Immersive Sims and Moral Gameplay: A Case Study from Deus Ex
Over the last decade or so, a small but active literature dedicated to “ethically notable games”1 has emerged within game studies and related disciplines. With roots reaching into the early 2000s,2 scholarship in this area encompasses a diversity of approaches to elaborating links between game design, production, and morality. This paper contributes to that corpus by describing the relationship between the “design ethos”3 of immersive sims and moral gameplay – “the ludic experience in which regulation, mediation, or goals require from the player moral reflection beyond the calculation of statistics and possibilities”.4 Specifically, I argue that immersive sims are ideal for exercising moral expertise: the ability and tendency to perceive, reason about, and respond to opportunities for moral action.5 It’s my view that effective moral gameplay lets players exercise a diversity of these skills, and immersive sims – by virtue of their emphasis on interconnected ludonarrative player agency – provide an opportunity to do exactly that.
What is an immersive sim?
While there is no critical or academic consensus on the defining characteristics of an immersive sim, it’s generally acknowledged that the design ethos of the genre (if it is indeed a genre) can be traced to Looking Glass Studios. In 1992, Looking Glass – still trading under its original name, Blue Sky Productions – released what is retroactively regarded as the first immersive sim: Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss.6 A first-person dungeon-crawler set in the same fantasy universe as Richard Garriott’s enormously successful Ultima franchise, Underworld was remarkable for its emphasis on player agency. Whereas most role-playing games of the period adopt a “puzzle” oriented approach to game design, wherein there is typically a single correct way to overcome a given obstacle, Underworld and its sequel embraced – in a limited fashion – a “problem” based mindset emphasising general purpose solutions derived from manipulating the game’s underlying systems.
A simple locked door provides an illustrative example of this philosophy in action. The lock-and-key design pattern in which the player is prevented from accessing a certain area until they obtain a particular item – sometimes a literal key, sometimes a functional equivalent – is ubiquitous, especially in role-playing and adventure games. Immersive sims also feature this pattern, but differ insofar as there is typically more than one “key” for any given “lock” the player encounters. Yes, doors can be opened with literal keys, but sometimes they can also be opened with a lockpick, brute force, by bribing a guard, or by hitting a switch with a projectile. In certain scenarios it might not be necessary to open the lock at all: it may be possible to bypass it entirely using a convenient vent, or by stacking boxes to access an open window.
The point is that for any given problem – locked doors, patrolling guards, hazardous environments – the player has some degree of choice about how to approach it. The ability to make meaningful choices and then observe their consequences is the engine of agency. Agency is the beating heart of the immersive sim design philosophy: the supreme motivating principle from which everything else is derived. Of course, agency is fundamental to all kinds of game design: games that don’t facilitate choice and react in meaningful, interesting ways are dull, inert, and barely games at all. What distinguishes immersive sims in this respect is how they facilitate agency across multiple interconnected tiers of interactivity, from moving crates and breaking windows at the lowest level, all the way through to the high-level ability to alter the course of the narrative and determine the fate of non-player characters (NPCs).7
It all comes down to the eponymous pillars of immersion and simulation: or to put it another way, story and systems. Systems describe the low-level rules and mechanics that govern the behaviour of the gameworld and the player’s ability to interact with it. This includes everything from the physics for movement and object manipulation, to the AI governing NPC reactions, to special abilities and other player progression mechanisms. Immersive sims are remarkable for the fidelity and richness of their systems, facilitating player agency with a diverse selection of tools that can be used to manipulate and exploit the game’s underlying simulation. In the words of Arkane designer Rich Wilson:
Systemic design ties back into agency because a player with an expressive set of tools in a consistently responsive world can genuinely have an impact on that world. The consistent rules give the player a sense of intentionality and so that means they can make informed decisions, and the emergent nature of the game can provide surprising or novel results.8
This sense of agency and reactivity carries over to the story as well, with immersive sims empowering the player to impact the narrative in a variety of ways: some small, others profound. Branching narratives are not unique to immersive sims, but what is unique is the extent to which the player’s low-level choices feed into high-level narrative outcomes. While it’s true that immersive sims have their fair share of impactful dialogue choices, more often than not the choices that really matter are ones made, not just in the abstract ‘this is what I want to do’ sense, but enacted in the world using the same tools and mechanics that govern the rest of the game. The result is a game where
your ability to pick a lock in order to hide in a closet to avoid combat with a guard [is] in some way meaningfully connected to and derived from how you felt about different characters in the story.9
This multi-channel agency constitutes the connective tissue linking early Looking Glass games like Thief: The Dark Project10 and System Shock11 with more modern and thematically diverse examples of the immersive sim like Weird West12 and Deathloop.13 It is, as I said, the beating heart of the immersive sim design philosophy – and precisely what makes it fascinating in terms of moral gameplay.
