Miguel Sicart is a researcher at the Centre for Computer Games Research in Copenhagen, with a special interest in ethics. After reading his book, The Ethics of Computer Games, I wrote to him to ask him about his thoughts and theories. This is the last of four dialogues edited from transcripts of our discussions.
Chris: One of your ethical videogame forms – closed mirroring – derives its ethical relevance from allowing the player ethical reflection but denying them ethical agency. (They can think about what they are doing, but they don't have complete freedom to choose how to act). Isn't this exactly the situation of someone viewing a movie? They have ethical reflection, but no ethical agency. So isn't this kind of videogame ethics applicable to wider media studies (or rather, isn't ethics in conventional media studies applicable to this kind of videogame)?
Miguel: Indeed, closed mirroring is very closed to other media. However, the fact that the game is interactive (or ergodic), is what makes closed mirroring interesting: it is not that in Manhunt the player has to commit those hideous acts, it's that these acts are the perfect strategy, and it is rewarded with points. I am not sure I made the point this clear in the book, but that is what I mean.
Chris: You briefly mention the idea that a game such as Manhunt might become ethically illegitimate a priori as a result of players finding its content distasteful. This was certainly my situation in this case – I was not going to support this game by playing it – although I'm open to your claim that if you do engage with it on its own terms it can produce an interesting ethical situation. Both Hume and Walton raise the point that we may refuse to appreciate an artistic work if it offends us morally. (Walton suggests that there are not good grounds for deciding whether interpretive questions are independent of moral issues or whether moral considerations sometimes have interpretive consequences).
Miguel: Right. I think art and games (if they are different) both create this ethical subject or agent. But I also try to say that ultimately, the moral agent we are outside the game decides if we are willing to participate in the experience, and therefore we can chose not to play if our values are challenged in such a way in which we think that playing a game will not help us develop our values as human beings (as you can read, I am a virtue ethicist also in my "personal life"). I think that even in play, our values are ultimately deciding what type of activities we want to engage with, and how.
Chris: Sure, but you seem willing to set aside the normal ethical considerations in the context of a game – but then, why not also in a film (especially in the case of the parallel with closed mirroring)? Or, for that matter, in the case of any artwork? Surely the circumstances around some art (including games) are such that they can reasonably take precedence over the ethics relating to the player-subject (or art-subject)?
Miguel: I think this is, of course, applicable to all arts. Reports from the Marina Abramovich exhibition in New York seem to confirm this (some audience members leaving or not participating in the performances). As much as I admire Abramovich's work, when I had the opportunity of seeing it live I decided not to attend, since I think that is beyond what I'd like to witness.
Chris: I always find it interesting when people face this limitation – I face it all the time, there are many things I don't want to experience (including Manhunt!) and often I feel that the decisions involved are ethical. And it makes me wonder about some of the things that people watch on the Internet, which of course can be sensationally tasteless. Do you think the Internet has created a certain amount of moral ambivalence towards spectacle, or simply acted as a spotlight to bring this part of human nature more clearly into focus? Would you compare the more grotesque side of the Internet to, say, the Roman Colosseum?
Miguel: Well, yes, but I'd say it's a needed Colosseum. I don't mean to be a puritan – I like the idea that there is a lot of filth on the Internet, since I don't need to consume it. Of course, with the obvious limits of what is illegal. So the Internet is just a massive improvement on what has always existed, which is the human compulsion to show, document, perform and explore not only virtues, but vices, and not always for catharsis. I would personally think less of humans if we were not compelled to these explorations. Historically, nothing good comes out of repression and censorship.
Chris: Do you see the Internet as presenting a new moral challenge, or just changed the focus on existing ethical issues?
Miguel: What I find interesting about the Internet is how it actually has forced many of us, and here I mean users more than scholars or ethicists, to reflect about the morality of deeply important things like identity, self, community, privacy, and so on. I am not so sure the Internet has created moral ambivalence, or at least not exclusively – it has also created great communities around values, nettiquete, fostered hacker ethics...
