Balancing Player Agency and Social Responsibility

I feel at least part of this comes from authors attempting to handle material in a way that does not glorify inflicting harm. It’s difficult to portray something like choosing pure, cold-blooded murder in a non-negative light and avoid that portrayal possibly condoning/perpetuating violence, for instance. I’d be interested in hearing yours or anyone’s thoughts on not favoritizing gaming styles but also balancing the realities of what writing can implicate, contribute to and impact because it doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

20 Likes

I think you’ve misinterpreted me. I wasn’t talking about the glorification, whatever that mean anyway, I was talking about natural flow of the story and I was talking against forcing player to choose something that you, as author, think is the right way. The whole point of interactive fiction is about choices and consequences; not showing the player on the way you’re supposed to play. That will probably distress players, especially people who bought the game expecting different complete, balanced and equally elaborated routes.
Tldr? You can punish the MC, NOT THE PLAYER, but do it organically to the story. Remember that it’s just a game, and person choosing horrible choices won’t do that in real life, and character and people who play them are not the same.

13 Likes

A post was merged into an existing topic: What I learned from playing every Choicescript game (patterns in good/bad games)

Not misinterpreting. I know you were talking about player agency, being able to make whatever type of choices they want to. The point of what I said is that many authors struggle with not wanting to write irresponsibly in creating agency. It is difficult if not impossible to know where lines should or should not be. As mentioned, writing doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There’s real world impacts in putting games out there that affect and add to our culture. Obviously, choosing to be a murderer in a game does not make you a murderer in real life. However, that doesn’t mean the game has no negative implications, is not capable of reinforcing undesirable messages, and shouldn’t have its presentation critically examined. There is no such thing as just a game. Entertainment comes from ideas, entertainment is consumed by people who absorb these ideas, and there are always takeaways from said ideas regardless of whether we are conscious of them or not. Art such as a choicescript game is important because it means something, not because it is meaningless.

You’re not disagreeing with me. I didn’t say authors alone have responsibility or that any one examination of these works is objectively true. Only that many authors feel pressed to portray negative actions in a resoundingly negative light to hopefully avoid running into this particular problem from their side which can lead to players feeling their choices have been robbed or made into a moral grandstanding thing, so on and so forth.

You brought up a problem with denying choice that these kinds of games can have, and I believed it relevant to mention a reason why said problem might arise so perhaps someone would resonate with that and it could spark a solution conversation. I don’t see that as off-topic from the subject of writing genuine personal choice. It’s not about not differing reality from fiction though. And that wasn’t the point I was raising for discussion anyway, that was the point I was explaining since you thought I’d misinterpreted what you’d said about agency. That’s all.

8 Likes

I think “VtM: Night Road” is a game where delicate issues like murder are handled in a non-moralizing way while still not glorifying them. The WoD game system is designed with consequences for feeding and not feeding (Hunger versus Humanity). Vampires, in the way that cats are obligate carnivores, must consume human vitae to preserve their own existence. However, crass over-indulgence sees them devolve into bestial predators. There are issues of supernatural seduction (rapine?), ghouling (subjugation, addiction, and slavery), and frequent casual violence (predator-prey and predator-predator competition). Many more that I can list if anyone’s actually interested. @anon21485497 @AAChmielewski

3 Likes

I would like to partially disagree on this. What the reader gets as a “message” or whatever their interpretations are - it’s not something akin to objective truth, it’s their subjective opinion. And authors don’t have full control over it. So, it would be wrong to pass the responsibility solely to authors, as the reader may get “wrong message” even from completely neutral text given enough efforts. It’s easy to shift the blame to the game for having certain scenes or to the author for writing it in a way that some readers don’t like due to personal reasons.

9 Likes

Oh nononono, I won’t participate in that kind of discussion, I’ve had enough with video games and Tarantino’s movies. Also it’s kinda off top, meh.
If someone can’t differ reality from fiction, it’s not the author’s problem.

13 Likes

Many more examples of games that handle this sort of thing well? Because if so, I’d be interested at least.

1 Like

The top ones that come to mind for me are

Heart of the House. There are some pretty heavy situations involving human sacrifice to keep catastrophe at bay. And indentured servitude. Would you condemn even a demon to eternal service?

Blood Money. Here, the main issues were in crime, succession, and treatment of paranormal entities, many of whom (ghosts) function like humans with severe mental issues: obsession, rage, depression.

Tin Star. From the beginning, the author really capitalizes on the “wild west” setting. What I mean is that “lawful” isn’t always the same as “effective” and is often different from smart, at least as far as self-preservation is concerned. Plus there are a lot of situations where there isn’t a simple, easy, or free solution in terms of: blood debt, reparation, . . .

Most of the games that fit that morally complex balance niche, I think, are going to involve crime (I lump all horror into crime). People usually turn to crime out of some kind of desperation, and it’s that desperation that makes them complex and sympathetic despite their crimes. Hope this helps or is at least interesting. Cheers! @anon21485497

5 Likes

Moved to keep the original thread topic on track. Let me know if you think the thread title doesn’t match the topic!

4 Likes

Well since I wasn’t planning to continue this topic, I wont lol
I’ve said everything I wanted anyway

1 Like

Thank you, I appreciate it! May I change the title to social responsibility instead of moral values though?

1 Like

Sure thing! It’s your thread!

Can you please move my second comment, the long one starting with reminiscing back on previous tread? I think it was more to place there.

Thanks!

1 Like

I don’t think the author has an inherent responsibility to impart their subjective values relating to morality or social issues, especially given that most - if not all - of the stories published through the company are for entertainment value.

