The Pitfalls of Politics & Ethics in Video Games

Not so long ago, I found myself involved in a big discussion about what rewards to attach to a most vile and despicable deed. It’s not a position I’m used to so I couldn’t rely on instinct to sort it out. I have to admit that it really felt wrong to give a gameplay bonus to something  I clearly didn’t agree with, yet at the same time, I couldn’t deny that within the logic of the gameworld we’d created, in this particular instance it made perfect sense to award gold to a player for behaving like a dictator with blood on his hands.

From this discussion sprouted the following piece, written by Jan (our lead writer) & me. The release of today’s choice & consequence promotion video for Dragon Commander felt like the right moment to release this.

If there is one aspect of Dragon Commander that has generated frequent discussion among the team at Larian it is the topic of politics and more specifically: the political, moral and ethical choices you can make in the game. When you are aboard your command ship, the Raven, a broad spectrum of political and moral issues will be brought before you by a variety of characters and inevitably, these characters will vehemently disagree with one another at all but every junction.

Our inspiration for these political conundrums we derived from newspapers, news websites and news broadcasts the world over. We ended up with a host of current issues that – to use a whopper of a euphemism – create debate wherever they arise. It is these issues that we translated into a fantasy context, though they remain quite recognisable.

To do so we created a host of fantasy characters that represent people or philosophies of a certain political persuasion in an almost commedia dell’arte manner. They are stock characters in their way, with their own eccentricities and conflicting ideals, but their masks are those of lizards, imps, elves, dwarves and undead rather than the literally masked prototypes of the theatrical genre.

These characters speak plainly. They speak forcefully. They hammer home their viewpoint, often eschewing all nuance. In their own exaggerated manner they bring to bear their opinions, and even though it should go without saying, we’re saying this anyway: this doesn’t mean we necessarily agree with their opinions at all.

This is important to keep in mind, because by creating characters that often exceed individualism only to become certain ‘types’, we noticed that their opinion regarding various political statements were amplified to such an extent that they became quite frankly shocking.

What we also discovered though, and this is something we considered important as designers, is that it made players sit back and think about what decision they should make. Because the decisions you make aren’t simply ethical ones. Dragon Commander remains a game and decisions influence gameplay. That means that what you consider to be ‘the right thing to do’ may not bring you the rewards you’d have liked.

You take on the role of an emperor after all, and if you were really to command an empire, how long would it take you before your ethics would take a backseat to more Machiavellian concerns? Compare it to conveniently ignoring injustice in a particular country, say, because the natural resource deals you have going on there are just too good to pass up. It is easy to say such choices are reprehensible, but a lot of us live in societies in which our political overlords condone such actions, and indeed our quality of life may depend on it. We just don’t quite like to talk about it.

In Dragon Commander, as a commander in chief, you are confronted with problems and opportunities that may lead you to making decisions that in real life you would never even contemplate. And yet you may well make them anyway, because they will give you the edge you were looking for. You’re trying to win a war in this game, and it’s a lot harder to live up to personal standards when all around you the enemy is closing in.

Here’s one example that caused a lot of debate to help you understand what we are talking about.

As the game progresses one of your generals will point out that when your armies conquer new land, this conquest is usually followed by widespread pillaging and abuse of women by soldiers. Clearly this is a serious but sadly all too recognisable crime that has been repeated countless times throughout history. In Dragon Commander you can choose to make a stand against this war crime by ordering the execution of its perpetrators, but you can just as well let it slide because you feel you need every last soldier for the war effort, and they can’t fight for dragon and country when they’re swinging from the gallows.

We sincerely hope that we can all agree the moral thing to do is punish those who rape; that this should be the evident and indeed only thing to do. But for us, the real problem we encountered here is that by design each choice should have gameplay consequences that fit with what gameplay mechanics are available in the game. And for decisions to have a real impact, they all need pros and cons; pros yes, even if a choice may be regarded by most as ethically despicable.

