series is unique in giving players an open world in which they can make genuine moral choices.”

    Making Moral choices, Calculating Morality…

    “Moral choice engines depend on weighting moral and immoral actions. The fact that games can quantify moral choices is itself an accomplishment as earlier attempts to do this in the real world were plagued by problems of incommensurability.”

    Then we are told later that “Bentham considers the source of the pleasure irrelevant and thinks that only the amount matters. The problem that he runs into is using this as a criterion for judgment…”

    He then moves on to another point, “Different people value different goods; everyone has their own incommensurable objects of happiness. It seems very difficult to weigh one person’s happiness against someone else’s and because there is no objective measure of the amount of happiness a person receives to serve as a basis for comparison.”

    He writes that “Our moral choices must be made quickly..” I believe that when you live in the fantasy world of computer games you start to think in a certain way because you are only play a game. So, in other words you get desentiszied and killing or murder is wrong but oh what the heck, it is only a game. “Morgan Luck writes that ‘Most people agree that murder is wrong. Yet, within computer games virtual murder scarcely raises an eyebrow,’ (Luck, 2008).”

    In the world of fantasy or computer games, what is practiced behind close doors might lead to opening a door of more than moral choice and moral decision but of a world of iron bars and a closed door. Becareful that your moral compass does not get skewed. A game is not “always just a game” but sometimes it may lead to risky behavior. Great article.

  3. Hi Jason,

    Thanks for posting this; it’s really interesting. Since my girlfriend bought us a PS3 last year, I’ve become more and more interested in video games, especially those that involve moral decision making (I guess I’m not a grownup, huh Joe?).

    I’m especially interested in Bio Shock. We own it, but I’ve only watched (or listened to the annoying little girl say, “Oh no! Mr. Bubbles!” as I do homework in the other room) as Shellie plays. I find the reward system for killing or not killing the little girl fascinating, especially that if you do kill her to harvest ADAM, you’re rewarded immediately, but if you save her, the reward isn’t instant…you have to wait and save her a certain number of times. It seems like the mimics real life to a certain extent too. That is, our culture seems to be trained to want instant gratification, even if waiting means greater satisfaction. It’s like like little kids in the Stanford marshmallow experiment.

    As I was telling you on Thursday, I think it would be really interesting (really fun!) to teach a class on moral decision making based around the comic book series The Walking Dead. How cool would it be to have writing prompts on and debates over giving a small child a gun to kill a zombie? or whether or not you’d be able to kill a little girl zombie? or a friend or loved one who just wanted to eat your brains?

    • Hey Sarah,

      Glad you liked the article and thanks for reminding me about the Walking Dead here’s a link to the article (and site) we talked about on Thursday.

      I’ve seen Bioshock, very atmospheric and wonderfully creepy world that they constructed for it. The whole spoof of Ayn Rand and the community of “producers” going Galt at the bottom of the sea is just brilliant, and with the Tea Party movement seems ever more clever now. And I think you’re right the mechanism for gathering ADAM, does seem to be making a sly commentary on our propensity for instant gratification. I’ll have to look up the Stanford marshmallow experiment; I’m not familiar with it.

  4. The issue I have with this article isn’t anything in particular wrong with the logic, but that I’ve actually played Fallout, and the morality system is rather broken in a lot of ways. Your “morality” is measured on this simple linear scale, and no matter where you are on it, any particular activity is always the same + or – on that scale. For example, stealing something is minus a certain amount of karma. Even if you’ve been walking around murdering people, stealing a cup of coffee makes your karma worse. More importantly, even if you kill an evil person in self-defense, or even defense of an entire city…taking the dead villain’s possessions is still evil.

    By the same token, there are beggars around most city hubs, who is always in need of water. Always. And giving him water will always give you a bit of +karma. Always. So no matter how many innocents you’ve killed and how much stuff you’ve stolen, if you go buy enough water, you can just sit there for hours on end and give him water and buy yourself back up to an angel, karmically speaking.

    I’d love to have a game with real morality systems, but most of the ones I’ve seen are rather shallow binary “angel/devil” morality. As game critic Ben Croshaw has said, “You’re either mother theresa or the anti-christ.”

    • I think you raise some interesting questions, but I think they’re questions that could form a good jumping off point for discussions about morality, punishment v. rehabilitation, and a general investigation of how ethical systems work. For example you seem to be arguing that morality of certain actions should trump others. If I’m reading you correctly you object to the idea that a murderer would be penalized for stealing. However, the person you stole from would still feel wronged so I’d be curious to hear more about why this means the morality system in the game doesn’t work.

      I also think your points about gaming the system (the application of meta-gaming knowledge to manipulate the outcome) are interesting points that would dovetail well with a discussion of the game’s prodcedural rhetoric. While it seems wrong that giving alms to the poor should make up for murder, if we look at how many religious ethical systems have worked in the past (I’m thinking of the selling of Papal indulgencies), this is an accurate portrayal of how humans have tried to structure ethical systems. I agree it is flawed, but we would want some kind of mechanism for people to rehabilitate themselves, wouldn’t we? The alternative is something like the three strikes law where people can be put away for 20+ years for bouncing a check (on their third offense). What sort of things might a person in that position do to avoid such a heavy sentence? Again, I think these are all interesting sorts of questions you’re asking that open doors to interesting conversations. So that seems like a good thing to me.

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