Morality in GalCiv II

By Shamus Posted Friday Mar 24, 2006

Filed under: Game Reviews 16 comments

I’m nearly done posting about GalCiv II, but I have one more nitpickto add to the list I made the other day.

As you play, the game presents you with various moral challenges. For example, you find some planet with cave-men type creatures. Do you:

  • Leave them alone, even though they are taking up space you could put to use? (Good)
  • Put them on a reservation and keep the rest of the planet to yourself? (Neutral)
  • Enslave them? (Evil)

Good choices usually have a penalty. Neutral usually have little or no effect, and evil choices usually have some benefit.

There are two types of choices you must make:

  • Choices which benefit your empire (and thus your people), usually at the expense of other non-sentient lifeforms. Sometimes the choice is between your empire and an ideal, such as preserving a unique environment or ancient ruins.
  • Choices which benefit your empire at the expense of your people. For example, you may find a way to sacrifice the lives of your own people to gain some technology.

It’s the first type of choice that bugs me. Forcing your people to make sacrifices on behalf of other lifeforms is “good” in this game, but I think you can make the case that this is tyranny. If I force my people to give up awesome land because I don’t want to disturb the ruins of some long-gone race, I don’t thank that should count as a “good” decision. It’s all well and good to sit on a throne and feel smug that you are respecting the dead or preserving history (or whatever your rationale is) but it’s quite another if you’re the one living in a tiny house next to a spacious historical reserve. From that perspective, the leader, (the player) looks like an arrogant tyrant who forces their values (or the values of the programmers, really) on others.

If I have a choice of benefitting my own species or another species, I don’t think it’s evil to choose my own species.

It is possible to make choices throughout the game that contribute to the general comfort and prosperity of your people. Sometimes this will be at the expense of others (like booting cave-men off their land or killing dangerous creatures), sometimes at the expense of an ideal (tearing down aincent ruins to make room for your people) and sometimes at the expense of the empire as a whole (by spending money to save your people from some calamity). If you play this way you’ll usually end up with an “evil” alignment, which doesn’t make sense to me. A leader who forces his people to make some sacrifice on behalf of another group is, I think, a rotten leader. Your race is fighting for survival in this game, and I don’t think it is evil to fight to live, even if it means some lower species end up paying the price.

If you take this system where benefitting your race at the expense of lower lifeforms is wrong, and follow it to its logical conclusion, you end up with an all vegan race who refuse to use animals to assist with manual labor. Call me callous, but I don’t think our ancestors who ate beef and used oxen to plow the field were an evil bunch set on covering the world in darkness. They were just fighting for survival. Geeze, give an upright biped a break already.


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16 thoughts on “Morality in GalCiv II

  1. . says:

    Good points here. You definitely bring to light the hypocrisy of being considered “evil” for say, exterminating some semi-sentient race on one of your colonies, but if you wipe out one of the other major or minor starfaring civilizations your rating won’t be affected at all. As usual, this type of game morality ends up feeling arbitrary and frustrating. Unfortunately I don’t think this is going to be addressed in any of the future game patches.

    The most irritating aspect of the game for me is simply how upgrading your facilities (such as factories) only increases your maximum industrial capacity, rather than improving your spending efficiency. From the comments on the forums it seems like there’s some hope that the economy will be improved, though.

  2. You don’t understand why making sacrifices for other sentients is good? Based on some of your other posts, I thought you were a Christian. I’m confused as to why you’re having difficulty with this concept.

    When you go on to start spouting Nazi-esque propaganda (well, you see, the Jews have property that could be better use if it was financing Aryan mansions; after all, we’re in battle for our very survival against the dogs of Europe…) I’m just left shaking my head.

    I’ve had great joy reading through your archives (and will continue to do so), but this post just leaped out and bit me like a rabid dog.

    Now, maybe I’m just misreading your post. You switch between talking about “lower lifeforms” and “cave-men”. If you’re actually talking about the former, I don’t see the problem. But if you’re talking about the latter, your ethics belong to an 18th century colonial slave-owner.

