Nudgy Controls, Part I

-by Nathan Randall, Featured Author.

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Introduction

1990s 3-D platforming games were relatively difficult games, especially for my 3-year-old self. I distinctly remember playing Banjo Kazooie back in 1998. With my young, untrained fingers, it was simply impossible to walk across one of the many absurdly thin bridges spanning a dangerous gap without falling. But at that age my will was indomitable, and through countless hours of training, I became a master at crossing thin bridges. Platforming games became unilaterally easier at that point. I could apply the same skillset to each instance.

Then in 2007 Assassin’s Creed came out. Within the first hour of the game, I ended up in the same thin bridge predicament that I remembered so fondly from my days of playing mid-90s platformers for the Nintendo 64. As I set out across the bridge, I moved very slowly, ensuring that my camera was pointed straight ahead and I maintained exactly the course that I wanted.

Then I messed up. I got distracted and my thumb twitched ever so slightly. I mentally flinched, and awaited my inevitable plunge from the bridge. But that plunge never came. Altair remained perched on the bridge as if nothing happened. I stared in disbelief. I knew that I should have fallen.

But a thought occurred to me at that moment: Altair is an expertly trained assassin, not a bear named Banjo bumbling his way through the world. Why should he ever fall unexpectedly while crossing a thin path? How would he have survived his training and his missions up to this point? Maybe it was not actually possible to jump off the bridge.

I decided to test my theory, and try to jump off the bridge. Needless to say it didn’t work. The game prevented me from jumping off the bridge. But rather than be mad at the game for not placing trust in my ability to handle the mechanical difficulty of crossing the bridge, I was pleased. I was pleased because the game really put me in the shoes of the avatar. Altair is a master assassin, and as such needs to be more skilled than the 12-year-old who was controlling his actions as an avatar. By shaping the input I gave the game, the engine preserved the character of Altair.

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Authors have a difficult task in creating a narrative for a game. While the author is in command of a majority of the events in a game, there is a single variable which remains outside of their control: the player. The player’s actions are integral to the narrative of a game, and yet are by nature not within the control of the person who wrote the narrative of a game. But that does not necessarily leave the integrity of a game’s narrative to the whims of the player. In order to maintain a game’s narrative consistency, the believability of a story and the actions of the characters contained within, an author may introduce subtle nudges to the player’s actions. Not all games need to do this, however: some narratives are perfectly well maintained by a non-cooperative or incompetent player. But some narratives cannot afford the level of outside shaping to the narrative brought on by a player left entirely to their own devices.

The example I gave above is instructive because it shows how a game’s controls can be an important force in preserving, or not preserving, the narrative consistency of a game. If Altair had been able to fall, it undermines to a degree our ability as players to believe that he is an expert assassin. If Banjo never fell from ledges, maybe it would be hard to believe that we were playing as a human-like bear. By restricting (or noticeably not restricting) the ways in which the player can control the avatar, an author can maintain the consistency of the narrative being presented to the player.

There are many ways that control schemes can have an impact on the internal narrative consistency of a game. But in this and the following two articles, I would like to describe one particular concept: nudgy controls.

In the interest of defining nudges I would like to start by first defining what a game that lacks any nudges looks like. These are games in which an input X on the part of the player reliably yields an output Y within the game, so long as the physics of the engine allow it. For example, pushing left on the control stick always yields moving left, unless there is a physical wall blocking your path. There is a consistency to how the controls work. This is the example of Banjo who will reliably walk left in all situations when the player presses left, even if that results in him falling to his death.

Nudgy controls often resemble the paradigm described above, in that most of the time, an input of X yields output Y. However, in some cases, instead of input X yielding output Y, instead some other output, Z, is yielded. A nudge is an instance of some player input X that typically yields output Y instead yielding output Z, where Y would potentially undermine narrative coherence and Z preserves narrative consistency. As an example, most of the time when a player pushes left on the control stick, the avatar moves left. However, in some minority of cases the avatar instead moves forward. This is the example of Altair, who is nudged away from jumping off of the path to his death, presumably due to his training as an assassin.

Each individual instance of Y occurring instead of Z does not necessarily preserve narrative consistency. Context determines the effectiveness in this regard. The nudges in Assassin’s Creed help to preserve internal narrative consistency, while the same Y-to-Z conversions in Banjo Kazooie would actually undermine the internal narrative consistency. Thus the same mechanic used in Assassin’s Creed would that could be called a nudge would not be called a nudge in Banjo Kazooie. My definition of a nudge contains only the cases in which the instance of Y occurring instead of Z actually does preserve narrative consistency.

There are several kinds of games which maintain narrative consistency explicitly through lack of nudges. These games include:

  1. Trial-by-death games.
  2. Games with intentionally obtuse controls.
  3. Multiplayer skill tournaments

For the remainder of this article, I’ll go over these three types of games that don’t incorporate many nudges. In a follow-up article (Part II), I’ll discuss two differing models for nudgy controls.

  1. Trial-by-death games

A game’s mechanics can be described as trial-by-death if a majority of the gameplay consists of players dying at least once before success. There are a few possible reasons for the repeated player death. Through the death they could learn about a mechanic they could not have known without extra-gameworld knowledge before succeeding. In a puzzle game, there might be asymmetric information, such that the player cannot learn the solution to the puzzle without failing once at it. Or the game could just throw innovative, difficult challenges at the player that do not require a player death, but simply often result in it. These games are not simply “hard” in a conventional way; players usually cannot avoid dying entirely simply by learning some basic set of skills and mastering them. Unlike Pac-Man, which always features the same ostensive situation but with an ever-escalating degree of difficulty, a trial-by-death game will constantly change the nature of the challenges along with the difficulty.

In order for trial-by-death games to function properly, the player has to be sure that they can trace the effect of their death to their own actions. That way, given the new information they get from dying, they can change the way they play to not get killed again. This is one crucial reason for trial-by-death games not to have nudges in the controls. As the game designers at “Extra Credits” put it, studios like From Software (which created Dark Souls) make a “covenant with the player.” This covenant is that the game has a consistent ruleset. So the rules will not suddenly change, even in extenuating circumstances. If the player gets killed, they can always trace it back to their own actions, rather than pointing at the game engine and saying “it changed the rules.” The flipside is also true, though: if the player succeeds they can rightly congratulate themselves. But this sort of covenant with the player requires consistency in the controls. And so it precludes nudges. There should never be a moment in which input X could spit out either Y or Z. The player should always be sure of the output (if they’ve learned the game sufficiently). If there were nudges, it would be difficult for the player to diagnose the cause of their death, because they may be unsure about whether their own action or the nudge killed them. The inability to diagnose the problem would then lead to an inability to coherently change behavior for another try.

But the lack of nudges also can preserve narrative consistency in trial-by-death games. Dark Souls is an exemplar in this regard. As an undead in a world of gods and other undead, each task requires many attempts before success. By leaving the controls unhindered by nudges, narrative is preserved, since the player inevitably must try each task multiple times before success.[1] In this way the play experience parallels the avatar’s actions. Within the context of the game world, the avatar dies repeatedly attempting to accomplish his or her goal. The player as well most likely fails and tries again many times before success.

2. Games with Intentionally Obtuse Controls

Dark Souls is not unique in being a game that benefits from a non-nudgy control scheme. There are other narratives for which non-nudgy control schemes contribute to narrative consistency. In Octodad, the player controls an octopus masquerading as a normal 1950s breadwinning human father. Octodad has a control scheme which is intentionally obtuse, in that the controls are unintuitive and difficult, yet faithfully respond to player input. In particular, there is a button that lifts his “leg” (which is actually a tentacle), a control stick to move said leg, another control stick to move his “arm” (again actually a tentacle), and many objects in the game are easy to knock over. The player’s difficulty navigating the obtuse control scheme mimics the experience of an octopus attempting with only minor success imitating the normal motions of a human.

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Needless to say, it’s very difficult to do. No nudges are necessary in Octodad because either a change from output Y to output Z would help the player control the octopus better, which is antithetical to the narrative of the game, or the change from Y to Z would further inhibit the player. While initially this may seem like a choice that would further enhance the narrative consistency of Octodad, I’d argue that actually wouldn’t be the case. In order to mirror the experience of the inept octopus, the player should also feel as though their own actions are not very effective by their own nature. If the player feels they are forced to fail, they will not be in the same sort of physical situation struggling with the controller as the octopus has in struggling with his body. The introduction of nudges does nothing to further maintain narrative consistency over leaving the game non-nudgy.

3. Multiplayer Skill Tournaments

There exist a wide variety of games that could potentially be considered multiplayer skill tournament games, and any game that fits the archetype is well suited for a control scheme that lacks nudges. I define this category by its three primary features. First, it is a multiplayer game, meaning that multiple players participate in a game. Second, it is a competition of skill, meaning that within the narrative of the game, the most skilled competitor comes out victorious, leaving nothing to chance or sabotage by another player. Third, it takes place in a tournament environment, in which the central narrative thrust is the competition itself, rather than a narrative that contains within it a competition.

A multiplayer skill tournament game doesn’t use nudges because an inclusion of nudges would undermine the narrative of the game. A nudge may cause an of imbalance in the skill levels of the competitors who are controlled by players. This imbalance potentially makes a player question the validity of the victor of the tournament, and thus the narrative itself. One will note that in the absence of any one of the three conditions—that the game is multiplayer, that the game is skill-based, and that the game is a tournament—the requirement for nudge-less gameplay vanishes. A game that is not multiplayer could include non-player characters that are simply more or less skilled than the player. A game that is not skill-based (for instance a game based on randomness) does not require an even playing field. And if the narrative is not a tournament or simply contains a tournament within it, non-tournament aspects of the tournament may require nudgy controls.

There is nothing in particular that pins the multiplayer skill tournament to a particular genre, such as racing or fighting games. Presumably any multiplayer game could have the narrative and gameplay of a multiplayer skill tournament. However, in practice, one finds that only a particular subset of games have realized the multiplayer skill tournament. Those games are 1v1 fighters. There are numerous multiplayer games that one may think are multiplayer skill tournaments, but actually aren’t. I’ll begin by explaining some examples that may seem at first glance to fit the category but actually do not. Usually this is due to the game not satisfying the second requirement: that the game is purely a competition of skill

The first example is the least related to multiplayer skill tournaments out of what I’ll discuss, but it’s still instructive to consider it. Mario Party seems to be an instance of a game that is multiplayer, where the players compete in a game of skill to determine the victor. However, a significant portion of the results of the game are blatantly based on randomness as opposed to skill (evidenced by the constant die rolls). So Mario Party fails to meet the second requirement and so should not be considered a multiplayer skill tournament.

Another example that one may consider is Call of Duty, which features a set of players competing at a skill-based game to determine the victor. Call of Duty fails to meet the requirement in two important regards, though. Firstly, there is no notion of a tournament present in the narrative. More often, Call of Duty is about a single war, or various covert operations, which have far more complicated victory conditions than a single match between players (including civilian casualties, and political stability post-war). Secondly, due to the nature of the cruelty of war, there is an awareness that sometimes even the most skilled soldier is a random casualty of war. Within the narrative of a war game such as Call of Duty, there is an awareness of the possibility of random loss, since war is too complicated and messy. Sometimes the best soldier dies. I will not be considering Call of Duty to be a multiplayer skill tournament because of the random losses and lack of a tournament narrative.

One example that may initially seem to be a multiplayer skill tournament is a racing game. In principle, there is nothing preventing a racing game from fitting the category. If the game is multiplayer, the vehicles are roughly equal in power (however this is defined for a particular vehicle), and the narrative is that of a tournament, the game would fit the category quite nicely. However, this is not what you tend to see in practice. In racing games one tends to see one of two things: sabotage, or unequal vehicles. In the instance of sabotage, one character has somehow tampered with another character’s vehicle, skewing the results of the tournament. In this case, an author should probably introduce nudges to the gameplay to make clear that there is something preventing the player from fully realizing their skill. Often, as well, the different characters have clearly unequal vehicles, making it not the case that skill specifically is what determines the victor. If a racing game avoids these two problems, it would be a good candidate for a multiplayer skill tournament.

