We’ve all done it. We’ve all sat in front of our screens, with some option presented to us, the ever-present dichotomy between good and evil. Which choice do you take? From harvesting Little Sisters in Bioshock to looting and pillaging in Fable, for some reason the ‘evil’ choice is always more appealing and, ultimately, the more fun path to take. But what about playing a game makes us suddenly much more likely to pull dick moves? Why does the choice between doing the Right Thing and the Wrong Thing ultimately end in the Wrong Thing? This article takes a look at why, using examples from games you probably have played.
From here on in this article contains spoilers for Fable III, the Bioshock series, and potentially Mass Effect!!
I suppose my main problem with being a dick in games is that I’m usually left with little other recourse. Whilst nearly always presented with a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ choice, the choices themselves are problematic. This over-simplification of the problem at hand into one right and one wrong option is often inappropriate and, to top it off, downright silly. Take Fable III as a classic example – when asked whether or not you want to destroy a lake to mine its resources, the ‘good’ option is keep the lake whereas the ‘bad’ option is to harvest the resources. Even without the background of the game, this choice should be obvious to any level-headed leader: more resources should be good, right? Why is keeping the lake the good choice? Do I do what is ‘bad’ but logical, or what is ‘good’ for the sake of keeping my reputation? We’ll talk more about reputation next, but usually the player, when presented with any choice, will go for the option that offers the best in-game reward. In this case, the over-simplification of the question means the logical option also ‘damages’ the player (and we use ‘damage’ in the loosest sense of the word – like I said, more on reputation coming your way!).
|Sometimes you need more than logic to make sense of in-game logic|
2. Reputation is Moot
A lot of games, with moral choice systems, also have some kind of reputation meter – a way of judging how good or evil your character is, based on the choices the player makes. This reputation meter becomes your gauge as you travel through the world, and presents its unique set of challenges designed to make you act like a complete tool. Most meters go in two directions, towards the ultimate in ‘good’ or the ultimate in ‘bad’ (examples include the aforementioned Fable series and the Mass Effect series).
Now, if there’s one thing that gamers like, it’s fulfilling objectives in order to fill up a meter. So, if you’re trying to be good, your good meter will fill up, which in of itself is rewarding. But what if you have to make a few bad decisions, because they’re logical in-game? Well, your meter starts slipping towards the bad. And we’re back to filling up a meter – if you were in the middle of the morality scale, neither good nor bad, you might be tempted to make more bad decisions simply to watch your evil meter fill up.
|Shepard, the ultimate in designer stubble|
The other problem with reputation in games in that they’re absolutely valueless. Hear me out – no matter your reputation, you’re going to get to the end of the game, right? So what does it matter if you indulge your evil side and burn down a few villages? You’ll still reach the end of the game. Sure, there might be a ‘bad’ ending, but it’s usually just one cutscene. And you can always look up the alternative endings. So your reputation becomes meaningless, so why not dick around?
3. Lack of Accountability
If every time you made a bad choice a hand came out the screen and gave you a slap for being such a dick, you probably wouldn’t make bad choices. Even a metaphorical slap would do it.
|Game says “Don’t be a dick!”|
There is literally no tangible punishment for acting like a tool. Like I said about reputation, your choices are valueless when it comes to game progression, so no matter how you behave in-game you will always progress. This lack of accountability is a key psychological trigger, and your brain gives you the a-okay to act however the Hell you want. The rare few of us will still act like a paragon of virtue, but the majority of us will go for the reward often attached to the negative choices (more on that coming now).
4. Choice and Reward
If there’s another thing that gamers like, it’s instant gratification (you hedonists). When you begin to attach reward to the choices the player makes (for example, in the first Bioshock saving or harvesting Little Sisters gives you different amounts of Adam), you get into a reward cycle. Reward cycles reinforce the choice the player has made, by offering a reward for making the choice (that was a bit circular, but you understand). It’s a feedback loop. Going back to instant gratification, the better rewards for in-game advancement are often got by making the ‘bad’ choices – whereas the reward of a better ending is far off in the future, and the player is forever convinced they’ll have another opportunity to redeem themselves (in reality, however, this won’t come, because of the reward cycle we talked about just now).
|Like lab rats, gamers love chocolate|