Over at Adventure Gamers is a new interview with me talking about my first game as lead writer and designer, Discworld Noir. Here’s an extract:
Pretty sure every character in Noir that wasn't borrowed from the books (like Vimes, Gaspode, Death etc.) was invented by me. The one exception was Laredo Cronk, which was created by me at Terry's request. He loved Tomb Raider and wanted a Discworld pastiche of Lara, and I was happy to oblige! I had some fights with him about the names, but he had given me a broad licence to make a new cast for this one, owing to the concept being so original. I guess that makes me the only person other than Terry to have made Discworld characters... Hadn't really considered that before!
Steve Crow not only made amazing games like Wizard's Lair and Starquake in the '80s, he went on to have a long and successful career, and today is at Blizzard working on World of Warcraft. I recently had a chance to ask him some questions about his incredible career in games.
Chris Bateman:You were a regular reader of the seminal ZX Spectrum magazine Crash, and in 1986 the readers voted you Programmer of the Year on the back of a string of incredible titles in '85 and '86. That must have felt wonderful at the time! But did it come to seem as if your career had peaked too early?
Steve Crow: No – I don't think so. Many people involved in video games back then were very young; most like me were teenagers or early 20's. So anyone who was successful was more than likely to be very young. I was more concerned about making games that I and others enjoyed playing and were fun. The good reviews and awards were just in some ways confirmation I was on the right track.
CB: So there was nothing negative about your early successes?
SC: The only bad aspect of being so young was handling the pressure of creating and completing the next game. I think in some ways I starting working on graphics to get a break from this pressure and found that I really enjoyed it. There was still a lot of pressure of course but I was working in partnership with a programmer so the creative process and stress was shared.
CB: Do you miss the way the videogames were back in its 'infancy'?
SC: Looking back I consider myself so fortunate to be in the industry at a time when one individual could be the author of an entire game. By the late 80's games started to be created by small teams of people as the programming, music and graphics became more complex and people began specializing in particular aspects of game creation. Since the mid 80's I have been involved in many very successful games so I don't consider the mid 80's as a 'golden' era of my career but it was a very exciting time to be involved in video games!
CB: You were writing the machine code for some of your Spectrum games on one of those chunky 80's home computers (the British-made Tatung Einstein), and it seems to me you must have had a great grasp of the technical capabilities – and limitations – of the platforms at the time.
SC: Using the Tatung Einstein for development (as opposed to the ZX Spectrum itself) was a great improvement – it had a real keyboard and a real disk drive! The Spectrum's main strength was that it had a fairly powerful (for the time) Z80 processor so even though it lacked features such as hardware sprites it was possible to emulate this lack of hardware with software sprites.
CB: Is there another computer you would have liked to have worked on back then?
SC: I was most envious of the Atari 800 and C64 as these machines had much better hardware such as true multicolour, smooth screen scrolling, a real sound chip, hardware sprites and interrupts etc. which more than made up for the slower 6502 processor contained in these machines.
CB: Have you ever thought about how different your career would have been if you'd had a chance to work on Nintendo's NES, or some other cartridge-based platform? There were a great many things they could do that were impossible for you...
SC: I did work on one NES game with Mark Kelly, on Overlord, and I recall it was not that powerful a machine. The processor was slow and there was very little documentation, so in some ways it was a step down from the C64 and Atari 800. Looking back the strengths and weaknesses of each machine influenced the games created. For instance I don't think Knight Lore would have been created first on the C64 or something like Uridium created first on the ZX Spectrum.
CB: So you're not drawn to any dream of 'what could have been'?
SC: Well it would have been fantastic to have had the capability to create Starquake as a true 4 way scrolling platform game with hardware multicolored sprites – but alas it just was not possible at the time – at least not on the ZX Spectrum.
