Sunday, July 12, 2009

Kohlberg's Moral Development Comes to the Mushroom Kingdom

Wikipedia has a decent summary of Kohlberg's stages, and a more in-depth one is available here, but the basics can be summarized as consisting of three levels with two stages in each (this is game-ish already!).

The first level is "Pre-Conventional Reasoning," with stage one being "obedience and punishment orientation." Moral reasoning at this stage really consists only of "what is good is that which will not get me punished." Stage two is "self-interest orientation."

Level two is "Conventional Reasoning," with stage three being "interpersonal accord and conformity." At this stage, morality is evaluated based on the impact decisions will have on relationships with others. Stage four is "authority and social-order maintaining orientation," where individuals obey laws and social conventions because they understand their importance in maintaining a functional society. Here morality is largely dictated by an outside force and viewed as relatively unchanging.

Level three, "Post-Conventional Reasoning," hosts stage five, which is "social contract orientation." Here, morality is recognized as general principles agreed upon to promote individual and community welfare. Those that lose their utility can be changed or removed. Stage six is "universal ethical principles," where morality is reasoned through a framework of abstract moral principles, and is somewhat Kantian in nature.

The interesting thing about Kohlberg's stages is he found everyone begins at stage one and move through stages (none are skipped) as they age until stopping at one of the stages. Kohlberg studied a set of subjects over 20 years and at the end of the experiment, about 30% were reasoning at stage 3, about 60% at stage four and about 10% at stage 5. Other research has confirmed a similar distribution amongst a larger sample group.

So, with that lengthy preface complete, what does this have to do with games? Kohlberg believed that development of moral reasoning depended upon a) general cognitive maturation and b) opportunities to confront moral issues, especially when discussing them with someone at a higher stage of reasoning. Games, I believe, can serve as a springboard for the latter in a way other media cannot. Discussing why a character in a film made a decision and theorizing about alternatives is one thing. But discussing why I made a different decision from you and examining our relative consequences is something else entirely.

Most "ethical" decisions in games are truly ludicrous in scope. When the decision is between driving a bus full of school children to the ice cream shop or locking the doors and setting the bus on fire, the rightness of this decision is obvious to anyone at any stage of moral reasoning. If we want to promote more sophisticated moral reasoning in games, the very first thing we have to do is jettison these absurd "dilemmas." While the intent may be to heighten drama by raising the stakes, it really has the opposite effect and deflates any chance of substantive thoughtful reasoning.

James Portnow wrote a great opinion piece on Gamasutra last week about moral decisions in games. One of his recommendations is losing the universal good/evil slider and I wholeheartedly agree. What this does is trap players at the 4th stage of moral reasoning (at best), where morality is derived entirely from an external source and wholly static. By creating distinct moral relationships with different groups, players have the ability to explore different moral frameworks.

If we believe games have the ability to teach and inform, and I believe that they do, we should seek out and embrace opportunities to post interesting questions to players. Especially when we can do so in ways that other media cannot. But the types of conversations games ask players to have are shallow and based on unsophisticated moral reasoning. By creating more substantive decisions, we won't just be creating more compelling stories, we might actually be encouraging moral development in some players.

I don't agree with the sentiment that games universally infantilize players, but in this regard, it's pretty hard to dispute that the moral reasoning games ask players to use is that of, at best, teenagers. Kohlberg's stages give us pretty clear evidence for the benefits of posing moral questions with more depth and nuance. We have an opportunity to make a real difference here. All we have to do is seize it.

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Blogger Graham said...


July 12, 2009 at 7:42 PM  
Blogger Alan Jack said...

I got here via, and it'll be interesting to see how my opinion changes after reading Ben's piece ...

Partly, there's an issue with the exploration and discussion of moral issues in games that isn't touched on here, and that's that games are games; they are by their very nature not linear or finite. Our choices cannot ever have completely binding consequences, or it ceases to be a game, and becomes a choose-your-own-adventure, which will just frustrate and annoy players (after all, how many people read a CYOA book without keeping their finger in the page when they made a choice?).