I think it’s the people who have raised the consumer to have their values that are responsible for them to a certain extent. Obviously the consumer is responsible for growing and shaping their own values as they age but a lot of people are arguably influenced by their childhood and the people, or sometimes lack of people, around them to impart values either by adopting the values of those that raised them or disagreeing with those values and forming their own.

If a consumer can’t differentiate between what is clearly fiction and reality then that is beyond the abilities of the author to help that consumer learn that difference.

Relating back to the original topic you brought up @anon21485497, it’s easy to draw a line on the topic of murder, racism, sexism, slavery, etc. If someone condones or supports these actions, then I don’t know how much influence an author may have in changing their mind about these topics since that would most likely require a radical and internal shift in their belief system.

Staying in the murder topic, what sort of social stance - if any - should the author take on the topic of people idolizing murderers? It’s happened before with serial killers attracting fans before.

Other topics such as voluntary euthanasia where the answer of ‘who’s right?’ are less clear cut than one might believe.

11 Likes

I believe fiction can be an outlet and that’s not always about doing the right thing but for example, releasing negative emotions or exploring emotions that one doesn’t experience. I don’t think the authors and the critics should see it as glorifying bad behaviour but such concerns are nothing new - we used to burn the books that “demoralized the public” :joy:

10 Likes

Big nope. My favorite books and games as a kid were concerned with anti-heroes or villains. The Legacy of Kain series, for example, had you slaughtering innocents and political rivals alike completely due to selfish actions, but in no way did it condone such action in real life.

Fiction portraying these things does not promote nor does it condone murder or violence. There have been innumerable studies on this very issue over the decades, most notably during the Jack Thompson ‘war on videogames’ era.

This feels like a very conservative argument, reminiscent of the ‘Satanic Panic’ of the 1980s. It’s an extremely dangerous slippery slope that I’d rather not have society slide down again.

This. 100% this.

Also this.

I don’t want a role playing game to lecture me for making a choice. If the author absolutely doesn’t want that choice to be made, they have the option of not writing that choice at all. But if you’re going to allow me to pick it, there better be a damn good reason for moralizing.

In Werewolves: Haven Rising, I had the MC have a bad dream after they took the option to kill, which is the closest I’ve come to this and I was taken to task for it by some of my readers. In this case I defend the usage because it’s development of the MC (who is a juvenile and never killed before) while NOT being a condemnation of the player. I think there’s a subtle but important difference between the two.

I contend that while it’s impossible for the author to completely divorce themselves and their morals from a work of fiction, it is the correct approach to minimalize that bias when developing an interactive work. Otherwise you are directing the player and taking away their agency.

31 Likes

Very good point. Replace the word fiction with video games and you’ll find a whole host of articles that argue that violent video games don’t cause consumers to become violent.

10 Likes

I think a large part of the tension comes from whether you give players a choice at all. Should an author give the player the choice to do something that is not objectively terrible? By “not objectively terrible” I mean something where there is significant (either in terms of volume or intensity) disagreement among people about what is right.

For example, I would call murder objectively terrible. The number of people who agree that murder is wrong is close enough to 100% to call it objectively wrong.

But what about, say, misgendering someone? There are a lot of people who don’t think there’s anything wrong with ignoring someone’s pronouns. I’m not one of them!

I’m not trying to make the argument that both sides of this question are the same, that both opinions are equal, respectable, and legitimate. They’re not, full stop. But this is something I would call not objectively terrible because there are a significant number of people who (loudly and violently) disagree, and those people may very well choose to read my story.

So if an author is writing about a sensitive topic, should they allow players to make a choice that is subjectively terrible?

I agree that:

But I also don’t want to allow players to use my game as a shitty-person-simulator. My solution is to not give players those choices, and I think it works out okay in my story because the genre is super casual/lighthearted. But in other games that are darker and exploring more sensitive things, where do you draw the line? Are there choices/options that are never okay even when they would make sense in the context of the story? Even when they are not glorified or sensationalized?

I don’t want to get into the “is it okay to lecture the player for making a choice?” side of this argument, but part of player agency is giving them the choice to begin with, not railroading players, as it were. I enjoy exploring things in fiction that I would never do or condone in real life, but the thing about IF in particular is that the player is not just reading but participating.

I remember a long time ago, someone posted an idea in the interest check thread. They wanted to write a game about the American Civil War and give the player the chance to fight either for the Union or Confederacy. It didn’t sit well with me. I’m not saying that a good person couldn’t be interested in exploring a story about fighting for the confederacy, but I am saying that it struck me as the sort of thing a skinhead would enjoy picking up for some racist role-play.

Terrible people can abuse any piece of media, of course, and it’s not the author’s fault or responsibility to prevent it. But I do think it’s the author’s responsibility to think critically about the way their work can be used and how it fits into prevailing cultural narratives. I also get feeling kinda queasy about the potential for players to use your writing to bolster gross ideas while simultaneously attempting to provide an array of options, including ones you consider morally wrong.

So if you want to explore sensitive topics how can you be socially responsible (i.e. condemn things that should be condemned) without lecturing the player?

Ultimately I agree that

Play shitty games, win shitty prizes. Do something terrible, face the consequences of your actions: lower relationships with/reactions from NPCs, certain side quests closed to you, etc/etc.

But still, it’s a balancing act. And there are some things that I personally think the player should never have the option to do.

3 Likes

I always love when people who complain about a bit of morality etc in games cry bloody murder over not being ‘allowed’ to be a complete douche, blaming it on ‘people can’t tell fiction from reality’.

I mean, it’s not as if there haven’t been dozens of studies that have shown that the more often something ethically and morally wrong is okayed if not applauded in fiction, the more numb we become to it in irl.

So, yeah, while fiction shouldn’t be ‘holier-than-thou’, fiction shrugging off or applauding bad stuff and going ‘it’s just fiction’ is a bad thing.

13 Likes