Design paradigms in moral game design

Some commonly observed design paradigms in games developed with moral gameplay systems.


At a conceptual level, the scripted method (e.g. branching narratives) approaches moral engagement by limiting agency while being comprehensive; on the other hand, the systemic method (e.g. resource management) approaches it by supporting player agency while being abstract. However, it is necessary to understand how each design factors affects engagement at a lower level where the decision-making process occurs, how it crafts the player experience and how it signifies the morality in the game world.

The following model identifies design factors that affect moral engagement and determines whether a game aligns with a systemic or scripted design configuration.

1. Atomicity of Choice

The atomicity of choices in games relates to the level to which a big decision is granulated into more minor decisions. As such, a game with high or fine-grained atomicity will have decisions granularized into numerous choices that might appear to relate to more negligible outcomes. On the other hand, a game with low or coarse-grained atomicity will have a decision granularized into bigger chunks.

In an ethical game where most of the gameplay is scripted, the branching-narrative decision tree represents the coarse-grained atomicity of choices available to the player. In this case, the designer crafts the available options by presuming specific player actions and consolidating them into a set of binary or limited number of choices that significantly differ, effectively limiting player agency.

On the other hand, a game designed using systemic methods will possess a much more fine-grained and moment-to-moment decision structure as the player’s choices are directly connected to the game systems, which often require multiple low-level micro-decisions. As such, at any given moment, that player is not constrained by the limits of a particular system and is free to interact with multiple gameplay components as each micro-decision possesses a relatively trivial impact on the player experience. In a game with low atomicity, the player is generally presented with a small number of high impact choices (such as shoot the dog or save the dog). On the other hand, in a game designed with high atomicity, the actions are smaller, numerous and often have individually lower impact (such go left or go right).

2. Conflict between Procedural and Semiotic Layer

According to Sicart, games have two dominant layers of abstraction a) Procedural Layer and b) Semiotic Layer. The procedural layer constitutes the interaction between the mechanical agents (player and NPC) and the state machine through game mechanics in the form of I/O operations. These operations or actions are conducted on the system’s parameters, which in turn modify the state of the game. Some examples of the elements of the procedural layer are experience points, combat systems or resource management systems.

On the other hand, the semiotic layer provides cultural and narrative context to the various procedural elements of the system. This context allows the player to apply their internal values to operations of the state machine, to consider not just the procedural perspective while making decisions. Some examples of these are contextualisation of various variables and meters in the game as “Health”, “Number of Patients” or “Debt”.

These two layers interact with each other to provide an immersive experience to the player by applying metaphors (semiotic elements) to the procedural elements, e.g., health bars. On the other hand, interesting choices occur when there is a conflict between the procedural core and the semiotic layer encapsulating it. For example, the procedural system might direct the player to perform a series of actions to acquire a reward; however, the contextualisation of these required actions can be deemed unethical on the semiotic layer. In this simple example, the player could face a conflict about whether they should contradict their moral compass to succeed at the procedural layer.

In the scripted method, the core gameplay (procedural layer) is coarse-grained and not complex enough to develop a conflict rich enough to produce interesting choices or beats, as the player is limited by a set number of choices with accordance to the designer’s intentions. In this approach, the procedural and semiotic layers do not connect to open a space for interpretation by the player. On the other hand, in systemic play, the primary goal is to develop a robust and rich system to produce fine-grained decisions with high aggregation. As a result, the procedural core communicates with the semiotic layer to develop a space open to the player’s interpretation.

Aggregation of Choices

This is more of a work in progress at the moment.

Finally, we have the aggregation of choices or more specifically the aggregator of the choices in the game’s narrative. In a scripted game, where several player actions are packed together as a single decision among a binary choice or a limited multiple choice, the role of aggregator is taken over by the designer. As such, the designers frames how the player would react upon choosing an option, following which a set of audio-visual vignettes are used to present the outcome of their choice to the player, i.e. cutscenes, paras of text, etc.

On the other, in cases where majority of the gameplay is systemic, I am hypothesising that the role of the aggregator is on the player. Here, the player is responsible for the micro (macro) level action and develop a narrative by interpreting their own actions. This may result in a more personalised, albeit abstracted narrative which may or may not have the same fidelity as the scripted version.

Vedant Sansare
Vedant Sansare
Doctoral Student in Game Design and Computing

My research interests include systems-based game design, moral decision-making and recently I have been interested in games for mental and physical health.