Jan 11, 2012

Posted by in United We Stand | 22 Comments

United We Stand: Cops and Robbers

United We Stand is an Ask A Jedi series focusing on guilds, groups, and other communities in Star Wars: The Old Republic. By examining the communities that we form, we can create a stronger game for ourselves, build relationships that will last a lifetime, and perhaps even change the world itself.

I absolutely love hard mode Flashpoints. To anyone on the Dreshdae Cantina server, look me up and let’s run some. My freakin’ legs won’t drop in Directive 7.

On Sunday, I had the pleasure of sitting in a parenting Sunday school class with my parents. I’m still not sure how I got there, I certainly didn’t fit in, it was early in the morning and I’m not a morning person so I kind of just came to consciousness in the room. However, one thing that stuck out to me was I heard a mother ask was, “Should I be concerned if my child takes the ‘bad side’ in a violent game?”

I thought this was an incredibly interesting question and a new turn in the discussion about whether or not violent games are bad for younger children. While we gamers have our own opinions on the subject, for most of us might say that we are better off from our violent games, what about our alignment choices? What does it mean when we pick the ‘evil’ choice in a conversation, or choose to play our characters as violent, immoral people?

Most violent video games (there are several notable exceptions) present their violent content as justified, meaning that it is acceptable or even right for you to kill this person. In a war game, it is justified because they are the enemy, while in other games, it may be justified as self-defense. In the case of Star Wars: The Old Republic, I would argue that is it justified both ways and quite a bit others depending on the story and the missions you are doing.

What’s interesting is the game oftentimes offers you chance to kill when it is not justified. Take, for example, The Esseles flashpoint’s noteworthy choice to vent the engineers, or the early Bounty Hunter decision to kill the father in front of the son. Yes, we could go on forever about what it means to be justified in violence, but the point of this discussion is what does it mean when we make these choices.

I always default to a light character, because that more closely reflects who I want to be. That, however, is not the only reason why one would make a particular choice. I think that there are four possible motivations behind a choice.

1 – For Awesome: A choice is made for the awesomeness of the effect, for example you choose to shoot a barrel of explosives because it will be both pretty and effective instead of reasoning with the gentlemen standing near it.

2 – For Gameplay: A choice is made because it gives you some kind of game play related benefit. For example, by making a light side choice you are one step closer to getting the Light V vehicle mount.

3 – For Morality: A choice is made because you believe it is the right choice to make. For example, you choose not to activate Vette’s shock collar because you do not believe in harming captured innocents.

4 – For Character: A choice is made because you have decided that it is in your character’s personality to make that choice. Your smuggler only cares about credits, and so she will make all sorts of immoral choices in order to get more cash.

Are any of these bad? Well, no. I guess if one were making a choice For Morality and it was a particularly dark choice, then that would be questionable, particularly if made by a small child. All the rest of these I would say aren’t a problem, even for smaller children. I can imagine that they may show an exceptional sense of identity if they are able to separate themselves from their created characters at an early age.

We all know that decisions made in games aren’t real and the ability to make these decisions are part of what makes a good game. While Grand Theft Auto allows you to make a number of questionable choices and Bulletstorm could, according to Fox News and Dr. Carole Lieberman, make you a rapist, both are things that some people would find offensive. However, that is part of making a good game universe: you can’t limit your players. Your players may choose to do whatever they want, and sometimes they may choose to shock Vette rather than pat her on the head.

Recently, the Daily Mail posted this article discussing how TOR players can choose to treat female slaves, specifically Vette, in demeaning and violent manners. While this article does just show a lack of understanding of how video game universes work, it is awfully difficult for those who aren’t familiar with choice based system to grasp that the choices don’t matter.

Particularly, if you are the parent of a small child who sees their child choose to needlessly kill Mandalorian engineers. I don’t know about you, but part of me judges a person when I see them make the dark dialogue choice, but the other part is curious to see what happens anyway.

Do you think that taking the bad side matters? Parents, would you be concerned if your child consistently choose the bad side in any medium?


  1. Well i always take the bad side. I think this is because im always good and that is how i get out my bad side without any problem ecept for the dead guy i hid in that cabnet back on nar shadaa. {whoops did i say that??}

  2. Rapscallion, Rogue Moon says:

    Good article. I’m currently playing my way through the IA storyline and have worked my way to Darkside 4 (named “a bit of a bounder” or something like that) and got to a specific point in the story and now I’ve started to change my choices to lightside: Not because of a whim, but because it feels right to me that my character would do this after this certain point. I think it’s good that the level of storytelling has got to the point that I feel justified in the change.
    I think you raise some interesting questions, but also, you provide some thought provoking answers.

  3. As you said, the reason behind taking the Dark choices is the important thing. I tend to default to light, but that is the reason I made my Trooper a tough-as-nails hardliner who thinks the end justifies the means and does all kinds of morally bad things to help the Republic win the war.

    However, that character is not me and people need to understand that.

    Another thing to keep in mind is, that being good only matters if there really is an option to be bad. How bad that is to be, is a question. Is it really necessary to include an option to sexually demean a slave, knowing quite well that there are whole bunch of immature kids who will do it and get a kick out of it? However, that’s a design decision, not a player decision, so it’s kinda outside the scope of the article.

