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The Moral Dilemma of Board Game Mechanics - Forbidden Island

Forbidden Island

I have been researching the morality of Board Games recently. I have only just begun the study but I am finding it to be very interesting. I started with the Game, Forbidden island, after William McCarrol of Nerd Bloggers made an insightful comment about the morality of pillaging an island of its historical artefacts.

In Forbidden Island Players are working together to gather as much bounty as they can before the Island sinks.

The question that got my attention was, "What is motivating players to loot the Island?" Now, I understand that in a game like Forbidden Island, the motivation is along the lines of winning, glory, victory, etc. But in order to accomplish your goal, my question is, "What happens to a persons moral compass?"

McCarrol says,

"By destroying so much unlearned history, the players can’t possibly be working under the banner of history or science. Given this insight, it means our intrepid explorers are robbing the island for either greed or power. This is probably not the light that players put themselves in when experiencing the game, but it makes for an interesting moral dilemma."

Many, if not most board games, require the suspension of a moral belief in order to participate effectively. In this case, the belief about the virtue (or lack of virtue) inherent in Greed.

Very few games escape this dilemma (And I am not saying they ought to escape it). One game I played recently has almost escaped it. A Card game called, Cover your Assets. In Cover your Assets, greed is still a motivating force. However, the means of wealth is through legitimate buying out of others. Here, the mechanics are honest, but the motivation leaves a lot to be desired.

So, my question (at least for myself) is, "Is there a board game out there - anywhere - that does not require a morally suspicious mechanic and a moral suspect motivation?

Strangely enough, a Game form the same Stable as Forbidden Island, Pandemic, may be just such a game.


Moral S&L

Well, the old versions of Snakes & Ladders are supposed to promote morally upright living: each snake and ladder ends has before and after pictures at each end. The snakes have an immoral action leading down to some kind of resultant harm, while the ladders start at a moral action and lead up to happy characters. For example, one of the ladders has a 'before' picture of a child seeing a hungry person and an 'after' of the hungry person being fed at the top of the ladder; one of the snakes has a 'before' of a kid riding their bike with no hands and an 'after' of them in the hospital. The supposed magnitude of their sins and successes are reflected in the magnitude of the jump on the board.

Snakes and Ladders

Thanks, JAC.

Snakes and Ladders is a good example. Of Indian origin, as you probably know, it was designed specifically to teach children. The snakes represented deadly sins in the original board with square 99 representing Lust... and then down to lesser sins toward the beginning of the board.

Of course, much of that has been lost due to sanitisation and re-branding the game as, "Chutes and Ladders". The images of the original were also lot more intimidating than the westernised version. You are right, though, the premise was to win the game through, "Virtue" as an imitation of the integrity needed to succeed in life.

Seems like an odd question

Am I missing something? It seems this question is irrelevant when one talks about abstract games like checkers or Pentago. Co op games like Legendary or Dead Aim (one of my own prototypes where players hold out against zombies) also "escape" the issue.

In Settlers of Catan, some groups (like mine) rarely, if ever, move the Bandit in such a way as to harm fellow players. That's really the only "morally questionable" mechanic in the basic game.

The larger question for me concerns the value of such an analysis. In many cases, themes are tacked on to a set of mechanics (e.g., Knizia'a games), and gamers, knowing this, have little reason to invest in the implied morality. For those games where there is a clear morality built in (e.g., Memoir '44), gamers agree to suspend judgment in order to enjoy the competitive experience. In light of these points, I'd ask, instead, which games involve player morality as a meaningful mechanic.

I was faced with this

I was faced with this question awhile ago, during the development of an idea. Having studied Philosophy at University ethics and morality are areas of developed interest for me, so it is perhaps inevitable that these areas throw up game ideas from time to time.

Anyhow, turn away if you are easily offended, this was the general idea

The game board features a sealed complex with a number of rooms. These rooms are linked by various conduits – either walkways or air ducts. Located in the rooms are various people, with different characteristics.

