Friday, July 24, 2009

Thoughts on ambiguous morality, Kohlberg, and The Witcher

In this article, researcher Mark Chen explores how the morally complex dilemmas in The Witcher allow players to think critically about their own morality.

When I played The Witcher last year, I was struck by how morally ambiguous the scenarios I was presented with were. It was impossible to "game the system" and second-guess what the devs defined as the good or evil choices. In fact, the choices were often equally compelling and forced me to think critically about my own moral code.

Just to bounce off of Nels' discussion of Kohlberg's stages of moral development, the scenarios in The Witcher are similar to the ones used by Kohlberg, Gilligan, Haidt, and other psychologists to explore moral development in students. There have been, however, many criticisms of Kohlberg's work. These critiques focus on his problematic emphasis of societal structures and a kind of logical, reasoned argument for his later stages. Gilligan and Attanucci (1988), for example, claim that this devalues "morals and ethics of care" and, in turn, offered an alternative stage model of moral development for females. Rather than going into all of the pros and cons of these models of development, however, I would like to support what Nels said in that games like The Witcher are great at offering authentic experiences. These experiences may even be more situated than the hypothetical situations that Kohlberg and others used in their studies.

What I mean is that players build a relationship with the characters they play, and, through the embodied experience of the ongoing narrative of the game, the relationships and moral choices are deeply situated and contextual. In addition to being grounded in real experience, players have the option of trying out the different options available to them with respect to where the narrative goes, and they can experience the implications and consequences of these choices rather than simply imagining them.

And The Witcher did this very well. In other words, I was forced to sit back and think about my thinking and actions whenever a new dilemma presented itself and assess whether these actions were consistent with how I should act in relation to some sort of ideal I had in my head. I was able to align my play with who I thought my character should be. When I mention “my character” I mean both Geralt, the on-screen character I controlled, and myself-as-Geralt in a sort of cybernetic relationship. This mirrors what Jim Gee describes as “projected identity” in his writings about playing a half-elf in Arcanum (2003). The actions made and roles taken in a RPG are limited by the abilities of the in-game character, the abilities of the player, and the imaginings of the player about who the character should be or how he or she should behave.

In sum, the value that games add is not just the fact that they offer rich experiences to explore morality (and possibly help people develop moral reasoning), but that they offer exploration of different identities and different morality paths. Presenting players with a sandbox to explore real, complex, gray issues and modeling realistic consequences are what will make games mature.

Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. Palgrave Macmillan.

Gilligan, C., & Attanucci, J. (1988). Two moral orientations: Gender differences and similarities. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 34, 223-237.

*This post contains similar ideas in a longer review Mark wrote on The Witcher for E-Learning. (Chen, M. (2008). Moral ambiguity in The Witcher: A game review. E-Learning 5(3), 358-365.)

Mark Chen is a PhD Candidate at the University of Washington-Seattle, College of Education, who uses ethnographic methods emphasizing personal narrative and experience to study groups of gamers in the massively multiplayer online game, World of Warcraft. Prior to his doctoral work, Mark was the webmaster and a web game developer for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, OR. You can read more about Mark on his blog.


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