Ethics and Game Design: A Conversation (Part Two)

One goal of the book is to help identify design principles that encourage game designers and players to reflect more deeply on their ethical choices. What would a designer learn from studying the contents of this book?

COLLEEN: You ask the question I’m super invested in and excited about! On one hand, I think we have to be careful about what we mean by ethical choices in the context of designing and playing. Both design and play are inherently transgressive (if they are any good). They push against the boundaries of rules and norms to create new experiences. At least, this is what many of us (designers and players) aspire to. I think what’s really exciting about the collection of essays in the book is how each author defines ethics on their own terms, but also in complementary ways. I think the book gives designers the freedom to consider ethics not just as a property of games (to shoot or not to shoot?), but as an active engagement with players, context, and culture. Considering ethical choices as a way of thinking about game design and where and how games take form expands the boundaries of what we think about when we consider a game. The playing field extends beyond the game itself to the social context and the rhetorical perspectives (intentional or otherwise) of its creators (to borrow from Ian Bogost’s model of persuasive games).

Do ethical concerns emerge differently in single-player and multi-player games? If so, how are the social dimensions of games being harnessed to encourage greater ethical reflection?

MIGUEL: Even though much of my work is focused on single-player games (as I understand them being the singularity that allows us a deeper understanding of games as ethical systems), I think the right answer to this questions is to say that we, scholars and sometimes developers, don’t often think about ethics and multiplayer, and how to harness the social for creating this kind of meaningful play. I mean, the social is always moral (and political), so I guess we are taking it for granted, and focusing much more on this solitary experience (clearly influenced by other media that some could understand operate this way, even though careful reading of say Brecht shows that even epic theatre understood the audience as a social body, even though the experience of the play was individual – but I digress). In other words: we tend to forget multiplayer, and social dynamics, when thinking about the design of ethical gameplay, and we focus too much on either single player, or how the rules/mechanics of a system will affect a single player, even in a multiplayer game.

I think there is much work to be done regarding multiplayer ethical gameplay design. I feel that games like Diplomacy, or Defcon, or even RPGs (specially the swedish school of “jeepen games”) have understood how to design particular multiplayer mechanics that generate ethical gameplay. Of course, backstabbing is one: but how does it work? Does it always generate ethical gameplay? How about harnessing empathy, solidarity, other values that are at play in multiplayer contexts? This question you’re asking points us, I think, in the right direction: how to include the social, that which cannot be proceduralized, into the design of ethical gameplay?

My answer? By understanding how does a game system operate when creating ethical experiences (high abstract order), and then trying to think about mechanics that translate that into player-to-player behavior. I think the “Fragile Alliance” multiplayer mode in Kane and Lynch does this very well, for example: being a traitor is fun, but it’s also a moral decision, one that is recognized so by both the game system and the game players, both reacting to a particular ethical choice.

COLLEEN: Adding another real person into the equation certainly changes the game. Interacting with unpredictable real people demands dynamic ethical choice-making from the start. You can’t really grief an NPC! I think, however, it’s more difficult to for designers to harness ethical choice-making in these social situations. In MMORPGs to grief or not to grief is really a player choice – like bluffing in human-human poker – these are not “designed” ethical choice moments. They are emergent aspects of play which designers don’t always anticipate. This unpredictability is the magic of games and I think it’s also where ethical play is more complicated and interesting. The complexity of emergent play – particularly in social play – can’t always be harnessed, but it can be sought after. I think the flip-side to this fairly optimistic view of social and ethical dimensions is where we see social games designed around behaviorist concepts to

generate responses like addictive play, social coercion, and perhaps the worst evil of all, spam. I think there are definitely some ethics to consider here. Do we need a game design code of ethics?

Several of the writers note that all games are in some sense “ethical systems.” Yet, certain games recur across many of the essays, suggesting that there may already be a canon of “ethical” games within this new field. What are these games doing which makes them such rich examples for research?

MIGUEL: Well, what the games I tend to analyze do right is to think about ethical gameplay beyond the basic consequentialist dilemma posing in a black-and-white moral universe. When we think about ethical gameplay, we immediately fall prey of the binary dilemmas, of the clashes between right or wrong, or between greater and lesser evils. Which I think it’s often both too ethically coarse and a waste of time. Games can contribute to fostering our moral values, but they can only do so inasmuch as they first address us, players, as moral beings, then challenging our values and forcing us to reflect about our very notion of morality.