From these examples one can see how fitting the mould of a multiplayer skill tournament is a case-by-case basis. From here I will consider a set of games which nicely fit the category.

1v1 fighters are a paradigmatic example of a multiplayer skill tournament. There are many games that fit the 1v1 fighting game paradigm. A few notable examples include Soul Calibur, Tekken, and Street Fighter. Although the category cannot be pinned down entirely, a majority of these games feature two players fighting against each other in two dimensions. There exist a wide variety of moves available to the player, some of which are activated by button combinations, or a specific sequence of button presses. These moves tend to be more powerful. In order to be successful at a 1v1 fighter game, a player must know three things: the powerful button combos, when it’s best to use any particular move, and how their opponent will likely play.

Most 1v1 fighters tend to share a similar narrative basis: a collection of fighters come together to compete in a tournament, where the winner takes all. A prototypical example of this would be the original Tekken, which features no overt story other than the existence of a tournament. While some of these games take characters from other stories, the narrative is more often than not framed in the fighting tournament schema, in which the strongest, most highly skilled fighter is the winner. And since the players are the participants of the tournament, acting as the fighters themselves, the most highly skilled player should always come out victorious. 1v1 fighting games realize this narrative by creating a cast of fighters who all have roughly equal potential for victory, and keeping the game as close to nudge-free as possible.

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All of these games share one key common feature: they are all designed to have a cast of roughly equally strong fighters. Due to the difficulty of that task, there is no 1v1 fighting game that is actually perfectly balanced between all the characters, but having a cast of equally powerful fighters is the end goal of the design of these games. Evidence of the goal is the constant “nerfing” of powerful characters, who are made a little weaker, and “buffing” of weaker characters to bring them up to par. The unachievable end state of fighting games is a set of characters all on a par with each other.

We can thus see that 1v1 fighters meet the essential requirements for a multiplayer skill tournament. Multiple players square off against each other, the victor is the one who is most skilled (given that the fighters are equally strong and/or fast), and the central thrust of the narrative is a tournament.

So why does a multiplayer skill tournament require nudge-less gameplay? What differentiates the winner from the loser is supposed to be the better player. Skill is what determines the winner. Let’s consider what happens when a developer introduces nudges that further hinder the player. In this case, the players can tell that they are being hindered from performing at the level they desire, similar to the case of an opponent sabotaging them. The players will feel less like skill is determining the outcome, and so the tournament no longer will feel like a competition of skill. In the case that the developers introduce nudges that actually help the player, then those players who are less skilled will have an artificial boost in skill. This is a problem because if these players should win, it would not be through skill, but rather through the benefit of nudgy controls, similar to the instance in the racing game of one character simply having the best car. Less experienced players will be able to achieve success without skill, to the detriment of the more skilled players. In both the instances of hindering and helpful nudges, introducing nudges into multiplayer skill tournaments is problematic. In order to maintain the narrative consistency of the worlds of multiplayer skill tournaments, in which the more skilled competitor is the winner, the game needs to be unhindered by nudges.

Conclusion

All three of the kinds of games I mentioned share one fundamental feature: they are all games in which the level of competence of the player is a necessary element in the narrative of the game. In trial-by-death games such as Dark Souls, the narrative of the game contains several instances of failed attempts by the player, and so narrative consistency is preserved by having a player transition from being incompetent at a task to be competent and then succeeding at that task. In Octodad, the controls are obtuse enough that a majority of players will be incompetent at the game in the same way as the octopus is incompetent at being a father. No nudges are necessary to realize this narrative. In multiplayer skill tournaments, the differentiator between fighters is supposed to be skill. By introducing nudges, a designer undermines the extent to which skill feels like the determinant of the course of the narrative. So introducing nudges would be counterproductive.

That does it for my discussion on games that are unhindered by nudges. In Part II I will discuss some examples of games that use nudgy gameplay to preserve their internal narrative structure.

Nathan Randall is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out his bio to learn more.


[1] I prescind here from the obvious counterexample of people who have played Dark Souls many times, and so rarely die.

From PAX Aus: The Psychology and Neuroscience of Jump Scares

-by Nathan Randall, Featured Author. The following article is based on Nathan’s portion of With a Terrible Fate’s horror panel at PAX Australia 2016.

Lately there has been a trend of games released that center on jump scares.[1] The moment-to-moment gameplay in these games is relatively minimal, and in some cases even rather dull. But then, apparently out of nowhere, the monster appears on screen, killing the protagonist and scaring the player in the process. Some of these games include Slenderman, the upcoming Resident Evil 7, and the Five Nights at Freddy’s series.

But what is it about these games that makes them so effective at scaring people? And why might it be that people actually enjoy the experience of being scared senseless? It turns out that the fields of behavioral psychology and neuroscience have some answers to these questions. In order to answer them I will discuss various types of learning and how they apply to jump scares, describe the effectiveness of jump scares when the player is trying to multitask, and wrap up with a discussion of how hormones create the positive feelings that lead players to keep playing.

Before diving into these academic fields, however, I’d like to summarize the game that I’ll be using as my paradigmatic example of a game that makes fantastic use of jump scares: Five Nights at Freddy’s. Feel free to skip to the following two paragraphs if you’re already familiar with the game.

In Five Nights at Freddy’s the player plays as a nighttime security guard who’s been hired to run five night shifts at the Chuck-E.-Cheese-type location “Freddy’s.” However, as quickly becomes clear to the player, the real security threat at Freddy’s is not a break-in, but rather the animatronics that come to life at night and try to eat the people in the building. So the goal of the game ends up being simply to keep the animatronics from killing you during your five-night employment.

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A personification of the security guard from Five Nights with two of the deadly animatronics standing next to him.

You have to do this all from within the confines of the security room, but you do have a few tools at your disposal. You can check the security footage for any of the dozen or so cameras set up throughout the facility, and you can briefly lock the doors to the security room. If one of the animatronics successfully gets to the security room, a jump scare follows, and the player loses. You can see a video of the gameplay including a jump scare below.

Five Nights makes use of two different types of jump scares, which I term player-dependent and player-independent jump scares. The difference between these two types of jump scares is fairly intuitive. Player-dependent scares are contingent on the actions of the player. If the player sits still and does absolutely nothing, then the jump scare will not happen. However, if the player does some particular action, the jump scare will happen. Player-independent scares are exactly the opposite: they are not contingent on the actions of the player. The jump scare will happen even when the player does absolutely nothing.

However, there is one important complexity in this model. Jump scares that depend on player inaction function equivalently to jump scares that happen irrespective of player input. There are jump scares that only occur if the player fails to do certain things. The lack of occurrence of a jump scare is contingent on the actions of the player insofar as the player can prevent the jump scare through action. However, the occurrence of the jump scare is actually contingent upon player inaction. Thus, when the jump scare actually appears, it behaves as a player-independent scare rather than a player-dependent scare. More important than that, the jump scares in question make use of the same underlying psychology as the player-independent jump scares, and because of that it is useful to think of jump scares that occur only if the player fails to do certain things as player-independent.

Player-dependent and player-independent jump scares make use of different underlying psychology. Player-dependent scares are based on operant conditioning, whereas player-independent scares are based on classical conditioning. Operant conditioning occurs when an animal performs some behavior more frequently because it is rewarded (or performs it less if it’s punished). In contrast, classical conditioning is the process of associating certain stimuli with other stimuli. I’ll discuss each of these types of conditioning and the associated jump scare type in turn.

Operant conditioning was first described by B.F. Skinner (along with Edward Thorndike). Skinner was known for the “Skinner Box,” which was the primary experimental paradigm for operant conditioning studies for decades. The basic idea of the Skinner Box is to put an animal in a box rigged with various contraptions. These contraptions give the animal some reward or punishment in a fixed way to specific actions performed by the animal in the box (some of the rewards were food, juice, sex, or just freedom from the box; the usual punishment was an electric shock). Skinner and Thorndike’s crucial initial discovery was that the animals tended to perform the actions that gave them rewards more quickly and artfully as more trials were run. This idea that actions that are rewarded occur more frequently is the basis of operant conditioning.

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Thorndike’s original experiment, in which a cat is placed in a box with a mechanism that opens the door.

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A Skinner Box. The mouse can press the lever to receive a food pellet.

Creating an effective player-dependent jump scare, then, is a matter of playing with this tendency that people have to form action-response associations. The two ways of playing with this tendency that I’ll discuss in this article are: giving the player a false sense of security, and constantly changing the rules.

Creating a false sense of security is a fairly straightforward process. For a while, the game is very predictable. The player performs some action A in a specific context X, and then receives some reward R. This process repeats several times. Now whenever the player is in context X, they perform A without giving it much thought, and receive the reward R. To create the jump scare, all that need be done is make it so that at some point when the player is in context X, they perform action A, and instead of receiving R they receive a jump scare. This formula is very simple to execute, and when done properly is very effective, because it disrupts the operant conditioning process.

Another way that horror games play with operant conditioning is by never allowing associations to form in the first place. There are two ways in which this can happen:

  1. Nothing ever happens the same way given the same input.
  2. The player fails regardless of their input.

Both of these techniques have surprising consequences, however. Depending on how they’re used, games that incorporate these techniques can stray outside of the horror genre, or even create an emotional experience distressing enough that the player is more likely to stop playing then see the game through.

The tricky aspect about (1) is that this conditioning paradigm can easily stray out of horror and into absurdist comedy. One of the defining aspects of absurdist comedy is the inability for the audience to predict how events in the artwork will unfold. The two examples I’ll give are Jazzpunk and a very strange game, Japanese World Cup 3.

Rather than attempt to explain either of these games, I recommend watching the videos. The key takeaway from these examples is this: if the rules of the game are constantly changing and weird stuff keeps happening, then the game will likely induce laughter, or at least an “I don’t understand” response from the player.

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A tourist in Jazzpunk talks to the player. The “incoherent nonsense” is the subtitle for what the tourist is saying.

The tricky aspect of (2) has to do with another idea within behavioral psychology called learned helplessness. To understand learned helplessness, I’m going to explain the experimental procedure that led to its discovery. The experimental setup is basically a specialized Skinner Box. There are two compartments in the box, each with a floor capable of delivering an electric shock to an animal. There is a hole in between the two sections through which the animal can pass.

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A diagram of the experimental paradigm that was used to first discover learned helplessness.

The experiment was originally run with dogs. There were two different conditions for the dogs. In both conditions, a light would turn on preceding an electric shock from the floor. What differed between the conditions was how much of the floor was shocked. In one condition, only the compartment that the dog was in when the light turned on got shocked. In the other condition, both compartments delivered a shock.

The behavior of the dogs varied massively between the two conditions. In the condition where only one compartment was shocked at a time, the dogs learned to jump to the other compartment as soon as it saw the light. In the other condition, however, the dogs eventually stopped doing anything at all. They would just lie there and whimper as they were being shocked. As a matter of fact, this was still the behavior of the dogs even after switching to the other condition. These dogs were in a learned helpless state.

The conclusion of the experiment was that the dogs in the second condition had learned that there was nothing that they could do to prevent the shock, and this state persisted even after options became available for the dog to help itself. Learned helplessness is the state of hopelessness and despair when those feelings are at their most vivid.

Learned helplessness is an incredibly powerful emotional tool, and not something that game designers should overlook if they seek to make emotionally powerful games. But there is a huge problem with a game intentionally putting its player in a learned helpless state: the player is not actually trapped inside of the game in the way that the dogs were trapped in the cage. An average player is likely to quit long before they reach a state of despair, just out of frustration.

rage-quit

So in general, if a goal of game design is designing a game that people want to play, it’s probably better to avoid mechanics that make the player feel helpless.

However, some games are able to masterfully deploy learned helplessness without compelling players to give up as a result. One of those games is Undertale (warning: the following section has spoilers for the ending of Undertale). One of the final bosses of the game is Photoshop Flowey, Flowey’s form after he ascends to Godhood by absorbing the souls of six humans. He’s determined not only to defeat the player, but also to show them their powerlessness. To do so, he repeatedly kills the player and crashes their game, all the while telling the player that they can’t win and that they’re doomed to failure. The player learns one thing from Flowey: they can’t win. Personally speaking, the boss fight put me in a state of hopelessness unlike anything I’d felt in a game before.

photoshop-flowey

Photoshop Flowey.

