Sicart & Bateman (2): Solitary Play
Sicart & Bateman (4): Morality and New Media

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


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Being a game designer/developer, I find the claim that there can't be private rules and that playing a game in perfect isolation is unethical. I often create small games with rules only I ever know in order to test out theories about how a particular design might work out. Some ideas are just bad enough that I need to strangle them before communicating with others. Of course, a lot of these thought-experiment games are based upon other games, so they're not completely isolated.

As for authorship, I think there is some virtue in looking at a game as the product of the developers. Making good games is a rare talent. Yes, players get to interact with our work and have their own agency within the game, but the core of the game is still the creation of individuals (possibly as part of a team); it's that core that makes the game worth playing for most people.

Anyway, a fascinating conversation, even if I don't necessarily agree with large parts of it. ;)

Brian: Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

On the issue of private rules, some clarification is required.

"Some ideas are just bad enough that I need to strangle them before communicating with others."

So these alleged private rules can be changed at your whim? Kripke argues (following Wittgenstein) that these are not really rules in the sense this term is normally used, because you are not bound by them. We might call these quasi-rules or proto-rules - they are rule-like, but not binding. When you release your game, the rules you have chosen become binding to the players. (There is a debate here just waiting to be had, of course!)

"Of course, a lot of these thought-experiment games are based upon other games, so they're not completely isolated."

Yes, and this is my contribution to Kripke's approach, I suppose - the rules of videogames draw upon a socially-embedded background of understanding. This is another sense in which the rules you are playing with are not truly private.

"As for authorship, I think there is some virtue in looking at a game as the product of the developers."

Miguel's position is that of the close reading school - that when interpreting a game (or book or film...), only the content of the work in question should be taken into regard. I am personally sceptical of the merit of this approach, although I appreciate what it is trying to do.

My problem is that no cultural content can be understood solely on its own content - the meaning of the words, for instance, depends upon issues that lie outside of the work in question (and the further back you go, the more you have to draw against the cultural knowledge that survives from that time in order to make the interpretation). Consequently I am somewhat sceptical of the close reading school at the moment - but I have yet to hear a comprehensive defence of it.

I'm in Copenhagen next month, so I plan to ask Miguel about this point then. :)

And finally, I think disagreement is the core of the discussion I had with Miguel here, and I'm interested to hear how the various angles expressed sit with other people. It's often by disagreement that light is shone into new areas. :)

Best wishes!

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