CB: In 1986, when you won the award, Nintendo were changing the face of game design by incorporating a save mechanic into titles like The Legend of Zelda and Metroid. This was unthinkable for most home computer games. But in your 1985 Wizard's Lair – one of my personal favourite games, incidentally – you came up with a mechanic which circumvented these kind of limitations: the elevators. Each floor of the dungeon had a five letter code, like LYONS or CAIVE, and players who made it that far could skip ahead to that floor in a future game by using the code at an elevator in the early levels.
SC: At the time I would have my brother and sister test out my games. I would tune the difficulty according to how tricky they found it to play. I made sure they could easily play through the early stages. Wizard's Lair had such a large map it was necessary to have staging points and the elevators (lifts!) between floors seemed like a natural point to do this.
CB: What was your inspiration for this mechanic, and did you have a specific motive for including it?
SC: I must admit I did not play many contemporary games at the time and assumed other games employed a similar 'save' feature!
CB: That blows my mind – I can't imagine creating a new game mechanic and just taking it on faith that it was something everyone else was doing!
SC: Wizard's Lair was fully completed before I even found a publisher to sell it! At one point I was contemplating giving it away free with Crash magazine as no one seemed interested in picking it up! As a Christmas present for my sister I created a special version of the game with her as the main character, the lifts were renamed 'loos' and all the codes were her favourite sweets.
CB: Speaking of Wizard's Lair, this was a particularly evil game in that the use of expendable keys – and, for that matter, crosses that allowed you to phase through coloured snakes – meant it was perfectly possible to get utterly stuck and lose the game, slowly wasting away into death. It was a devastating experience as a player! But it was also part of the identity of the game. Did you feel bad about inflicting this on players, or did you enjoy some schadenfreude while laughing evilly about it?
SC: I was actually unaware of this issue – maybe I assumed no one would make such a mistake? If it causes a player to lose just one life I think I would have assumed that was OK. However, if it causes a player to lose every life, one after the other, I would have considered that a design flaw and rectified the issue.
CB: I'm pretty sure you could only lose one life, although you could fail in your overall strategy this way because the keys and crosses were a limited resource. I don't think this was in any way harder than what other games were doing at the time, to be honest.
SC: That's good to know.
CB: Starquake is sometimes considered your magnum opus (although I know players who prefer Fire Lord), and one of the most fascinating aspects of its design is that you replaced jumping with a platform resource that allows you to ascend upwards as long as you have them in stock. As with Wizard's Lair, it could lead to players getting horrible trapped, but it also made the game stand out as entirely unique. Where did the idea for this mechanic come from?
SC: With all my games I created a sand box area of a few 'flick' screens where I prototyped ideas. I would program different mechanics and see how they played out and if they were fun or not. I am not sure where the idea for the platform-laying mechanic came from but I really like the way it worked as it allowed a player to climb but was also a limited resource. It was one of those mechanics that just felt 'right'. Maybe the idea came from a picture in a magazine? I'm just not sure.
CB: Both of these games were heavily influenced by the art designs of the Stamper brothers' company, Ultimate Play the Game, who dominated the 8-bit era in Europe. (They later went on to found Rare, of course). I believe you hadn't even played Atic Atac or Underwurlde, you just saw screenshots and used that as inspiration, is that correct?
SC: Yes this is very true! I was influenced by what the Stamper brothers' were doing (although I did not know who they were - I just knew them as 'Ultimate Play the Game'). I remember seeing one of their games for the first time at a computer fair in London, around the time we were marketing my first game, Laser Snaker. I think it was Pssst. I was blown away by the smoothness of the motion and the animation – all on a 16K Spectrum! I think I owned Pssst and Lunar Jetman, but I never played Atic Atac or Underwurlde – I'd just seen pictures in magazines.
CB: Did you ever meet the Stampers? Did they give you a hard time for 'borrowing' their visual aesthetics, or were they flattered?
SC: I never met the Stampers, and they never contacted me or any publisher in regard to the visual similarities between their 2D games and mine. I really think by the time my games were published they were moving on to bigger and better things.