So why doesn’t the player just stop playing? Why aren’t there many rage quits during this boss fight? The answer has to do with a major tagline for the game: “You are filled with DETERMINATION.”

determination-in-undertale

The player sees this line appear every time they save the game, and they are also told not to give up every time that they are killed. The player has been given hints throughout the game regarding what to do during the Photoshop Flowey boss fight: not give up. The learned helplessness induced by Photoshop Flowey is thus made palatable by giving the player an anchor so that they do not quit along the way, and eventually see the other side of the confrontation. Eventually the game does allow the player to win when the souls of the humans rebel against Flowey and help the player defeat him. The game takes the player through an experience of learned helplessness and then helps them come out of it into triumph.

Classical conditioning was discovered by Ivan Pavlov while working with dogs. The experimental paradigm worked as follows. Initially, when Pavlov rang a bell, his dogs would not salivate in response (there is nothing inherently salivation-inducing about the sound of a bell). But, after repeatedly pairing the sound of the bell with giving the dogs food, eventually simply ringing the bell would cause the dogs to salivate. The bell thus became predictive of food, and caused a response of food-expectation from the dogs.

classical-conditioning

A graphical description of classical conditioning.

Classical conditioning forms the basis of player-independent jump scares, especially in terms of suspense. By classically conditioning the player, a movie can create powerful feelings of suspense. While suspense is a powerful horror technique, I will not focus on it in this article other than to say that an effective player-independent jump scare tends be one that has little suspense beforehand, and thus is difficult to predict. One method of making a jump scare work well is to remove any predictive hints that it is about to happen. Thus player-independent jump scares depend on unpredictability to be effective.

But removing the predictive hints is actually harder to do than one may think. In our lives as consumers of media, we have been classically conditioned to consider many different things to be “suspenseful,” and thus predictive of a future jump scare. That’s part of the reason why watching a lot of horror makes jump scares in general less effective: the well-trained eye can see the scares coming. Modern culture has made many player-independent jump scares predictable. Their effectiveness has thus been undermined, and we as viewers are often not scared, or even find them laughable.

But video games are able to avoid the problem of the predictability of player-independent jump scares because of the potential for the use of randomness in games. The potential for video games to randomly generate content makes player-independent jump scares fundamentally less predictable than those of movies. A player-independent scare can just be set up on a random timer, and thus be less predictable than a movie, even in a second or third watching or play-through. Whereas in a movie you could pause at exactly the moment the jump scare occurs, look at the progress bar, and record the time that the bar reads, there is no plausible way to do this in games. An example of one of these random player-independent jump scares in a game comes from Five Nights at Freddy’s. The animatronics will at some point end up at the door to the security room and jump out to kill the player, but this event occurs on a roughly random timer.

pausing-a-movie

A movie can be paused at a particular time. The same thing will be happening in a movie at that particular time every time it is watched. Games are not so consistent.

Thus it is easier in some sense to pinpoint exactly when a jump scare will happen in a movie than it is in a game.

At this point we have most of the tools we need to analyze why it is that Five Nights at Freddy’s will scare you. First, related to operant conditioning, the game-ending jump scares (which are the most potent ones) are player-independent. The player can take action to try to stop the scare from happening, but when the jump scare actually happens there are no player-dependent stimuli preceding it. So the main jump scares end up being player-independent. Second, since player-independent jump scares are more random in games than in movies, and since the game does a good job at hiding the cues for the jump scare, the jump scares are more likely to catch you off guard.

The third and final reason that this game is so effective at scaring its players is that the game induces in the player a state of cognitive overload. I will unpack this term by diving into some neural circuitry so that we can better understand just how Five Nights overload these circuits.

The model of neural circuitry that I will introduce makes use of an important hypothesis in neuroscience: the cellular connectionist hypothesis. The theory states that if we understand how a neuron (the primary communicative cell in the brain) functions, how it communicates to other neurons, and how systems of neurons are connected to each other, then we can understand the function of the brain, and how the brain creates human thought and behavior. One important corollary of this theory is that if a particular communication pathway in the brain is faster than another pathway, the cognitive or behavioral response associated with the former pathway will happen more quickly than the behavior associated with the latter pathway.

The following model will initially appear a bit confusing, but I will break it down piece by piece.

model-of-neural-pathways

A diagram showing the communication pathways between various brain areas.

The chart shows the communication pathways in the brain that progress from sense to cognitive and/or behavioral responses. The four items in the middle are different brain areas that communicate with each other to progress from sense to response. The arrows simply represent communication pathways.

There are four brain areas to consider in this model. The first is the thalamus. I will not be discussing the function of the thalamus in this article, as it is complicated and not inherently related to fear response like the other brains areas I’ve included are. The only function the thalamus plays in the model I’ve presented is a time-waster: it takes longer to pass through the thalamus than it does to just traverse an arrow in the model.

The amygdala (to make an admittedly gross oversimplification) is the fear-center of the brain. When activated, it arouses the body, in a way that can either be positive or negative depending on context. Activation in the amygdala tends to correlate with a feeling of fear.

The prefrontal cortex is an area largely responsible for complex cognition and self-control. Thus most of its function is to suppress action in other areas of the brain, including the amygdala.

In a further top-down process, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex manages the function of the prefrontal cortex. This process often displays as management of multitasking.

There three features of the diagram that I would like to emphasize in particular. The first is that the path from the senses, to the amygdala, to thoughts/feelings/responses is the shortest, and thus fastest, pathway. In contrast, the shortest pathway through the prefrontal cortex runs through the thalamus, and thus takes a little bit longer than the amygdalar pathways. Finally, the three brain areas that I’ve focused on can all communicate with each other.

shortest-neural-pathway

The shortest communication pathway in the model. This one runs through the amygdala.

longer-neural-pathway

A slightly longer communication pathway that runs through the prefrontal cortex.

neural-communication

The three main brain areas in question communicate through the prefrontal cortex.

If we combine these three features of the diagram together with the mechanics of Five Nights at Freddy’s, we can start to get a clearer idea of the cognitive overload the game has the potential to put the player in, and the multiple levels of fear that a player is likely to experience. The mechanics of Five Nights at Freddy’s focus on multitasking. The player needs to keep track of multiple screens, multiple monsters, the battery levels on various devices, and even multiple doors to their room. Thus the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is likely very active while playing Five Nights, as it is working to make sure that the prefrontal cortex is multitasking effectively and efficiently. Normally people are fairly decent at these sorts of multitasking games, but Five Nights adds in the complication of an impending jump scare.

The amygdalar pathway is faster than the more rational prefrontal cortex pathway, meaning that no matter what the player does, it is difficult not be scared for at least a fraction of a second in response to a good jump scare. But, if a person is expecting that a jump scare is coming, the prefrontal cortex can work to suppress the amygdala in order to keep the response from being as strong as it might otherwise be. But this takes work on the part of the prefrontal cortex, and prevents it from multitasking as effectively as it otherwise could. So, in the conditions of cognitive overload that Five Nights at Freddy’s imposes on the player, the player is likely to get scared by the jump scare, likely worried that a jump scare may happen at any moment, and likely anxious that they are not doing tasks well enough to prevent the jump scare. All in all, these are the proper conditions to leave a player a shivering mess (myself included).

So if Five Nights at Freddy’s is so effective at making people uncomfortable, why does anybody play it? One answer to this question relates to hormones in the body. After the jump scare occurs, there is a release of excitatory hormones throughout the body. These excitatory hormones are context-dependent: if you are in a safe place physically and/or mentally, you tend to feel good, and if you are in an unsafe place physically and/or mentally, you will be likely to feel terrible.

When the jump scare is over, hopefully the player detaches from the game a little bit, and realizes that they are in a safe space. So with the added hormone they feel good. So they decide to play another round. And then the hormone rush happens again so they play another round. This cycle could potentially repeat for a long time.[2]

But for two reasons the above cycle will not be infinite. First, players get better at games over time. As this happens, it does not take as much cognitive control to play the game, and the player can dedicate more cognitive effort toward suppressing the amygdala. Second, the player can also habituate to the jump scare, which means that there is less brain activation in response to the fear stimulus than there was when the player was first playing the game. These factors combine to cause less of a fear response upon seeing the jump scare.

In order to keep the players engaged from a neuroscientific and behavioral-psychological perspective is a scarier, more challenging game. In releasing sequels frequently that feature roughly the same gameplay but with more difficult challenges and scarier monsters, the developer of Five Nights at Freddy’s has accomplished exactly that. He’s given the players exactly what they want out of a sequel: a game way harder and scarier than the last one. One can see this progression by looking at the difference in monster art between Five Nights at Freddy’s (original) and Five Nights at Freddy’s 3.

five-nights-at-freddys

An animatronic from the original Five Nights at Freddy’s.

five-nightsat-freddys-3

An animatronic from Five Nights at Freddy’s 3.

We can use behavioral psychology to think about two different kinds of jump scares: player-dependent, and player-independent. Player-dependent jump scares make use of operant conditioning techniques to be effective, particularly by defying players expectations, or never allowing those expectations to form. Player-independent jump scares make use of classical conditioning, and are most effective when the player feels clueless about potential future jump scares.

Neuroanatomical pathways allow us to more precisely understand the jump scares at work in Five Nights at Freddy’s. Since the amygdalar pathway is shorter than the prefrontal cortex pathways, the only way to avoid being scared is to suppress the amygdala ahead of time, which is difficult to do in the cognitive overload situation that Five Nights puts the player in. So the player is highly likely to be scared. Even though the player eventually will habituate to these jump scares, or just get good enough at the game never to encounter one, since there is a new entry of the game every few months, there is always a harder, scarier challenge to take up.

Jump scares are a chance in games to systematically think about how the mechanics of a game emotionally impact the player. Jump scares do not need to be guess-and-check to create; they can be crafted to have precise emotional effects.

Nathan Randall is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out his bio to learn more.

[1] I’d like to thank my fellow With A Terrible Fate game analyst, Matt McGill, for sharing his thoughts about the place of classical and operant conditioning in the context of game design. In this article I both intend to advance my own ideas and to be a conduit for some of Matt’s.

[2] This cycle does not manifest for everyone. Personally, I get so shaken up after a good jump scare that I often end up never playing the game again.

Recap and Looking Forward: With a Terrible Fate at PAX Aus

I and my Featured Authors Nathan Randall and Laila Carter were honored to have such a great turnout this past Saturday evening to our PAX Aus panel on the philosophy, neuroscience, and mythos of horror storytelling in video games. You were a great audience, PAX Aus, and we hope you’ll be able to meet With a Terrible Fate again in years to come. I wanted to take this chance to tell fans about the various ways we’ll be following up on our presentation in the coming weeks, as well as what they can expect from the site more generally in the “Coming Soon” category.

with-a-terrible-fate-pax-aus-audience

Pictured: the 300+ PAX-goers who filled the Dropbear Theatre for With a Terrible Fate‘s horror storytelling panel.

While we weren’t able to record the entirety of the presentation, we do have several video samples from the talk, which we will be publishing. Do check these out and share them if you weren’t able to attend the panel and are interested in With a Terrible Fate‘s take on horror storytelling in the gaming world.

Bloodborne™_20151009211937

Beyond video samples, we’ll also be publishing full-length articles presenting the arguments we made in our presentation on a more granular level. These articles will provide a robust analysis of the games and frameworks that we presented at PAX, and I hope that you’re able to check them out regardless of whether or not you attended the panel. And you can get started on these right now: my presentation on the metaphysics of Bloodborne was based on an article I wrote last year, and you can read it here.

Also, a number of developers approached me after the presentation and asked whether With a Terrible Fate consults on game development. If you’re interested in finding out what our analytic frameworks can do for you and your product, don’t hesitate to reach out either via email at withaterriblefate@gmail.com, via DM @Terrible__Fate on Twitter, or via message on Facebook. I’d be excited to speak with you more specifically about how we could help your particular project.

Finally, viewers can look forward to With a Terrible Fate coming off its content hiatus with a variety of new material. Without giving too much away, you can expect a new take on Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, an exploration of avatar-player dynamics in The Talos Principle, and a return to Final Fantasy… among other articles I can’t even discuss yet. And, as always, be advised that I take requests, if there’s a particular game that you believe should meet With a Terrible Fate.