Moral gameplay and moral players
The literature on designing and critiquing moral gameplay is diverse and informed by multiple disciplines, including various schools of philosophy, psychology, sociology, and game design.14 It’s beyond the scope of this paper to provide an exhaustive literature review of the field, suffice to say that it is both active and fragmented, with each of the many different models and frameworks offering their own potentially valuable insights into a complex and nebulous topic. Because there is no consensus (and perhaps never can be) regarding the “best” way to design, define, and discuss moral gameplay, I will make use of approaches that I believe are the most fruitful for analysing the kind of moral gameplay present in immersive sims, and specifically Deus Ex.15 These are:
- The Four Lenses of Moral Expertise
- Ethical Cognitive Friction and Moral Complicity
The Four Lenses of Moral Expertise
Elaborated in a series of articles published over the last decade,16 the Four Lenses of Moral Expertise describes an approach to designing and analysing moral gameplay that draws on the work of moral psychology. Moral psychology is a blanket term encompassing diverse literatures and fields of study concerned with providing an empirical account of moral functioning and development. The field was dominated by the work of Lawrence Kohlberg but subsequent research has since called this approach into serious doubt and there are presently a few promising alternatives vying to replace it as the discipline’s dominant paradigm. One of the more robust of these is the so-called “Minnesota Approach” championed by James Rest and colleagues.17 The cornerstone of the Minnesota Approach is the Four Component model: a systematic breakdown of the cognitive and affective processes implicated in a moral act.
It’s my view that the Four Components provide a valuable starting point for thinking about the design of moral content in video games. As Sicart – who we’ll talk about in more detail in just a moment – argues, designing moral gameplay implies recognising and leveraging the player’s status as a moral agent who “will determine who they are in the game, and how that being is related to the being outside the game”.18 The Four Component model describes that agent in detail, providing designers with new avenues to engage and challenge the player’s moral self.
In this vein, my colleagues and I developed four lenses, one for each of the four components. Inspired in part by Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design,19 these lenses are not a blueprint or exhaustive taxonomy, but a collection of perspectives and questions to consider when analysing or implementing moral gameplay:
- The Lens of Moral Focus is chiefly concerned with the importance of morality and moral identity, asking: Why is morality a priority in this game?
- The Lens of Moral Sensitivity looks at how players recognise and respond to moral scenarios, and how the perspective and rights of NPCs are integrated into the game’s fiction.
- The Lens of Moral Judgment examines how moral dilemmas are structured and presented to the player, including how codes of conduct and moral principles are integrated into the game’s fiction and worldbuilding.
- The Lens of Moral Action focuses on the doing part of morality and involves questions like: Is a moral problem solved once a choice is made (e.g. in dialogue) or does the player have to put it into action? Does ‘being’ moral require persistence over time?
Behind all four lenses, there is an implicit concern with analysing and implementing moral agency – i.e., providing players with opportunities to exercise a diversity of moral skills across multiple channels of interactivity. Based on my experience using the Four Lenses framework, I believe games that facilitate multi-level moral agency in this way are more ethically engaging than games that don’t, and that immersive sims are especially well suited to facilitating this kind of deep engagement. But before we talk more about this, we first need to ask: what does it mean to say that a game is “ethically engaging”? What does a moral player look like?
