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Games: a series of interesting – moral - choices

Games: a series of interesting – moral - choices

Games: a series of interesting – moral - choices

Games: a series of interesting – moral - choices

There are many types of games available for people to play and enjoy.  One of the most familiar and heartwarming ones are narrative driven games. These are games where the player is the protagonist. They represent a singular avatar and experience the world and explore paths in the story together.

If you’ve ever read the “Choose your own adventure” type of books then you know what I’m talking about. As the character, you interact with and make decisions as you move through the world. When reading the book your turn to page XX in order to see what happens.
The Black Mirror movie: Banderstanch is a modern day application of this idea and the concept of branching narratives. Those branching narratives represent the directions that players can go in once they make a decision. The results (or consequences) of those decisions then inform the player what will happen next.

This type of interaction, this creativity, is critical for games. Making those decisions (no matter how small) are what give players agency so that they can continue to engage and play. Designers have been using this formula for years in creating interesting situations and scenarios for players.

However, there are some limitations to this format and structure. What if you don’t want to make a decision at this point? Or: what if you don’t like ANY of the decisions offered. Can you pass? Can you make a non-decision? Sometimes the answer is yet. But most of the time the answer is no. You MUST make a decision to continue to follow the narrative and find out wherever your decision leads.

A moral path in decision making?

Perhaps one of the most interesting and widely recognized adaptations of this narrative gaming format is Telltale’s The Walking Dead series.  Here, players play a protagonist (Lee Everett) who makes decisions.  The consequences of those decisions are far reaching. They can affect what happens to the player during the next scene or maybe hours later into the game.

This type of visceral, emergent, and pervasive feedback combined with excellent production value and theme is what has made this series so critically iconic. Making those choices that affect player interactions far down the line is a vital piece of feedback that all players experience.

When in the “magic circle,” players can choose to make whatever decisions they like. Sometimes these decisions have no bearing on the play itself. Other times they affect the emotional state of the player.

My path with moral games-based decision making

One of my most memorable experiences with these types of decisions was choosing actions and factions in the Fallout series. I was given the agency and the ability to choose actions that might align my character with one faction or the other. The effects of which may lead to negative consequences.

I remember my first play through of Fallout and my burning desire to align myself with the Brotherhood of Steel: a futuristic paramilitary organization who held the secrets to Power Armor. Later on in a play through of Fallout 3 I actively avoided Caesar’s Legion because I despised their use and justification of slavery. It found it abhorrent. So much so that my character actively hunted down anyone from that faction. To this day, I never chose to ally myself with the Legion.

But why haven’t I don this? What, if any, is the moral message that the designer is sending to the player here? I know that I could align myself with the Legion and it would have had no affect on my personal physical being. But in the world of Fallout I knew that wanted to exhibit the same moral stance that I had in real life.

Moral decision making in action

Because of that, games teach players similar to the way that movies teach their viewers. Though demonstration of settings, characters, intent, and outcomes. But when it comes to games, players also have the option to make choices.  Those choices form the branching narrative that allows them to see the outcomes of their decisions. That is something that movies traditionally couldn’t do.

But a weakness here is in player choice. Is there a “wrong” choice that a player can make? When it comes to games of strategy where the objective for all players is to win: then yes, players can make the wrong choice. But in narrative based games? “Wrong” is subjective.

Moral decisions in board games

Take one of my newest board game acquisitions: Endeavor: Age of Sail. In a nutshell it’s a strategy game that takes place during the great age of sail where European countries are colonizing continents and capitalizing on resources found around the world.

One of the choices that a player can make is to invest in slavery.  Investing in slavery can be a very significant strategic choice.  It gives the player a distinct production advantage which helps them to win in the end. The only drawback is that if enough players invest in slavery then a card can be draw that abolishes slavery: which gives players who invested in slavery negative points.

But every game that I’ve played so far, no one has invested in slavery cards. There is a distinct advantage to doing so. But the players I’ve spoken with found it distasteful and would rather find another route to win.

I’ve not used this game in the classroom yet, but I’ve thought about it. What can this game and its decisions do to inform students about history and human development? Why might someone pass up a lucrative opportunity based on… principle?

It would not be fair to say that all games are trying to teach you a moral lesson. But there are some out there that are. And there are some out there whose designs are so devious, that you haven’t even discovered that you’ve learned something.

Dave Eng, EdD
Managing Partner


Slashcev, A. (2019, April 29). Stop teaching the player. Let him teach the game. Retrieved May 3, 2019, from