Thank you once again to everyone at PAX Aus for the honor of presenting. We’re looking forward to keeping in touch with the many gamers we met there, and we’re excited to see what the future holds for gaming and for With a Terrible Fate.

 

Explore Horror with Us at PAX Aus

I’m thrilled to publicly announce on the site that With a Terrible Fate will be presenting a panel at Pax Australia this weekend. We’ll be talking about video game horror in the Dropbear Theatre to 7:30PM-8:30PM, and we hope to see you there. Right now, without giving too much away, I want to give you a taste of what you can expect if and when you meet With a Terrible Fate this weekend.

I, With a Terrible Fate Founder Aaron Suduiko, will team up with Featured Authors Nathan Randall and Laila Carter to discuss what makes horror storytelling special in the medium of video games. We’re each going to take a distinct methodological approach to analyzing video game horror based on our academic backgrounds; my hope is that the combination of our very different analytical perspectives will demonstrate how much people can learn about games by considering them through a variety of theoretical lenses.

Nathan Randall

Nathan will be applying the studies and theories of neuroscience to explore what makes for a really effective jump scare in video games. He’ll discuss various learning and fear mechanisms in our brains, and how games are especially well-positioned as a medium to capitalize on these mechanisms. Along the way, he’ll analyze 5 Nights at Freddy’sUndertale, and even JazzpunkEver thought about the science behind a really good game? There’s a lot to it, and Nate will show you just what makes it all so cool.

 

 

 

 

laila-carterLaila will be exploring how horror storytelling in video games fits into broader, long-standing traditions of horror in folklore, mythology, and literature. What does BioShock have to do with the Odyssey? How does Lovecraftian horror come about in S.O.M.A.? What insight can a Minotaur give us into Amnesia? Laila has answers to all of these questions–oh, and she’ll be talking about “daemonic warped spaces” and P.T., too.

 

 

 

suduiko-video-game-art-presentation

Lastly, I’ll be applying the tools of analytic philosophy, together with my body of work on video game theory, to explore the ways in which games can use the metaphysics of their worlds to generate especially deep-seated and cerebral horror for the player. I’ll argue that the horror of Bloodborne is actually much more realistic than you thought (and you’ll wish I hadn’t shown you why that’s the case). I’ll argue that the metaphysics of Termina imply an interpretation of Majora’s Mask that strays outside the realm of Legend of Zelda canon and instead finds its home in nihilistic terror. I’ll argue that the horror of Silent Hill 2 isn’t fundamentally about James’ relationship with any of the other characters in the town–rather, it’s about his relationship with the player. If you want to get primed for this section (or spoil it for yourself), you can check out my earlier work on Bloodborne and my comprehensive analysis of Majora’s Mask.

We’ll all be hanging around after the panel to answer any questions you may have, and we’ll be around throughout the rest of PAX if you want to keep the conversation going. We’ll also hopefully be able to get the presentation documented in some capacity, so look for that online in the coming week if you can’t make it to PAX Aus.

To all you PAX-goers: see you Saturday.

 

Unclear Control: An Intersection of Player Experience and Game Mechanics

-by Nathan Randall, Featured Author.

I spend a lot of time introducing non-gamers to video games I like. A majority of the time the non-gamer’s reaction is mixed. Amidst moments of excitement and comments about the beauty of the graphics, there are inevitable complaints about lack of clarity in the in-game systems and control scheme of the game. Some of the complaints are completely reasonable, and I agree with them entirely; understanding the implications of the Final Fantasy VIII junction system, or how to jump in Dark Souls without helpful explanation from a friend, seems to me to be a miracle. I quickly forgive these complaints because they are complaints about overly complicated systems.

FF Junction Screen

The Final Fantasy VIII junction screen.

But there is another set of complaints that are much more foundational. These are complaints about the basic systems of a game, which often aren’t that complicated, but are steeped in convention. These complaints have to do with the fact that non-gamers by definition have less experience with the conventions of gaming than a gamer. For example, some of these complaints might be:

  1. How am I supposed to move with one control stick and look with other?
  2. How was I supposed to know that I’m supposed to go to the right?/Where do I go?
  3. How do I pause?

But the following example is, I think, particularly interesting, simply because it’s a problem that every game has to deal with in some way. This is the moment when the person I’m showing a game to has just finished watching the introductory cutscene (or lack thereof), and their avatar is just standing there, gazing off into the distance, until I say, “Hey, you can move now, you know?”

Usually at this point, the person in charge of the avatar jiggles the joystick and, surprised, says, “Oh whoa, you’re right.” Even experienced gamers often get caught off guard at that moment, since they are by nature naive for any given game when they are starting it for the first time. Normally, conversation about that moment of unclear control ends on that note, and never comes up again (unless the player makes the mistake another time). One should ask, why doesn’t the game just inform the player that they’re in control using a text box? And that is one potential solution to this problem. But it’s easy to trivialize the narrative power of a moment like the one described above. The power of a moment that plays with player expectation so effectively should not be overlooked. The mechanics in a game that impact us most are the ones that play with our expectations.[1] Rather than leave the unclear control at the start of a game as a nuisance in the gaming experience, why not use it to tell a game’s story better? There are a few games that have caught on to this narrative power. For example, in Batman: Arkham Knight, when Batman tells Alfred that he’s going to even the odds, and a text prompt appears that says “L1- Even The Odds”, the player shudders with anticipation of what powerful new ability is about to be introduced (or perhaps aware that it will undoubtedly be the Batmobile).

Batman Calling the Batmobile

The prompt for the player to call the Batmobile in Arkham Knight.

In a similar way, some games have played with the accidental mechanical phenomenon of unclear control in order to create experiences that range from satirical comedy to heartbreaking loss.[2]

So what exactly is it that defines “unclear control”? To understand, I’ll propose a framework that will capture the phenomenon of unclear control so we can analyze it. The framework consists of two mechanical elements of games. We’ll then look at the phenomenology associated with the second mechanical element. I’ve created this framework with the intent of explaining unclear control, but I believe it could explain other design decisions as well.

The first mechanical element of the framework is the player’s control state. The control state is the set of ways in which the player can impact the game at any one time t (for this and following explanations I will label a moment in time as variable “t”). Control state is fluid, so it can change over time, based on in-game mechanisms and controls. At time t the control state could be one thing, but it could change to something else at time t + 1 second. But at any time t the player has a definable control state.

The second mechanical element is the actual game state. The actual game state is the collection of all aspects of the current run of the game, including the graphical systems, the music that’s playing, as well as many more internal calculations that vary depending on the game. Each actual game state contains exactly one control state, and there is only one actual game state at time t.

But many aspects of the actual game state do not present to the player’s senses, which leads to the creation of the apparent game state. Many times in a game, the player cannot distinguish between several different game states. Thus, these game states are apparently the same. These actual game states will all be grouped together into one apparent game state. Thinking about it from the other direction, one apparent game state can arise from a variety of actual game states, only one of which is active at time t.

A key aspect of this system is that a particular apparent game state can arise out of several different possible control states because it can arise out of several possible actual game states. The control state in any one particular apparent game state can be ambiguous. I’ll note the key relationships between these ideas below:

  1. Each actual game state contains exactly one control state.
  2. The apparent game state can arise out of any of a set of possible actual game states.
  3. The apparent game state can arise out of several different possible control states.

With this framework we can now define unclear control.

Although the classic example of unclear control is the moment at the end of a cut scene when it is unclear if the game engine is once again taking player input to control the avatar, the mechanical phenomenon is actually more general than that (I describe unclear control as a mechanical phenomenon because it is a phenomenon borne out of the mechanical systems in a game). Unclear control occurs whenever the player is experiencing an apparent game state that contains several different control states.[3] In this way the player has no way to tell how much control they have until they try to give an input.

Unclear control is born out of an inherently frustrating aspect of video games: the question of how to communicate to the player that they are in control. And historically, games have had differing ways of dealing with this problem, including giving tutorials, and text-prompted hints. However, many game companies did not realize that this was a problem that they had to deal with in any particular way, and so when the initial dialogue ends at the start of the game, the avatar is left just standing there until the player figures out that they are in control. Thus, in its first appearances, unclear control is a frustrating, absent-minded, and accidentally created mechanical phenomenon. But, some game creators recognized that unclear control could be used to create narrative power, and so kept creating systems that utilized unclear control, even though it is frustrating for players initially, so that they can tell stories in a more intriguing way in the latter portions of the game. On that note, let’s turn to a few examples.

Final Fantasy VI Cover ArtFinal Fantasy VI makes use of unclear control frequently throughout the game. Dialogue sections (parts of the game in which the only player input possible is to click a button to make the next dialogue box appear) often have no visible or auditory transition back into player control once the dialogue box disappears, so when they end, the player’s avatar is left standing there until the player decides to move. But sometimes there are dialogue sequences in which the player’s character just stands in place, without making a sound, with no dialogue box present. Thus, the two most common ways to know whether the dialogue section has concluded are to try to move your avatar, or just to just wait for so long that the dialogue section could not reasonably still be going. I doubt that many players actually do the latter, so I will assume that in general the way of checking to see if a dialogue section is over is to press a movement button once the dialogue box has disappeared.

This brings us to an example of how unclear control can be used to forward a game’s narrative. At one point in Final Fantasy VI, Locke, one of the game’s protagonists, gets put on a mission with a previous romantic flame named Celes, who he thought had been killed earlier in the game. They bump into each other accidentally late at night outside of the inn at which they are staying. Locke attempts to apologize to her for an earlier transgression, but she won’t respond. After a moment she runs away from Locke, off-screen. Locke is left silent, staring off in the direction that she ran. At this point I impulsively tried to run after her, thinking that the dialogue section had concluded and my next goal was to find her and tell her that I didn’t hate her (chasing after characters is a recurring objective in the game). My goal at that point implicitly became to chase after Celes. But it turned out that the game hadn’t yet handed control back to me yet. The game was actually in a different control state. Instead of giving control back to me, the game slowly faded into black. But my experience should not be considered unique, because the gameplay itself is what gave me the goal to chase after her.

Locke and Celes

Locke encounters Celes outside of the inn.

Through unclear control, the game gives the player a goal—to chase after Celes—that is not actually achievable based on the metaphysics of the game world. I could not act on my desire to pursue Celes, just like Locke couldn’t. The unclear control in this example potentially creates a palpable feeling in the player of the difference between what is wanted and what is done. Regardless of the amount of player emotional investment, the apparent game state creates the illusion that the in-game goal is to chase after Celes, because the dialogue section appears to have concluded and the player is given an indication of where to go to follow her. Thus in some sense the player feels they can and should chase after her. But the volition cannot turn into action. When it comes down to it, Locke doesn’t chase after her, no matter how much he might want to. And then comes the feeling of failure—the feeling of not acting on your desires and also not helping a friend. Through unclear control, the game can express to the player a feeling of knowing what you want but being unable to incite yourself to action. I challenge any medium other than games to express this feeling as eloquently as Final Fantasy VI does.

My next example, from Undertale (by the magnificent Toby Fox), is not nearly as emotionally charged: the goal is satire on JRPGs (Japanese Role Playing Games). So in order to understand it, I’ll need to describe the trope that is being made fun of. A great example of the trope in action comes from Final Fantasy IX. Zidane, the character that the player controls through a majority of the game, walks into a room mostly filled with water, with a bridge through it. Once the player walks into the room, the player loses control of Zidane, and then a dialogue section ensues. There is a moment of pause before a serpent slides out from a hole in the wall and falls into the water. There is another pause before the serpent attacks and a battle starts.

Zidane at the serpent encounter

The room where Zidane encounters the serpent monster.

Thus the formula is born. The player is in control, walking along, and a certain location will cause the control to be taken from the player. A monster appears and does something. Then, after a pregnant pause, the monster attacks and a battle begins. One should note that in order to use this particular series of events, generally the game must be discontinuous between the battle word and overworld, featuring a transition of some sort between the two worlds (most older JRPGs work this way).