Ethical Cognitive Friction and Moral Complicity
In a series of books and papers, games scholar Miguel Sicart outlines a model of moral game design based on the “Levels of Abstraction” concept within information ethics. The model posits that players interact with video games at two levels of abstraction: as procedural/mechanical systems to be mastered, and as semantic objects with cultural and ethical meaning. From a purely mechanical perspective, Taito’s ‘light-gun’ shooter Operation: Wolf20 is about mowing down moving targets before they shoot back, but from the perspective of an ethical agent with a rudimentary awareness of modern history, it’s also about slaughtering Vietcong in what amounts to interactive propaganda. For players who see the game in the second way, the dissonance between the game’s procedural goals and their broader ethical implications results in what Sicart calls “ethical cognitive friction” – the feeling that there is “a contradiction between what to do in terms of gameplay, and the meaning and impact of those actions, both within the gameworld and in a larger cultural setting”.21
Ethical cognitive friction can also be provoked within the gameworld itself, compelling players to consider the in-game moral significance of certain mechanics and the choices they facilitate. An especially compelling example of this can be found in the immersive sim, Thief: Deadly Shadows.22 Like the previous two entries in the franchise, the goal of Deadly Shadows is to infiltrate various guarded locations and pilfer items while avoiding guards and civilians. Unlike its predecessors, though, Deadly Shadows features an “overworld” – The City – that players can explore at their leisure between missions.
In one of the poorer districts of The City, a humble two-storey house protected by an ineffective lock makes an appealing target and, on the first visit, the player can easily abscond with a small amount of money and treasure. Players who return later in the game, perhaps with the idea of stealing more, will find a diary next to a chest where valuables were once kept. In it, one of the house’s inhabitants writes:
With this one, simple device, developer Ion Storm effectively problematises the game’s core activity, provoking ethical cognitive friction. It tells the player in no uncertain terms: your actions are not morally inert – there are consequences to plying your trade. It’s an appeal to the player as ethical agent – the reflective player – made at the expense of the player as ludic agent, as someone trying to win the game – the reactive player. How the player reconciles the tension between the game’s ludic incentives and what their own values say depends largely on which end of the reflective/reactive spectrum they sit. It’s entirely possible to approach Deadly Shadows as a morally inert test of skill, not unlike a highly sophisticated reboot of Pac-Man.23 For purely reactive players like this, there is no dissonance because stealing from the poor has all the ethical significance of munching pellets in a maze.
Reflective – i.e. ethically committed, moral players – engage with the game’s fiction in good faith, becoming “complicit”24 with the gameworld and treating ethical scenarios as ethical scenarios, and not simply as opportunities to obtain the best possible ludic outcomes. One of the defining goals of ethically notable game design is to encourage players to adopt a reflective stance.25 The argument I wish to make here is that immersive sims like Deadly Shadows and Deus Ex are especially adept at provoking this kind of complicity by facilitating multi-channel moral agency across the four domains of moral expertise. To that end, let’s turn now to an analysis of a single scene in Deus Ex that is both a microcosm of the immersive sim design philosophy and a potent example of moral gameplay: the Lebedev encounter.
Deus Ex and the Lebedev encounter
Set in 2052, Deus Ex tells a cyberpunk conspiracy story about shadowy technocratic cabals competing for global domination. At the start of the game the world is being ravaged by a deadly plague called The Gray Death, the vaccine for which – Ambrosia – is available in strictly limited quantities to a small number of elites. The player takes the role of JC Denton, a nano-augmented super-agent newly inducted into the international anti-terrorist taskforce, UNATCO. One of UNATCO’s main responsibilities is to safeguard the distribution of Ambrosia and protect the supply from terrorist groups – most notably the National Secessionist Forces (NSF). As the game progresses, it becomes clear there is more to the Gray Death than the official UNATCO narrative lets on. Details emerge indicating that the plague was manufactured in a lab by the same sinister entities responsible for the vaccine and that, by artificially limiting the supply of vaccine, the conspirators are able to blackmail government, industry, and media bigwigs into mute compliance, exercising almost unlimited power from the shadows.
