Massively Overthinking: Morality and compelling choices in MMOs


The most recent episode of The Psychology of Video Games podcast touches on a subject we don’t tackle very much: moral choices. It’s an interesting listen (there’s even a quote from Richard Garriott in there about a specific moral choice in the Ultima games), but the discussion focuses mostly on story-driven roleplaying games like Mass Effect, which often present small and large choices to the player that have a small or large impact on the way the story plays out. The psychologists argue that Moral foundations theory – a social-psych framework for understanding human morality – doesn’t quite work in video games, as players are presented with very different parameters and motivations and rulesets than in real life. (This is why we can’t always assume someone who slaughters a village in a game – or the academic on this podcast who plays Hitman – thinks that’d be OK in real life!)

I thought for this week’s Overthinking we could talk about the topic as it pertains to MMOs specifically. First, have you ever been presented with what you’d consider a truly compelling moral choice in an MMO? What was it, and was it narrative- or player-driven? And second, do you allow your own sense of morality to determine what you’re willing to do in MMOs, and is that different from how you play non-online games?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): While several MMOs made me the judge and potentially act as executioner of story characters, it’s not quite the same. I’ve struggled with moral issues in MMOs, but it’s always with the actual players. How do we balance between being a guild and supporting people who use us as a mental health tool? Do I try to fix clan issues, or jump ship with my friends? How am I supposed to deal with minors telling me they’re drinking underage when the community is online-only?

MMOs do bring us moral issues to struggle with, but it’s quite different from narrative driven content, but not all of it is game related either. For me, though, that’s OK. I’m meeting more people who are gamers or geeks, but because they didn’t participate in physical or online communities, they can seem a bit off at times. They even admit to not knowing how to react, which was something Rachel Kowert brought up with me on Massively of old. Physical or online, real or simulated, dealing with moral choices in a social environment consisting of real people is part of the human experience, and MMOs can help ensure that people get those experiences.

Andy McAdams: A narrative-driven Compelling Moral Choice is not a thing I’ve ever associated with MMOs. Hugely hyperbolic choices like “do you save the puppies or punt them into the lake of lava” aren’t compelling. It’s caricature of a choice that isn’t interesting. For me, the interesting choices are the one’s that are steeped in gray — like the Trolley Problem. Choices where there’s positives and negatives that you are aware of at the time you are making decisions so that one isn’t blatantly preferable to the other are interesting to me. Choices that have unintended impacts further down the line can also be super interesting. Maybe saving the village was the moral choice at the time, but surprise, it was actually a village of cannibals and you just didn’t know. You saved the man wrongly accused of stealing from being maimed, only to find out later he went on a murdering spree to get revenge. Those kinds of moral choices become interesting after the fact but too many and you start looking for “gotchya” moment.

I don’t think that SWTOR is particularly successful in any sort of compelling moral choice even though its often touted as such. This is because the choices are fairly “I’m a greedy bastard” or a “I’m a saint of Jedi-virtue” with very little in between. GW2 was actually kind of infuriating in this regard because the devs made it seem like moral choice and agency were such a huge part of the game and it turns out to be … not that at all. In fact, maybe a little more salty than normal because what it promised and what it delivered were so far apart. WoW and FFXIV have never had anything that could be even be drunkenly categorized as a narrative driven moral choice.

The only “moral” choices in MMOs for me have come from interactions with the opposing faction. For example, with difficult quest mobs in WoW if I saw someone from the opposing faction waiting to kill it, I would wait till they tagged it and then help burn the mob down. It’s not compelling, but its still a moral choice in that I helped “the bad guy.”

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I was presented with player-imposed moral choices in my very first MMO, Ultima Online, where as a teenager I set out to roleplay a neutral healer. My self-determined goal was to befriend everyone, to heal everyone like some Red Cross battlefield nurse or something. It worked for a few months, and I think I navigated the politics of it rather successfully, but eventually, it became impossible from a moral perspective and an enjoyment perspective not to choose a side. I’d seen too much and didn’t want to help the obvious bad guys anymore just for the sake of a neutrality experiment. I didn’t feel good. And if I was going to spend so much time in a virtual world, I wanted it to feel good.

