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July 2010

Sicart & Bateman (3): Game Ethics

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 third of four dialogues edited from transcripts of our discussions.

Chris: Your approach the ethics of videogames from the perspective of virtue ethics, partly by converting Bartle's player types into virtues... I'm wary of the idea that virtues derived from play needs represent universal virtues in the context of play; this is perhaps the least well attended part of your thesis, although you recognize that "player virtues" is one of the more sketchily developed parts of your theory.

Miguel: The whole virtues approach, as rich as it is, makes me think how much work I have left to do. There needs to be a better description of the values of play.

Chris: I think you sell yourself a little short here. While I agree, you don't reach the goal of a complete virtue ethics of play, I don't think it is plausible that you as an individual could be in a position to derive such a thing. Surely by its very nature a virtue ethics of play (whether of videogames or games as a whole) must be derived in part from observation and discussion with players?

Miguel: I know some of the fine philosophers working with Philip Brey at the University of Twente are working towards a Virtue Ethics of Technology, and I think their work will take on this challenge in a much better way than mine.

Chris: Brey's work looks at the role of technology in society, and indeed it must, since ethics are a socially embodied phenomena – even Kant's ethical system admits this, despite the way it is sometimes used as a "sausage machine" to crank out ethical rules (something I believe Kant would have been quite offended by!).

Miguel: I agree, especially with your understanding of Kant.

Chris: You suggest that there is an ethical obligation for players to engage in the wider community surrounding any given game. On the one hand, I'm open to this appeal - but there's nothing in Ethics of Computer Games that serves as a justification of this as far as I can tell.

Miguel: Well I think what makes games unique is that most types of play are not solitary. I would even boldly claim that no player is alone, because no act of play is solitary. A specific instance of play, a game, can be played solitary, but play is always something done as a part of a community, within a community.

Chris: I completely agree with this claim... Like many game designers I have spent many years thinking of game rules as disembodied abstractions. But in fact, the rules of our games – including (or indeed especially!) our videogames – have a strong social aspect to them. No videogame appears in a vaccuum... they are all influenced and inspired by other instances that went before. Wittgenstein's argument against private language applies to games as well – since it is, as Saul Kripke observes, a proscription against private rules. Rules, and therefore games, must be social.

Miguel: Yes, and it's easy to see the social element of games. We brag about our teams results, we look for the eyes of the audience when we perform a feat, we even lower our head in shame when we lose. Unlike other arts (or maybe not – but that's another discussion), play and therefore games are social.

Miguel: Well as I said before, digital games are unique because of their solitary play. What I tried to do in my work is connect the player of a solitary game with the larger community of play. I don't think we play alone – even if there were not trends like achievements, and gamertags, I think people still would discuss their games in magazines, fanzines, bulletin boards, IRC, and what not.

Chris: I agree, although my reasons may differ! Games only make sense in a social context.

Miguel: Yes, play has always been towards a community, and therefore my requirement of community-membership as a crucial part of being an ethical player. In fact, I would say that it would be non-virtuous (and therefore unethical) not to participate in this communities of play.

Chris: You say this quite explicitly in the book, as I recall! I found this a fascinating claim, even seeing the line of reasoning that produces it. It suggests that there is something fundamentally unethical about playing a game in perfect isolation, and never even discussing it with anyone else.
And this is a fascinating assertion because it flies in the face of everything people usually think about videogames!

Miguel: Well, I always thought that this would be the most provoking statement in the book, yet it didn't create any controversy - maybe I was just explicit about an obvious fact, that we all play "together"?

Chris: I found it to be incredibly provoking, personally – the idea that there might be an argument that would make playing alone unethical in some sense continues to fascinates me! I feel there are many players who would find it quite outrageous, so perhaps there is a furore-in-waiting over this issue that just hasn't caught you up yet...! Presumably you wouldn't go so far as to make claims as to which parts of the community one had an obligation to interact with? As long as one is connected to a games community, there is in effect a virtue to be found? Or do you disagree?

Miguel: Well, this is a difficult question. I'd start by saying that belonging to a community is better than perfect isolation. But communities are also structured around values. So there is obviously a problem in engaging with cheating, or piracy-based communities.

Chris: Well pirates still have their own values – look at the use of the terms "seed" and "leech" in filesharing, and the moral implications therein. If you follow the kind of reading Julius Kovesi gives to moral notions, words like this betray the presence of some kind of moral principle, even though the pirates obviously violate many moral principles that other people uphold.

