Friday, May 18, 2012

Book Review: The Ethics of Computer Games by Miguel Sicart

“At the center of the whole discussion on the ethics of computer games, beyond developers and publishers and academes, we should find the players—not as inane inout providers, target groups, or research subjects, but as complex moral beings who will think, reason, and argue about the ethical implications and values of their actions within the game world. It is our moral duty to encourage players to behave ethically and to develop their moral strengths while better ethical games are produced, and we should encourage ourselves to dare to play ethically. Because nothing is ‘just a game’ anymore.” --Miguel Sicart, The Ethics of Computer Games. 

 As promised, here's the review of Sicart's book.  We're going to be talking about moral philosophy, player subjects, and ethical design, after the break.
Sicart's The Ethics of Computer Games is a book consisting of eight chapters (six, if you discount the introduction and conclusion), and two parts, the first theory-heavy and the second focused on application.  The book begins with a description of Sicart's playthrough of Deus Ex, and the moment where he eavesdropped on two guards he was planning on killing.  He heard them discuss things that cast his own employers and actions in a new light, and he realized that the game was prompting him to question the ethics of the player-character's actions. From there, Sicart enters the general discussion of ethics in games, stating that the book is aimed at philosophers, game designers, and game scholars.  He traces out other ethical discussions of games--Provenzo's Video Kids, Turkle's Second Self, and the Dec 2005 special issue of the International Review of Information Ethics.  And then he outlines the approach he'll be taking over the rest of the book.

Chapter 2-4 are, as I said, theory-based.  Chapter 2 tries to clarify the computer game; he uses Juul's definition of games as real rules and fictional worlds, and Salen and Zimmerman's distinctions between games at large and computer games (mostly, that computer games allow network access, more information processing, and narrower but immediate interactivity).  An ethical game is one that constructs its rules and design in such a way that the player is given an ethical experience, a chance to face ethical dilemmas or experience them through emergent play. 

 Chapter 3 moves to the other important element in this equation, the player.  Sicart argues that people who criticize games often underplay the agency of the player (very true).  From the player's perspective, the game is less an object or collection of rules as it is a phenomenological experience.  To explain the player-game relationship, Sicart uses a few different theorists: Foucault supplies power structures, which Sicart uses to explain how power is distributed between game, designer, and player.  Badiou refers to the event as the element that creates the subject, and this characterization fits nicely with Sicart's definition of a game as an experience--it's the experience of the game that creates the player-subject.  Borrowing more directly from Aristoelian philosophy, the player brings a playing experience, a phronesis, to bear when he or she plays a game, a familiarity with how games are meant to played, and applies this to the game experience, or praxis.  Adopting Bartle's player types (the socializer, the explorer, the achiever, and the player killer) and morphing them to Aristotelian virtue discussions, he makes the point that each of these types, as well as good sportsmanship and game balance, indicate game related virtues, as long as they're neither absent or in excess.  For example, no exploration means there's no player agency, but a player who is only there to explore isn't engaging with the game the designer has created.  His main point, here, though, is that the player creates the experience, and brings their own experience to bear.

Chapter 4 takes the game object/experience and the player subject and integrates them into an ethical system, which is probably best described as a mix between classical virtue ethics and information ethics.  Virtue ethics emphasizes how phronesis informs praxis, which is central to Sicart's emphasis that players interpret ethical situations in games.  Information ethics is about  how everything functions in networks; in games, it means that player, player community, designers, and games all exist on the same field, and that responsibility for the ethical nature of a game is distributed along the various nodes of the network.  Combining the two, Sicart reaches his main point, that games must be studied as designed object, moral experience, and moral agents. 

With a basic framework in place, Sicart extends the theory to some applications.  Chapter 5 looks at three different games.  The single-player game, Bioshock, is most ethical at the moment where it entirely takes control from the player, as it then encourages players to reflect on their agency (or lack thereof) in the first person shooter genre in general.  In contrast, Sicart argues that the game's purported big choice, to harvest or save the Little Sisters, amounts to an ethical cheat, as a desire for gameplay balance means the choice has very little bearing on your rewards, and thus little bearing on the way players experience the game.  The multiplayer game is DEFCON, a nuclear warfare simulator.  The game's big ethical engagements come twofold: first, the uncomfortable juxtaposition of the points system with massive deaths; the player is awarded points based on how many million of their own country they preserve, but also for each million of someone else's country they destroy.  Second, the game encourages alliances, but has a one-player only victory condition--that means player strategy is to make alliances both parties intend to break, which creates interesting ethical choices.  The massive multiplayer game is World of Warcraft, specifically, the game between patches 1.1 and 1.7, and the changes it underwent when PvP was added.  Sicart argues that forcing PvP on the players was an unethical move on the part of the developers, but the player response (discussion, petitions, and so forth) was an ethical reply to those changes.