An important detail of this particular trope is that it teaches the player something about their control state during the events leading up to the battle. When the avatar stops, they know that they are no longer in the control state that allows them to move their avatar. But after the monster appears, a naive player may try moving again, to see if they have regained control. These games have now standardized that after a monster appears and control is taken from the player, control will not be given back to them until after the ensuing battle. This is not a necessary truth, just a standardized one.

Undertale features a moment very similar to the one in Final Fantasy IX described above. One need only take a look at the two pictures below to see the similarity in the circumstances. In both cases the player is walking into a room filled with water, and there is a bridge across it. In a similar fashion, the characters both stop on the bridge only to be interrupted by a monster.

 

Zidane after defeating the serpent

Zidane stands in the room where he just defeated the serpent.

The player encountering OnionSan

The player encounters OnionSan.

Now, Undertale is incredibly ambiguous between two of its control states in particular: walking around the world, and dialogue. The apparent game state for the two control states is the same whenever the dialogue box is absent, especially during transitions between the control states. Dialogue sections almost always start with only an abrupt change in control state (taking control away from the player), and they almost always end by returning control to the player. Often very little indication is given that a transition has been made.

So when the player is stopped on the bridge, the player immediately knows that they’ve entered a dialogue section. The monster, who we find out is named OnionSan, shows up and talks for a little while, immediately activating the conditioning any regular JRPG player has experienced. After OnionSan is done talking, all of these non-naive players are ready and waiting through the pregnant pause for the battle to start. But, little do they know, the game has actually changed the control state for the player: they are back in control. When finally they do decided to try to move, they are rewarded with watching the avatar awkwardly shuffle across the screen. With the use of an unclear control state, Undertale has fashioned a moment that is awkward both in dialogue and in the actions of the player. And since the moment repeats a few times before the player makes it to the next room (without ever fighting OnionSan), the awkwardness is effectively prolonged, leading to wonderful participatory satire.

Creating ambiguity in the amount of control the player has at any one moment can be an effective means in many occasions of tying humor or story into the very mechanics of a game—a key part of the player experience. Final Fantasy VI used unclear control to give insight into Locke’s state of mind through the implicit creation of in-game goals—to experience firsthand how multiple options appeared possible, but only one choice was made. Undertale used the unclear control to satirically challenge a common trope in the JRPG genre. And I’m sure that with more searching, other brilliant examples of narratively powerful unclear control could easily pop up. But what’s most important, I think, is that unclear control takes use of what is often a frustrating or embarrassing experience for a player (not being sure whether or not they have control of the avatar) and turns it into a tool to use to expand player experience. What other frustrating aspects of games can we hijack in a similar fashion? Games don’t have to be frustrating, even for new players. If an element of the design of a game is frustrating, it should be removed (if it can be). And if it is not removed then it should be used as part of the storytelling experience. Rather than stick like glue to our common mechanical conventions, game designers should make use of their mechanics to expand their story, or maybe at least tell a joke. Let’s make use of how the mechanics of our games make players feel to enhance the experience. Let’s shoot for the standards set by Final Fantasy VI and Undertale, and use all the tools we have available to us to tell our stories.

Nathan Randall is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out his bio to learn more.

[1] “Game mechanics are constructs of rules and methods designed for interaction with the game state, thus providing gameplay” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_mechanics).

[2] If we define a phenomenon as the object of a person’s perception, unclear control would be a mechanical phenomenon because it’s something that a person notices that is based on the mechanics of the game. I describe it as accidental because, to the best of my knowledge, no one desired to create unclear control in the design for their games in its first appearances.

[3] It may also be interesting to consider the situation in which players have no control. Is WHETHER a player has control relevantly different from HOW MUCH control a player has in any particular way? Are there special characteristics for the “null set” within this model? I’m not entirely sure what the answers to these questions are. But if we find the answers, they may help fill out the model in a more complete way. I’m eager to hear any thoughts/examples. If I find an intriguing idea I’ll likely write about it in the future.

Bayonetta: Female Sexuality and Agency in Video Games

by Laila Carter, Featured Author.

Equipped with her four guns and always waging war against the heavenly army, the Umbra Witch Bayonetta has become one of the most recognizable female characters in gaming. Some people have (understandable) qualms with Bayonetta as a character: they claim that her over-sexualization – making someone excessively sexual whether in looks or actions – only attracts people to look at her body for pleasure, and that viewers do not respect her as a women of agency. However, judging by the many reactions people had when she was announced as the newest character in the last Super Smash Brothers game, I do not think that this is true. People respect Bayonetta and her abilities despite her over-the-top sexuality, or, as I argue, because of it. She is one of the few women in video games who is overtly sexy yet owns her sexiness, incorporating it in her personality. She is not simply some side-girl with no purpose other than to show off her huge breasts. She is the main star of her game and kicks major butt with witch power and sexual grace, showing off a butt-shot here and there simply because she feels like it. Bayonetta has agency of her own over-sexuality; She has the ability for a character to create and change the way she presents herself, and she does so by owning her image and enjoying every minute of it.

Let me be clear about the goal of this article: I am not discussing whether or not Bayonetta is a feminist icon in gaming. That discussion is an ongoing one[1] that will probably never be fully answered, but it has no place here. I am instead discussing how Bayonetta uses her sexuality in a different way than most women in video games.

Bayonetta, The Male Gaze, and Agency

When watching film or animation, certain topics tend to appear when analyzing how and why a scene is shot. The most relevant film term here is the term “gaze”; its definition is to “look at steadily and intently, in fixed attention.” In film studies,[2] “the male gaze” specifically refers to when the camera positions itself so as to objectify the woman (or women) on screen. The audience does not view the woman as a person, but rather as an object, thanks to camera angles and movement, character attire, or scene setting (for a simple example, a woman lying in bed in a provocative manner). You can use these terms when talking about any visual medium, like comics, art, television, and video games. The types of art that use the “male gaze” depend on spectators’ scopophilia: deriving pleasure in looking at a woman for sexual interest. Scopophilia is what feminist film critics argue heavily against because the “male gaze” reduces women on screen to an object rather than to a character. By “object,” I mean a thing that one can own and handle as their own, and by “character” I mean an fictional entity representing an intelligent and sentient being that has its own independent existence. Critics and gamers have argued against Bayonetta’s entire character because of the “male gaze” the game’s cinematics produce; they claim that she invites spectators to look at her for her over-sexual body and not for her actual character.[3]

While I agree that the “male gaze” is a problem in film and animation, I do not think it can fully apply to Bayonetta’s character. To demonstrate, I will compare Bayonetta to the comic heroine Power Girl of the DC Universe, and to another controversial video game heroine, Tracer from Overwatch. Through Power Girl and Tracer, I will show the inconsistency between their character design – the way they look – and their character development – the way they act, feel, and understand the world as a whole. The inconsistency between design and development is a common way to distort female characters and attract the “male gaze,” having viewers focus on appearance rather than the overall character; And yet, this flaw of design and development does not exist within Bayonetta’s character.

The comic book heroine Power Girl is a tough, short-tempered superhero who has all the superpowers of Superman, except that she as a very low tolerance of nonsense. Her outfit, though, is more suggestive. It is a leotard, but it has a huge hole at the chest, which reveals Power Girl’s unnaturally huge breasts. While Bayonetta does possess unnatural body portions, mainly in her freakishly long legs, her sexual organs – breasts and backside – are fairly normal. Power Girl’s obviously enlarged and showcased breasts attract the “male gaze,” inviting viewers to read her comic for sexual pleasure rather than for her actual story. Her sexualized character design contradicts her character development, ignoring her no-nonsense personality, making it apparent that her outfit and body were not of her own design. The only explanation for these features is that the creators wanted her to look that sexualized; nothing in her own personality and behavior suggests that she would ever wear such an outfit (especially with breasts as big as those – one jump and they are flying right out).

Another good example of character inconsistency comes from a recent controversial pose of a female character. In Blizzard’s new team-based shooter Overwatch, the most iconic character, Tracer, had a new victory pose that some people did not like.[4] In the shot, she had an “over-the-shoulder” look, meaning her back was as the camera while her head looks over the shoulder. With her back to the camera, she shows off her orange behind, Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 9.39.05 PM.pngfully outlined in tight spandex. Tracer is a fun-loving, silly, and friendly character, but the pose had nothing “to do with the character [Blizzard] is creating.” The argument does not call out all female heroes in the game (such as a sniper who purposely “flaunts her sexuality” to distract her enemies, so it makes more sense for her to be showing off her behind), but does not approve of Tracer’s pose because it showed that “at any moment [the creators] are willing to reduce [female characters] to sex symbols.” The pose contradicted her personality and was very jarring in comparison to her character development. The article sparked a huge discussion to the point where Blizzard studios removed the pose altogether.[5]

On the other hand, Bayonetta’s black, detailed body-suit establishes her as a sexy character. She is a flirtatious and dramatic dominatrix, not afraid of showing off her sexy body to anyone who is willing to watch. Her skin-tight outfit, in both games, pronounces her behind, but not so much her breasts. It creates a strange balance of sexualization, not making her too top-heavy but still allowing her to flaunt her body. It would not make sense if she wore a modest outfit, just like it does not make sense that tough and cranky Power Girl wears an overtly suggestive one. Her design works well and builds upon her character development, making her a more consistent character overall, one that does not feel like the creators wanted to give her a sexy overfit for the sake of sexiness.

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The most important aspect about Bayonetta’s character design is that her sexuality does not seem out of place. Bayonetta takes full control of her sexiness and unashamedly shows it off. She is a dominatrix, sexy yet intimidating and powerful. She poses erotically as she performs killing blows on her enemies. She summons demons fully naked, making the most ridiculous and sexy stances in the game. Everything about Bayonetta reflects over-the-top female sexuality that startles, shocks, and impresses its viewers. Her hair-woven outfit and appearance in general match her abundant sexiness in her speech and actions. Unlike many other female character designs that have no business being sexual, Bayonetta’s design encompasses her sexuality in all aspects of her person: her outfit, her personality, her behavior, and her gameplay (more on that later). She has agency – the ability to create and change – over her sexuality and revels in it, using it as a means to portray who she is as a person. If you take away her sexiness, Bayonetta would cease to be Bayonetta.

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In both of Bayonetta’s games, she exhibits her over-sexualization in two media: cutscenes and gameplay. Both produce different iterations of Bayonetta, as the prolonged cutscenes are more blatantly sexual than the gameplay, but the latter produces many instances of Bayonetta flaunting her body, triggered by the player’s choice in attack. I will discuss both separately in order to further argue my case that Bayonetta has the ability to create and change her own over-sexuality.

Bayonetta in Cutscenes

When you are first introduced to Bayonetta, chances are that you think she is just another over-sexualized female character in gaming. You load Bayonetta 2 and start the story by watching the first cinematic cutscene of the game. You see Bayonetta in a fancy shopping outfit strolling down the sidewalk, when a fighter jet barrels towards her. She stops it, leaps on top of another one in midair, and faces the horde of angelic monsters that confront her. They attack, she dodges; but in the process, the angels’ weapons tear away her outfit, presenting her in the middle of the sky fully naked (luckily, shading prevents the game from being pornography). She then summons her hair to wrap around her nude body, creating her outfit (yes, it is made out of her hair) as she poses dramatically. She then proceeds to destroy the angels in a series of sexy and over-the-top attacks before the game drops you into gameplay.

Bayonetta’s cutscenes are, to put it mildly, absurd.

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If players manage to survive the opening cutscene, then they realize Bayonetta’s over-sexualization definitely earns the word “over.” Bayonetta performs ridiculous stunts, flying through hell on a giant demonic horse, avoiding weapons by spreading her legs, or participating in a sexy posing contest with an enemy angel. She may perform her actions in sexual ways, but everything happens so fast and so outrageously that it leaves one in utter surprise rather than in sexual pleasure. Bayonetta will summon a demon and slap an angel’s behind in the same scene, and the player can barely process all the images and what they imply. The over-sexualization of the opening scene is mainly for shock value: the combination of the presentation and subject material makes it hard for the viewer to take everything seriously. Bayonetta’s sexuality is less for visual pleasure than for people to stop and question what they just saw, to rethink the entire situation that Bayonetta is in. This is especially true if you play the game for the first time and have never seen the cutscenes. Bayonetta’s over-sexualization is so absurd and over-the-top that it becomes comical – it is nonsensical shock-value entertainment. Even when players watch the cutscenes and Bayonetta’s poses for the third or fourth time, nothing gets old; it’s still fascinating how Bayonetta creates an extravagant show out of her own sexuality.