These characteristics are associated with the apparent goodness of the subjects. So the characters include people like innocent child, peace-worker, hell raiser, expectant mother, doctor, lawyer, and so on. The characters are also linked by way of relationships with other characters, the partner of the expectant mother being an example.

The characters are randomly placed in various rooms and then the complex begins to flood, either with water or gas. The players are then required to divert the course of the life threatening flood through their action of self preservation, in essence, deciding who is exposed and to what extent. So the players are basically governing the fate of the characters and making value judgments about who they are willing to sacrifice to survive.

Points are awarded for the characters that live and deducted for the characters that don’t. Bonus points are awarded for matched pairs and additional penalty points are given when only one of a pair survives the game.

The morality of the characters is also indeterminate, and the players have to find out the true nature of the characters in order to make informed decisions. Information points are located on the board to provide information about the character histories (access to cards pre-drawn from a deck), so the goody, goody isn’t necessarily as good as they make out, or the evil characters as bad.

The game design was complete enough to enter play testing. However, it was an uncomfortable game for most people to play, interesting, but uncomfortable. It certainly had what one might call a limited potential audience, so I shelved it. A different theme will occur to me one day to encompass the mechanic in a less obvious manner.

The only one I came up with at the time was to expand the board to a city; and have the players make moral choices about what was permitted to obtain the information needed to avert a terrorist attack, but even that was a little near the raw moral knuckle.

I think games that allow people to explore moral choices could make for a valuable gaming experience, but the ‘uncomfortable association players feel when their decisions are witnessed by other players’ restricts their appeal in terms of overall enjoyment and commercial viability.

"Train", etc

BC, this is a good example of morality as a mechanic. Many of Brenda Brathwaite's "art" games -- Train, Mexican Kitchen Workers, and others -- incorporate morality as mechanics. She reports equal amounts of "discomfort" among many of her play testers.

I can think of any number of

I can think of any number of games that don't put you in a morally challenging place, or at least not one that's particularly troubling, including:

Flashpoint: Fire Rescue
7 Wonders (yes, there are armies, but they are a component of civilization-building)
Eminent Domain

That said, the point of stepping into the "circle of play" whether in the boardgame space or as relates to games more generally, is to suspend the normal rules. Bounding competition within the magic circle lets us compete as hard as we like, without triggering consequences outside the circle. As a gamer, the worst thing is when someone retaliates for in-game behavior out-of-game. It means that the freedom within the magic circle is gone.

Now, I'd argue that most games seek to empty themselves of moral choice. Most WWII games ignore any direct connection to the Holocaust. Business games typically dehumanize the labor force entirely. There's no point in rubbing it in...

Thanks for that Mark, I’ve

Thanks for that Mark, I’ve never heard about Brenda Brathwaite and her projects before. About the time she was designing her games, or possibly before, there was a short TV series running here in the UK which followed a similar path.

The only episode I can remember involved a passenger plane that was invading the London airspace. A group of players where representing the ground forces and with no communication being offered by the plane they had to decide to let it proceed on its path or shoot it down.

Other things happened as more information was revealed and the opportunity to ‘shoot’ was tied to a countdown timer. Shoot down the plane at the outer marker and it falls in a sparsely populated zone, wait longer and it falls in a heavily populated area, and so on. It was moderately interesting, but I couldn’t help think that the information given was being manipulated a little.

I mean, if the plane is shot down immediately what would the TV company do to fill the remaining 50 minutes of the program? So I suspected the players where duped a little from the start in order that the program lasted for the required time, two results for every decision and the one that strings out the program is the one given.

Anyhow, having looked at the ‘Train’ piece and her other completed designs they do parallel my own idea in terms of showcasing an immoral focus point – and linking it to a gaming mechanic(s).

However, I don’t think I would call any of her designs games, in the purest sense. They are more like experiences or performance pieces, albeit with an unknowing performer(s).

In philosophy, and other disciplines, “thought experiments” are used quite regularly. A famous one that parallels the train, in terms of background theme, is the do right by doing wrong experiment.

You are harboring somebody in your house, a person being sought by an oppressive regime. If they are caught then they will surely face punishment at the hands of the regime, probably death.