Miguel: The fact that a player belongs to a community, while good, does not mean that the player, or the community, is virtuous. Racist or sexist games build communities around them, only those communities are less than virtuous, yet a player of those games would show a ludic virtue by engaging with those communities... Anyhow, without complicating matters, yes, players just need to engage with other players, regardless of where and how, in order to be virtuous players.

Chris: You mentioned cheats as well as pirates... Personally I'm quite in support of cheating communities for videogames! My games are often hacked and I have no objection to players making trainers and the like to adapt their play closer to their preferences... If commercial considerations didn't intervene, I would love to support this kind of freedom to adapt my games in a more direct fashion – but realistically, it's almost always going to fall to the hacker community to customize videogames after release.

Miguel: I think it's interesting to think how much creators think about their games as objects for hacking – how much they understand that the object, the game, is just the beginning of something else, an activity and an experience of which players are an integral part, not only as consumers but as producers. In my opinion, the attempt of having authorship models on game design, from indies to Sid Meier, is a very limiting approach, and one that can potentially lead to the wrong type of game experiences.

Chris: Well the idea of "game designer as author" is misleading anyway – it gives a very mistaken impression of what the job entails. If the game designer is a programmer, they can make a solo project which they could be author of, like Andy Schatz and Monaco, and very small team can be in a similar position, but for the big game projects there is no-one close to the role of "author" or "director" to point to as having authority. So being against authorship in commercial games development is a little like being against round triangles!

Miguel: In ethical terms, what concerns me is that the game designer as author implies the designer as authority, which limits the ethical agency of players, and therefore prevents them from developing their values. So yes, I am against authorship – or only in favour of radical authorship, like in the case of abusive games where the designer intentionally tests the player's limits.

Chris: Incidentally, in my research into game players, I was surprised just how often games that I had always thought of as expressly "single player" turned out to be the nexus of a small community of friends. Final Fantasy, in particular, was a game franchise that I found players who said they didn't especially want to play that particular game, but they and their friends all played it together, and it became a hub for their conversations and personal competitions - how fast can you level up? Where did you get such-and-such an item? I wasn't quite expecting to find this, but not that I have seen it, it seems so obvious! Shigeru Miyamoto has even said recently that the original Legend of Zelda was built with this kind of community activity in mind.

Miguel: I think my understanding of communities of play comes from my youth. When I was a kid, my friends and me we all had different computers, from Amstrad to Commodore to Spectrum and MSX. It was not always possible to check out the best games for other platforms in our computers, so what we did was, when one of us got a new, cool game, we'd all gather up and play it together. For me, as a kid, single player games did not exist – one controlled the game, but we all played. And, more importantly, we all discussed the game afterwards – not the gaming session only, but the game itself – even how to modify it! So for me, since I was a kid, play was something that made you belong to a community, regardless on how you played (alone, or multiplayer).

Next week: Morality and New Media

Sicart & Bateman (2): Solitary Play

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 second of four dialogues edited from transcripts of our discussions.

Miguel: Another distinguishing mark of computer games is that they afford interesting solitary play. I know this has been tried in both card games and role-playing scenarios, but never to the extent that computer games allow.

Chris: I would say boardgames do in fact afford excellent solitary play, and have done for many years – you just need to look for the right games! The Statis Pro sporting simulations are a classic example (created in 1970), and more recently games like Arkham Horror, Aliens and La Havre all work well in single player variants. There are also, of course, solo gamebooks, such as the popular Fighting Fantasy line (from 1980 onwards).

Miguel: Being a board-and-role playing gamer myself, I can only agree with your statement: solitary play has been possible for a long time outside the box. However, if I may pick on your wording, you say that these games "work well". Indeed, Arkham Horror single player is not the same experience, it's not as satisfactory, as the multiplayer version. There is something about the game design that makes it possible, yet not optimal, to play the single player.

Chris: Well the other examples are perhaps stronger in this regard – La Havre and Aliens both play well in single player. And honestly, I'm not sure at a mechanical level Arkham Horror works badly in solo play (especially if you take a "party" of investigators)... it's just a lot more fun with more
people. But for most people this is true of all games – even single player computer games.

Miguel: I guess we won't agree on this one either!

Chris: Well I suspect the majority of hobby gamers would side with you on this one! But I know there are players out there who do play board games alone, especially teenagers... it would be interesting to study this more closely. In the case of both this issue (solitary play) and the previous issue (blackbox rules), it strikes me that the hallmarks of computer games are more distinctions of degree than of kind. Would you agree?