  3. Shamus says:

    Try this: Giving up your home so that an endangered speices has a place to live is noble. Forcing your neighbor to give up his home for the same reason is, in my book, evil.

    Also, like the first comment said: The game will let you genocide a trillion people from a rival race and not have any problem with it, but if I do the same to a few hundred cave men then I’m evil.

  4. Raka says:

    I think the idea is that morality represents your people, not the apparently immortal tyrant who rules them. For the purposes of game mechanics, you the player pull the trigger on those decisions. But the consequences really seem to imply that your people share in the decision and its accompanying morality– race relations, diplomacy, available avenues of research, etc.

    So the tyrant isn’t prohibiting his poor colonists from settling in the ruins. The player is letting the game know that noble humans would never despoil the memories of lost ancients.

  5. Teague says:

    Shamus, I’m with you and the first poster on the hypocrisy of concepts in this type of game. I don’t understand why this game needs that aspect anyway. I don’t think I’ve encountered it before in the various 4X games I’ve played. I still break out MOO2, occasionally, by the way. Any idea how GCII compares?

  6. Shamus says:

    MOO2 is still the best, but GalCiv has come closer than any other game to capturing that same level of fun.

  7. I can go along with the idea that there’s a hypocrisy between “it’s OK to kill trillions of a technologically savvy species” and “it’s not OK to inconvenience the primitive sentients”, but I guess what threw me was your reference to “cavemen”. Rereading your post I think I missed a distinction between the “cavemen” you reference at first and the non-sentient lifeforms you talk about later.

    I can agree with you there. Enslaving or wiping out cavemen shouldn’t be a good act (if the game is going to model this sort of thing), but if it wants to apply a value to vibrant and varied ecologies, it should simply model the benefits of having a vibrant and varied ecology.

    That being said, I don’t think it’s tyranny to limit individual actions which lead to costs which outstrip any property that individual actually owns.

    For an historical example (to avoid the entanglements of modern politics), look at the desertification caused by the Roman deforestation of the Atlas mountains. I don’t know the actual economics which drove that logging project, but let’s pretend it was a bunch of individual land-owners. Do those land-owners really have the right to log their own land if it means that someone else’s land is literally turned into a desert?

    Should I be allowed to poison the water table below my land, even thought that means that everyone in a twenty-mile radius will have their water tainted?

    You shouldn’t be allowed to stand on your land and shoot someone’s dog while it’s standing on their property down the street. Nor should you be allowed to light a bonfire in the dry prairie grass of your property and allow it to burn unchecked. Nor poison the water table. Nor dump pollutants into the air.

    When you’re talking about climate and ecology, saying “it’s your land and you can do what you want” is too simplistic. These are complex systems which don’t honor property lines.

    And one of the basic reasons we have governments is to deal with these kinds of “free rider” problems.

  8. Felblood says:

    The beauty here is that even the dissenting opinions support the authors main point. The slider doesn’t take enough things into account and leaves you to follow a particular world view’s standards or be labeled evil.

    The system would actually be better if you were given the same choices, but there was no meter. If you can personally accept this act as being in tune with the sort of race you’re playing, go for it. You want to role play Old Crazy Eyes, the game itself doesn’t pass judgment.

    It should be the other races that respond to your decisions. If your people have no problem bulldozing ruins, they still have to be willing to deal with the attacks or economic sanctions of the races that do have a problem with it.

    Personally, I’d also like to see a game where such decisions have a longer term impact that you would expect. Given the choice with the cave men: Your second most beneficial option reputation wise could be to eradicate them, because while it would anger a lot of people, in a few generations people would forget, while a people pushed onto a reservation is an ongoing problem that would put a continual negative pressure on your reputation as a fair and equitable race. Plus reservations usually need subsidies.

    I’d also like to see a system that can discern degrees of necessity. Is this decision one that could alter the face of a dangerous war? Are you choosing between eradicating a weaker race or starving your own children to feed them, or are you just taking their farmland when you already have more than you need? Are the resources you’re stealing manufacturing bomb shelters or game boys? In my ideal, some races would accept necessary acts more readily than decadent ones, while some would expect you to die for their ideals.