CB: It has to be said, no end of companies took the forced isometric concept of their Knight Lore as an inspiration, but only you seemed to have been quite as switched on by their 2D explorers, like Sabre Wulf. Why do you think that was?
SC: I think I preferred the visual richness of the 2D games, and they allowed for more artistic creativity and large exploratory maps. I am not sure I would have been able to write a 3D game such as Knight Lore – it was way ahead of its time. When I first played it I was absolutely amazed, it was more impressive than Ultimate's first 2D games.
CB: Talking of exploration games, the 80s saw a great many of these (including several of your own games!) with maze-like layouts that encouraged mapping. The Spectrum in particular featured a lot of flick-screen games in both 2D and isometric forms, and maps were a big part of the 'tips' sections in magazines. Those of us playing videogames in the 80s were in love with those 2D explorers, and still remember them fondly, but today the form doesn't seem popular. What do you think was appealing about this style of play?
SC: I think born into everyone of us is an inherent desire to explore the world around us. This, I believe, is what is behind the popularity of such games. As a child my friends and I would travel miles exploring the fields and woods around the village we lived in, sometimes we would be away from home all day. Unfortunately, children today rarely get the opportunity to have such freedom and video games allow them to exercise that exploration.
CB: Is the classic form of exploration-play gone forever, do you think?
SC: Most games have a fairly linear progression so that instead of true exploration it is more a matter of discovering what is next. It's far easier to design a linear single player experience rather than a truly exploratory game. A major component of the game I currently work on, World of Warcraft, involves exploration – of course this is a 3D game. As far as 2D exploration games are concerned it is hard to tell whether they will become popular again. There has definitely been a resurgence of 2D side scrollers – so you never know!
CB: I've been lucky enough to meet and work with a lot of the British 'bedroom coders' and many of them, like Sandy White (who made 3D Ant Attack), had difficulty getting jobs later in their career. Those that had most success, like the Oliver twins, generally formed their own company (Blitz Games, which sadly closed their doors in 2013). You seemed to have found a different path through the games industry, having worked for many different studios and ending up at what is now the world's biggest software publisher, Activision-Blizzard. What's your secret?
SC: Back then everyone was self-taught. I think my secret has been to never stop learning and growing. Concentrating on graphics certainly helped, and also trying to make everything I work on the very best it can be. Perhaps some developers had a hard time transitioning from 2D to 3D games or simply keeping up with the ever increasing complexity of video games? I would imagine that's especially true for programmers.
CB: Do you miss the days where you were an 'auteur' with absolute control over every aspect of a game's development?
SC: I don't think I really miss the days of being the author of an entire game. It would be fun to do a solo side project but modern games require large teams of people working together. I rather like working as part of a team and you still get control on the asset or portion you are responsible for – it is simply one piece in a much larger jigsaw puzzle.
With thanks to Steve for his time.
I’m a featured guest in Episode 2 of the Game is a 4 Letter Word podcast, entitled “What”. Check it out!
The other week, I had a great chat with the new head of Zero Books, Doug Lain, and the podcast is now available for your listening amusement. You can find it over on the Zero Books blog, entitled Zero Squared #28: Imaginary Games.
The wonderful Anna Farmery invited me for a podcast, which went live earlier this week on her site The Engaging Brand. I’m afraid the podcast is in lieu of a new post this week as I’m thoroughly swamped.
Described as "an audiovisual wilderness exploration game/plaything", Proteus is hauntingly reminiscent of certain retro-games, yet stunningly unlike anything you’ve seen or heard before. I caught up with Ed Key, one half of the team behind it, as he was moving house and asked him about the incredible world he is creating with musician David Kanaga.
Chris Bateman: Proteus, for anyone who hasn't played it, is a game of pure exploration – the tasks in it are thinned down to the point of being very nearly non-existent. Clearly, this is by design – you’ve mentioned before how the character of the play changed when you experimented with goals (what psychologists call ‘overjustification’). I’m curious as to how you came to commit to such a wonderfully thin play experience.