Chris: So you choose to emphasise the positive aspects of the Internet, and let its more unsavoury aspects hide in the shadows?
Miguel: Well it is true that the Internet, like many other visual media, feasts on corpses. But as you rightly put it, it is the Colosseum, and while there is always the risk of falling into the "bread and circus" rhetoric and social dynamics, I have, by the end of the day, a highly positive vision of what the Internet, even the filthy one, has done for our moral condition.
Chris: Going back to your concept of closed-mirroring structures, I've used this idea here elsewhere to refute the claim that videogames cannot have authorial intent; it is clear that games with a closed mirroring ethics must have authorial intent.
Miguel: Yes, I wholly subscribe to this point of view.
Chris: Your ludic hermeneutic circle strikes me as being only tenuously claimed to be game-related. Heidegger's work on the hermeneutic circle uses it for interpretation of all situations... surely the ludic hermenutic circle is just an artificially constrained subset of this? And as such, is it not just the hermeneutic circle as applied to games, and not an identifiably separate concept in itself? (This for me strengthens, not weakens, its relevance).
Miguel: Well, you are totally right. As much as I am not that fond of Heidegger, I would say that the hermeneutic circle can be used in all situations of being, and therefore the ludic one is only a subset of a larger hermeneutic process. However, it is an interesting subset, since it is tied to the particular subject that plays the game – that is, the hermeneutic experience of a game can be "performed" by both a player and a non-player, and that is what makes some game interpretations both wrong and possible (like the interpretation of games as fostering violent behaviour, I'd say).
Chris: Doesn't this extend to other kinds of art? Professor Kendall Walton has demonstrated how representation art can be understood as a prop in a game of make-believe – and as such, they are all social. Where there is an artist there is an audience, and vice versa! You can play in private, but you cannot play alone!
Miguel: I am not very familiar with Walton's work, but it certainly sounds Gadamerian! I'm not sure I'd agree with the statement that all representational art are games – I am very comfortable thinking that there are artistic expressions or experiences, some of which are games, rather than making games such a powerful category. Play, though, is a whole different story. All art invokes play. But not all play involves games, of course.
Chris: Well Walton uses game in the specific context of "games of make-believe", such as those that children play, and this is very compatible with my own perspective on play and games, which is heavily influenced by Roger Caillois. Being French, Caillois had the same word, "Jeu", for both game and play, and along similar lines I tend to think that any structured play activity can be considered a game.
Miguel: I agree to some extent – but still, I think one thing is play and another games. Also, a lot of play is not "gamey", and a lot of games are not playful, so the distinction between both is, to me, needed. I guess the reason why Scandinavian game scholars like to distinguish both is linguistic. In Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, there is a word for (child)play, "leg"("lek" in Swedish), while "spil" covers, well, goal-oriented ludic activities, such as games. Both are incompatible and map quite well to paidea and ludus. Having these words, I think, gives an almost natural tendency to distinguish between games and non-games, and hence the need for defining games.
Chris: This is really interesting! And I can see why this would make it hard to think of something as a "game" if it wasn't goal-oriented. The same tendency creeps into English (it's essentially the reason why Roger Ebert denies games can be art), but because it is not explicit it seems to lead to more arguments! I don't believe that we'll settle disputes of this kind by any kind of debate over boundary conditions, my personal preference these days is to just throw the term open to its widest context, as Caillois did! We can always define terms explicitly when we need extra clarity.
Miguel: Exactly! But also, as a closing statement, I just want to insist that discussing the nature of games as ethically or aesthetically relevant needs to have more subtlety. There is something about the ethics of systems, and the ethics of games as objects, but by the end of the day, a game is played by players performing, and therefore we should maybe start talking more than about the ethics of games, about the ethics of (game)play. But that is, of course, a subject for another book.
With thanks to Miguel.