Saturday, May 12, 2012

When I play catch, I don't wait for the ball to tell me a story. I tell my own damn story about how I caught a ball.

I've been wanting to post more, but I'm swamped with work this weekend, so I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone, and do a Work in Progress. Longtime readers may remember the feature as "Watch Me Work,"  but I've decided I like this title better.  The idea is simple--I do a lot of note taking when I read, and when I'm finished a chapter, I tend to do one paragraph summarizing the chapter, and one summarizing my response to it.  So I those results, and post them here.  In particular, I thought it would be interesting (for me more than you, I'm afraid) if I did one on a book I was planning to do a full review of later.  The Work in Progress is sort of a micro-version of the book review, as it features the same summary/commentary pattern, but it tends to be a lot rougher, as it was written in a stream of consciousness flow for me, rather than something more for posterity.  In other words, if you thought the book reviews were rambling, then you're really going to have a fun time now.  This is Chapter 4, "The Ethics of Computer Games" from Miguel Sicart's book of the same title.

In this chapter, Sicart draws on the historically-established virtues ethics of Aristotle and the computer-based information ethics of Floridi and Sanders to form his own vesion of computer game ethics. He begins the discussion with a focus on the moral encounter with Sorrow in Metal Gear Solid 3, and outlines the chapter. First, virtue ethics can be used the situation between player-subjects and game object.  More generally, it means looking at how the world allows ethical aspirations; in games, it would mean how the games enable ethical player decisions and reflections. It occurs when the player-subject determines the best choice, and when the person realizes a disconnect between player-subject and their own decisions.  Virtue ethics also acknowledges the role of the moral object, the computer, in framing these moral decisions, though it’s the player who makes the choice.  The hermeneutic circle consists of the player, the game, and player community—it describes what happens when subject becomes player. And finally, it exists when subject interacts with the world outside of gaming. Virtue ethics acknowledges the presence of the player as more than just someone whom the game is inflicted on.  Its limitation is that if your focus is on community of game players, then you can’t tell if you’re looking at the community, or just its most vocal contributors, and virtue ethics is a little general. Information ethics comes from Floridi and Sanders. It’s digitally based, and argues that people and agents are information-based, and operate within infospheres. Everything is information, but not everything has agency. It considers not just individuals, but their relation to broader networks. Sicart believes it translates to games very easily.  It means that responsibility for an ethical game engagement is distributed, between designer, player, and play community. It’s limited in that it’s rather theoretically based, and still needs to be field tested. That brings us to Sicart’s framework, which is a combination of the two. He starts by downplaying the fictional element of games. But they must be studied in terms of the moral object, moral experience, and moral agent at work. Games are considered in terms of design, experience, and cultural object, with a distributed responsibility that overlays into a larger network.

It’s a good framework, although one that needs to be tested in a larger field, as Sicart notes. As I mentioned, the need to downplay the role of fiction in game seems counterproductive. I can understand not wanting to study games as if they were literature or film. But the story of a game isn’t something a cinema scholar imagines being there, or the much-mocked story Murray finds in Tetris. Some games have stories. To say that the Final Fantasy series should be considered entirely apart from its story is ridiculous. To say that Halo’s military setting isn’t relevant is to miss a large part of the game's appeal. Where is a GTA (or any Rockstar game) without its diegetic elements?  It's not an either/or proposition; game story and the rest of the game are intertwined  Juul’s book Half Real, which is where, I think, Sicart gets his argument that the story in a game is secondary to the rules, seems like a throwback to the ludologist approach.and it’s one that limits how a game can be perceived. I'll agree that the storyline usually shouldn't be considered the most important thing in a game, but I wouldn't lambast a narratologist who tried to argue it. More viewpoints in scholarship is a good thing; a discipline with a lot of voices is a discipline that's vibrant and changing. As a final point on the matter, yes, it is relevant that Mario is a plumber. It’s not something that comes up often in the games, but the character design is a part of his story, and thus relevant. If it was lizards fighting people, then people wouldn’t think they’re children’s games quite so easily. And to argue that Frasca's September 12th lacks a story is ridiculous—its story is 9/11 and the resulting wars, which is one of the most relevant diegetic contexts that I can think of./end rant. Sicart’s framework is basically a fusion of these two forms and applied to videogames (which is exactly what the ludologists were supposedly originally against, but never mind). He gets a historical legacy from values ethics, and a specificity from computer ethics, which isn’t a bad way of doing things at all. I’m not entirely convinced that either is necessary for the framework, but it’s never a bad idea to lay one’s roots on the table. Anyway, information theory seems a little iffy in its totalizing definition of information. There were some things I liked about this chapter; Sicart doesn’t even give the magic circle a nod, which feels appropriate. And he points out that game research has failed to connect interpretation to the player’s ethical nature, which I’ll extend to playing in general, and vice versa. Players are exceptionally adamant that there’s no analytical thinking being performed when they play, that games shouldn’t be art and don’t cause responses, they cause experiences. And game research is quick to dismiss the notion that playing isn’t mindless. (Okay, not core game research, but there’s definitely some of that on the fringe.) I also like his idea that phronesis is about the deliberate break between player-subject and person, because it goes counter to the immersion side of theory.

That was fun.  Any thoughts?  Any thoughts you want to immortalize in post form?

Later days.

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