Representatives of the regime knock on your door, as part of an ongoing search, and ask if you’ve seen person X.

Do you lie, even though lying is bad, in order to protect the person you are harboring.
Do you tell the truth, because telling the truth is good, and give the person up to the regime.

The experiment can have an additional dimension if the hider is given a family or dependants who face the possibility of punishment should a lie be told – in this case the searching regime may or may not know the truth (via a tip off).

Brendas games are very similar to these kinds of experiments. However, in place of a conversational medium she is using game objects with mechanics to define the playing boundaries – to some extent.

In relation to the ‘Train’, I think the crux of the piece is the fact that the players don’t know what the end goal is, before and during the act of participation. I’m not sure why she chose to include this level of the unknown in the piece itself.

By the time the players know the end goal the experience is already over and done with. More pointedly the players have the moral safety plaster of being able to say “I didn’t know and had I known I would have played differently or not at all”.

Which means the opportunity for a second game, and the decision to either play or not play, is really where the moral choice comes to full affect - because the accountability rises when the player is made aware of the end goal.

As a performance piece or an experience it would work just as well, in terms of moral jeopardy, if the players where made aware of the end goal before being asked to play. In fact it might actually work better, with the exception that it could last for an interminably long time.

Is there a place for such experiences in the gaming world?

I think there might be, providing such games aren’t as restrictive as Brendas designs. A game should have an element of replay ability, in respect to changing factors that offer a different experience each time of playing, while preserving the nucleus of the game idea itself.

Over Christmas we’ve been playing Bumm Bumm Ballon, which is a sort of Russian Roulette with a balloon. Its more of a performance piece game, the objective is not to loose and the interest isn’t lead by strategy but avoiding an unfortunate event – BANG!

However, it does have an element of replay ability, in that you can push different poles in or use different shaped balloons – and the ending, while unnerving, doesn’t involve putting your moral character under a microscope for others to see.

In relation to my previously detailed idea, I did pop some variants into the play testing to lower the discomfort level.

One involved giving the players character cards, the game characters that survived would either benefit their position or adversely affect it. This gave the players the moral shield of being able to hide behind a character “Of course I wouldn’t have done that, but my character the evil scientist would have”.

Another involved a change of theme to a crashing plane or sinking ship. The players could only save a fixed amount of cargo – parachute availability or lifeboat space. The items to be saved all had value properties which could provide either the players or the people of the world with advantages or disadvantages.

The players had to negotiate with each other, swapping in and out items, to ensure they cargo they wanted to save was represented and the items they didn’t want to save (or weren’t bothered about) perished.

The first variant placed the players at a distance from the element of moral choice by character diffusion, while the second placed them at an even greater distance by using characters and objects.

In both cases the reduction in personal accountability also reduced the shocking moral experience, as the comfort level of the players increased. This was why I shelved the particular project indefinitely.

Without the shock value the game offered nothing new and original – to the point where I might as well focus on making another fun or interesting game instead. With the shock value, people weren’t keen on playing and it wasn’t much fun (and it probably wouldn’t sell very well for that reason.

And I think that’s about as far as it goes, designs like Brendas and my flooding peril design aren’t really games, they are performance pieces or mechanical thought experiments.

I think the boundaries of this genre of active player participation, in terms of player acceptability, have already been reached by existing games. Games like The Resistance, Werewolf and Lifeboat offer something very similar while providing enough comfort to retain players. This is probably why Brendas’ own designs have received acclaim in the art and design world, but few people would ever buy them to play.

Discussing morality in games is itself a game of sorts

The idea behind any game is that you're going into a separate place (circumscribed by the "magic cirlce", as it's called) where you act according to certain rules, both unwritten (as in, how to behave politely while playing a game) and written. Moral choices are not part of playing the game.

"Train" is a one-off trick with a simple game attached. I've not played, but I suspect my reaction would have been (assuming I didn't know the trick), "so what, call it what you like, I'm playing a game and playing according to the rules. Did I win?"

Consequently, talking about morality in a game is nonsense.

