Ethics 1

I have been a gamer for as long as I can remember. I have seen the industry and art form of the video game develop from infancy into a robust form of expression matching (and at times exceeding) cinema, music and literature. I have also seen self-appointed cultural heroes attack teenage gamers grieving for their dead fellows at Columbine and at innumerable domestic tragedies since. Video games, and those who play them, have periodically been a convenient target. Like hippies, we rarely hit back and lack the organization and financial resources to be considered a cohesive demographic worth catering to for major media outlets.

But games present us with a complex ethos. More than any other media (yes, even more than the classics of literature- you can’t change Hamlet’s decision to seek revenge on his uncle or his treatment of Ophelia), games confront us personally with ethical quandaries and demand that we face the consequences. Anyone who doubts that we can make good decisions in the real world after gaming would do well to look into the history of the Child’s Play charity.

I am not going to suggest that simply playing games will make you a good person. Morality in each of us stems from many factors and it takes much work to synthesize these into a cohesive whole. A necessary part of this process is exposure to ideas. What I will say is that games, like all forms of culture, can be a way to exchange ideas. In this exchange we build and pass on our morality as a group in powerful and wonderful ways that shape the people we will become.

Perhaps the most common lesson video games teach is personal responsibility. This is not the petty ‘my actions have consequences for me’ type of responsibility that adults usually called ‘personal responsibility’ when I was growing up. This is ‘my actions shape the world and the people I share it with’- something far more visceral and more fulfilling than avoiding discipline. You are the hero. Moreover your death is inevitable, so you had better get moving and make your life worth it. If the princess is kidnapped, you must save her. If the milk cow is kidnapped, you must save her, too. If the hay needs to be baled, chickens fed, bandits driven off, whatever. Large or small, your actions make a difference (possibly the only difference) in the world. It is therefore your responsibility to make it a good one. The mundane is often as important as the lofty, and you will go nowhere in life by ignoring the plight of the little people.

Games can also teach us a think or two about how we handle economics. On the personal level, resource management is often finely tuned in games. The resources that you have are almost certainly enough to do everything you need to do. No use complaining about what you want, you have what you need. If you don’t, learn to need less; everything worth doing is possible. The flip side of this is that the resources you have are most likely precious. In fact, the chances that they are exactly enough to do everything you need to do and no more are exceptionally high. Waste is potentially lethal.

This goes double if you find yourself in a situation of sudden abundance. Plan for monsoon season, not rainy days. Walking this narrow edge can also be instructive. Having exactly enough and no more than you need means that success may take some practice. So you practice. Anything worth doing is worth doing right. Often that means doing it wrong dozens of times.

On a slightly larger scale, interpersonal economics in games can be surreal to those coming in from the real world. Auto-split is the default setting for money. Equal work for equal pay. Need before greed (giving items to those who will use them instead of those who will profit from them) is the default for non-monetary rewards. Some communities I have played in enforced this harshly- if word got out that you broke these rules it could be weeks before you could find anyone to play with again.

The practical benefits of need before greed are also vast. Most people who play with a regular group quickly come to understand that the roles will eventually be reversed and greed-based looting will leave everyone in relative poverty. And/or dead when you find out that you’ve sold all the equipment everyone else needed to do their jobs.

Which dovetails nicely into the last thing I wanted to mention- games have a lot to teach about how you treat members of your community. Without your team, you would still be feeding chickens for copper pieces. And without the old man who needs his chickens fed, you would be standing around with a sack of raw grain. And odds are pretty good someone had to help you get that, too. There is no such thing as a self-made hero. I once played a game where I started by waking up wearing a burlap sack with my hands tied behind my back waiting to be executed over a misunderstanding until someone swooped in at the last second to cut me loose so I could go save the world. It’s called ‘Half of the Role-Playing Games Ever Made’. Everything you have, and everything you will ever have is due in part to the people who have helped you get it. Get over yourself, and give back a little.

This is especially true if you find yourself in a teamwork situation. Success often depends on everyone doing their part without being sure that the rest of the team will follow through. Survival often depends on being the first one to abandon the team and run away. Without trust nothing will ever get done, and most of you will die anyway. The whole is not automatically greater than the sum of its parts- that takes work and trust. Planning ahead and sometimes doing the jobs you don’t want to do is required for success. Taking the worst job or sacrificing yourself for the good of the group is often rewarded lavishly.

