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