That’s kind of my gaming story all along, really: I kinda suck at being evil. I have tried, repeatedly, in order to see all the content – you need to play the assassin questlines in Elder Scrolls at least once, right? You paid for that content, so you’re gonna drag yourself through it! And who really cares about NPCs? But I default back to (at my worst) a rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold over and over, whether it’s single-player RPGs or MMO roleplaying. Playing against type just isn’t enjoyable for me when it comes to storytelling in my playtime, but especially in player-interaction. I need either very good reasons to do something (I won’t gank unprovoked in a sandbox), or I need all reasoning to be stripped away (all bets are off in minigame/battleground PvP modes).

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): Most of the moral choices I have to make are player-driven. When I led a static in FFXIV, I had to let go a person because of scheduling conflicts. Considering how my party was trying to progress through raid tiers, I needed everyone on board. I had to do the hard part and let her go, and she didn’t take it too well. It really sucked doing that; I liked her, but there was a conflict that we couldn’t get around.

In terms of gameplay, I can’t really say I made any moral decisions since there really isn’t any bearing on the story or my standing as a person. I found it fun killing NPCs in The Elder Scrolls Online because not only was it violent, but there were literally no consequences. They came back a few seconds later and I was only sentenced to death by the town guard. I’d come back a few seconds later too.

If you really want moral decisions in an MMO, the only place you can find them is in PvP and player interactions. I remember I offended someone in GW2 because I would only finish an event to 75% and then move to another event. Another player would finish the event I started, and we’d both get full credit. When a player found out I was doing this in Queensdale, I was apparently deemed the worst kind of player. Mind you, I have no idea how that is immoral and wrong, but it was still a player interaction nonetheless.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): My character in Final Fantasy XIV is going through this right now, actually. Her roleplay has seen her toeing the line between becoming a sweet and innocent dancer or succumbing to her darker desires as she falls into the thrall of a corrupted house lord, with interactions from characters on either side of the spectrum tugging at her moral rope. It’s made for some fun character development.

Now, would I personally let myself get seduced by some voidal demonic thingabobob? I’m pretty sure not if such a thing existed. So most of the time my own personal moral fiber doesn’t really steer my character or MMO story choices, as I tend to put on the skin of my avatar. Or play the role, if you will. There are times, though, when some themes or story choices are presented that are steered by my own personal morality, and ultimately my characters do get a little bit of me installed in their behaviors, so I can’t state my removal from the matter as an absolute.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): As much as we like to be snide about the “fourth pillar” in SWTOR these days, that game did occasionally feature very compelling moral choices, and the truly memorable ones were far more tricky than “be an angel” or “be a devil.” For example, one of the earlier quests on Ord Mantell had parents tasking the player with finding a lost son. Turns out the boy was running away from what he saw as oppressive parents. The choice was whether to return the kid or not; the light side option was to let him go, but as a parent myself and seeing how this guy was falling in with a wrong crowd, I felt it more important to return him, even if the devs considered that a dark side option.
So to answer the second question, I’ve done both. Sometimes I very much let my inner morality drive how I function in an MMORPG, but occasionally I’ll roleplay as the character and let use my imagination and empathy drive what that character would do in certain situations. Also, sometimes I like to buck the game design and pick the obviously “don’t pick this” choice just to see what the devs had in mind for it or to see if I can get off of the rails of the story.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): I am very bad at being evil. There aren’t often meaningful moral choices in MMO. Single player RPGs have more. But when I do encounter one, I will almost always pick the neutral-to-nice option.

Have you seen those memes about being afraid to hurt NPCs’ feelings in RPGs? That’s me. I know it isn’t real and the NPC has no actual feelings to be hurt, but the way I treat them isn’t because of who they are. It is because of who I am. Deep down inside, I feel bad, even though I know it literally does not matter.

Except for killing Grelod. I don’t feel bad about that.