  9. Lacynth says:

    In essence, video games shouldn’t be espousing morals at all. Morals are for your parents to teach you. Not video games. If you have video games that start teaching morals, that’s even MORE reason parents have to slack off on their jobs, and set the kid in front of the “Electronic Babysitter”.

    1. Cheddar M Knight says:

      This doesn’t teach morals, it gives you moral choices which tou must choose between. By the way, you’re not fooling me, Jack Thompson.

  10. Tyrannical Anarchist says:

    Lacynth: bollocks. Morals are not “for your parents to teach you”, as though they were some unassailable authority in the matter. Literature, movies, and music all communicate morals in some way. Sometimes without thinking about it, sometimes deliberately. Video games are unlike those forms of media in only one way: their interactivity.

    The “electronic babysitter” is a parental problem, not a problem with espousing morals.

  11. yoshi927 says:

    Lacynth; The next time you read a book in which the good guy wins, ask yourself why the author thinks he would win. What’s the message they’re trying to get across?

  12. guy says:

    i had the most hilarious one ever as the yor.

    It told me my troops had been eating the eggs of rare birds because they didn’t like their field rations.

    Does anyone else see the inherent problem here?

    also, here’s a somewhat better example for the there is a good choice that hurts your people: There are giant jellyfish in the oceans of planet X. your options are:

    1. put up some nets underwater to unreliably keep them away from the shores
    2.kill those in close proximity to the shores and build a massive wall to keep them away
    3. Wipe them out.

    Now, option one is the one that leads to rampant unhappiness, because no one likes getting stung by a jellyfish, option two is what i would consider the best option overall, as you neither have dangerous animals threating your people, nor exterminate an entire species, and option three is somewhat evil, as you just wiped out an inconveinent species for no other reason than that you don’t like it. yet option one is the good one, even though you just caused people to be stung by jellyfish when it could be easily averted.

  13. Steve says:

    Your article is so right. I hate listening to enviromentalists with this exact rationale of ‘Killing animals so you live is wrong’ Even if they’ll do it? ‘Well um…They don’t think like we do so it’s okay I guess…’. Also loved that part about you kill trillions of sentient people and they have no problem kill a few cavemen and your evil thing.

  14. Starkiller says:

    You guys got it all wrong (heh).

    Here´s why.

    Assuming morality choices in this game don´t reflect on you as a leader, but on your species, the whole thing makes sense. Remember killing off all the other races is just one way to win the game out of four. You can also win peacefully by forming an alliance with everybody, being culturally dominant or technologically super-advanced. These victory conditions are often harder for you to achieve, but the outcome is certainly preferable from the point of view of the species you compete with.

    So, if you go around killing sentient beings or even sacrificing your own people for the “greater good”, the other leaders will assume that you´ll have no qualms about exterminating their species once you´re powerful enough to do so. If you do, however, show respect for sentient life in general and foreign cultures, you´ll be rated “good”, and species who are “good” themselves will be willing to cooperate with you, assuming that things won´t be all that bad under your rule.

    (However, why the afore mentioned bombing of planets doesn´t figure into the equation eludes me. Guess they overlooked that somehow. He.)

  15. Daniil says:

    I quite liked this old post, enough to reply to it more than a decade later. Justin Alexander up-thread compares the logic of its main argument to Nazis and 18th century slave owners (two very different groups with starkly different worldviews and ethics, whatever we may think of both), but I’m more inclined to agree with what I think is (was?) Shamus’ position: this is how most normal, non-ideocratic human societies were and indeed are. Sacrificing for others is good, oppressing your own out of a sense of some transcendental obligation towards outsiders… not so much. I do believe there’s merit in the notion of having moral obligations beyond your own society, but it’s a much more uncertain and relative thing than the obligations that exist within the society.

    And of course there’s always the matter of degree. A leader who starves some of his own people to death to preserve a rare species because “all life is sacred” is unambiguously bad in my book, no matter what rationalisation he comes up with for that traitorous dereliction of duty. On the other hand, protecting a rare species when doing so simply inconveniences some of your people strikes me as reasonable. After all, it enriches the world and your own people may like it more to have it around in the future.

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