Take the example Clint Hocking used over at two monkeys play-fighting. There, what differs from a real fight is that those monkeys have agreed upon a social contract wherein neither will seriously harm or injure the other. For a game to be a game, we need the freedom to explore possibilities.

Thus, without leaving the player feeling cheated, I don't think we can present a duality of morals. Instead, I think this issue comes down to my personal over-used quote from Warren Spector:

"Games are at their best when they say something about the player, not the designer or the game"

In terms of morality, we need to look at player expression rather than right or wrong. Offer the player decisions - explorable, not-finite decisions - that will give them a chance to explore within their own morality, and make them reflect upon themselves and their own emotions.

In my 4th year university project, I studied memorable gaming experiences. While my research was far from scientifically acceptable (and there could well be an infinite number of issues influencing the results), there was one interesting result - the most commonly remembered memory was the beach scene in Mass Effect. I think it was because it did just this - presented a difficult choice in which there wasn't really a definite right or wrong choice.

Its just a guess, but my theory as to why so many players choose "evil" over "good" when presented with a choice in a gaming environment (discarding those games such as GTA which encourage one path, or offer a headier reward for it) is that, in a situation in which they are free to safely explore (like monkeys playfighting) they'll always go directly for the things they couldn't do normally.

July 28, 2009 at 2:49 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Alan To be clear, I'm not saying we need permanent consequences (I'm honestly not sure where I stand on that).

If there was one thing I'd like to see abandoned, and I mentioned this on Ben's post, is the notion of absolute morality imposed by the game. If Kohlberg's theory is correct, we refine our moral reasoning by discussing different evaluations of decisions. If the game evaluates any decision as "Good" or "Evil," that neuters the discussion quite a bit.

Kohlberg's Platonic moral quandry, the Heinz Dilemma doesn't have a clear right/wrong answer. What I'd like to see, more than anything else, is more games with that kind of decision.

July 30, 2009 at 9:05 AM  
Blogger A7A said...

Feedback for the players actions is important, even if a simple statement along the lines of "you are good/evil" makes for a difficult way of learning something interesting. If the game circled around judgement, and you would be able to argue your case in front of the judge in order to change the games opinion of you, and therefore make you more good, THEN it would make more sense. Fallout 3, for example, is right now with it's good/evil karma thing actually just forcing the player to "minding the game", forcing them to find the external authors viewpoint. Oh, who are we kidding, with the exception of a couple of cases* there is seldom ambiguity in the choices to be made.

I have issues also with the results with the karma system, which are the actions performed by NPC:s depending on your earlier choices: the only thing that happens basically is that you get offerings as good, and threats as evil. From this we may learn, but I just don't like the idea of getting incentives for doing good (in video games), even if it makes for a good moral lesson. Compare this to the intersting case of "saving vs harvesting little sisters" in bioshock:

By the way, would it not be more interesting for theft in fallout 3 to be handled through the lens of the "compensation principle"?** It would indeed be the "the tragedy of the public" if the actions of you as an individual in fallout 3 later on lead to things changing on a bigger scale. Sure, it is your *right* to be able to travel wherever you want to, but oh, you're wanted so you bring danger with you and suddenly you brought danger on a whole town! Oh, you just took one bottle, but in doing so, everyone else in the game also did, and everyones off worse for it.

An interesting treatise of this can be read in Nozicks 'Anarchy, State, and Utopia', the "Prohibition, Compensation, and Risk"-part.



August 6, 2009 at 2:03 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@A7A Feedback is absolutely important, which is why I think it's doubly bizarre when that feedback is coming from some ambient moral compass that seems almost theist (not intentionally, but it really is very similar).

People judging you for your actions makes complete sense. The game itself doing so? Wholly bizarre. I think it's another one of those artifacts that we tolerate only because we are used to it.

August 10, 2009 at 8:59 AM  

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