Binary Choices: How Players Engage with Morality in Games

Today at GDC 2015 the Technical Evangelist for Microsoft, Amanda Lange talked about how players engage with moral decisions within games. In her talk entitled "Beyond Binary Choices," she discusses the results of data gathered from her own studies that look at how players make moral choices of "good" and "evil" within games. Her results provide some interesting insights for devs who are looking to include binary narratives where players can choose which type of avatar to play. Lange's first test was a survey she did with a thousand self-reporting reports from gamers about whether they tend to choose to play the "good" or "evil" path within a game that allows these choices. She went into the study with an understanding that many people play a game twice: once going with the good path and the second time experiencing the evil one. One of the questions she wanted to answer was whether people were interested in playing with their own moral codes within games that allowed it. That is, do people actively choose an "evil" path just to make choices that were opposed to the ones they make in their daily lives. Here were her results:
  • 5% of players consistently choose to play game's "evil" path the first time.
  • 59% of players consistently choose to play a game's "good" path the first time.
  • 26% of players said they could go either way based on a case-by-case basis.
In addition, she split her sample up into two groups: those that tend to play a game only once and those who usually play twice. The intention was to determine what percentage of players who play twice will choose to play both binary roles (i.e. good first, evil second). About 60% of the players said they played twice.
  • Of the 60% who played more than once, about half made good choices in the first play through and evil in subsequent play throughs.
At this point, Lange was still curious about the data she was getting and wanted to delve further. Specifically, she was interested in the idea of "identity tourism," which is a tendency of players to investigate with other identities within games (different genders, occupations, etc.). The question she wanted to explore was: Do games have the ability to let us change our morality code? Are people generally interested in experimenting with their morality by adopting a different moral code in games? The answer for Lange was no. For people who played the game only once, she asked them if they feel that they act within the game as they do in reality. 65% of respondents said they would usually do the same thing in both the game and reality. For those who played the game more than once, 80% said they would also remain consistent in their actions. "Players generally do not find pure evil tempting," Lange states, "Maybe we should put a nail in this idea of just being the bad guy. It's way more fun to make it so that it's tempting for other reasons." "Players will definitely do bad things if they're in an emotional situation," she continues, "and when the story is compelling them to do so. The most important thing here is not only that, but they love when you make them do [bad things]. They love to have their boundaries tested. They will come back and say 'that was really powerful and great. Do it again!'" The take-a-way here is that players generally want to be consistent in their moral choices both within games and in reality. Lange's research suggests that this holds true especially for games that give players an arbitrary good vs. evil choice. However, a compelling narrative that challenges their morality in unique ways is very enticing for players. Players seem to be less interested in arbitrary "good" or "bad" choices that are predefined by the game, than a situation where moral choices are much more context driven and ambiguous.