I briefly flirted with the idea of trying to sum this all up neatly and pretend that there is some underlying metastructure to the lessons I’ve learned from gaming that tries everything back together into one overall moral; but it wouldn’t be true and it would be a poor way to learn ethics if it were. We learn as we go, adding to and bettering ourselves whenever and however we can, so there it is. I have no illusions that I have made a complete accounting of everything video games can teach you. However I felt compelled to at least codify some of what I have learned from gaming. This is (and will probably always be) a work in progress, and I may update as time goes on or if I get particularly interesting suggestions.

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5 Responses to Ethics 1

  1. a coward says:

    First off, I apologize for not organizing this response better. I’ll basically be breaking down each thing you said in order and likely go off on tangents.

    In regards to video games as an art, like many modern mediums, it’s difficult to separate what is unique to video games and what is equally present in other mediums. I note this because you bring up how video games are wrongly attacked regarding the responsibility a game developer has and imply a general unappreciation of it as an artform that can educate. It is true that games, digital or otherwise, have the special ability as a medium for its audience to actively engage in its material, and that the “video” (digital) aspect allows for a vast potential in aesthetic and (on a certain level for gameplay) mechanical power — a potential which has grown exponentially over the past 30-some years. Has the fulfillment of that potential really grown to really exceed that seen in other mediums, or has it only mostly latched onto trying to emulate those other mediums? What exactly are – and should be – the responsibilities of the game designer? I’ll leave those unanswered, at least for now.

    While games do require the player – its audience – to actively engage its material, that engagement between player and designer (of which the game is its medium) is a second-order one. A theoretical game where a player controls Hamlet and is given the choice to exact revenge or not would unlikely translate well as a game. The theoretical Shakespearean designer would hope to instill a sense of tragedy for the player to experience, but if the player in this situation could opt NOT to seek revenge, and thus never experience the tragedy the designer hopes for them to feel. Currently, tragedy is a difficult topic for games to tackle, at least in a traditional sense, as they rely so often on the inability for something to change. A death is tragic because we can’t have them live, but in a game, that’s almost never the case. A good designer, I’m confident, could eventually tackle this scenario, and arguably, it already has in games like Missle Command — no matter how long you play, the nuclear strikes will eventually destroy the cities. However, that is an academic tragedy only recognized from a distance; it does not move the player to weep. Tangent aside, even the best-designed games can only effectively confront a player with certain ethical quandaries because, by its nature, a game allows the player freedoms that most other mediums – and life itself – does not afford. This isn’t even considering the cultural expectations that a game not ultimately be taken seriously to be “fun.” I must also point out that your example of Child’s Play is a correlation, not causation. At best, the example as is only proves that games do not prevent its participants from doing good.

    Your note that games are but just one method to explore ideas and shape people is a very important one to have made. Of course, the question then becomes “what ideas can and do games (and video games in particular) explore, and how can and do they shape people (for the better)?”

    Assuming that we are talking only about well-designed role-playing games (where your actions do clearly have an immediate and over-reaching effect in a way you describe), personal responsibility as you describe it is not the first thing I think of when I think what games /do/ teach. I am the “hero” in that I am often the sole force to stop the great evil from having its way, but rarely does my actions shape the game world in a way that poses an ethical quandry for me. Death is inevitable, but so is my return (even in the harshest of games, you can always restart from the beginning). Again, by a game’s nature, death loses a lot of its power as punishment for even a lack of action — my motivation to complete the game has nothing to do with punishment of death and everything to do with reward of completion, and it’s reason why the punishment of death in games has dropped so much over the years. The quests that I alone seem to be able to complete, great and mundane alike, are only a means to an end. What rewards am I given? I am taught personal responsibility only in that if I do a quest, I get good stuff. Rarely is it the case that randomly killing a farmer’s chickens results in the farmer hating me, or becoming homeless himself, and unless that farmer has REALLY good, involving character backing him up, why should I even begin to care about him? I realize you’re speaking about one’s action affect the world and not themself, but generally, the only reason one care about affecting the world is if it also affects oneself in some way. It’s true that, in a well-designed game, one’s actions always clearly affect its world, but to affect it in a way that confronts ethical quandries is NOT something games by their nature are designed for.