Ed Key: That’s interesting that you bring up ‘overjustification’ – I’d heard about it a while ago but not really thought about it in relation to Proteus. It makes a lot of sense in that context! I can't quite put my finger on why I think this, but I’m not sure it’s the whole story: it seems like there’s a distinct feeling of exploring a world where you have neither clear goals nor any indication of where the limits of the world are. One thing that we’ve avoided is any internal system to tell the player how many animals or events are yet to be discovered.
Chris: That’s become the norm, of course, thanks to Achievements and the like, so you take something of a risk pushing against that trend (albeit an admirable risk!).
Ed: Right, precisely because of achievements! It is a risky move, but it prevents any sort of “checklist” behaviour, even though that would have a certain primal satisfaction for the player. For me this is in tune with how we approach reality outside of games, whether it’s a scientific or creative endeavour.
Chris: So instead of explicit rewards, you have more implicit pleasures from the environment – and especially in the music.
Ed: The idea of a link between surroundings and music arose in the first few emails David and I exchanged. At first I wasn't sure if this was enough to hold people’s interest but it seemed to work well enough! I’m a great believer in not adding things if they don't “stick”, and since things like inventory mechanics and survival stats seemed to reduce the sense of immersion, I always removed what little I added. Instead we aiming for a density and variety of encounters and interactions using only the “move” and “look” verbs.
Chris: That’s one of the things I truly admire about the game, although I can’t imagine it began that way! Your old tumblr website mentions a project entitled Draco as an offshoot of Proteus that “might not go anywhere”. Did you originally plan Draco, and then found that the world you were creating was interesting in its own right? Or did you set off to sculpt Proteus, and considered Draco as a possible way to apply it?
Ed: Draco is one of several small prototypes I've made since starting Proteus that are also about exploring a landscape. These are mostly turn-based and heading towards something more about survival than just experience, playing with things that didn't fit in Proteus. The oil to Proteus's water.
Chris: Can you say anything more?
Chris: Wow, I can immediately see a connection between that and the classic Mike Singleton game, The Lords of Midnight! Were you a ZX Spectrum gamer? Was Proteus influenced by early art/games like Deux Ex Machina (1984) or Psychedelia (1984), or early playground worlds like Mercenary (1985)?
Ed: Well, I grew up with a Spectrum but didn’t play any of those at the time. One game that seems like it would fit in that list that I did play was Captain Blood. Fantastically surreal, very French game about exploring a universe and talking to aliens.
Chris: Yes, the magazines loved Captain Blood, but I never managed to find a copy myself, alas. Which other games would you say directly inspired Proteus?
Ed: I don’t think I could point to any direct inspirations in games. I’ve always been drawn to portrayals of nature in games, from Monkey Island, Morrowind, Minecraft, etc, but it’s more of a general osmosis than building on any existing game.
Chris: I think that’s a common experience. The designers who can cite specific influences, like Anna Anthropy, seem to be the exception rather than the rule. What about the abstract art style? Surely that has an 8-bit influence.
Ed: I think growing up with 8-bit games informed that. Since starting on Proteus I learnt a lot about colour theory and abstraction in the fine art world, but I’m still learning.
Chris: You cite as inspiration the work of one of the Taoist philosophers, Master Zhuang, and you’re also friends with one of the British druids. I wondered about how these mythological themes fed into Proteus, and whether you see it as having a mythic dimension. Proteus almost seems to be a love poem to the natural world (including, to some extent, humans) – the sort of thing that can be found in great abundance in Chinese and Japanese poetry. Is there a conscious connection here?
Ed: Definitely! Proteus is absolutely a kind of wordless poem about the world and a certain way of looking at things. David and I had lots of long philosophical discussions over Skype about modes of experience, how meaning arises, and that sort of thing. Another big influence, especially on David’s side, is “A Voyage To Arcturus” by David Lindsay.