If morality really matters in games, then video game fans are really in a bind. And the claims that video games encourage violent behavior might well be right.

Lew Pulsipher


Hey Lew,

I'm generally in agreement with you. Didn't want to state it quite as plainly, but there's no sense beating around the bush, I guess.

Based on the talks I've seen about "Train" and Brathwaite's other games, I have a slightly different feeling about those. In those games, the morality *is* the mechanic, in that people generally figure out the "trick" part-way through. At that point, they make a conscious decision about how much to honor the magic circle. Some complete the game but treat the pawns "gently" and try to slow the train. Others claim, "it's just Halo!" and load up another car.

In light of that, I continue to agree that it's meaningless to ask questions about morality within a board game, but it can be illuminating to study psychology via board games. But then, that's hardly a new idea. Anyone who has witnessed player dynamics during a play session understands how different games bring out different aspects of players' personalities.

I think morality does have a

I think morality does have a part to play in game design. When we talk about games we are talking about a moment of social interaction; and in respect to this interaction the designer is orchestrating the gaming experience the players will participate in.

The overall experience to be had playing any game is the responsibility of the game designer. Now, I’m not going to get deep into the debate about games being a direct cause of social malevolence, but any experience that offers an alternate reality has the potential to affect the shared social realtiy that is common to everyday life.

Unfortunately, every society will also have individuals who go off the rails and the reason is usually multi faceted. People will always find a bad use for the most innocent of items, if they, for whatever reason, are wont to.

I can go into a shop and buy a potato peeler to peel my spuds with. Another person could go into a shop and buy a potato peeler to use in an improper way, possibly with the intention to stab somebody.

Does this make a potato peeler an object of restricted sale?

Er, nope.

The capacity for acting improperly is very pronounced in some people, and it could be that the trend for ‘one for all and more for me’ is beyond short term correction. The desensitising effect of video games, and the immersion of people in alternate realities, is also influencing social behavior. Only recently we had the deplorable instance of another immature mind playing out the role of a video game character, at the cost of innocent human lives.

Thankfully, these cases are a minority, but they do happen. Even more deplorable was the justifying response of the Rifle Association and its vicious attempt to persecute Piers Morgan for speaking out about gun control. Personally, I’m not a fan of Piers, but in this situation his desire to see the matter addressed was a reasonable one; while the RA’s response that ‘having guns reduces violent crimes’ is both ridiculous and self serving.

Board games have a very important part to play in respect to social morality and the promotion of socially acceptable norms. In this sense they have a greater part to play than other entertainment mediums, like video games and books. Board games, generally, promote the coming together of people to engage in an interesting or enjoyable experience – they are uniquely placed to improve social well being.

One of the things I personally like about the gaming arena is the fact that it brings people together, friends, families, strangers, everyone. The personal intimacy they provide far exceeds anything that video games can support. They experience they provide has a physical, tangible element that rings with immediacy as opposed to the distant experience offered by on screen images.

Sitting alone at a computer while you ‘Frag’ someone half way across the world, that you’ve never seen and probably never will see, is completely different to looking another person in the eye while you pillage their grain stores.

Accountability in relation to ones actions is a major part of moral choice and board games offer a more visceral medium for this aspect of moral exploration, which can be both positive and negative.

And that, I believe, is why morality is important in game design. Game designers have a duty to consider such things, just like every other creative process that leads to the production of an object of usage. What we design is just as important as how we design.

While the ‘one trick pony’ experience of the ‘Train’ is more suited to the art world than the general gaming world, every game entails a social dynamic which indirectly encompasses reflections on the conduct of the players within it. To dispense with this consideration outright is to ignore what a game is – a focal point for social interaction.

The extent of that moral tint isn’t limited to grand statements or shocking moral dilemmas. I’ve always found Trivial Pursuit to be an uncomfortable game to play in some respects. It’s a game where some people who, for whatever reason, aren’t in possession of vast stores of general knowledge can be made to feel ill at ease. It isn’t much fun to sit in the company of others and have any deficiency exposed, which is probably why Wits and Wagers is a lot more fun for everyone to play.

