Thursday, April 19, 2012

Real world debates in games

I am currently working my way through Mass Effect 2.  In the original game the story of the krogan genophage was told and the story continues in ME2.  The basic idea:

The krogan are extremely dangerous alien fighters.  They also reproduce like crazy.
If the krogan are left alone their population explodes and they end up conquering and destroying everyone.
Other species decided to infect the krogan with a tailored genophage that drastically reduced their fertility; only one in a thousand krogan newborns is born alive.  This was done to keep the krogan population steady and keep them from becoming an unstoppable threat without destroying them.
The genophage has caused all kinds of bad changes in krogan society and outlook.

Question:  Is creating the genophage ethical?

From a strictly utilitarian viewpoint I can certainly see creating the genophage being ethical.  When faced with imminent attack by a superior military force bent on your destruction it is acceptable to defend yourself with whatever force is necessary to stop the attack.  To my mind it is acceptable to go further than that though; if all you do is stop the immediate attack you may well face another attack whenever it suits the enemy.  Just like Ender did in Ender's Game I think it is morally acceptable to inflict additional punishment on an aggressor sufficient to deter future attack but that the additional punishment should stop short of revenge.  Attacking for vengeance is not morally acceptable but attacking to prevent future conflicts is.  In this case the genophage does the minimum possible damage that could be inflicted to prevent a devastating future conflict without destroying the krogan entirely; the best possible solution from a dismal set of choices.

The debate in ME2 ends up being framed very similarly to the abortion debate in the real world.  Is killing a sentient being different from causing a baby to be stillborn?  I think it is, which should not be surprising as I am very much pro choice.  In ME2 the choice is framed in terms of Paragon and Renegade points; it seems as though the attitude that the genophage is wrong is Paragon and thinking that the genophage is a necessary evil is Renegade.  It is a little strange because I am going through the game wanting to choose the Paragon options mostly but I sure wanted to be a Renegade whenever these questions came up.  I can't really wrap my mind around the idea that the genophage is wrong; is a galaxy wide war and the utter destruction of at least one race a preferable result?  If the genophage is cured then either the krogan must be destroyed or all other races must be destroyed instead; no other option presents itself.

I wonder if the parallels to the abortion debate were noticed when the game was being built.  I certainly couldn't avoid seeing it as I went through Mordin Solus' quest mission in particula; I also wonder if the other players of the ME games notice the same.  It seems like the genophage is being presented as somewhat morally ambiguous since I have options to either stop it or sustain it.  I would be curious to know what the game developer's beliefs were on the abortion issue; it might give me some insight into how they develop games.


  1. The real moral question comes with how the krogan are presented. For the sake of having a story with an ethical dilemma the designers created an implausible situation - there is a race of beings who:

    Reproduce at a fantastic rate so that their population cannot be sustained in any environment
    Always choose to fight with other species rather than fighting over the territory they already possess
    Can't be reasoned with


    Are regarded as a sentient species to be afforded the rights of people

    Imagine that there was an insect on earth that threatened our survival because of its incredible reproduction rate and destructive capacity. Simple solution - kill them all: not 999 out of 1000 of them, just wipe the things out. Who cares about genocide of on of a million species of insects.

    But I am to suppose that I have have a reasonable conversation with these insects, that they demonstrate traits that make me think of them as intelligent. And yet I can't say to them, "Look, your ceaseless expansion is going to cause problems for both of us," or "Have you considered using contraceptives?"

    Science fictions loves to present option A and option B and say those are the only two ways. But in this bizarre situation that we are presented with, I feel like there are two good options, neither of which is the genophage. Option 1 is reason with and make treaties with the krogan. Option 2 is make the genophage 100% effective and just kill them off completely. The genophage just seems like war reparations.

  2. You are right that the situation is a little bit contrived but there are some mitigating circumstances. The krogan aren't a single nation but rather a bunch of separately governed clans. They went to war together because they hate other species much more than they hate other clans but there is no possibility of a binding treaty across all of the clans as they are separate political entities. The way the world is presented I don't think there was a feasible diplomatic solution at all even though individual krogan can be perfectly intelligent.

    I tend to agree with you that pure genocide is a perfectly reasonable option against a relentlessly warlike and expantionistic enemy.

  3. One thing I like about the "morality" system in Mass Effect is that paragon and renegade are not synonymous with good and evil. Renegades believe that the end justifies the means and sometimes you have to make hard choices. Paragons believe you should do the "right" thing whatever the consequences. Paragons would defeat the Krogan until they surrendered (or every clan did) and then leave them in peace. If/when they rebelled again you'd defend yourself again and repeat. They would never kick someone when they're down.
    I find both perspectives alluring at times.

    In the case of the genophage my objection is that it punishes the entire race forever for the crimes of some of their ancestors and I think that is cruel. Also likely to ensure the race remains bitter and hostile.