Attaching a pro in this particular example, for instance, felt wrong and for quite some time we therefore considered removing the situation from the game all together. But ultimately we decided to leave it in. This part of the game is about role playing i.e. you take on the role of somebody else, and if you decide to role play that person as somebody thoroughly evil, then that’s up to you.

The net result of this is of course that in several cases this may give the impression that we are letting our own convictions influence the rewards and penalties you reap for making certain decisions, but we really tried not to make this so. We did our very best not to judge and we simply tried to balance the game in such a manner that all choices lead to logical consequences. This  wasn’t easy because logic and morality don’t necessarily add up.

Anyway, we ended up with a game in which giving your subjects license to do things that may be fundamentally wrong on all kinds of different levels may nevertheless benefit your march to victory. But, we’ll add that it is always possible to win the game by following your own moral compass, even if sometimes it may feel that’s not the case, because we did associate pros and cons to each decision, and while playing you never know what consequences are associated with the choice you didn’t make .

What direction different people’s moral needle points in is another matter entirely. Your north may be their south and vice versa. One may say that ‘one should act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law’, but nowhere does it say that – to stay in a fantasy context – a dwarf’s view on what should become universal law does not differ fundamentally from that of an elf.

To accommodate for this we ensured that for all decisions you’ll make you’ll have vocal supporters but also even more vocal detractors. And like we said, their reactions may shock you. The intent behind that is to make you think about what you’re deciding. Keep in mind also that all situations are modelled on what we read, heard and saw in reality, a reality which isn’t always a nice place at all.

No matter what we say or write about this, we realise that what we’ve done in Dragon Commander may cause quite a stir, and may even upset people.

So why do it, you may ask. Why openly walk into a snake pit?

There are many reasons we could cite but the most important one is that we honestly think it should be possible for the medium we work with to address sensitive issues like these, using its biggest strength, that of interactivity.

Video games have come a long way in many respects; less so in others. If no one is willing to push the envelope, we might as well make another Mario again and again. Pushing the envelope in terms of choice/consequence is what we’ve tried to do, and we’ll be the first to admit that in doing so no doubt we’ve made many mistakes. Certainly, we didn’t capture all of the nuances behind each political or ethical position, because obviously, we still have to work within the constraints of our medium (and budget). But, if we managed to make a player reflect about exactly what he is doing while playing a video game, we’ve reached our goal because surprisingly, it is fun doing the right thing when you know you’re dealing with a game that’ll let you do the evil thing. It only works though, if the evil thing is really included.

We wrote this piece  because this is the Internet. It is good at taking things out of context. We wanted to have a place to refer to when people address us about the choices & consequences in the game. We realize our execution isn’t picture perfect and we had many doubts about including this type of gameplay in Dragon Commander. But in the end it was doubt that we set aside, because, to quote a famous playwright: ‘Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt’.

Jan & Swen

  • Gui ‘Baalka’ Z

    It’s probably the thing I’m the most looking forward to in this game, so I’m glad you did the best you could, no matter what silly reactions that ‘Internet thing’ may bring. What matters is who’s the character we’re playing, and it’s a great thing to see such roleplaying in a mostly strategy-oriented game. Maybe it’ll give some love for roleplay to players unused to it.

    Gratz, and keep it up for the last few weeks, I can see how much job you already did since the opening of the beta.

  • JackDandy

    If anything, you should feel good about including these kinds of decisions in this game.

    Too many titles have the “good” options give you rewards, and the “evil” options just knock you on the head.

  • Pack Ling

    I think what you are doing is very bold, but expect to be on Kotaku at least once or twice after release. Talking or even joking about rape is one of those no-no stuff, indirectly allowing it will rub a lot of people the wrong way.

    • JackDandy

      Who gives a shit about Kotaku nowdays, seriously? They’re the the “gaming journalism” laughing stock.