In gameplay terms, Deus Ex is very much the archetypical immersive sim in the sense described above. As JC Denton, the player possesses a suite of abilities and tools facilitating multi-channel interactivity across the game’s systems and story. JC can run, jump, sneak, and carry objects, wield a diverse selection of lethal and non-lethal weapons, and employ sci-fi gadgets and skills like electronic lockpicks, security-disabling multitools, and “nano-augmentations” that allow him to perform superhuman feats like seeing through walls. According to creative lead Warren Spector these tools, abilities, and – ultimately – systems were explicitly designed to facilitate moment-to-moment, micro-level choices occasioning meaningful, lasting consequences.26
The Lebedev encounter
The player encounters Juan Lebedev for the first and only time at the conclusion of Deus Ex’s third mission. The mission objective is to locate an airfield where it’s believed the NSF keeps stolen barrels of Ambrosia before transporting them overseas. Beginning in the dank tunnels of New York City’s collapsed subway system, the player follows a trail that eventually leads them to LaGuardia airport and Lebedev’s private jet. Lebedev, a wealthy shipping magnate, is reputed to be the ‘moneybags’ behind the NSF and when UNATCO’s leadership learns that he’s holed up at LaGuardia, the player is ordered to find and kill him.
Before the player can do that, they encounter an unexpected complication in the form of Paul Denton: JC’s brother and fellow UNATCO agent. For much of the early game, Paul is a friendly face in a cold world, acting as the player’s mentor in both a practical and ethical sense. It is Paul who, in the game’s very first interactive conversation, reminds the player of their ethical obligations as officers of the law, and it is Paul who admonishes the player for engaging in wanton violence. So when Paul steps out from an idling 747 and reveals that he’s actually working for the same man the player has been instructed to assassinate, and that he’s doing so for essentially moral reasons, the impact is significant and cause for pause. Before they’ve even had a chance to meet Lebedev face-to-face, the player already has good reason to reconsider their orders to take him out.
The situation becomes even more complicated when the player confronts Lebedev inside the jet and he not only surrenders immediately, but takes care to point out that he’s unarmed and that UNATCO forbids killing unarmed prisoners. Following a brief exchange, another UNATCO agent, Anna Navarre, storms in and tells the player in no uncertain terms to “finish the job” and execute Lebedev. When JC responds (without player input) that Lebedev is protected under UNATCO policy, Navarre insinuates that JC is a coward and instructs the player to return to base if they’re unwilling to “terminate” the prisoner. The player is now faced with a difficult choice, reducible to four options:
- Follow orders and execute Lebedev.
- Leave the plane, with the clear implication – later confirmed – that Agent Navarre will execute Lebedev when the player is gone.
- Ignore Agent Navarre and continue interrogating Lebedev.
- Incapacitate Agent Navarre, who – owing to her bio-mechanical augmentations – cannot be knocked out and therefore must be killed.
Using the Four Lenses as a framework, let’s now examine these possibilities, focusing on their relationship to player complicity and multi-channel moral agency facilitated by the immersive sim design ethos of Deus Ex.
Moral focus refers to one’s tendency to prioritise morality in their decision making. In video games, moral focus is cultivated primarily by letting the player know that morality matters, and by placing them in a role that has implicit and/or explicit moral responsibilities associated with it. Deus Ex does both, first by making the player an officer of the law, second by constantly reiterating the expectations that come with that role, and third by reacting when the player’s actions uphold or violate those same expectations.
The player knows that morality matters in this world because the game’s NPCs – including Paul and various UNATCO employees – remind them, making it clear through their praise and scorn that the player’s moment-to-moment choices do not occur in an ethical vacuum. What makes this especially significant is that the game seldom provides ready-made solutions to challenging moral scenarios: given a richly simulated gameworld and a selection of flexible problem-solving tools, it is up to the player to figure out how to pursue the moral course of action in any given situation. This engenders a sense of agency and responsibility – or to put it in Sicart’s terms: complicity.
As we’ve seen, the very first thing Lebedev does when he meets the player is announce that he is an unarmed prisoner protected by UNATCO policy. The player is reminded, in other words, that they are a moral agent – and whatever they decide to do in the next few moments will be a moral act. Significantly, if the player chooses to execute Lebedev or (temporarily) save his life by killing Agent Navarre, the act itself must be performed using the same tools used throughout the entire game. There is no special “Kill Lebedev/Navarre” button or dialogue option: the player has to unholster their weapon and pull the trigger. In this sense, the Lebedev encounter is a special instantiation of the general problem the player faces every time they decide whether they want to use violence on an NPC, re-emphasising the connection between systems and story and letting the player know – once again – that even the smallest choices matter.