Miguel: Yes, there are no strong ontological differences between digital and non-digital games.

Chris: Why do you think solitary play is important, and what's the connection with the blackboxing of the rules?

Miguel: Solitary play questions the importance of the social in the construction of values and ethical experiences. And blackboxing brings forth the importance of design as a moral activity, and as a tool for creating value-inscribed systems. Of course, this is not new, as non-digital games are also designed ethical systems. However, the fact that computer games present themselves in that way to players (as blackboxes from which rules/meaning ought to be derived), is significant for the study of morality in games.

Chris: When you say that solitary play questions the importance of the social in the construction of values and ethical experiences, I have to think of the parallel with books. Does the fact we read on our own cause us to question the social element in the construction of our values? Isn't the author – like the game developer – always a silent partner in this process?

Miguel: Well, we read on our own, but certainly not alone, or isolated. I've been re-reading El Quijote (or Quixote, as Anglo Saxons like to put it!), and it surprised me once again how much of the book is intended to act as a conversation for readers. I mean, it is not talking to one reader, but to a community of readers. Reading in itself, the act of experiencing a book's pleasures, is a solitary act, but it is not an individualist act. Much like single-player computer games. As for the author, again, the authorial fallacy concerns me a bit – I'd say, again tapping on close reading, that we read primarily a text, and when we recur to the "author" (or developer) to explain something, we are already bringing in the social aspect, which is different from the solitary experience – a experience that needs no other to be plentiful.

Chris: I'm not suggesting authorial intent has any primacy, but – however indirectly – the creator of any artwork necessarily has a role in the experiences people have with it. They are, as I put it earlier, "a silent partner". This is very different to, say, turning to a living author or developer for explanation of some finer point, as even a dead author still fulfils the kind of role I'm gesturing at... they are "in the background" of the artwork.

Miguel: But even if I accepted this position, I would still have some problems giving the author any kind of moral ascendancy over the actions of the player (but not over the design of the game)..

Chris: The design of the game necessarily gives the developer scope over the actions of the player. There's nothing the players can do that didn't have to be covered in the design and implementation of the game itself. I don't see this as moral ascendancy – just a pragmatic assessment of the
necessities involved in making games. If you want the player to have the room to explore their ethics within the play, the game has to be designed to allow this – although it doesn't have to be expressly designed with this intent, of course. Everything comes at a cost, especially player agency.

Miguel: I suppose if we accept that most play in digital games is instrumental play (as in many other games, of course), maybe the designer as this "silent partner" is well justified. But then again, instrumental play is not very virtuous, in my opinion

Chris: By "instrumental play" I suppose you mean where the play is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, as in a serious game which seeks to train the player. It strikes me as not that easy to separate these. I mean, even with fine art the experience of appreciation can have an instrumental element without denying the intrinsic value of the artwork.

Miguel: I agree that aesthetic appreciation can have some kind of instrumental element. What I refer to with the idea of instrumental play is the current trend to favour "gameness" over playfulness in games, at least to a certain extent, or how digital games are about achievements and victory more than about play itself. If we take a popular extreme now: the idea that adding rewards to certain activities ties service design to game design (the whole debate on external rewards elsewhere than in games) is a symptom of how we tend to think that games are about the goals.

Chris: I've argued against this myself. As powerful as rewards are for structuring play, there's always a danger of overjustification. The process of play is as important – sometimes more important – than the goals.

Miguel: Yes, I think games are mostly about performative play – the act of playing. The beauty of the discussions in Diplomacy, the pleasure of gravity control in Half-Life 2, the sensational vertigo of hopping through portals in Portal … none of them are "rewarded", but they are what makes those games excel. In this sense, I would claim that the ethics, and the aesthetics of games have to be localized in the performance of play, and therefore in the way designers encourage those performances.

Chris: Going back to the question of the distinctions between boardgames and videogames in terms of ethics, it seems to me that anything possible in a videogame is in principle convertible to a hobbygame/boardgame context. You lose the direct, live control of the avatar (i.e. you must switch to turn-based), but this should not have any effect on the ethical dimension of the play generated.

Miguel: I think that even in the case of indirect control of the avatar, there are things that are unique of computer games. Space, and the importance of the virtual space, is one of them. Moreso, the importance of artificial agents, or how some AIs can be used to embody values (like the buddies in Far Cry 2), is also unique to digital games. And in the case of multiplayer games, I think that asynchronous multiplayer games such as Facebook games could be potentially used to explore areas of moral game design that we haven't explored yet, and that could be very unique to computer games.