    • “Another thing to keep in mind is, that being good only matters if there really is an option to be bad.”

      That is a great observation, that in game dialogue choices morality is relative. I think I like that a lot.

      As for your question, I don’t think anyone really knows. You can argue both sides. One, the Art argument, is that games should be able to depict whatever they want as long as it is for an artistic reason. (that’s the same argument that makes pornography legal, there’s a word for it but I can’t remember what it is.)

      The other ones is the third person effects argument, that people are affected by these kinds of things and we need to protect them. (Notice it says nothing about us, just them, we think we are immune to things others are vulnerable to.)

  4. The articles reference to TOR missed the mark slightly when it talks about small children, because small children shouldn’t be playing this game. This is why we have the ESRP/PEGI ratings, which for tor is Teen/16+. (sidepoint: it would be nice if they were a bit more consistent, because TOR has been rated anywhere from 12 to 16+ depending on what scale you use). So you’ll see some choices on offer in TOR that aren’t for children.

    Ultimately though, I don’t think it matters one whit. In the past I’ve organized live RP seesions for teenagers, and even the youngest (age around 12) were consistently talking about their character as a seperate entity. They had no problem seperating the two (though they did have many issues making choices based on personality rather than game systems, but grown up min/maxers do that as well). You could probably also make an argument about whether a younger child, were they to play Mass Effect as renegade, understand that they are making what would be a moral choice in the real world.

    As to whether these choices are necessary to include: if the worlds you are creating contain these subjects, and star wars most certainly contain people who do horrible things to innocents often just for the evuhls, then it needs to be in the game. Star Wars only with light side choices would not only be a much less interesting game, it wouldn’t make sense. A similar argument can be made for most other games that are not rainbows-and-sunshine.

    As to whether a child should play these games, that’s a parenting decision, which is helped by the ratings when the parent doesn’t want to or cannot read up on the game itself. If they don’t like their child playing something, forbid them to play it, and like children have done since the C64, they will do so (and go over to their friends and play it instead) :)

    • And I just realised I used anecdotal evidence to support a claim about children everywhere. To clarify: It is my fervent understanding based on personal experience and the reading of scientific work in the field, that while children with behavioral or social disorders might be prone to picking the more destructive options in games, the presence of those options or the picking of them do not induce in children those disorders, nor are they a reliable gauge for whether they are present in a child.

      • Wow, that is a great and useful story. I have organized some RP sessions myself, but as I remember everyone choose light side choices so I didn’t have the same observations. But, yours are far better than mine and are quite encouraging.

        I like what you said about gameplay vs personality, which is what For Gameplay is getting at. Whenever there is a reward for playing one way or another, I think a lot of players will be divided on whether or not to make the choice based on personality or game play. Do you think this presents a challenge to game designers in their choice systems, or something that should just be left on its own course?

        • I’m sure it does, and BioWare have outright stated that it was a factor in their design of the morality system when they talked about the coming Grey (neutral) rewards not long ago. Presenting rewards for consistent (or inconsistent) choices lends a system impact and influence and encourages use, but scew those rewards the wrong way and many will feel forced to make their choice For Gameplay rather than For Character, even if they preferede the latter. The reward need not be material either. Mass Effect presents a story reward (in that you get a different tone and potentially ending), in Fable “Your Reward Is Clothes” as the trope goes, and good old Planescape:Torment had, beyond the story aspect, also specific items from your own forgotten past that required a certain alignment to equip.

          BioWare seems to gone with “alternate, but not superior gear”, or a cosmetic reward, for swtor, and it’s probably for a lot of the same reasons that some free-to-play MMOs (or buy-to-play like Guild Wars 2) are very careful about what they stick in their cash shop to avoid the “buy to win” stigma. If a system is to present options, and morality systems are all about taking different paths towards some goal, one cannot be mechanically superior in the long term (though there can be short-term benefits, like cutting 5 minutes off a Flashpoint run).

          It’s something game designers should worry about. I don’t think parents need be overly concerned. Their kids may still be messed up, but you can’t tell from watching them play video games.

          • Let’s see how far we can nest this….

            I occurred to me that swtor may have a thing going for it that single-player games do not in terms of morality: there is an infinite amount of points available.

            Morality systems always struggle with a players instinct to max the bar, and in a finite game, it means that many will pick the light side or dark side option regardless of what the option actually represents, because they need such-and-such many points before the game is done. In swtor that is not an issue, because you can always farm flashpoints or take up diplomacy to get more points. In a way that frees the player to make choices For Character more readily, because they know they are not locking themselves out of something 100 hours down the line.

            Personally I have enjoyed that freedom, safe in the knowledge that even though I want my character to be pure undiluted evil, sometimes that means picking a light side option and it doesn’t matter because I can always get more dark side later. While introducing morality-grind in a single-player game might not be smart, single-player games migth benefit from having some mechanism that allows you to gain infinite points for whatever path you were aiming for, so you get to the end you want, but perhaps allow the game to surprise you about the route you took to get there.