I have done some mostly harmless grieferish things to other players now and then. For instance, I was once a necromancer in EverQuest, in a duo killing wolves on one side of a hill while another group was killing wolves on the other side. When we were done and ready to leave, I popped my Army of the Dead ability, creating five undead wolf pets from the corpses we had lying around. Then I ran straight through the other group. They thought they were being trained. The cleric gated. The enchanter mezzed himself. And I laughed. Hard. But I would never actually train another group on purpose. I only go as far as mischief.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Me, me! I have been presented with moral choices in games! Many times, actually. They have been both player- and narrative-driven. I’ll share a few examples off the top of my head. And yes, I let my own sense of morality guide my choices in games with only very specific examples otherwise. Because I have to live with myself after, game or no.

For player-driven, let’s look at PvP games. In an example is from Aion: When you come across an obvious lowbie out in PvP enabled lands (say, rifting into your zone to do a quest), do you automatically kill them? I do not. In the framework of the game’s lore there should be no mercy, no pity. So it wouldn’t be “bad” of me to eradicate enemies without prejudice. But this is a weak one compared to you; what honor or glory is there in defeating a weaker creature? To me, that is very much a moral choice, and I chose to let them live. For narrative, I can stare right at things like SWTOR. When I face narrative decisions, my choices are pretty reflective of my personal moral compass, though for RP I can stretch it a little bit more toward the grey than I would be in life. The same happened in Warframe; I simply could not select the darkest, most retribution-angled choices when presented to me.

My exceptions would be in RP and in Choose My Alignment. In RP, I still refuse to play a completely evil character. Neutral? Chaotic? Yes. But not evil. This is a hard rule for me because both through all my training and personal experience, I know that a role you portray for a length of time will leak itself into your core; you will begin to take on attributes, thoughts, possibly even actions of that role. I won’t even recount how many innocent RP relationships turned into more intense ones that destroyed other relationships, or how often I’ve watched a kinder soul warp over the years to be more like a less-than-savory RP character. This is how habits are formed and life changes are made after all! And this is why method actors actually often need to take great precautions to ground themselves. But that is because I am delving into a role, acting it, making it a living breathing entity. It isn’t just “playing” per se. It is making a character come to life in your mind and thoughts. And characters have a tendency to take on a life of their own. It even can happen when deep into writing and character development; when you really get into the head of a personality, it also can get into yours.

In Choose My Alignment, I cannot tell you the number of times the audience has chosen a direction for my Chiss Agent that has gone against what I personally would. And some of those choices brought actual anxiety and discomfort to me! I was almost in tears over one because it was completely against my moral fabric and I found it extremely difficult and painful to select. I seriously couldn’t even click it for a long while. Not having the control is part of the fun of the series, but I still have pangs of regret and sorrow over some of the choices.

So in any game that I venture to have any type of backstory or RP in, my character’s motives have to be in some way for the good — of family, nation, something. They have to fit comfortably enough with my own mores. In games that are nothing but jumping in to amass headshots like lobby shooters, there is no story behind it to sway me. That, or it is a fight for survival. I can do fighting for survival, but I still can’t bring myself to actually hunt down and eradicate others. And I just can’t butcher others in malice. If a game forces me to do that, oh man does it cause me suffering and grief! And maybe I don’t play it anymore.

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): I don’t think I’ve ever had a particularly compelling narrative choice to make. The closest I can think of comes in two forms.

The first was game-driven by Star Wars The Old Republic. I can’t think of any specific choices, so I suppose that indicates how compelling they were, but I do remember killing several NPCs. I could go to the dark side, and I chose to jump right on over.

Another was from a little web browser game from the 2005 era. It was pretty much all player-driven, or at least these events were. Basically, you could give good karma to others if you thought they were helpful, or bad karma if not. It was like an upvote/downvote system. There was also a leaderboard. Well, I realized I’d never get to the top of the positive karma board, but I could do the negative side. So I went around PKing every player I could and hiding in the woods. There were largely all good guys in game, and I felt like the game needed a villain, so I became one. Players banded together to hunt me down and argued about giving me bad karma because that’s what I wanted them to do. It was a fun choice to make.

Guess that’s two dark side choices, but I think it’s ’cause I’m actually a super carebear IRL. Escapism and all, you know?

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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