Chris: It strikes me that the main reason The Ethics of Computer Games demarcates videogames from other kind of games is that they provide more direct and accessible opportunities for exploring ethics in play. And while I'd argue that a tabletop role-playing game has significant potential in this regard, I wouldn't deny that videogames present a different set of possibilities. Your theory is geared specifically at those possibilities, even if it can also be applied in a wider context.

Miguel: Well to summarise my position, I think there are a number of things in computers (networking, blackboxing, solitary play) that make some ethical issues occur more frequently in computer games than in other types of games, and therefore we need a theory that also takes these unique elements into consideration.

Chris: I suppose I'm not disputing the merits of looking at computer games in isolation for an ethical theory – if only because the field of games is too vast and diverse to be considered as a whole these days – but it seemed to me that your work jumped to the conclusion that computer games could be treated distinctly almost as a premise. But then the actual ideas you present readily apply to a great many other kinds of game. I suppose this struck me as rather odd.

Miguel: Well, I think that there's also another purpose in my approach: opening the study of digital games for Computer Ethics, but that has more to do with another game, academic politics, than with the nature of games themselves.

Next week: Game Ethics

Sicart & Bateman (1): Blackbox Rules

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 first of four dialogues edited from transcripts of our discussions.

Chris Bateman: I'd like to start by saying how much I enjoyed The Ethics of Computer Games, but to also challenge the idea that this was all you were developing. While it may have been necessary to restrict your scope to computer games as a pragmatic concern, it looks to me that you're essentially suggesting an ethics of games in a wider context.

Miguel Sicart: Well, I think it is very positive that my theory applies to any game. In general, I agree - the explanation of the ethics of computer games can only work if it explains the ethics of games. However, I think there are elements that computer games have that make them ethically unique.

Chris: Yes, you mention in the book that computer games "bring forth new possibilities and demands that are significant for the ethical construction of the experience of the game"... I found that slightly dubious. There is no possible ethical situation a videogame might provide that could not equally be presented in a tabletop RPG via verbal descriptions and written rules, and in many cases an equivalent board game could also be constructed that would pose functionally the same issues.

Miguel: Well, lately I've been playing Call of Prypyat, and I've been fascinated by how the experience of the game, in terms of morality, is unlike anything I've experienced in role-playing games, or board games.

Chris: Well new experiences aside, what do you think is actually distinct about videogames – what is there about that kind of games that you think is impossible in other forms?

Miguel: Well for one thing there's the blackboxing of the rules. As opposed to most conventional board and role-playing games, most of the rules of a computer game can only be deducted from play. It is possible to start playing a computer game without knowing the rules, and deduct them. In fact, for many players a part of playing a digital game is to deduct the rules.

Chris: It's true that many computer games do not include adequate manuals describing the rules (Yehuda Berlinger argues the developer ought to expose those rules to the player, and I tend to feel he has a point). But those rules still exist and are specified. They exist in documentation or minds of the game development team. In a sense, even though they are not physically present at the time, the player learns the rules from the development team, in a manner not dissimilar to how most people learn boardgames - by being taught.

Miguel: As much as I agree with Yehuda Berlinger and you that rules should be disclosed (I like this wording more than exposing, since it keeps my dear blackboxing metaphor somewhat still present), I am not certain it is an ought. I feel that to be too imperative a requirement.

Chris: Yehuda argued for the imperative in this regard; personally, I just see it as a politeness I would like to encourage.

Miguel: Personally I would encourage the developer to disclose the rules provided in that disclosure the experience of the game will not be affected. I believe some games gain from having hidden rules, ones that even expert players struggle to learn about. That gain, provided it is designed for, should be respected.

Chris: Of course! I'm not suggesting voiding all secrets, just sharing the "basic rules". Also, I think making the decision to share the rules encourages the developer to ensure those rules are coherent, so intending to share the mechanics in itself could ultimately prove beneficial for the game design itself.

Miguel: You suggested earlier that the rules exist in the minds of the development team... Perhaps it's my past in literary studies, but thinking that we can backtrack to "the author", for meaning or for constitution that the rules exist, is a very unsettling position. Technically, I agree with your point: the rules exist in the minds of the developers. However, I'd argue that in this day of player-centred design, players learn the rules from the game, and not from the development team

Chris: Sure. But as someone who has had to work on the problem of how the game teaches the rules to the player (as both a designer and a writer), I'm acutely aware that even though we may not be physically present when the player learns, we're still in the role of teacher a lot of the time. And it's extremely challenging to teach in absentia. The only thing that makes it easier is the common conventions that are already available – and I would argue that these are socially embedded, just as language is.