In a nutshell, moral sensitivity describes one’s ability to perceive the morally salient elements of a scenario and recognise other sentient beings as moral agents deserving of dignity and respect. Traditionally, this has been one of the more underexplored elements of morality in video games, which tend to undercut opportunities to exercise sensitivity by signposting moral decisions and dehumanising NPCs as mere obstacles to the player’s progress. Immersive sims (and Deus Ex especially) are the exceptions that prove the rule by representing moral scenarios as a part of the world, challenging players to perceive them as they occur and respond in situ, using the tools at hand instead of pre-packaged solutions delivered in dialogue trees. This works because the systemic richness of immersive sims makes it possible for players to devise and implement solutions on the fly which are then recognised as narratively – and therefore: morally – legitimate. Again, this engenders a sense of ownership and agency that facilitates complicity on the part of the reflective player.
The Lebedev encounter is a paradigmatic example of an in situ moral scenario. Following the initial exchange with Lebedev and Navarre, the player is effectively on their own, trusted by the designers to a) see the moral implications of the scenario itself, and b) respond in a way that’s consistent with their values and objectives. Once again, the game does not grind to a halt and tell the player that a moral choice must be made: the morality is implicit in the scenario and the player’s reaction to it. The fact that Lebedev is not some interchangeable terrorist goon (but a reasonable, even agreeable, human being who takes special care to articulate his rights) problematises the ludic directive – expressed by Agent Navarre and accessible in the player’s log – to execute him. The result is ethical cognitive friction: the reflective player is placed between a rock and a hard place with no obvious way out.
And yet, even though there are no signposted moral responses to this scenario, every possible action the player can take is recognised as morally significant by the game’s narrative. Shooting Lebedev, saving him, and walking out all have repercussions down the line. Even the apparently neutral act of continuing the interrogation has profound moral implications, with Lebedev trying to share as much as he can before an exasperated Navarre silences him forever. Again, the game says to the player: your actions matter in this world, so pay attention.
As the name implies, moral judgement is the capacity to understand moral concepts and reason about morality. The majority of video games that deal with moral issues tend to emphasise moral judgement to the exclusion of other components, most frequently by restricting the player’s moral agency to the act of choosing between alternatives in a dialogue tree. There’s nothing wrong with this approach necessarily, but implementing it in a way that doesn’t feel artificial or arbitrary can be challenging. This is because moral judgment, like all moral skills, is not exercised in a vacuum, but is informed and contextualised by the social and organisational norms that permeate our culture.
We’ve already seen one of the ways Deus Ex introduces and reinforces the moral norms associated with the player’s role as an anti-terrorist agent, both generally and in the specific case of Lebedev. But direct NPC dialogue is just one of the vectors by which the game’s story emphasises codes of conduct. Overheard conversations, emails, books, and public terminals are all used for the same purpose, and the fact they are there to be discovered and not delivered automatically, didactically, re-emphasises the player’s agency and diminishes the feeling that the game is being ‘preachy’. Just as importantly these same responsibilities are embodied in the game’s systems, primarily in the selection of non-lethal weapons and stealth tools that make it possible to minimise casualties, but also in the way that the game recognises when the player has disobeyed a direct order by – for example – killing NSF leader Leo Gold in the opening mission.
And so by the time the player is forced to decide what to do with Lebedev, their decision has been thoroughly contextualised by a gameworld in which a professional code of conduct is represented as important, practically feasible, and – in a lot of cases – effective. But what do you do when the rules tell you there are two correct but mutually exclusive ways to resolve a problem? Is it more important to follow orders, even at the cost of human life, or follow protocol, even if it means breaking the chain of command? From the perspective of moral judgment, this intra-code conflict is the crux of the Lebedev dilemma and a big part of what makes it so effective. For a reflective player there is no easy answer to this question, and it is to Deus Ex’s credit that it doesn’t attempt to provide one.