Bayonetta in Game Design

People are sometimes rightfully frustrated with female characters in video games because of their narrative placement: that is, when a woman appears in the narrative and what she does to impact the story. Many women appear in DLC, or in no gameplay at all–they are there to help, but are never fully playable. They are in the game to be rescued, to help the main protagonist but never accomplish anything by themselves, or for the infamous factor of sex appeal. This kind of representation of women becomes more frustrating when the designers decide to sexualize female characters that are crucial to the narrative. For example, Kaine from Nier is not playable at all and shows up to assist the protagonist Nier most of the time. She[6] is important to the story, but her apparent lack of agency over her own story (she gets possessed by a monster at one point, and it’s up to the player whether she lives or dies) can be very disheartening for people who want her to have more control in her own narrative. In addition, her skimpy outfit barely covers her body, revealing most of her behind,[7] and greatly contradicts her cold and anger personality (much like Power Girl). Her character placement is frustrating because her lack agency over her own story and her contradictory design, which invites the “male gaze” to mostly “gaze” at her cutscenes. Kaine’s sexualized (and unnecessary) character design and placement makes it seem like she is in the story mainly for the player’s pleasure, and not for a consistent character development.

Bayonetta, on the other hand, is the main and most prominent character of her game (it is named after her). Her character placement is the center stage, and the player does most of the action through her character. She is playable 98% of both games,[8] and, more importantly, she is the active character of the game. Active characters change the environment and story according to their own will.[9] In the first Bayonetta, she decides to head to the ancient city Vigrid to figure out her past and find her lost memories. Without spoiling anything, in the end she reclaims who she is as a person and fights for both what’s right and for the safety of the world. In Bayonetta 2, she decides to venture into Inferno itself, ignoring the improbability of survival in order to save her near-dead best friend Jeanne. She rekindles relationships with many characters and saves the world in the process, again. In the first Bayonetta, the plot revolves around her self-discovery and asserting her right to live, and in the second Bayonetta, the plot follows her selfless adventure to save her one true friend. She is not a side character present in order to assist the protagonist, nor is she unessential to the plot. The narrative would not exist without her taking charge, without her deciding her own fate, and without her overcoming all obstacles with the strength and willpower of her one-woman army.

Not only does she direct the game’s story (as a well-designed character should do) by making her own decisions and changing the course of the narrative, but Bayonetta has also become one of the most powerful figures in video games. This is important because, as I have stated before, many women who are sexualized are portrayed as weak compared to other characters (protagonists especially) in the story. On the other hand, Bayonetta is ridiculously strong and is arguably the strongest character in the game. In terms of gameplay, Bayonetta has one of the most fluid and powerful combo systems containing a large variety of options that never make the gameplay dull. She acquires different weapons that can pair with other weapons to form even more combos. These weapons range from sharp and deadly swords to a giant hammer, from ice skates to whips, and from a living scythe to a bulky grenade launcher. Every weapon has a unique demon that Bayonetta can summon either if the player uses the right attack combination or if the player initiates umbra Climax, a mode in Bayonetta 2 in which Bayonetta’s attacks increase in magical strength. In this mode, Bayonetta manifests larger versions of her normal attacks and can summon her large personal demons more easily. Everything on screen explodes in purple magic with Bayonetta glowing, and the players gets a rushing sense of exhilaration. They can feel her magical power whenever they destroy a fleet of angels with her giant, demonic punches, and they can feel the true strength of an Umbra witch when they annihilate a boss as big as battleship. The player feels powerful through Bayonetta, that they, through her, can conquer any obstacle standing in the way. Cutscenes may show off some of Bayonetta’s fighting power in sexy and comical ways, but players get real understanding of her ridiculous and amazing strength through gameplay. Her combos and demonic summons demonstrate the full force of an Umbra Witch, a being who is not to be trifled with.

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To top it off, Bayonetta incorporates her sexiness in all of her gameplay. Some attack combos have Bayonetta perform acrobatic stunts, which she finishes with dramatic and flirtatious poses. For example, when Bayonetta attacks with her “breakdance” move, she spins around on the ground, shooting bullets in a whirlwind that does great damage to nearby enemies. She stops this attack by lying on the ground with her behind in the air, arching her back and winking directly at the camera (breaking the 4th wall). Torture attacks are special summons that produce great damage or instantly kill enemies. When she summons them, Bayonetta usually performs another sexy pose; for example she can summon a tombstone to flatten enemies, and when the heavy stone lands, she squats with her knees spread and makes a face, all like she is posing for the camera (the flattened enemy is behind her). The funniest are the punish attacks, where she will sit on top of a fallen enemy and slap them to death, usually on their butt. It is highly sexual and creates the picture of Bayonetta as a dominatrix; yet the player prompts Bayonetta to use her punish attacks because they are incredibly efficient in dealing with enemies, not just because they are sexy.

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The most sexually revealing of Bayonetta’s attacks are her demonic summons, yet they are the most spectacular parts of the game. Bayonetta summons her large inferno demons at the end of mini boss fights, boss fights, after certain attack combos, or during umbra Climax in Bayonetta 2. She can call forth beasts such as Gomorrah, a dragon, Diomedes, a Unicorn whose horn is a giant sword, and the infamous Madame Butterfly, her personal female demon whose limbs Bayonetta summons the most for fighting. The witch even uses her to fight against an equally strong opponent angel, resulting in an grand aerial battle between Bayonetta and a Lumen Sage in the foreground (the fight the player controls) and between the giants of Madame Butterfly and the angel Temperantia in the background. Demonic beasts encompass the entire screen, finishing off other large enemies with ease. In order to summon such monsters, Bayonetta uses her hair; her hair, though, is what makes up her clothing, so in order to summon demons, Bayonetta has to be naked. It is a little startling when a player first summons Madame Butterfly’s fist and Bayonetta appears nearly naked on the screen. It is not complete nudity: gray shading covers her breasts, stomach, vagina, and behind, but she still does not wear any clothes. She will appear like this in regular combat, whereas in cutscenes she will be naked, but with her hair blocking anything inappropriate. When she summons demons for a grand finisher, her nakedness is more suggestive as the gray shading is no longer present and only weaves of hair cover her private areas. It is over-sexual to the extreme: the over-the-top, ridiculous, and absurd nature of Bayonetta’s near-nudity adds even more to the shock value of game, making players ask whether if what they saw on screen really happened. Playing as Bayonetta gives the player a whirlwind of initial confusion and shock, but it never deters from the thrill of overpowering enemies by summoning a giant canine to tear them to shreds.

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Bayonetta’s attacks are graceful and powerful, exhibiting the female body throughout the gameplay. Her moves mean business, and that’s what is so great about Bayonetta. She is over-sexualized, but she defeats her enemies with overwhelming strength. She fights legions of both Paradiso and Inferno, angels and demons, minions and giant bosses, and still is able to pull a dramatic pose at the end of fighting. Her prominent display of her feminine body is empowering; in art media, the female body is usually presented as sign of weakness – something undesirable for the self to become – or as sexual interest – something desirable for the self to possess. Bayonetta demonstrates through her gameplay that having a female body does not make a person any less powerful: that one can have sexy breasts or a sexy behind and still defeat any enemy that comes one’s way. She proves that the female body is not a sign of weakness but of strength, because she accepts the body she was given and is proud of it.

Conclusion

Bayonetta’s agency of her over-sexualization makes her a wonderful female character. Many female characters have no agency at all, making their visual design mismatch their personality and behavior, thereby creating bad character design. With many fictional female characters – whether in movies, TV shows, animation, comics, or video games – female sexuality is present for the spectators, and not for the woman herself. She is sexy for the appeal of the audience, but not for her own tastes and pleasure. Bayonetta, however, fully enjoys her over-sexualization and professes it to the world, which is apparent in both cutscenes and gameplay. Who would perform sexy poses while in the midst of battle if they did not love their own body? She has full agency over her entire character – she owns her outfit, her sexiness, her personality, her narrative actions (meaning decisions she makes within the story),[10] and her goals, and nothing stops her from believing in herself, sexiness and all. Her sexiness does not make up her entire character, either: she is courageous, witty, commanding, headstrong, and compassionate for her friends and family. Bayonetta is not a character who only has a game to exhibit her undying sexiness: she is there to teach her enemies a lesson and display real emotions at the same time. Looking sexy while doing it is just a good bonus. Bayonetta exemplifies that it is okay for a woman to be sexy if the woman wants to be sexy; you can have characters with sexy breasts, a sexy butt, and a sexy personality, and that’s fine as long as the characters are okay with it. This applies to both fictional characters and real people, male and female. Yes, it would be outstanding to have a female character who is just as powerful, prominent, and successful as Bayonetta without the intense over-sexualization; but I, a straight woman, do enjoy Bayonetta’s abundant sexiness because, for once, she also enjoys her own sexiness and celebrates it for her own sake.

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Laila Carter is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out her bio to learn more.

[1] http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2014/10/femme-doms-of-videogames-bayonetta-doesnt-care-if.html

[2] Feminist Film Studies, to be precise.

[3] https://gomakemeasandwich.wordpress.com/2011/06/03/bayonetta-and-the-male-gaze/

[4] The original post and the huge discussion it caused: http://us.battle.net/forums/en/overwatch/topic/20743015583. Another video explaining the pose: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hf5SdrJoOdc

[5] The only reason I had any problem with the pose is because Tracer had no butt to show off – it’s non-existent and looks weird to me.

[6] Kaine is a hermaphrodite, but most people use she/her pronouns to describe her.

[7] I understand the argument for why she reveals most her skin – that she must expose the most skin to sunlight in order to control the monster possessing her – but it’s still shady. It is also in great contrast to her cold, calm, and shy personality.

[8] The other 2% you play as Jeanne, her best friend, and Loki, an important side character.

[9] For more on active and passive characters: http://readingwithavengeance.com/post/77195680492/on-writing-active-vs-passive-characters

[10] As a video game avatar, Bayonetta cannot completely control her actions: her fighting and traveling is in the hands of the player. But in terms of her crucial decisions and how she responds to certain events, Bayonetta has control.

Beyond the Moral Binary: Decision-Making in Video Games

by Richard Nguyen, Featured Author.

Video games designers engineer worlds receptive to player input. Players are empowered with the agency to make decisions that can change the course of the game’s narrative and the characters within it. This decision-making is a core, interactive tenet of video games. In emulating the experience of choice and deliberation, there are various elements that designers must consider. Key among them is morality, or the principles humans hold to distinguish between “right” and “wrong” behavior, and how it influences player choice. The mechanics of moral decision-making across video games have been diverse, and only sometimes effective. In the time I have spent playing narrative games with morality as a central component and game mechanic, I have found that the games with the most minimal and least intrusive systems better emulate not only moral decision-making, but also the emotional consequences that follow. Presenting morality as its own discrete game mechanic is counter-intuitive, because it diminishes the emotional impact and self-evaluation of moral decision-making.

To begin, I will be applying a rudimentary framework of morality to fuel this discussion because the focus is not on morality proper, but on how it influences player choice. Video games that use the moral binary framework present to the player three possible moral courses of action: good, bad, and, sometimes, neutral. For our purposes, we will assume that the majority of players are good-natured, and believe in what society deems and teaches them to be “right” or “good.” At the very least, players understand what should be done. This includes, but is not limited to, altruism and cooperation. Good moral decisions often require self-sacrifice to achieve a greater good. Your avatar will sacrifice money for the emotional satisfaction of having donated to a virtual beggar. “Wrong” or “bad” behaviors, then, violate moral laws. Such behaviors include, but are not limited to, murder, lying, cheating, and stealing. Video games present morally “wrong” or “evil” choices as temptation, the desire to make the easier, selfish choice. Of course, life is not so simple as “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad.” To clarify, I will be using “good” and “right” to refer to the same concept, and will be using them interchangeably. The same applies to “bad” and “wrong”. The “neutral” alternative describes behaviors with no moral value, which is often presented as inaction in gaming scenarios. A flavored subset of the “neutral” choice is the “morally gray” choice, occupying a middle area between “good” and “bad” in which the moral value of an action is unclear. For instance, a typically “wrong” behavior, such as stealing, may be inflected with the “right” intention, such as stealing medicine in order to save your dying sister. In this situation, it is difficult to value the action as fully “good” or “bad”.