  • LC

    You should be proud to have these topics in! Way too many games are streamlined and politically correct without using the power of the medium as a kind of art form.

    The Walking Dead is the most prominent example of a game in which you are forced to choose. Sometimes you can choose things or commit crimes which are against your peronal morality. But that’s a good thing because it makes the game more emotional and drags you into the experience. Making decisions in accordance to your own moral principles but with a huge backlash in the situation you are into is one of the best things you could offer in a game.

    Do not fear to force people into emotional scenes and hard decisions which may be even against their personal moral principles! That’s what roleplaying is all about. It’s the real strength of gaming after all. Among all the different kind of media games are the only platform which offers the possiblity to let the user choose. That’s the fascination of gaming. Many developers neglected this natural element of gaming in order to present a streamlined experience, more movie than game. Don’t follow this trend. Be proud to put emotional, grey, serious, funny, horrifying, brutal, cruel, lovable, direct, disgusting, offensive elements in your game and be proud to let the gamers choose their destiny. Some journalists may complain about this, but most gamers will like it because it makes the experience so much more deep, complex and personal.

    There’s nothing better than a game that addresses your feelings, your emotions and your brain. And sadly there are way too less games like that on the market…..

  • Curiosity

    As a rape victim, I’m curious whether you’ll allow the actual negative of what occurs when you don’t punish the soldiers who abuse the women? How many revenge killings will there be from those you’re trying to protect? How much organized resistance? Do you want to motivate your enemies? You can increase their power, if you offer their loved ones horrors. What happens to the morale of those soldiers who have a conscience, watching all this? What about those without? How often does the abuse of power remain contained…?

    What happens to the children watching it? Will you allow them to become rapists too?

    How long will your society last, if the world decides someone else, anyone else, should be their savior? You’d better be a skilled player…

    Meanwhile, a player who demands only the best from their soldiers, may inspire defections and surrenders from those who dream of being the best, that bring them talented people they might not have otherwise met. Even if individual soldiers fail, legends have a life of their own.

    • Hobz

      They stated there will be both pros and cons to each options.

      You mentioned only examples of negative aspects of the situation, I’m sure you understand there needs to be positive ones too for it to be a choice.

      Having one option simply not viable because suddenly your society collapse and people decides they want another leader would be stupid. If you don’t balance pros, cons and moral dilema, there’s no point in asking the player to choose in the first place.

  • Kein Zantezuken

    Aaaad here we go, random “rape victims” appear and start complaining and telling they are offended. How long until you remove this gameplay feature? I give 2 weeks at best, despite all consequences due to release date.

    • Stabbey

      Kein “Sometimes I truly wish I could mass-murder people through internet” Zantezuken, you are a terrible person.

      Your reading comprehension is poor, on two fronts. First, Larian specifically said that they are leaving this in despite the controversy they know it will generate.

      Second, she didn’t say she was offended at this thing being left in the game, she didn’t demand it be removed. She was asking a not-terribly-unreasonable question about how far the consequences will go.

      Rape sadly, is not a rare isolated thing in the world, and demanding that people present court-verified documentation before they can reference personal experience to give context to their opinions is a ridiculous standard.

      • Fury

        Kein is being his synical self again I guess, understandably so given the fact Larian already gave into the “offended by” people before. Not everyone likes to be politically correct in all their wording, that doesn’t make him a terrible person.

        Internet fora are so subjective to how you wish to read it, very dangerous. For good and for bad. Are you sure you were not reacting overly sympathetic? Would the post still have had the same effect on you if she hadn’t written “As a rape victim,…”?

        Starting ones comment like that is as redundant as saying “As a Cambridge professor,…” unless by saying so you wish to empower your post, make it more valuable than other posts, or to have people sympathise maybe?

        So I do understand Kein’s cynicism.

        On a lighter note: I bed my money if Larian had another year of production they would have added the “consequences of the consequences” branching. :D

        Another kickstarter anyone?

