Monday 27 July 2009

An Open Letter To Nels Anderson; or, Morality Needs to F*** Right Off

Note from the author: I recently read a post by Nels Anderson on ‘Moral Development’ which has some comments on how different conceptions of morality can apply to games. I was distracted the first time I started reading it, and ended up deviating away to the Wikipedia page to read about ‘Kohlberg’s stages of moral development’. I finally went back to read the rest of the post weeks later and it got me so fired up in the passionate sense that I started writing a comment before realising that it would benefit from being posted here as an open letter instead. So here’s my response to Nel’s post:

…plumbing the depths… ‘who the fuck are these people?’… Neo-Nazi’s of the Fourth Reich… deep in the Kalahari… the Continued Survival of The American Dream…

Dear Nels,

I started writing this because I wanted to say to you that I thought your post about moral development in games was a fascinating read and I wanted to thank you for bringing it to our collective attention.

My fingers were rattling with a heat and fury, and I greatly desired to fire-off a vitriolic screed about very, very many games in some kind of Press Release from ‘The Institute of Freak Power Gaming’ saying how positively Neolithic it is that any game feature an incarnation of the dreaded good<–>evil slider system. But that wasn’t going to be enough. No, my friend, the situation calls for going much, much, deeper.

If a game is a conversation between the player and the developer, who the fuck are these people to tell me that I’m “evil” or “good” based upon… what? Their own standards for good behaviour… or maybe some arbitrary guidelines about proper conduct? In the immortal words of the pissed-off, progressively liberal Oz hip-hop collective know to the police as ‘The Herd’; “Fuck that!”

We know better than them, Nels. We know that in the real world there are no rules like this – the rules are what we write them to be, and doubly so for a made up simulation running on a computer! I don’t mean this in a neo-Nazi, Fourth Reich kind of way, but in a passionate anarchistic, newly enlightened devotee of ‘Kohlberg and his stages’ sense. Count me among the greats in my newly acquired desire to reach Kohlbergian enlightenment.

It takes some seriously sick and twisted fishhead logic to try and apply contemporary morality as reflected in our western legal system to a post-nuclear-winter future; a future that has been blown back to the stone ages, yet remains conveniently modern in it’s application of morality.

Have these people never seen The Gods Must Be Crazy? Even the idea of theft as crime or some kind of associated ‘negative action’ is contemporary! When your community has got shit-all to live on and you’re eating the scum that grows on the walls of your cave, you don’t really have anything worth stealing. Morality? What the fuck is that – they’re too busy trying to stay alive to give a damn about some ‘Karma points’ bullshit.

When that kid got hit on the head by the coke-bottle in the middle of the Kalahari, he had no idea he was about to witness the birth of theft in his tribe. When some crunched-on by middle-management Bethsoft code-monkey programmed in the bits that say a coke bottle can be ‘owned’ by a Non Player Character, some Deity higher up the food chain knew that they were inventing the concept of theft on a global scale. Did they even consider the idea that theft in this society would be different from our own? “Possession is 9/10ths of the Law” is the old saying, and I consider the Wasteland the perfect place to institute that final 1/10th. Theft is abstract and Bethesda codified it in ones and zeroes.

I haven’t actually played Zeno Clash, but it sounds like the antidote to this kind of straight-faced craziness – at least it wears it’s weirdness openly. I wager it’s one of the few sensible and serious games to say “Morality means whatever you want it to”. One of the others is Far Cry 2. Does Zeno Clash give you ‘negative Karma’ for kneeing people in the face? Does Far Cry 2 slap us on the wrist when we’re defoliating swaths of the jungle for personal gain and a return on investment that includes safe-house upgrades? Hocking know’s we’re no fools – we are no babes in swaddling cloth to be told “bad boy!” and given a slap on the wrist for being caught with our hands in the proverbial cookie jar. And we are well able to tell that we are doing some seriously weird things and unnatural things in the name of Continued Survival and The American Dream.

You an me Nels, we need to show these Neanderthal’s that these “Karmic” games are the truly strange and the people who make them are more twisted than Richard Nixon’s underpants on August 9, 1979. We need to start our version of Fight Club. Rather than fighting in basements and parking lots we’re fighting on the blogs and the podcasts. Hit me Nels – hard as you can! Let us fish-punch the good & the bad out the glass windows on the thirty-third floor of whatever building these atavistic bastards call Their Office. If they want to keep making games for the man-children with neck-beards and mushroom kingdom tattoos then We Are Going To Have Something To Say about it.

Yours Sincerely As Always,


P.S. I am coming to Vancouver one day. Get the beers ready – we are going hunting.


Michel said...

I think Fallout 3 was a little too light-hearted to have an accurate morality scale. I mean, you would need a bloody horizontal scrollbar to see how far along the "fucked up and evil beyond human recognition" path you had gone if playing an evil character in the way that they exist in Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Could a game exist where being evil means kidnapping and raping women, killing babies and eating their raw flesh to survive? Sure, games are uniquely able to let us experience the sensation of losing our humanity through careful storytelling and the anonymity/impermanence of a digital world. I've actually already seen many people in MMORPGs behave in psychotic ways towards people they knew to be human with real world moral values. Train "tricks" people into gleefully participating in a genocide barely 60 years old.

Anyway, I'm all for more ambiguous graphing of morality in games, or removal of graphical representation altogether. I just think you have to be really careful when allowing for psychotic or alien moral behaviour, lest it become such a common occurrence it loses all moral meaning. Can you even create a WW2 game now where shooting a character in the stomach makes a player even blink in hesitation or horror? Maybe we need to see guts spill out, shrieks of pain, a death that lasts 8 minutes. Maybe games need to be more realistic in other ways before we can expect realistic moral representation.

Danny Page said...

I definitely agree with the idea that someone should never define what a moral action is with a binary "good or bad" reaction. It is shallow and plastic. Bioshock's ending was similar to this; had you harvested all the little sisters, maybe you did it to survive. However, the game believes you did this so you can take over the world! How dare it make such a bold claim off essentially one decision (that gets repeated over and over). It is ludicrious.

Also, if you need more ammo for the angry tirade against Morality systems, how about EA making the USA and Europe compete to "see which region is more moral." WTF. (Link:

Alan Jack said...

I think I'm spent after commenting on Nels' original article, but I wanted to chime in here too.

Very interested in you mentioning The Gods Must Be Crazy. A game design where you live in a tribe with almost no communication beyond basic emotes, and you suddenly invent the concept of ownership (which in turn leads to theft, and eventually feudalism as you asert yourself). That could really really work!

Nels Anderson said...

Haha! Awesome! Ben, I will happily join your digital fight club.

The assumption of a universal set of morals is quite problematic, especially from a philosophical standpoint. Reasoning about the morality of a decision feels pretty neutered when the game stamps a big ol' GOOD or EVIL on it.

It's actually why I really like the faction-based approach. Stealing makes you look like an villain of the eyes of the law & order types, but you might actually get some respect from the raiders.

Occasionally the fiction supports a universal stricture of good/evil (a la Star Wars or D&D's alignments), but by and large, I'm all for scuttling the ship.

Ava Avane Dawn said...

All would be forgiven on bethesdas part if on the radio you could hear the occasional (in this case ironic) 'breaking the law' by judas priest.

Oh how I'd love to kill people from the outcast or the enclave to this tune!