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The moral binary of Infamous (discussed below).

I outline this moral theory under the assumption that players’ moral beliefs will extend to the decisions they make as the avatar in the game world. Of course, players often experiment with moral decision-making in games by “role-playing” the good or bad person, but such an action already makes players acknowledge their pre-existing moral beliefs. At this point, players become detached enough from the avatar, under the knowledge that the avatar’s actions do little to reflect their own moral selves, that they would care drastically less about the consequences of such actions. I will instead be examining the cases in which players seek to make decisions in games as if their avatars were a full extension of their moral selves. In other words, players make decisions as if their own moral selves were truly operating in this world. Therefore, players would care more about how their decisions accurately reflect their moral beliefs. Otherwise, there are little to no personal stakes involved in decisions when you know they say nothing about you.  

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Fallout‘s Good and Evil (discussed below).

Designers often abide by the convention that morally right decisions are selfless and performed for the greater good, while morally wrong decisions are selfish and performed for personal gain. Players that make the morally right decision often engage in the more difficult and complicated narrative pathway. For instance, choosing to ignore a mission directive in order to save an endangered life may lead to punishment, and requires the player to work harder make up for lost time or resources. In spite of the extra layer of difficulty, these morally right decisions are more emotionally rewarding because they preserve the player’s conscience. Again, we assume that the majority of players inherently abide by what society deems to be right and wrong. Players that make the morally wrong decisions engage in the more expedient pathway that facilitates direct personal gain. For instance, choosing to ignore endangered civilian lives in order to fulfill the mission directive leads to no direct punishments. Instead, the consequences of this morally “wrong” decision come through the emotions of guilt and disappointment due to its violation of the player’s conscience. This is not to say that players are discouraged from making morally “wrong” decisions in video games. Rather, having players choose either a “good” or “bad” decision places responsibility on their own hands, rather than the writer’s. Allowing players to explore the emotional consequences of both ends of the moral spectrum forces them to reevaluate their own beliefs. In the case of the moral binary in video games, such reevaluation turns into the reaffirmation of societal norms. Designers use this moral theory in decision-making to reinforce the conventional meaning of “right” and “wrong.”

The two primary elements of morality in a video game context are intention and behavior. The player’s intentions are enacted through the avatar’s in-game behavior. In other words, the decisions made in a video game are determined by player intention. The behavior can be objectively categorized into “right” and “wrong” according to the game’s narrative. However, the behavior carries with it the player’s intention, which cannot definitively be measured or categorized by the game itself. The player’s subjective experience is then the key factor in determining how well the video game emulates moral decision-making. What the avatar feels is independent of the player’s own feelings as a result of a moral decision. With the binary morality system, designers make a direct appeal to the player and his or her moral beliefs.

The psychological phenomenon of “cognitive dissonance,” where one’s conflicting and inconsistent behaviors and beliefs cause discomfort, drives the consequences of moral decision-making. This internal, emotional conflict compels a person to change one of those beliefs/behaviors in order to reduce such discomfort. When good-natured players make a morally “wrong” decision in a videogame, their beliefs will be inconsistent with their behavior. Even if the player unwittingly or does not believe that they made a morally “wrong” decision, the game’s systems will still punish and treat them as if they did. For example, a person playing Grand Theft Auto 5 may fire a gun in public and not believe that it is wrong or against the law. The game’s systems, in the form of police, will nevertheless respond negatively. The player is left to reconcile his moral beliefs with those of the video game. There are three likely responses when a good-natured person (as we assume the majority of us are) makes a morally wrong decision: (1) change your beliefs to be more consistent with your behavior, (2) live with and accept the discomfort and inconsistency, or (3) sublimate, and find a reason or rationale to justify your inconsistency. The idea is that cognitive dissonance creates the emotion of discomfort. The first two options are labeled as truer dissonance scenarios because they are done in response to such discomfort. Option (3), on the other hand, precludes discomfort because the sublimation will have already taken place due to a third-party influence. Thus, players are not made aware of the inconsistency and continues, unaffected by their moral decision. From my experience, the most effective moral systems have compelled me to respond with Options (1) and (2), which most align with realistic moral decision-making and the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. By provoking the visceral discomfort of making a decision you realize was inconsistent with your beliefs, you will ostensibly be more compelled to respond. When video games inspire Option (3), sublimation, the player transfers responsibility to a third party and is therefore relieved of any personal, emotional consequence. Sublimation allows players to rationalize or provide an external explanation for their behavior. Therefore, responsibility for that moral decision is displaced, which mitigates any true feelings of cognitive dissonance. This is not to say that Option (3) never occurs in realistic moral decision-making. I am arguing that the modern video game most often counter-intuitively facilitates this transfer of responsibility, even when their goal is to appeal to or challenge a player’s moral beliefs through cognitive dissonance.

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Pictured: Leon Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance Model, with three possible actions (in green) that a subject could implement to reduce cognitive dissonance.

Now that I have clarified both my moral framework and the role cognitive dissonance plays in moral decision-making, I will analyze how these work in popular video games that use the moral binary framework. I will examine its role and evolution in several narrative-driven open-world and role-playing games. We will start from the simplest, most direct binary systems and work our way into games that add eschew the binary for more minimalist approaches.

In the Infamous series, the player must decide whether his avatar (Cole), a super-being with electric-based powers, will be a “hero” (good) or a “villain” (bad). In order to secure the most successful playthrough, in which the player unlocks the strongest abilities and completes the narrative, players must commit to one moral path and constantly commit the deeds that earn them either good or bad karma points. Each path provides unique abilities inaccessible in the other, incentivizing commitment to one moral path rather than neutrality. As a result, players have access to only two viable playthroughs of the same story. The hero playthrough facilitates a precise and focused combat play style while keeping your electricity blue, and the villain playthrough facilitates a chaotic and destructive combat playstyle while turning your electricity red. In order to earn karma points, the player must constantly engage in activities consistent with the respective path, as demarcated by the video game itself. Good karma points are earned by helping citizens and choosing the good prompt instead of the bad during pivotal story events. Bad karma points are earned by destroying the city, murdering citizens, and choosing the bad prompt instead of the good during pivotal story events. There are no neutral or morally grey options. A player’s karma meter is plastered on the heads-up display (“HUD”) to remind the player that their actions are omnisciently tracked and scored, essentially turning morality into its own mini-game.

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Karmic decisions in Infamous 2.

In spite of its blatant tracking and systematic reminders, Infamous’s binary morality system is comically shallow and ineffective in producing realistic emotional consequences. The game reduces moral decision-making to a binary, because it can only be completed upon fulfillment of either the hero or villain pathways. The narrative makes its morality clear in that heroes are “good” and villains are “bad.” For the ordinary player, the only choice then is to consider whether they want to be consistent with their own good-natured beliefs and choose the hero path, or to deviate from the norm and explore moral violations as a villain. Aside from the joys of blowing everything up, choosing the villain’s path should then inspire some amount of discomfort, which should consequently lead to either (1) a change in player attitude to coincide with the behavior, (2) an acceptance of the discomfort, or (3) sublimation. The game’s blatant morality system in all cases inspires sublimation, and therefore fails to provoke any genuine cognitive dissonance within the player for several reasons.

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Karmic choice in Infamous Second Son.

First of all, Infamous’s blatant tracking turns morality into a purposeful meta-game to be conquered. Therefore, the goal to reach the highest karma levels is extrinsically motivated by in-game rewards such as unlockable abilities, rather than intrinsically motivated by the game’s narrative. The sheer volume of moral decisions the player makes as Cole are driven not by how the player would act, but by what moral pathway the player committed to at the very beginning. This allows for little moral experimentation on a case-by-case basis, as the player’s goal is to globally make either good or bad decisions.

 

Second, the game’s design makes it so that skill progression is tied to fully achieving full hero or villain status. This makes it difficult to completely finish the game if the player does not commit to a moral pathway. Thus, game designers are obligated to provide

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Karma farming in Infamous 2.

players with the opportunity to “farm” karma points, in the case that they have poorly leveraged the karma system, to advance in power. Scattering redundant and bountiful opportunities to advance in karma level throughout the city diminishes the emotional impact of each moral decision. For example, there will be countless civilians on the street whom you can either choose to revive (good) or bio-leech for energy (bad). This becomes mundane because (1) you have already made the same decision countless times before and (2) you do not have a choice because your decision has already been made based on your playthrough. Infamous presents morality as a game mechanic with clear, delineated consequences. Both pathways end in earning more powerful abilities. By asking the player to virtually choose a side at the beginning of the playthrough, no further thought or questioning is required because the player no longer feels any responsibility for their actions. Once players lose a

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The Karma Meter in Infamous.

sense of responsibility for their and their avatar’s actions, it is easier to dissociate themselves from moral acts that the avatar has performed. The game itself tracks and quantifies the player’s moral choices and produces a predictable response every time. Any cognitive dissonance is displaced by how the game virtually forces the player to commit to a single moral pathway in order to succeed. In games like Infamous, we submit to the game’s predetermined, simplistic morality, and are given no chance to evaluate such decisions based on our own moral beliefs.

Granted, no one has ever expected Infamous’s binary morality system to be the paragon of moral decision-making in video games or for it to change anyone’s moral code. Yet, it is clear that binary morality systems have become the rule, not the exception to exploring morality in video games. For example, high-profile and critically acclaimed narrative games such as BioShock, the Mass Effect trilogy, and even the Fallout series all abide by similar moral mechanics.

In BioShock, the ending changes based on the player’s decisions about how to deal with its

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BioShock‘s harvest-or-rescue binary.

Little Sisters. The binary morality is as follows: save the sister (good) or harvest her (bad). Harvesting a sister will kill her in order to drain her life force and reap more economic benefits.  The moral dimension of this decision lies in determining the fate of this narrative entity, in choosing whether or not to kill the sister. The good and right choice is to save the sister and restore her life, which provides less Adam (in-game currency) immediately but is rewarded with gifts of gratitude later on. One of the game’s central figures, Tenenbaum, explicitly denotes this to be the narratively good moral choice, especially when the most optimistic and humanist ending can only be achieved upon saving all of the sisters in Rapture. It is only in this ending where the Sisters help the avatar escape from Rapture. The cutscene, saccharine and hopeful, is accompanied by Tenenbaum’s affirmation of the player’s “good” morality.  The morally bad and “wrong” choice is to harvest the sisters and essentially take their life to receive more Adam immediately but with no long-term reward. The bad ending (accompanied by Tenenbaum’s extremely bitter and dismissive monologue if the player harvests all the sisters) depict the avatar’s brutal and power-hungry takeover of Rapture’s remains, and the splicer’s savage invasion of the world above the surface.

The narrative makes evident, through Tenenbaum’s insistence upon humanity and these dichotomous endings, that there is a clear moral binary between good and bad. Yet, by tying the moral decisions concerning the fate of these sisters to directly economic, rather than purely emotional consequences, the game pollutes any potential moments of cognitive dissonance as a result of the morally “wrong” decision. What is initially posited as a measure of the player’s moral values is transformed into an exercise in economic impulsivity: whether or not players can delay immediate gratification for longer-term rewards. This is not to say that moral decisions can never be tied to economic consequences. Choosing between stealing or donating money holds unpredictable consequences and punishments, and one can get away with morally bad economic decisions while feeling internal guilt. For BioShock, however, the endings clearly attempt to evoke emotional consequences, particularly through Tenenbaum’s shaming of the player in the bad endings with no further reference to economic rewards. The experience of cognitive dissonance would be where the morally “bad” player either (1) changes their beliefs to be more consistent with their actions (believing that they were inherently justified in or truly wanted to harvest the sisters) or (2) accepts their actions as bad and lives with the shame of having murdered little children.