        • Stabbey

          On the Larian forums, he eventually made his argument clearer, although it would have helped if had lead off with that first instead of a “I wish I could murder over the internet” one-liner.

          He seemed to be interpreting the “What happens to the children watching it” line as something like Curiosity suggesting that the game could make real-life children into rapists. I didn’t see that interpretation, because the context of the rest of the post – both before and after – was referring to the effects on the in-game world. It seems to me that it was referring to children in the game’s reactions as a possible long-term consequence.

          Would I have reacted differently without those first four words? Maybe. Take those away and it seems more like someone asking questions about the extent of the reactivity from the decision. So you do have a point that those four words probably don’t add anything except personal context.

          I don’t agree with his contention that Larian “gave in” to pressure from offended people, but that’s drifting off topic.

        • Gorkan

          well they already have it SPOILER

          if you allow gay mariages then there will be Choice about Allowing Gay join military or not or Choices if they can speak about they are Gay Publicly

  • Tovarah

    I think that you should be proud to take a stand, controvertial as it may be. At the end of the day it is meant to make you think just how far one would go to win the hearts of the people while winning the war he has been dragged into. I’m certainly glad to see that you, as a team, decided to keep this in. There is no doubt in my mind that you will get a lot of hate mail because of this because some subjects are rather touchy, but that is (as you said) why you decided to bring this up.

    Personally this is why I’m looking forward to Dragon Commander so much. I would just love to see how many players become Joffery Baratheon when faced with these decisions. The fact that both ‘good’ and ‘evil’ options has positive and negative consequences makes this an interesting way which would have been frowned down upon by publishers. Another really good reason why being self publishing is good.

    • LC

      There is no clear good and evil in an extreme situation.

      Classic example: Would you shoot one guilty man if you could rescue 100 innocent people by doing so? Would you shoot one innocent man if you could rescue 100 guilty people by doing so? It’s a decision in the grey…..

      If you are at the edge of loosing a war which would cause serious harm to your people what would you do? “Stretching” your moral principles or abandonning them in order to survive or sticking to them no matter what? Either way you would have to face the consequences, good and bad but you cannot make a “right” decision. That’s the tension and the really exciting aspect of this whole roleplaying thing….. ;)

  • Stabbey

    I am glad that you’re going to leave it in, despite the potential for controversy. I really like the idea of every choice having both positive and negative gameplay consequences. It’s better than the morality system forced onto Bioshock 1 by its publisher (so that it could have multiple endings), in which you could kill little girls and get a bit of a helpful resource now, or spare them and get more than you would have for killing a little later, plus extra stuff. The evil option there really was “the stupid option”.

    Evil options SHOULD be tempting, the quick and easy path should make you waffle about being god or bad. I liked that in Divinity 2, the “good” and “nasty” quest solutions generally gave out equal rewards, so it was a choice about what you wanted to do in this situation, not about what would be beneficial and what wouldn’t be.

    I also hope that the campaigns reflect these decisions deeply. The Genocide cards for the strategy map can help the invading attacker with more firepower, but I want to see those cards have a hefty cost in the single-player campaign of popularity and standing, because no one likes genocide. It would balance making a victory easier in the short term, with lowering your popularity in the long term.

    I saw in a video that providing healthcare costs you 2 gold per turn. I hope that it’s a percentage based drain, and as your empire expands (and your revenue increases), as more citizens fall under your control (and the healthcare you provide) that the cost for providing that healthcare goes up. 2 gold a turn is a lot when you’re making 20 gold a turn, not so much when your revenue is 100 gold.

    Long term and ongoing consequences are good things.

    • Stabbey

      Swen just confirmed on the Twitch.tv stream that Genocide cards will indeed have large negative consequences in single-player, especially with the race who is majority in the country you played the card on. I am glad to hear that.