Chapters 6 and 7 are both fairly brief.  In 6, Sicart applies his basic method to address issues at game studies at large.  First, in response to the outcry of game violence, he argues that those who claim that games negatively impact players are viewing the player as a guilty victim rather than an engaged player.  Unethical options in games don't make an unethical game player, but a player has to be ludically mature enough to be able to parse and interpret what a game is asking them to do.  He also criticizes "effects studies" (basically, approaches to videogames involving quantitative tests of players' reactions to games) for paying too much attention to immediate emotional responses, and not enough to how the players are interpreting the games.  Chapter 7 looks at what game ethics has to offer game design.  First, he criticizes the shallow choices of games such as Fable and Knights of the Old Republic, for offering choices that appear to involve moral choices, but are actually presented in pre-judged fashion; rather deciding for themselves whether a choice is good or bad, players are told the choice is good or evil, and awarded points accordingly.  In other words, the games remove the need for player interpretation.  That relates closely to his definition of ethical game design.  An open ethical design allows the player community to directly make changes reflected in the game world--it's common in MMOs, but also in design-based sim games like, well, the Sims.  Closed ethical game design directs players towards an experience.  It can be subtractive, and lead a player towards some central moral choice (such as the slaying of the colossi in Shadow of the Colossus) or reflective, and force the player into an uncomfortable ethical experience, such as the loss of agency in Bioshock.  A concluding chapter summarizes the book, and suggests other useful areas of research, including a reflection of culturally situated ethics, development of serious games, and a look at game censorship.

Sicart's writing style is commendably accessible, especially given the complexity of some of the theory he's dealing with.  He has a tendency to restate his main points several times, which can sometimes be tedious, but is usually a helpful refresher.  The theory portion of the book is definitely more his focus than the application, which is perhaps justifiable, given that setting up something like this is a rather laborious process.  I agree fullheartedly with his repeated point that player interpretation and reflection isn't given enough credit in general; I'm a little less eager to endorse his frequent claims that the aesthetics of a game are firmly secondary to its rules.  It's here that Sicart's theoretical roots are most evident; Espeth Aarseth was, according to his acknowledgments, one of his thesis supervisors, and there's traces of the ludological approach throughout the book.  It's most evident in his adoption of Juul's definition of games as half rules and half game world, with the rules being the important part; it also comes through in his use of Salen and Zimmerman, who promote a version of video game studies with an emphasis on game. I won't complain about Sicart's diminishing of story here; I think I did enough of that last time.

There are two points of Sicart's that didn't come up much in the overview, but I think are worth drawing out.  First, he suggests at one point that the ludic phronesis he describes comes at two points.  First, when a player starts on a game, they go through a phronetic phase where they bring to bear what they know from other games.  But second, when the ethical engagement occurs, there is another moment of phronesis, a moment where the player as a person stops being a player and reflects on their actions in game, and how they compare to the person's real life moment.  I think there's a hint of Brecht's defamiliarization technique in there.  Particularly, I like it because of all the time I've spent hammering my head against the wall of opinion that the highest height a game can reach is immersion in play and game world.  This phronetic moment acts counter to that, demanding that player break from game in order to reflect on what's happened, and what it means.  It's death to a smooth flowing game, but Sicart seems to be suggesting that it's necessary for a truly ethical engagement.  Second, I'm a little mixed on his statement that game developers who mark choices as clearly good or evil are depriving players of true ethical choice.  In part, I'm not sure developers can ever present a choice as value-free.  Granted, there are less heavy-handed ways of doing it than Bioware sometimes does, but it strikes me as exceptionally difficult to present a choice where it's not clear what moral valence the options have, especially since the player needs to have a sense what the options will do when chosen in order to make the choice meaningful to begin with.  Some games have nuanced choices, but there's still usually a best-case scenario, especially if you want the user to feel as if the choice was important.

I suppose that touches on my big reservation with video game ethics.  First, I recognize that using Aristotelian value ethics gives the method a respectable pedigree, but connecting them directly whitewashes the cultural variances of societies.  Even the concept of virtue has undergone great changes--what the phrase "virtuous son" means now is not what it meant a thousand years ago, or even fifty years ago.  Sicart cautions against paralyzing relativism, but there's a danger in overgeneralizing as well.  Especially problematic for me is his repeated notion that some ethical experiences should be reserved for the ludically mature. Who decides what that is?  Who makes the decision of what qualifies as ethical?  In an MMO, for example, it's nice to say that the players should determine the course of the game, but what that usually amounts to is the few players who devote the most time and have the most time to devote rule over everyone else.  While there's obviously no reason to let a seven year old play Mortal Kombat, there seems to be some deep problems in an ethically based game model, and that's mostly over what it means to be and operate in a manner deemed ethical.

But that's a pretty negative note to end on, so I won't.  Rather, I'll end by saying Sicart's book is a well-intentioned and far-reaching model for how game studies can incorporate classical philosophical forms while still acknowledging the specificity of games, in terms of the game object, the player, and the player community.  And that's a pretty big achievement in itself.

Later Days.

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