Thus, it seems as though the added economic layer of Adam rewards in moral decision-making was done more out of convenience, a way to give the player Adam instead of inspiring a moral quandary. By the end of the game, players may place responsibility on economic motivations, rather than personal or internal motivations, as the driving force behind their decisions. Moral responsibility is displaced by the justifications of either achieving a certain ending cutscene or by maximizing economic gain. As a result, the player experiences no dissonance because their “bad” actions are believed to be consistent not with their moral beliefs, but rather with this other economic motivation.  While BioShock does a better job of posing a more complicated moral situation than the simple choice of “being a hero” versus “being a dick,” it instead settles with the economic quandary of choosing between “being a rich hero” versus “being an impoverished dick.”

While I adore the Mass Effect trilogy, I would be foolish to believe that people did not already determine to pursue a full “paragon” (good) or “renegade” (bad) playthrough within the first ten minutes. Paragon choices most often involve dealing through compassion, non-violence, and patience, whereas renegade choices are aggressive, violent, and intimidating. Narratively, paragon decisions are framed as heroic, which is met by an NPC’s openness and friendliness. On the other hand, renegade decisions are framed as apathetic and ruthless, met with an NPC’s fear and disapproval. The game’s feedback loop then reinforces the idea that paragon is conventionally good, and renegade is conventionally bad. The entire morality mechanic in this game revolves around the choices made in conversation. In fact, the game’s dynamics conversation wheel facilitates moral decision-making without the player even having to look at the dialogue options:, the upper right and left segments of the wheel are paragon choices and the lower right and left segments are renegade choices. The right middle section is reserved for neutral options, but is not a viable option for those looking to maximize their moral decision-making output. While being neutral is, in and of itself, a moral decision, the game grants little to no narrative benefits to doing so, and players are positioned to either progress to full paragon or renegade status.

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A representation of the six choices on Mass Effect‘s conversation wheel.

Players can practically play and achieve full paragon or renegade status without even

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Mass Effect‘s conversation wheel in-game. Note the color-coding for paragon and renegade choices.

reading or thinking about the dialogue options they choose. At this point, players have broken the moral binary system, because the player action no longer directly reflects their beliefs, eliminating the possibility for cognitive dissonance and genuine moral quandaries. Mass Effect nearly transforms moral decision-making into an automatic, thoughtless process. Instead of playing as how you deem to be the appropriate moral choice to make in different contexts, your morality is globally predetermined by the type of playthrough you wish to achieve. There are incentives and narrative rewards for committing to either paragon or renegade, and nothing is gained by choosing neutral dialogue options. For

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Another in-game conversation.

instance, Commander Shepard begins as a neutral personality to fit the player, and is strongly characterized by moral decisions the player makes at the dialogue wheel. There is even a meter that tracks how good and bad your Shepard is on a moral spectrum. You start in the neutral gray zone in the middle, and “progression” is achieved whenever your tracker moves towards paragon’s blue side or renegade’s red side. As a player, morally
wrong acts can then be justified by playing by the game’s moral rules, and not their own. By turning morality into a game in and of itself, you undercut any emotional consequences these decisions may have on the player.

 

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Progress along Mass Effect’s moral tracker.

The Fallout series has done well in both perpetuating and addressing the problematic moral binary in video games. In Fallout 3, your behaviors are omnisciently tracked and

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Fallout‘s Karma Indicator.

marked under a karma score, distinguishing the both the player’s and the avatar’s actions as good or evil. Good choices include granting charity to survivors in the wasteland, while evil choices include stealing, even when no one is looking and even if the object were but a mere paper clip. Again, this is another example of an unrealistic moral scenario, in which every time you steal a paper clip you receive a notification and unpleasant screech denoting that you have lost karma. It is almost as though I avoid making evil choices, not to avoid guilt or to save my karma score, but primarily to avoid that unpleasant screech. Here is yet another case in which the game’s progression system rewards committing to one moral side, and every decision you make is under scrutiny and is met with predictable consequences. Upon learning that the only penalty to pay for stealing is a bit of on-screen text and a screech, why not just steal

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Fallout‘s Karma Indicator again.

everything when no one is looking? Any guilt you might feel regularly is diminished by the reminder that this morality system is but a meta-game that can be exploited to increase your karma level by repeatedly donating caps to any schmuck in the wasteland. Fallout New Vegas takes measures to address this issue by incentivizing players to maintain a morally neutral playthrough via dedicated and rewarding perks for neutrality.

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The good-and-evil point system of Fallout 3.

However, there still lies an issue in the blatant “gaminess” of its morality systems, where players feel as though their moral decisions are motivated extrinsically rather than intrinsically. In this case, players feel the need to satisfy the game’s expectation to commit to one of two (or, for New Vegas, three) moral pathways because of the various

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Fallout: New Vegas’s Karma Tracker.

benefits/perks that come with such a playthrough. Not only that, but the Fallout games also fail to imbue narrative consequences to a player’s morality. For the sake of preserving this open-world game’s consistency across playthroughs, the narrative is largely unaffected by player’s moral decisions. NPCs respond equally to “bad” and “good” avatars. The game’s primary response to moral decisions is merely mechanical, by the omniscient tracking meter and consequent on-screen notification of when a player has committed a moral decision. The drastic disconnect between the player’s moral decisions and the game world’s frigid indifference to such moral actions inspires little questioning or thought. Players, knowing that their actions have minimal consequence, place moral responsibility upon the game’s system rather than themselves and their own moral beliefs. By the end, the experience has boiled down to accommodating the game’s own defined sense of morality instead of exploring your own beliefs.

However, not all hope is lost! Some games come closer to emulating the experience of moral decision-making. Telltale’s The Walking Dead series remarkably captures the insecurity, spontaneity, and unpredictability that often comes with moral decision-

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The Walking Dead’s ambiguous, unpredictable choices.

making. Throughout the game’s interactive cutscenes, there are often timed decisions players must make between four options. The player never knows which decisions are tracked, nor what consequences they might have, whether short-term or long-term. The only indicator players receive are a line of text that denotes “[insert character name here] will remember that.” Even in that statement, the impact is ambiguous, and the player is left to discern whether they made a good or bad decision according to their own morality, rather than that of the game’s narrative. Mechanically, The Walking Dead presents no explicit menu or HUD tracker for the player’s morality level, provides little-to-no feedback on these decisions’ narrative/gameplay impacts, and inflicts unpredictable

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Clementine’s ambiguous response to your choice.

consequences. By contrast, the games mentioned above explicitly posited their own binary moral system: firm rules that the player must play by. In addition, the games above predictably provided information and definitive feedback to these moral decisions, lessening their emotional impact in the long run. Players, once made cognizant of the extrinsic forces that may be guiding their decisions, feel relieved of any moral responsibility for choices made in these narratives. This is because player action is driven and can be explained by a factor other than their internal beliefs. In The Walking

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The consequences of your actions are ambiguous.

Dead, a minimalist morality system with no clear categorization or consequence keeps responsibility in the player’s hands. To explain, systems may still track player choices and make them instrumental to the progression of the story. However, minimalist systems do little to display or indicate to the player the value of their decisions and how they will impact the narrative, which feels more realistic. Choices made are more satisfying when the player understands or feels that they have been intrinsically motivated, and are the result of their own agency unpolluted by other incentives.

The Witcher 3 also succeeds in unpredictably imbuing morality into the seemingly mundane scenarios that occur in its world. Aside from major quest lines that also pose variable, complicated moral decisions, the decisions the player makes through Geralt’s ordinary day of work reach a sobering, disarming level of emotional realism. Geralt constantly runs across merchants, beggars, looters, and all sorts of unsavory characters throughout the game world. More often than not, the player must decide upon whether or not to

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In The Witcher 3, dialogue options have no clear hierarchy or consequences.

intervene, and how to resolve conflicts upon entrance. For instance, consider this example: a townsman asks me to find his missing child in the woods. Here, I have the opportunity to haggle for more pay beyond my standard fares, even though it is evident that he holds very little of value in his hut of sticks and mud. I eventually discover the son’s bones, leftover by wolves. Upon return, I am presented with two more difficult decisions. I can choose to lie about his son’s fate or to tell him the truth, which is a subjective moral quandary I will not pursue here. Either way, he refuses to pay me because I have produced no evidence, while realistically he is likely disheartened by his loss and has no money anyways. At this point, I can choose to “Witcher” mind-trick him into paying me, take it by force, or leave him in his grief.

Even if I choose to be “evil” and force him into paying me, I will be receiving so little money that it would be insignificant, and my “evil” deed will not be sufficiently justified by the economic gains. The difference between such economic decisions in The Witcher 3 and BioShock is that, while they are both tied to “bad” morality, BioShock’s immediate rewards and short-term gain rationalize the decision. Here, the economic rewards are so blatantly insignificant that the only rationale behind such a deed most likely stems from the player’s indifference to this NPC’s plight. Therefore, The Witcher 3 is more likely to provoke cognitive dissonance because morally “bad” decisions can not be rationalized or justified by any other incentives.

I will admit that I opted to mind-trick him for his money, as a spur-of-the-moment decision. I took his handful of coins and left him to grieve for his son. What is remarkable is that nothing guided me to make such a morally questionable decision. Money mattered little to me, so it must have been a matter of pride: desiring some acknowledgment for the completion of work. I would like to think of myself as a good person, and I always aspire to do so in video games. Yet, no substantial financial, mechanical, or other extrinsic factor possessed me to exploit the man. The worst part is, I got away with it, and I have to live with this decision throughout the rest of my playthrough, not to mention the chance that I may see that man again. At this moment, I felt like a bad person, and chose to live with this discomfort.

This side quest alone presents at least three moral choices that work. They work because The Witcher 3 holds no formal morality system, which means none of your actions is omnisciently tracked or denoted by the HUD. More importantly, the consequences/punishments are unpredictable and change depending on context. My interactions with the desperate townsman above may be repeated in different scenarios and stories with different effects. I found these numerous little scenarios to be the most

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Some moral choices in The Witcher 3 must be made within a time limit.

effective because the game appeared to be indifferent to my choices. The Witcher 3’s world of vice and monsters holds no definitive criteria to define good and evil actions, and therefore does little to mechanically address them, such as through on-screen notifications. This places all responsibility upon the player to (1) determine what is right and wrong based on his own beliefs and (2) deal with the consequences (e.g. guilt) of his own accord. Beyond crimes committed in the city, the game realistically grants you the freedom to be both the hero and the dick without formal judgment beyond your own self-evaluation and the unpredictable reactions of narrative agents. This is not to say that the game holds no morality at all, but that it does not commit to an objective, explicitly defined moral binary. The moral universe is then determined not by the game itself, but by the agents, such as NPC characters, within it that interact with the player and present their own diverse moral beliefs.

Self-contained moments in other video games also succeed in provoking realistic moral quandaries. For instance, Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare has a side quest in which you hunt for a monster that is terrorizing country folk. You find that it is a peaceful sasquatch, the last of its kind. You must choose between killing it to satisfy the bounty and, in a sense, end its loneliness, or to leave it to live and die alone in solitude. Here, there is no clear good or bad, even if the choice is still binary. The choice will therefore also have no clear or predictable consequences. You will have to live with this permanent, immutable choice for the rest of the game, as the game itself will be indifferent to your decision.

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The Sasquatch Encounter in Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare.

Games like The Walking Dead and The Witcher 3 capture an essential component of moral decision-making: internal conflict. One’s cognitive dissonance is most active when these moral decisions have no extrinsic explanation or justification. Rather, the quandary is found within, an internal conflict propelled by self-evaluation. Discrete morality systems, such as the prominent binary system, may actually detract from the emotional impact of moral decision-making because it so readily and easily provides players with an extrinsic justification for their behaviors. By turning morality into an explicit meta-game, designers may unintentionally displace the player’s responsibility for their own actions and hinder the effects of cognitive dissonance in moral decision-making. Minimalist game design for moral decision-making better matches the moral experiences of ordinary life. Should I steal a cookie from the cookie jar? No one will know. The lines between good and bad are realistically blurred, because there exists no omniscient authority (unless you count your conscience) to denote and tally you on all the karmic decisions you have made in a day. At the end of the day, moral experiences in video games should not be determined by karma meters and reward systems.

Richard Nguyen is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate.  Check out his bio to learn more.