Binary dilemmas just help us corroborate our values – we don’t need to challenge them, we act by them. The canon of “good” ethical games presents us with challenges beyond choices, a way in which we can use play to learn, develop and evaluate our own morality, both as players and as citizens. The games I find the most interesting are those in

which either there are no choices (Shadow of the Colossus) or the choices have effects I cannot easily predict by trying to understand the algorithms behind the game, therefore effectively making me develop ethical, and not instrumental strategies (Fallout 3).

KAREN: There are quite a few games that were mentioned regularly throughout the book collection and across multiple authors–games that could be considered part of a growing canon. These were typically games that attempted to include some type of ethical components or questions, or game play that ascribed some type of morality points to how you behave in the game. Some of these games, such as Mass Effect, Red Dead Redemption, and Fallout 3, incorporated a system (which varied from being transparent to opaque), where depending on your choices (e.g., actions in the game, or your dialogue selections), your avatar would be placed on a scale that was related to his or her ever-changing honor, ethics or morality. As a result, different options or interactions would open up due to your avatar’s status on this scale. Other games did not use an ethical lever as part of describing your avatar, but offered an ethical choice that had certain direct outcomes, such as in Bioshock I/II. There are also some games that bring up specific ethical issues or concerns through their game content, narrative or other mechanics, such as Super Columbine

Massacre RPG or the Grand Theft Auto series. Thus, many of the authors in this collection analyzed the extent to which these games truly support ethical thinking, and provide the ability to experiment with one’s own ethics and values, as well as which types of principles might better support this. I am personally interested in the moments in games when players have difficulty deciding what is right or appropriate to do, and how they think through those decisions.

On the other hand, I believe that all games (and any type of artistic expression) to some extent embody and express values–from everything through their modes of production and distribution, their mechanics and rules, to their cultural touch points and the ways subcultures form around them. For example, how a game is staffed or advertised may

have ethical implications, and there are values embedded in the way a particular game’s world is designed. Again, while many games mentioned in the books more directly present ethical content and mechanics around ethics, potentially any game could be a site of interest because of the ways they were used, written about, or played with other people. For example, what is the function of using cheat codes in games?; how do players negotiate with each other in a given game, particularly ones that require social interaction?; and what are the rules around play? Any game can be a beneficial site for exploring ethical issues.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed that in the past few years, many games, particularly RPGs, have had more direct ethical components and have been quite popular. I believe this may be because games enable you to experience a new perspective–a new role–and one’s ethical identity is an important part of this perspective. Being able to access diverse

ethical perspectives is perhaps even necessary for fully appreciating humanity. Through play, we are able to access new ways to experience the world, understand humankind, reflect on our identities, our destinies, our pasts and our mysteries. We may never fully answer these questions, but hopefully games can help us approach them.

Other essays describe so-called “serious” or “educational” games which are created specifically to foster ethical reflection. What are these games doing that’s different from those already on the market?

COLLEEN: I’m not sure these games are doing anything different on a formal level, but they are certainly coming out of different development contexts from AAA titles, or “mainstream” videogames. Many of the games referenced in the book are the result of a different economic model: research funding and university/not-for-profit labs. In the last 5-10 years some exciting models have taken form in New York (I have heard it referred to as “The New York School”) where there’s lots of cross-pollination between academia and industry, enabling lots of low-risk experimentation and new funding possibilities/models. Out there in Cali you guys have some very exciting things happening as well, particularly at your institution, Henry! I think in order to build games that take risks with content and gameplay, there needs to be these kinds of alternative spaces and collaborations to experiment and learn.

The market is definitely changing and diversifying as well. Over the last month console sales dropped and mobile game sales skyrocketed. More distribution platforms for all kinds of games will definitely also help “serious” and “educational” games reach wider audiences, and exist across different platforms and in different contexts.

Games encourage what James Paul Gee describes as “projective identification.” How is this concept linked to notions of “empathy”? What role does “empathy” play in fostering ethical reflection through play?

