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