    Economics, on the other hand, and their impact, ARE something games are very good at confronting a player with, and economists have actually started studying the economies in MMOs for that very reason. However, the points you brought up regarding how much resources a singleplayer game typically gives a player don’t translate well for confronting ethical problems that are likely to arise in the real world, namely of having too little or too much of a resource and how you use them in relation to others who would wish to take or deny you such resources. Most of the lessons you point out feel stretched from circumstance, not apparent from the design itself. As for communities that punish greed, I would argue that is to protect the ‘magic circle’ of the game (and its potential for fun), not due to the inherit design of an economy of a game. Granted, the fact that such community actions like that arise in the first place is fascinating all in its own, but that comes from a culture imposing its weight into a game, not the game imposing its weight on the player.

    As for your last point regarding community and teamwork, while it is certainly the case with human players, this is less the case for even the best of designed interactive narratives if only because you are unlikely to fear or weep over screwing over your teammates, the old man in the cave, or the like. Even with human players, that fear or tragedy arises from the culture outside of the game moreso than inside it.

    Despite all my critical nitpicking, I really did enjoy your examination of games as a medium of ethical exploration. If you ever wish, I could lend you some books that examine some of these things, or just talk to you in person about some of the things I’ve picked up myself. I hope to see you do more of these examinations in the future. 🙂

  2. a coward says:

    Also, only somewhat related, but you might find it interesting all the same:

    http://vectorpoem.com/news/?p=47

  3. It is true that games, digital or otherwise, have the special ability as a medium for its audience to actively engage in its material.

    This was the entire point I was making in comparing games to other media. Interactivity is not the only way in which games are different from other media, but those other ways are beyond my intended scope here.

    I must also point out that your example of Child’s Play is a correlation, not causation.

    Actually it is neither. It is a single counterexample to the ‘gamers as monsters’ meme, if perhaps given a little preemptively. The intent is to show that good behavior from gamers is possible. If I had wanted to show even something as weak as correlation I would have needed to show more than one point (either by digging up other charities or getting more data on Child’s Play donations), but I didn’t. So I didn’t.

    Rarely is it the case that randomly killing a farmer’s chickens results in the farmer hating me, or becoming homeless himself, and unless that farmer has REALLY good, involving character backing him up, why should I even begin to care about him?

    Fair enough, it is hard to make people care about minor characters. But the good (or maybe only a few really great?) games do this, at least sometimes. And I think it is reasonable to judge media by the best that they produce, rather than the aggregate. For example, when I hear about how watching the moon landings on TV brought people together, the response is not ‘yeah, but… Jerry Springer’.

    As for communities that punish greed, I would argue that is to protect the ‘magic circle’ of the game (and its potential for fun), not due to the inherit design of an economy of a game.

    I think whether or not a game was *designed* to teach you something is all but entirely irrelevant to whether or not it can. In fact, I think that the spontaneous nature of that behavior and the fact that it was born out of nothing except a desire to protect a community and a common resource is bloody fantastic. The tragedy of the commons is the ethical problem that probably scares me the most, but in some places, on however small a scale or trivial a situation, people solve it spontaneously. I love that.

    As for your last point regarding community and teamwork, while it is certainly the case with human players, this is less the case for even the best of designed interactive narratives if only because you are unlikely to fear or weep over screwing over your teammates, the old man in the cave, or the like.

    This is also relevant to the success of tragedy in games, but I can’t think of anyone who did not have a deep, visceral (if, perhaps, wholly tongue-in-cheek) response when GLaDOS ordered them to murder their weighted companion cube. And feeling an emotion directly is not a pre-requisite to learning. Empathy, rationalization and humor are all ways in which we can and do learn.

  4. a coward says:

    “Design” in the case of community and teamwork was misleading. Even if not intentional, mediums generally encourage or discourage certain behaviors. Written works (books) generally encourage isolation from the community, and it takes well-crafted and purposely-designed content to counter that tendency. In the same way, I don’t think games as a whole generally encourage altruism (since the goal is generally to win on your own, or at best, with your ‘tribe’/team/etc.). To counter my own point, though, games probably do come the closest, and as pointed out, people will come together if only to keep the game going.

    And yes, you do make a good point with the Portal example. I was mostly just adding to my overall observation that I felt you were generally pulling for lessons that weren’t essentially there. Games can and do teach lessons, and you are onto good points, however.

  5. An interesting discussion is worth comment.

    I think that you should publish more about this subject matter, it may not be a taboo
    subject but typically people don’t talk about such issues.

    To the next! Many thanks!!

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