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A study of good and evil in gaming – gauging game play via a “morality meter”.


Two research papers by Macquarie University reveal that people tend to disregard the “morality meter” when a moral choice is clear, but use it when the choice is more ethically ambiguous. Moreover, about ten percent of individuals will do anything to win.

In The Great Fire, a narrative computer game, you play as Frankie, an usher working in a cinema in regional Australia during the 1940s. Frankie is confronted by a murderous psychopath and the game progresses as players make choices that affect the outcome. Some of these decisions are straightforward, such as kicking a dog or not; whereas others are more complex ethical dilemmas, such as “trolley problems”, where players must decide if they should kill or harm one person to save others.

Each choice is labelled with a score of good or evil, and the total morality of the player is displayed on a meter at the top of the screen throughout the game. However, the moral impact of a decision is not always clear, even if it has a high score. It can be counterintuitive at times. For example, should you steal money from a homeless person? What happens if the moral score suggests that it is a good thing?

Dr Malcolm Ryan, course director of the Games Design and Development Program in School of Computing at Macquarie University, explained:

“Our hypothesis was that under that circumstance, players might choose to steal. But we were relieved to find telling people that stealing money is good doesn’t change their response… Although there will always be about 10 per cent who will choose to do it anyway.”

The Great Fire game

The development of The Great Fire was motivated by the desire to study these issues. The game was created by Professor Paul Formosa, the co-director of the Macquarie University Ethics & Agency Research Centre and Head of the Department of Philosophy, and his research partner, with the help of colleagues including writer Dr Jane Messer and cognitive psychologist Dr. Stephanie Howarth. The course code is fully owned by the developers, allowing them to make changes as necessary.

Dr. Ryan says,

“Morality meters, that indicate how good or evil your avatar is, have been around computer games since 1985 when Richard Garriott pioneered the idea in Ultima IV. But until now there has been no empirical data on which to base discussion of their impact on the attractiveness of games, or their effect on players.

Entertainment and Education

Dr. Ryan considers this work important for several reasons. The primary reason is the entertainment value of games. As a designer, he wants to improve games not just because they are fun, but because he wants to see them become more mature works of art and literature, capable of dealing with serious topics of morality. Furthermore, this has applications to moral education and awareness. Games provide a way of simulating different moral scenarios and asking what is the right thing to do.

The research involving The Great Fire has already generated two papers. The first paper was qualitative, exploring the feelings of players and their responses to the morality meter. It was published in the journal Games and Culture in January of last year. The results showed a difference between players who made choices simply to maximize their morality score and others who viewed the meter as some sort of moral guide. The second paper, published earlier this year in the Computers in Human Behaviour, provides the first quantitative data on morality meters. The results show that the meter is generally ignored when a moral choice is straightforward, but it can influence decisions when the choice is more morally ambiguous.

Ongoing Research

The team is conducting ongoing research, including a study on how people’s actions are influenced in uncertain situations when they know what others think. If a majority behaves in a certain way, are others more likely to follow?

Furthermore, the Department of Computing is currently equipping a Games User Research Lab to measure biometric data, such as skin conductance and eye blink rate, while experimental subjects play computer games. “Blink rate, for example, can indicate how deeply someone is thinking about something,” explains Malcolm Ryan. “These biometrics will provide us with a moment-by-moment understanding of players’ experiences.”

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