Information and Uncertainty in Moral Decision-Making

Spoiler Note/Primary Character Current Progress: Completed main quest (“Institutionalized” complete; minor Brotherhood afilliation, but not locked out of other factions yet; extensive exploration of the Institute.  Some Skyrim spoilers as well)

In order to function as a moral agent in a given game, a player must have access to a certain amount of information.  The careful attenuation of information, however, can often create moral dilemmas that are more engaging than those which provide all necessary information right away.

Consider the question of Megaton in Fallout 3perhaps one of the most frequently debated decisions in the game.  The player can disarm the bomb (good karma), detonate the bomb (bad karma), or ignore the bomb (no karma).  Arguments about this decision tend to revolve around what kind of character the player wants to play, rather than attempting to justify the choice to detonate.  I find it difficult to imagine anything other than a kind of Social Darwinist defense for detonation, so from a moral perspective, the decision is a simple one.  The reason for the relative ease of this decision stems from the completeness of the available information; there is no mystery about the results of the two opposing choices, nor are there any indications of a “dark secret” in Megaton or  “higher purpose” for Tenpenny that would justify destroying the town.

A more engaging example of a fully-informed decision is the fate of Paarthurnax in Skyrim. While there is some question of the his true intentions, the debate typically centers on issues of justice and mercy: do we punish him for his past crimes or spare him for his crucial help in defeating his brother?   We already know everything we need to know to make an informed moral choice, so we end up with a true clash of values.

But what about the quests that require the player to navigate a moral dilemma without all of the required information?  I’m thinking here of quests like Skyrim’s “In My Time of Need,” in which the player must choose to believe Saadia or Kematu without ever being able to verify either NPC’s story.  On my previous blog, this quest was second only to “No One Escapes Cidhna Mine” in comments generated, mainly because of the lack of certainty about the decision.  If Saadia is telling the truth, then she is a brave whistle-blower, and protecting her becomes a moral obligation beyond preserving one woman’s life.  If Kematu is telling the truth, then Saadia is a traitorous Thalmor collaborator and must be brought to justice. Here the absence of information actually creates the dilemma; if the player were to discover a Thalmor dossier naming Saadia as one of their assets, the moral dilemma would evaporate.

Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas also create uncertainty, but in most cases, the lack of information stems from the speculative nature of the attendant decisions.  Will Ashur ever be able to forge a just society out of the brutal dictatorship he has reluctantly established?  Is the NCR really the best choice for creating democratic order, or will it succumb to its imperialistic tendencies?  These decisions require more prognostication than information, and are therefore beyond the player’s reach.

Fallout 4, however, seems to make greater use of discoverable information as a tool in creating moral conflict.  At the end of “Institutionalized,” for example, I was seriously considering joining the Institute.  Having created a soft alliance with the Railroad and a more pronounced association with the Brotherhood, I was prepared to destroy the Institute from the inside.  Upon meeting Father and listening to his philosophy, I was moved by a number of factors.  First, and least defensible, because Father is Shaun, I was immediately inclined to believe him and to join him.  Second, the stated project of the Institute is to improve life in the Wasteland for everyone, so there are legitimate utilitarian arguments to be made for their practices of secrecy and even kidnapping.  Therefore, when Shaun suggested that I explore the Institute, I entered into the process with a far more open mind than I had before the relay.

I took it upon myself to find out as much as I could about the Institute, both by observation and by hacking terminals, and in doing so, further complicated the moral landscape.  In a previous post, I discussed the unnerving parallels between synths and slaves — much of that came from observing random encounters between NPCs.  Furthermore, each terminal I hacked (or otherwise read) added to the picture of the Institute as a dangerous expression of scientific hubris.  Perhaps the best evidence came from my completion of Virgil’s quest; the FEV-related disaster and the subsequent cover-up spoke volumes to me about the true nature of the Institute.  Even worse, it became increasingly clear that I had been a pawn in Shaun’s plans, which was as heartbreaking as it was enlightening; his retroactive endorsement of his mother’s murder as “collateral damage” was bad enough, but to realize that he did nothing about it when he assumed control of the Institute, and even went so far as to pit his own father against synths, coursers, and Kellogg himself was just too much.  I still haven’t fully decided on the proper course of action, but I am reasonably certain I will not be aligning myself with the Institute.  The role of information in that decision is critical, and I suspect it will continue to be as I move forward with the Brotherhood and/or the Railroad.  The more I learn about each faction, the more difficult the decisions become.

Uncertainty, of course, plays a role in these dilemmas as well.  Maxson’s hatred of the synths is problematic for me, given my experiences with Nick Valentine.  Is there a chance that I can convince him to relent?  Not knowing the answer to this question further complicates the prospect of advancing in the Brotherhood, and it is not the kind of information that can be readily provided by hacking a terminal. Though I don’t know for sure yet, I think I can safely assume that all of the factions will provoke similar questions.

I am reminded here of the concept of non-attached work as presented in the Bhagavad-Gita.  It might be helpful for the player who, like Arjuna, finds himself caught between conflicting moral obligations, to focus on one’s dharmic obligation rather than the possible results of one’s course of action.  If I am part of the Brotherhood, then perhaps I should consider the true purpose of the Brotherhood and be loyal to that concept, regardless either of consequences or of the intentions of those around me (like Maxson).  After all, I might not be able to uncover all of the hidden information, not can I predict future results.

In a more direct sense, these kinds of information-dependent dilemmas provide a potential testing ground for similar quandaries in the real world.  For example, the Syrian refugee crisis presents a moral dilemma with both information gaps (are ISIS agents hiding among them?) and uncertainty of results (can we provide for them adequately without neglecting our own people?), but political and cultural biases make it almost impossible for Americans to discuss this issue rationally. If a similar dilemma were to be presented in a game scenario, and therefore without stakes or prejudices, the player might be able to focus on the problem itself, and perhaps even have a better chance at arriving at a solution that is both rationally and morally sound.

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