The same is true for games that rely heavily on a random element, like ‘Monopoly’. At the end of the game, barring any ridiculous moves, the satisfaction gained by the winner is minimal ‘Woohoo!, I was the luckiest roller today’.

The reason why other games give a different feeling upon conclusion is directly related to the investment the players make in relation to the choices afforded to them by the game. They feel more engaged because their actions within the game matter, their actions have consequences. And these consequences aren’t always limited to the game in and of itself, in any social context where the actions of a person are viewed by others there will be an element of accountability.

How far is a person willing to go to win?

This aspect also surfaced during another fame I played with my family over Christmas, Dice Town. A tie arose in relation to a dice roll between two players and it fell to the sheriff to decide the winner. The sheriff announced that they where open to bribes. My brother in law quickly offered up a gold nugget, while my sister adamantly declared that she would be offering nothing ‘because she didn’t want to bribe her way to victory’.

While the mechanic was in theme, added to the game play in one respect, and it wasn’t a problem for the other players it impacted upon my sisters’ overall enjoyment of the game. She wasn’t comfortable with the moral aspect of bribing another player and she felt her options and ability to win where hampered by her moral standpoint. In short, while it didn’t spoil the game completely, or remove the enjoyment from it entirely, it relation to her it had an affect.

Everyone else enjoyed the game without any complaint - after all it is a very good yahtzee variant game. However, as it stood my sister declined to play again, until I whipped up a rule variant for the Sheriff.

In this variant the Sherriff was allowed to lock down an establishment as their action. They where permitted to render one location (or dice face result) off limits for the round.

At the start of the round they could nominate a building, like the land office, and this was deemed off limits for that round – providing they could come up with a valid reason “the sale of vulture creek has been questioned” no land sales this round while the Sherriff investigates. So nobody could make use of the highest poker hand payout for that round.

The Sheriff was not allowed to change their lock down should they happen to keep the card for more than one round, their nomination stayed in place until someone else became the Sherriff. Obviously, the Sherriff couldn’t lock down the Sheriffs office – since that would result in a game breaker.

The end result was that my sister was morally happy with the game play, we had the added fun of hearing the reasons people came up with and a new dimension was added to tactical choice. Players sought to acquire the Sheriif role in order to free up the option that was being blocked and block options that would help their cause.

The situation doesn’t simply stop there. Not everyone is capable of suspending their belief in order to enter the ‘magic circle’. There are times when some people take game moves personally, it happens. There are games which incorporate ‘hidden traitors’ ‘required lying’ and games with heavy ‘screwage’ elements which gamers may find unacceptable or a barrier to enjoyment.

With all of that being said, I think the consideration of how a game will play out and the social dynamics it will highlight are important considerations in the process of game design. And the moral choices encompassed in how a game plays out are an integral part of that. To dispense or ignore the impact of social jump points in a social activity, that can have an enormous positive contribution to social gatherings, is unwise.

At heart, stripped to the bone, a game is the orchestration of choices and decisions (unless the game-play is purely random). When we listen to the orchestration of a musical piece the presence of a discordant note can severely impact upon the enjoyment of the listener. And it is the same with games. As designers we create games and play test them, and play test them, and play test them, in order to address any mechanical inconsistencies that might lessen the enjoyment or challenge of the gaming experience.

Why shouldn’t we also pay some form of consideration to the way the decision trees within our games make the players feel when they are playing our games?

It’s just my personal opinion here, but I think we should. If we want to create the very best in terms of social engagement then I think such considerations matter. How a game plays is, to me, just as important as whether or not it plays well in terms of its functional aspects. To dispense with such matters as being immaterial is to ignore a major part of what a game is.

Excellent Post

Hey BC,

That's an excellent post, well reasoned and sound. I think it addresses something other than what the OP was talking about, though.

I imagine most of us agree that good design encompasses the social experience a game creates. Most would also agree that certain design may be "socially irresponsible" -- at least potentially.

When I say it's "meaningless" to consider morality within a board game, I'm talking specifically about the cases about which the OP seemed concerned: the morality of executing a mechanic based on it's presentation within the theme. For most people, once you've stepped inside the magic circle, you've implicitly declared your acceptance of the theme.

