Moral Choices in Video Games: The Problem of Problem Solving

In Star Trek: The Next Generation – „Thine Own Self,” ship counselor Deanna Troi decides to take the test for becoming a higher-ranking officer of the starship Enterprise. She is required to solve a simulated disaster that would destroy the entire ship and its hundreds of civilian inhabitants.

The problem is a leak in the warp-plasma shaft, which leads to a devastating explosion when left unfixed. The shaft is flooded with radiation, however; any person who directly patches the leak will have no chance of survival afterwards.

So Deanna assumes there must be some logistical way to bypass the leak. She tries everything she can think of: switching to auxiliary control, modifying the EM power inverter, ejecting antimatter storage containers – each solution leading to the complete destruction of the Enterprise without fail.

Convinced that she is missing something, Deanna studies the ship’s manuals for hours, and takes the test three more times. She traps herself in her problem-solving mindset, too afraid to notice that one possibility that nags at her subconscious – sending a crewmate into the shaft.

In Deus Ex: Human Revolution – The Missing Link, player-controlled Adam Jensen finds himself in a facility being flooded with toxic gas. There are two main sections: one contains cells full of oppressed prisoners, while the other contains a small population of scientists – scientists who could provide evidence that would crush an evil corporation.

Jensen climbs down a ladder that leads to a control room, but he can only use it to redirect the gas into one part of the facility – he can save the scientists or the prisoners. So the player finds himself faced with a clear moral choice – he will have to consider which option is best for society, which respects individual life more, which serves the most justice.

But if the player stops this train of thought and climbs back up the ladder, he will notice a network of pipes running throughout the facility. And if he follows the pipes, behind walls and through vents, he will find an obscured entrance. Behind it lies a valve that regulates the flow of the toxic gas – destroying it stops the flow entirely, saving both the prisoners and the scientists.

This is what Deanna is afraid of in „Thine Own Self”. Behind the veil of logistics and technical solutions lies a philosophical, moral dilemma – can she kill one person to save hundreds? But what if she starts worrying about that problem too soon? What if during the few minutes that she spends deliberating morality, she misses the one unnoticed factor, hiding away behind a corner – the one piece that could solve the problem and save everyone?

It is a scary reality of making moral decisions – that you could start too early, and miss the solution hiding in front of you. That maybe you should keep problem solving until the very end, even if a moral choice leads to the better outcome.

And it would be nice if more games tapped into this fear. When presenting a moral choice to the player, many games do not leave any flexibility, any way to check untied loose ends. In most cases, the player is pulled from the world entirely – the action pauses, and the two choices get mapped to their respective shoulder buttons.

Even when players are left in control, they rarely get any chance to believe that they missed something, that they need to work with the game’s mechanics for just a bit longer before making their choice. Take the infamous Mass Effect 3, where three empty branching paths represent the game’s ending decision. The only possible, „non-moral” stone left unturned is spinning Commander Shepard around in circles, or making him shoot at the sky.

Mass Effect 3′s ending and other choices like it are missing the vital hints that make fear of morality real – the freedom to explore unexplored areas on a map, the ability to search for those few missing audio logs, curious leads in the environment, small story issues that were never quite resolved.

„Thine Own Self” shows us why unresolved loose ends and looming, untested possibilities are so important to making moral choices realistic. Because making a moral choice is not only about noticing a moral dilemma, or having one presented to you; it is about having the volition to leave the technical world and accept the decision – to give up on trying to save everyone. As Troi’s superior tells her after she passes the test: „you considered all of your options, you tried every alternative, and then you made the hard choice.”

Alex Rinaldi is a writer for Think-Entertainment, a website devoted to a thought-driven approach to popular media.

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