Sunday, August 2, 2009

Designing Ethical Dilemmas Video and Slides - The Longer Version

Last week I got the chance to give a 30 minute version of my Designing Ethical Dilemmas talk at the Madison Chapter IGDA meeting. I expanded on a number of points, included some basic theory, and overall fleshed out some of the ideas. I still think there are some parts that need work, but slowly expanding the talk has helped me understand the concepts better as a result. I'm hoping to really nail this talk down and refine it some more, so I'm going to continue to research and consider the ideas to really nail them down as well as how to expand the concept from dilemmas to full ethical game systems.

There is video available of the talk. I would love for you to check it out and give me some feedback. Also, I've uploaded my slides (which are also partially embedded in the video thanks to the diligent work of Matthew Ciarlante). You can get the basic points from the slides, but I think the talk is obviously a better way to digest the information.


  1. Good talk. The swearing is a bit gratuitous, and I think you've changed the slides since I had a look. I only really have comments about the content (I'm sure you've heard them all before).

    Firstly, you mention Bioshock as causing "Ludonarrative dissonance" by making you choose between what is effectively a strategic advantage, and ethics. Then, however, you talk about how games should perhaps punish you for choosing the "right" side (which is what bioshock does). Even Train, in fact, puts the rules of the game into question through it's emotional impact -- is Train not ludonarrative dissonance par excellence? I agree with you in that Bioshock's ethical dilemma is ineffective, but I don't think I agree with why.

    An interesting point about your "obstacles" tenet: An Australian games show (Good Game) talked about how Arma 2 gets you so emotionally involved in the game because it's so difficult and time consuming.

    I also think it's a good idea to mention Left 4 Dead as a good example of permanence. They haven't used save-games, but it still "works", and there's a lot of permanence (your health / ammo is affected by how you finish the previous part of the level, the level doesn't have saves, and the level also has effectively randomly generated monsters each time you load it). The emotional response is fear, and it's effective. I think it works as a much better example than your "Don't let the person decide not to kill your dog after loading".

    You also don't really address the issues of permanence that are raised by other game designers. Why is it controversial? Specifically, I'd want to know how you can reconcile the idea that games are (sometimes) about _trying out_ certain things to see how they'll turn out. This might mean an episode of the content is un-changeable internally, but can be changed outside, like the left 4 dead model.

    I also think that we're living in a world where we start doing things like identifying "strategic advantages" instead of thinking of things ethically. Apparently when you look at the way people play prisoner's dilemma, economists play it far more like the "optimal strategy". Most people apparently play it in a far more co-operative way. I think game designers and gamers alike need to start to understand that the games' rules can be used to change your mindset from being emotional to being logical, and that this sort of thing happens in the real world to basically make good people do bad things. I reckon ethical dilemmas probably need a bit of ludonarrative dissonance (or at least apparent ludonarrative dissonance). I think (I haven't played it) Train uses this to devastating effect.

    I hope to hear your thoughts on this.

  2. Thanks for posting the video and slides. There's a lot to think about.

    I like the idea of having moral behaviour be less rewarding than immoral and how that might emphasize the importance and difficulty of behaving a certain way.

    I'm not quite sure how the choices the player makes are to have a significant impact on the game if they're not allowed to be tied to its mechanics. Doing so would put the burden of consequence on the narrative entirely; if the player weren't caught up in the world, the choice would be meaningless, neh?

    Thanks again for sharing. (P.S. Happy to see you've used SlideShare. Wish more game devs took advantage of it.)

  3. The difference between what BioShock does and what obstacles SHOULD do in ethical dilemmas is that BioShock telegraphs its results. It gives you the information and gives it to you that you can make the optimal choice based on strategy. A game like Train does not give you that information up front, it doesn't telegraph it to you. Instead, once you realize the game means something different than you expected, it pushes you in a way that the designer KNOWS no reasonable person wants to be pushed and sees how you react. It uses the preconcieved notions of the Holocaust to make you feel upset with yourself. There is no "strategy" to winning/losing the game. Your internal win condition changes and so what you are trying to do changes. And you realize it's hard, and that makes it impactful. Those are the obstacles I'm interested in. Ones that change the narrative of the game that make you feel like what you are doing is wrong. If your obstacle is purely mechanical it won't work. Maybe my suggestion of the game just being harder for Light Side was a bad example...

    Train is using player ignorance of the narrative and preconcieved notions of "it's a board game". Basically there is NO dilemma when you start because there is no narrative you care about. These are pegs. Once the narrative is discovered, the game changes. Now what was a strategy decision takes on more meaning. Only when the narrative is discovered is an ethical dilemma posed. The game elements are telling you "there is a way to save these people" with the ambiguous rules and the narrative element is telling you "winning is bad" - those elements are in line with each other. I don't think this is ludonarrative dissonance. This game is far more complex than that.

    I'll look into Left4Dead as a greater example of permanance. I'm also starting to soften my stance on permanance and examining instead of forcing player to be unable to reload, to rather encourage gameplay that doesn't lend itself to save/reload. Not sure HOW to do that yet, of course.

    The idea that games are about trying different things is indeed the major criticism of what I propose and I think I'm still working through to figure out how to resolve that. Hopefully I'll get my thoughts into a blog post in the near future..

  4. Thanks Manveer. I'm looking forward to where you're going with this. Hopefully you'll incorporate this into a future game.

  5. Now, you know the guy and I don't, so I may have missed the point, but I don't think that the Little Sisters dilemma telegraphing its mechanical benefits was not what Clint Hocking was talking about when he discussed ludonarrative dissonance in Bioshock. In fact, I never got the impression he had a problem with the Little Sister mechanic favoring harvesting them on a mechanical level. Indeed, he praised that mechanic, and if you take that element out, the ethical dilemma disappears entirely.

    Saying Bioshock telegraphs the mechanical results of your actions is like saying finding $1000 in a wallet on the street corner telegraphs the mechanical results of keeping the money. Of course it does, and of course you can work through the mechanical strategy in advance to see that keeping the money is a better material benefit to yourself -- that's the whole point. It is specifically *because* you know in advance that the less morally upstanding option benefits you more that it becomes a dilemma in the first place, pitting your self-interest against your compassion. This isn't bad design, it's interesting design, and Clint Hocking praised it as effective in the game in the very post on Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock that you're talking about here, because that's what Bioshock was about on some level -- self-serving Objectivism vs. a rejection of that philosophy.

    What Clint argued was that the narrative contract of the game -- the fight between Atlas and Ryan, and your place in it -- did not match the morality of the ludic contract (your choice with regard to the Little Sisters). The game says self-interest is best when you save Little Sisters, but when it comes to helping Atlas, you didn't have a choice of how to proceed. You weren't allowed to be self-serving, and you were forced to help fight Andrew Ryan, an objectivist visionary that advocated views that fit the very things that the mechanics of the game pushed you towards. Instead of giving you another choice here, or at least maintaining consistency, you were forced to act against what you might have perceived your character to believe in by helping Atlas in order to progress the game, and then when you did so, the game mocked you for your subservience.

    I would suggest rereading Clint's original post on Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock. I think he's making a much more subtle and interesting point than you credit him for.

  6. Jonathan,

    You are absolutely correct and I understand what Hocking meant. I think what I did was try to summerize the point too quickly/fast and by doing so I ended up altering his initial intention by accident. There are nuances here to consider.

    So thanks for pointing that out and I'll make sure if I use that example in the future I push the explanation a lot better.

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