  • AlexF

    I believe not many people realise how dark this world we live in is. There are times when I have to remind myself of those works of art or those extraodinary people who have moved me over the years, not to believe that this world can change, I don’t believe it can, but to believe that there are things worth living for.

    Art is the last parapet against darkness (it has been decided for many years by the collective world conscience that history will be a propaganda tool and not the truth). When artists (and I believe video games can be a form of art) chose to depict an idealized world where morals, compassion and sacrifice are rewarded and bad acts are punished, not because of artistic choice but to avoid controversy, then everything becomes a little dimmer.

    I’m happy with the direction you chose for Dragon Commander. I’m looking forward to a lot of tough choices throughout the campaign. Politics is dirty business and compromise is the word. If I was in politics I’m sure I’d have to compromise too or become irrelevant. I don’t have qualms about making “evil” choices in a game, it’s all make believe afterall and games are a great form of escapism, enabling people to do things they would never do in real life. Afterall in entertainment media I rarely like the characters that behave how I’d like a real life person to. However I’d like to atempt a playthrough following my moral compass and see how far it’ll take me.

  • twincast

    Regarding this particular example (raping and pillaging soldiers), I’m not really comfortable with either option; I miss the possibility to send the perpetrators into military prisons or labor camps. But the reality of design limitations is what it is. :/

    And since it’s embedded, the example video is also a choice that has me conflicted (unlike the others we’ve seen before, which were all 100% clear decisions for me) as the ironically named Newscorp and its ilk are depraved scum, but it’s a fine line to walk and letting them perpetrate vile slander and excessive gossip may be a small price to pay to get onto the good side of the dwarves for a change and maybe have the Rivellon Times like me more…

    Anyway, regarding the topic on a whole, I vehemently applaud you for doing so and for including every single decision we’ve seen in videos so far. Both thumbs up! ;)

  • Preyer
  • jarronaizen.24

    A video game

    is an
    electronic game that involves human interaction with a user interface to
    generate visual feedback on a video device. So I like. video game

  • Katrien Cornelis

    Really loving this.Reminds me a bit of Peacemaker, a decision/political game about the Israël/Palestina conflict.Yes some of the choises are tough and chewy, so is life.

    Nice job

  • Eric S. Macy

    I hope you have a system where you can track players decisions (anonymously of course). It would be really cool if a few months after release you share the statistics of the different choices players made.

    Also, I applaud your decision to include these topics in your game, it is frankly embarrassing for the video game industry that it doesn’t have more games that address these topics in a relevant manner. I mean, if Bioshock is supposed to be an example of a really thought provoking game that is just sad.

    • LC

      Yeah, I would love to see some decision stats like in The Walking Dead. :)

  • PC

    Its perfectly fine to take a stand and push these issues into people’s faces. Speak your mind of course. However, in the game it really took me out of the moment. Ruined it for me. Also, its obvious that everyone involved in making this game believes a certain thing. Leftist/liberal/socialist, whatever. I guarantee that no one working on this game has ever read anything to the right of Howard Zinn and the NYT editorial page. If the developers actually spoke with someone who, I don’t know, disagrees with them in a meaningful way, they might have had a nice subplot to this game. And, I get the feeling from the comment threads that most of you agree that anyone who would dare to disagree with the leftist position is probably a evil hate filled person who doesn’t deserve a voice anyway. Its almost like you’re prejudiced?
    Your “complex issues” are presented as yes no questions where either you agree with the leftist position or you’re evil. You decide! You want to be evil and mean, there are good effects and bad effects. Want to be good and sweet(agree with us)? there are good effects and bad effects. Want to be innovative and push the envelope? Make a high resolution graphic game I can run on a 3 year old pc or a real submersion first person game, maybe something that doesn’t necessarily involve a gun. The secret world is a game that does this very well. Im excited about the new oculus rift hardware myself. Want to jam your beliefs down someone’s throat? Get a job at a university. They pay pretty well and you have a captive audience.