Miguel: I tend to follow the close reading school, so anything outside the text, in this case the game, is metaphor to me and not a valid argument – I don't know what the development team may know, but I know, and can prove, what the game wants me to do. I think the process of dialogue with developers happens only on games other than mainstream commercial games.

Chris: Well in MMOs, the process of dialogue with the developer is quite explicit – the community campaigns for specific changes and so forth. And as commercial videogames become increasingly sensitive to the role of the community in their success, this becomes more and more important. I don't think commercial developers have the luxury to guess about their players any more, especially when they can ask.

Miguel: I agree in the increasing role of the community in game development – and therefore, I'd say, the increasing importance of the value of social play. However, I think that the player learns from the behaviours of the system, more than from the authoritative figure of the designer.

Chris: Absolutely! My claim is that the designer and writer must create a system to teach the player. But my point is that this process is easier if they make use of the existing conventions in games... it is these conventions that, like language, are socially embedded. The further the game strays from familiar "rules", the harder will be the task of teaching the game... So where you say "the player learns from the system" I am saying "the player has always already learned a set of game rules". Large swathes of the rules are socially embodied in the game playing community as a whole – something you allude to in your reference to phronesis i.e. the "practical wisdom" of playing games (what I call game literacy).

Miguel: I'd agree to a certain extent in your analogy of phronesis and game literacy, but phronesis includes, by definition, morality and moral thinking, while literacy doesn't. I could worry if you insist on making them equivalent

Chris: Well I wouldn't want to make those terms synonyms, but I would say without the game literacy you couldn't engage in the kind of moral thinking that you advocate in The Ethics of Computer Games.

Miguel: Good point. Yes, ludic phronesis requires game literacy (which I guess is the idea I tried to communicate when writing about how phronesis develops with time), and therefore are connected.

Chris: My view of this issue of rules is that individual games may embed the specific game rules of a particular era or tradition (like the game over of an arcade game, or pressing start to pause a console game, or ASWD for movement on PC) or they may contain wholly unique rules, but the majority of the rules are socially embedded and simply instantiated in the games, in the same way the words and grammar of a language are socially embedded and simply instantiated in any given text. And in both cases, the conventions change over time and from culture to culture – the culture of FPS games is not the culture of platform games, for instance.

Miguel: This is somewhat beside the point for me: players find the logic of the game, not of the designer. The canon of game design literature would argue that the designer is there precisely to make a system that teaches the player how to play – not via the designer, but via the system itself. The system is the player's source for the rules of the game.

Chris: Yes, I don't disagree. Rather than learning how to play from an authoritative figure, I mean that both the game designer and the player share in a socially embedded collection of game rules, the "language" of the culture of videogames. The system is only properly interpretable within the culture of games.

Miguel: I am not sure how major this point is, but I am intuitively sure that it is the focus on the designer-player conversation what creates aesthetic experiences, and therefore it is a bit precious to me to make the finer points here. My general position is that of the close reading school: everything outside of the game or text is a metaphor, and can be ignored.

Chris: I suppose because I am picking out a background of understanding in the form of a "culture of game rules", it seems to me that the blackboxing of rules is less significant than it may seem at first glance, especially since the trend in commercially successful games (both casual games, and those targeting what I might call the mid-market like Modern Warfare) is to be quite explicit with the rules of play. The role of puzzles is becoming less commercially significant.

Miguel: Well, it depends on how we understand blackboxing: the rules that govern combat in World of Warcraft are extremely complex, yet parts of it are transparent – for usability purposes. So learning the rules is less and less important, I'll give you that, but I'd argue that's because the computer is taking more and more over in the initial stages of playing a game and learning how to play it, easing the communication of the rules to the player.

Chris: You mentioned before about the role of hidden rules. I would be tempted to say that the computer game is operating more like a puzzle than a game (per se) when it expects deduction of rules from the player.

Miguel: I think the analogy with the puzzle is only partially right: in simple computer games, I'd agree with it, but on complex games with simulations of plausible environments, I think much of the learning process of the rules is channelled through the assumption that there is a human, embodied being playing the game. We never need to learn the gravity rules in Half-Life 2: we know them, and then we are given a tool to tinker with them. Simulation-heavy games are, in this sense, particular in the way they use assumed player embodied/cultural knowledge to communicate the basic rules. I guess I could even argue that these games are significantly different that puzzles, but that's for another discussion.

Next week: Solitary Play