  5. I believe that for certain people, the choices they make reflect the choices they (would) make in real life. For those people you could argue that they should not play games with violence in them.

    But, the majority of the people that make “violent” choices in games, or Dark Side choices fall under 1 of 5 categories. The 4 mentioned, and a 5th: because they use the game to vent Real Life frustrations. In a game they can make these choices they would NEVER make in real life. If they don’t vent their emotions or frustration one way or another in real life, there’s the risk of them breaking and become violent or whatever. In games they might find a perfect way to get it all out of their system.

    For small children, all of these can apply, I think. Some of them would point out some high degree of (emotional) intelligence, which should be considered a good thing. But, it’s vital for parents to know the reasons why their children make certain in game decisions. If it seems that the children are loosing their grasp of reality, or tend to make the same “evil” decisions in real life, they should be prohibited from either make those choices in game, or from playing such games. But that is ALWAYS the responsibility of the parents. They are, after all, responsible for their offspring.

  6. As a parent, it wouldn’t bother me to see my child picking a light side or dark side choice – it WOULD bother me if they were choosing to slaughter innocents then gleefully cackling during the cinematic.

    That said, I think I would be curious enough to ask a child why they chose the way they did. I guess it’s the psychologist in me, but I think it’s more important that the child understand what they believe and why. *shrugs*

    • Me too! I think there’s a lot of research potential here, with particular care towards whether or not the player is justfying their choices as “theirs” or “their characters”. It would be awesome to compare that to a game like Mass Effect 3 where Shepard has a distinct personality you get to choose for, as opposed to SW:TOR where your personality is entirely up to you with nothing to base it on.

  7. I don’t think you really get the thing about Vette and I’m a little disappointed at the casual way you dismissed the article about it.

    I don’t have a problem with a lot of the morality choices, especially since Bioware did a pretty good job of making both moral choices the “easy” way out in different situations. But giving the Sith Warrior was is essentially a battered spouse is a bit much.

  8. I am an altoholic so I have several different characters. Some of them are full light side, some of them are full dark side, and some are neutral. One of them is engaged (or maybe married, I’m not quite sure) and one of them sleeps with everyone she can. I’m married in real life as well. My point is, my character’s decisions are not mine. As an altoholic I couldn’t play a story game with each character mimicking my own choices as they’d all feel like the same. Each not only makes moral choices that I would not, but other choices as well (like marrying another guy).

    I assume the choices others make are for a similar reason unless told other wise, so I never judge them for it. I imagine if someone was choosing the dark side path because they really think that’s the best way to act, it would show up in how they treat people IRL as well.

    TLDR = For Character!

    • Plus that sith corruption and the red lightsaber would be a dead giveaway each time you go to the mall :)

      I do mostly character choices, but I will decide on a general LS/DS tendency before starting a new alt. Plus a bit of gameplay does sneak in, because I get curious about how someone will look at Dark V, so those that lean dark tend to go quite dark quite fast.

  9. I think the whole discussion of this topic comes down to how does your child react and behave in real life interactions rather than how do they react in a video game. Video games, movies, books and other forms of virtual interation are not significant factors for determining the moral compass or lack thereof. If it was then the choices folks made in the old “choose your own adventure” books would have been used by some psychologist some where to assess children.

    I think the bigger issue is the apparent link between desensitizing people to violence or other behavious through exposure. This is why we have as a society agreed to have restrictions on the age of movies, video games, pornography and other entertainment activities.

    If your child is old enough, chronologically, mentally, socially, emotionally, to participate in these games then you as a parent will allow your child to do so. My take on the original question from the parenting class at the start of your article is remove the game from the equation and reask the question. Should I be concerned about choices my child is making. Chances are if you are concerned about the choiced your child is making in life to the point you are asking the question then there is an issue. If the answer is no I am not concerned, then the next question should be are they playing games they are not emotionally/mentally mature enough to play. If the answer is again no then I would not ask the original question.

    My child is still far to young to be playing anything other than peek a boo so this is not an issue for me yet. But it will be and my wife and I have discussed it at great length due to our back grounds and professions. The fact is that the rating system is a good starting point, but it does not excuse parents from reviewing the content with thier children and making informed decisions based on the variables that exist in your home, child, etc…

    As far as adults playing the game and making choices, just as many of the other posters have stated, we make those choices for a variety of reasons, game play, personal morality or ethics, entertainment, curiosity, etc…

    I am very strongly opposed to the media focus on games when discussing the activities of one or two individuals who have been mentally unstable. The fact that selecting at random a male member of the public aged 15-60 it is very likely they played video games. Is it any more suprising that they played one of the top selling titles? no. So why is someone trying to draw a corelation between that fact and the fact that this person killed someone else. Stop looking for connections that are not there. Otherwise before you know it we will be told that 1 in 3 males play video games and 1 in 3 males have heart disease so video games cause heart disease.
    Hopefully we don’t hear that as the new question in parenting classes. ‘Johnny loves ihs video games, but I am concerned he is going to have heart disease, should I be concerned that in video games his characters only eat unhealthy fried foods and don’t excersise?”

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