Moral action is the practical side of morality: doing something rather than just thinking about it. Immersive sims are especially good at simulating moral action by virtue of their aforementioned emphasis on multi-channel agency and creative problem solving. In Deus Ex, as we’ve seen, the moral implications of a core gameplay activity – dealing with hostile NPCs – is introduced almost straight away and is reiterated in a variety of ways in the game’s dialogue, narrative, and systems. Every NPC is in effect a walking moral dilemma, a practical ethical problem with multiple viable solutions that the player must identify and choose between. This occurs dozens, hundreds, of times over the course of the game in configurations that are increasingly challenging in both a ludic and ethical sense.
Some NPCs, like the abusive pimp JoJo Fine, are challenging (morally speaking) precisely because they would be so easy to kill, and because it would be gratifying to do so: one must resist the temptation. On the other end of the spectrum, Men in Black and Majestic 12 Commandos are tough and highly lethal enemies, and it’s often the case that simply shooting them is far easier than trying to incapacitate or avoid them. The Lebedev encounter is similarly challenging, testing the player’s resolve by making it trivial to execute the agreeable, unarmed prisoner and difficult to kill the ruthless psychopath that wants him dead. In other words: executing Lebedev is easy – and lucrative insofar as it earns the player a tidy cash bonus later on – but morally dubious, while killing Navarre is morally defensible but quite challenging.
To make matters worse, killing Navarre isn’t difficult simply because she’s a heavily armed, chrome-plated superhuman, but because she explodes upon death. As such, a player committed to upholding UNATCO doctrine and protecting Lebedev has to use their knowledge of the game’s systems to devise a way of destroying Navarre without killing themselves and/or Lebedev in the process. As we saw above, there is no “Save Lebedev” button the player can press to watch a cut-scene that neatly resolves the situation. To stop an unarmed, surrendered prisoner from being killed in cold blood, it’s necessary to devise and implement a plan of action that implies significant personal risk and sacrifice. Once again, this engenders a deep sense of complicity and is the very definition of moral action, an element of moral behaviour that is too often overlooked in video games but that the multi-channel agency of immersive sims – where stories impact systems, and systems impact stories – represent with aplomb.
In this paper, I’ve attempted to articulate a picture of moral gameplay and the moral – aka reflective – player derived primarily from moral psychology and the work of games scholar Miguel Sicart. In this picture, moral gameplay is defined in terms of opportunities to exercise moral skills associated with the four components of moral expertise, and the moral player as someone who engages with a game’s moral content on its own terms, treating moral scenarios as moral – a state Sicart refers to as “complicity”. The Four Lenses, a loose framework derived from the Four Component model of moral expertise, is a set of questions and perspectives intended to help developers design for complicity by facilitating moral agency. The crux of this paper is that the design philosophy of immersive sims, which I have described in terms of multi-channel agency expressible through interconnected systems and narrative, is highly consonant with the Four Lenses framework, and therefore especially well-suited for designing morally engaging gameplay. To illustrate this, I have dissected one of the more memorable moral scenarios from what is perhaps the most famous immersive sim of all time – Deus Ex – and (hopefully) shown how moral expertise manifests in immersive sim design to make for compelling moral gameplay.
Before closing it’s worth noting some of the more serious limitations of my approach. First, the design philosophy of immersive sims I’ve articulated in this paper is somewhat reductive, and does not capture the full breadth and scope of the games that are typically considered part of the genre. This was intentional: a deliberate attempt on my part to artlessly sidestep a thorny semantic debate in the interest of focusing on what I think are the most relevant aspects of immersive sims from the perspective of moral gameplay. Relatedly, the extent to which Deus Ex is representative of immersive sims as a whole is debatable. As we’ve seen, Deus Ex’s consistent emphasis on moral consequences and codes of conduct is a big part of what makes it so fascinating and memorable, but this isn’t a necessary element of the immersive sim design philosophy I’ve described. Indeed, certain immersive sims – most notably Deathloop – indicate a conscious effort to de-emphasise morality in favour of promoting a more reactive, purely ludic playstyle. But even if a focus on moral codes and the consequences of moral choice are not implied by the interconnected ludonarrative agency that characterises immersive sims, that same emphasis on ludonarrative agency – on reading and doing, on knowing and acting – means immersive sims represent moral codes in a way that other genres typically don’t, and perhaps explains why so many immersive sims feature strong moral themes.
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