For instance, most people are comfortable playing Risk, but wouldn't be comfortable ordering thousands of people to their deaths.

Games like "Train" pose an interesting scenario where you trap people in the Magic Circle, then see how long they are willing to stay there once they've figured out what the mechanics represent. If you asked most people to play "Concentration Camp Kommandant," most would refuse. If you get them started playing, then tell them what they're doing, you get more "interesting" results -- but watching people "back out" of the magic circle is fundamentally different than having them knowingly enter it, fully aware of all mechanical and thematic elements, and asking them why they're OK with slavery.

As for the example of your sister, that seems more like a meta-example, in the sense the idea of winning through bribery bothered her (it would bother me), as opposed to the idea of bribery as a mechanic in general. This is an issue of morality, but it's still of a different nature than the OP's original problem. Had she not wanted to play the game because rolling dice reflects a world ruled by chance rather than, say, social justice, it would be closer to what the OP was asking.

So, to sum up so as not to offend: all your examples make sense and have validity, but they don't seem to be in the same category as the OPs choice of questions. There is much to study in the psychology of social interaction in games, but that's necessarily a study of "meta" conditions created by the game, but not part of the game. The OP seemed concerned with the morality contained within the game mechanics themselves, but most of us dismiss those when we enter the magic circle, and most everyone else refuses to enter the magic circle when they find the games objectionable.

One last, mostly unrelated note: while it's true that Internet anonymity breeds irresponsible social behavior, it's inaccurate to characterize "video games" as providing only that experience, and "board games" as providing only positive, simultaneous group experiences. My son and I play chess, go, and "Pocket Tank" on the ipad while sitting together on the couch (and almost *all* early multiplayer computer games involved shared use of a single computer). Conversely, psychologists have created plenty of non-computerized games that purposely break the standard "collective group" social dynamic, as do all "play by mail" games.

I hope that, with tablets, we will see a rise in simultaneous, local multiplayer games presented in digital format, so we can stop associating "video game" with one type of design and "board game" with another, when these are not one-to-one relationships.


No, I don't beat around the

No, I don't beat around the bush, I try to say exactly what I mean because I hate having people try to "read between the lines".

People who can't separate game morality from reality probably shouldn't be playing the games that expose the confusion.

If people don't like the possibility that their shortcomings will be exposed by competition, they shouldn't play competitive games. We have enough rampant egalitarianism ("oh, we can't let anyone look better than anyone else") in the world as it is without bringing it into competitive games. There are lots of cooperative games, including an entire segment (RPGs).

On the other hand, people can learn from games, and I am not likely to design a game that teaches people to be immoral. Yet if the game is sufficiently far from reality, I don't mind designing a gangster game (where bribes are part of the deal), say, and certainly don't mind designing wargames where the Nazis might win. The question becomes, what do people learn from the game.

Yet from the player's point of view, the whole notion of immorality as encouraged in games is poppycock. Or if it isn't, then a lot of video games ought to be banned as they strongly encourage various kinds of immorality! Which will it be?

I don't think Train can be

I don't think Train can be part of this discussion because it and its companion games were specifically designed to use board game mechanics to teach and convey something. Train is the opposite of a game, in that it's not designed to be fun. Nobody ever finished a game of Train and said "let's play again!" It's as much a game as a Rube Goldberg device is a machine - both subvert the form that they take to make a statement or start a conversation. Actually, to the extent that I judge art based on how it makes me feel in my gut, I'd say Train is a great work of art.

But I'd also get back to the original question and ask what is the relationship between morality and competition? Acquire is a straight-up business simulation, with no morally questionable mechanics or motives, other than to be more successful than everybody else. Is it morally questionable to compete? In Stone Age players try to survive and grow their tribes in numbers and prosperity, and even though there is no direct conflict, the indirect competition for resources gros some tribes at the expense of others. Is this immoral? I think that competition is the most powerful force that acta on system, and its results are overwhelmingly, but not exclusively positive.

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