Chris: I know the book although I’ve never read it – it’s considered to be hugely influential, though, as it was published way back in 1920. Tolkien was supposedly a fan.
Ed: Yes, it’s this totally unique proto-sci-fi philosophical adventure story about a journey to another planet where the hero grows and sheds different sensory organs as he travels through different regions. It also features two new primary colours (jale and ulfire) and a Primer-like timetravel paradox.
Chris: You call it a game/plaything – are you uncomfortable considering it a game/artwork? Did you feel you had to qualify “game” because so many gamers expect goals and challenges when they hear that word?
Ed: These days I’m less shy about calling it a game than I used to be. I’ll definitely qualify it with some extra verbiage if the situation seems to warrant it, as I don’t want people to go into it thinking it’s something that it’s not, but I’m now pretty happy with saying it’s a game, especially as I’ve had so many votes of confidence since then.
Chris: Personally I don’t even see it as that close to the boundaries, to be honest – there is a definite game-like structure in operation, and tangible (yet subtle!) rewards in the soundscape (I always stop to chase a magic frog!). But people can be terribly protective of the term ‘game’ and can get quite angry about violations of their notions of gameness.
Ed: In a way it doesn't matter – for the most part I find the “what is a game” discussions pretty tedious and limiting. Most of the time these articles boil down to the author’s personal preference, and maybe some kind of anxiety about the status of the medium.
Chris: This was precisely the thrust of my Implicit Game Aesthetics serial, which excavates aesthetic value judgements in people’s definitions of the word ‘game’. The blurring of the boundaries of gameness is not something new, as something like Deus Ex Machina on the Spectrum showed. The magazines refused to give it a review score, and the same happened with Geoff Crammond’s The Sentinel (1986) even though these days no-one would doubt for a moment that it was a game.
Ed: Yes, there have always been “games that aren't really games”, like Cowboys and Indians and Snakes and Ladders. Maybe even the more free-form D&D style “isn't a game”.
Chris: I prefer to go the other way on this and throw the term as wide as possible. If freeform role-playing games aren’t games then I may never have played a game in my life, since that is how I try to play in all game worlds!
Ed: Probably the main reason for calling it a game is that it’s a nice short word that doesn’t sound too overblown, compared with “ambient experience” or whatever.
Chris: Yes, and Proteus is extremely rich in ambient experience. For anyone such as myself who is open to its low-res visual aesthetic, it’s stunningly beautiful. When I played the latest build for the first time, I cried. Now admittedly I’m an old softy and it doesn't take much to make be blubber, but I've never had a videogame reduce me to tears just because it was so beautiful. I wonder – do you really appreciate just how special Proteus is?
Ed: Wow! I guess I’ve realised that a lot of people really like it!
Chris: Doug Wilson over at ITU Copenhagen has also heaped praise on it, and suggested that it's an important title – I heartily agree with him.
Ed: Doug has definitely been tireless about spreading the love for it.
Chris: I refer to Proteus in a forthcoming paper on game aesthetics alongside artistically motivated games such as The Graveyard and Journey – have you ever seen yourself as an artist or a creator of art?
Ed: As someone who’s lived with this thing for over three years as it slowly grew, it’s really hard to have an objective view of it, but I’m proud that we stuck to our principles and created something with very few compromises. In that sense I do have to consider it “art”, even though the word has some baggage attached – going back to the whole “are games art” debate that was so fashionable recently.
Chris: I hope that my philosophy book Imaginary Games is the nail in the coffin of the counter-arguments to games qualifying for artistic status – but perhaps a lively argument never dies! What about your contribution to this, though: are you comfortable having made something that is going to be used to help defend games as an artistic medium?
Ed: I’m definitely happy with Proteus finding a use in that way!
You can learn more about Proteus and preorder for access to the latest builds at Visitproteus.com.
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.
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
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