MIGUEL: As a Virtue Ethicist, I would argue that empathy is one of the core virtues that needs to be fostered in order to achieve the good life. However, in games, empathy presents itself in a different way. Let me start with a question – what or who do we feel empathy for in games? In the case of multiplayer games, the answer is easy: other players. Therefore, any game that includes some kind of systemic reward for behaviors that are empathetic will foster that value, and hence maybe not provoke ethical reflection, but have an ethical outcome.

In single player games, though, what is the object of empathy? AI researchers aspire to create empathy for artificial agents, but I am not certain we are there yet. We do feel empathy though for characters and locations, that is, not for the way a particular agent behaves, but for the role a particular agent plays in the game narrative or fiction. So using this instinctive care for the plot (if you wish to call it so – there is no story requirement, and open-world games also foster care for the place), developers can create engaging ethical

experiences based on one of the values that are cardinal to fulfilling the good life. Play, then, becomes valuable.

COLLEEN: I love how you connect empathy to Gee’s concept, because in many ways I think Gee has developed a more nuanced – and realistic – model for empathy in games. The role of empathy is key to ethical thinking, since ethical possibilities are always in flux and specific to the situation and people/entities involved. Gee’s concept of projective identification goes beyond just trying to understand another person through reflection or thought, it’s a verb – learning how to think like someone else by playing them – and by practicing them. That said, I think bridging these experiences between the game and the real world is where the reflection is potentially more potent. The game is a practice space, but it is inherently limited. In many cases, players are not just identifying with the roles they are playing, they are trying to understand what the game – or the game’s designers – will reward and they’ll play accordingly. In “trw” (the real world) there

are many more possibilities and while stuff learned in the game can be tried out, it will likely produce very different results.

KAREN: This question is of particular interest to me, as I am currently

writing my dissertation on the relationship among play, empathy and ethical thinking! It was also an integral part of the game I co-designed, called Mission U.S.: For Crown or Colony? I outlined the design process for this game in one of the chapters in the book, called, “Using Mission U.S. For Crown or Colony? to Develop Historical Empathy and Nurture Ethical Thinking.” Mission U.S. is developed by Channel 13/WNET, Electric Funstuff, historians from CUNY and researchers from EDC. It is an adventure game that teaches historical thinking skills to Middle School students. The game, which centers around the Revolutionary War and Boston Massacre, invites the player to explore 1770 Boston as printer’s apprentice, Nat. We argue that through playing the game, the player and avatar form a new avatar-self relationship that embodies both the social conventions of 1770 Boston and the modern-day knowledge of the player. In a sense, we can argue, the player projects his or her identity onto this avatar, thereby

strengthening the ability to see through the eyes of Nat, and empathizing with Nat’s 1770 context.

So, although I’m still thinking through this complicated question, my hypothesis (and gut reaction) is that empathy plays a strong role in fostering ethical reflection and reasoning (in games and outside games), because it enables a person to take on a new role, project

one’s self into that role, and to perceive the world through those new eyes and from within a new ethical system. Similarly, empathizing with another person in any context allows one to think through their perspective, and start to consider other’s points of view, which is

helpful when deciding what is right and wrong in a given situation. In the practice of argumentation, for example, it’s one thing to tell your side, but it’s a stronger argument if you know what the other side is thinking, and how to incorporate that into your thesis. People are really good at stating their opinion, but not as good as considering other’s opinions and building an argument that predicts and addresses contrary opinions. Yet, as citizens in a democracy, it is absolutely necessary to be able to empathize with others so we can judge ethical issues more holistically, argue our opinions more substantially, and decide the best solution to complex issues. From my experience with Mission U.S. and beyond, I think that games have the potential for helping support “projective identification” and empathy,which in turn can help people become better ethical thinkers–and more

engaged citizens.

Karen, the American Revolution was the subject of both your thesis project at MIT and your new initiative, described in the book. What lessons did you learn from your student work that has informed your new project? Why do you think the American Revolution is especially rich as a context for exploring the kinds of historical questioning that have been at the center of these projects?

KAREN:Yes! How lucky was I to work on two interesting history-focused

projects?! Working on my MIT Comparative Media Studies masters thesis project, Reliving the Revolution, was definitely a strong impetus for developing this book collection. It also helped me to shape the game design for Mission U.S, a game that teaches kids historical and ethical thinking skills. Reliving the Revolution is a location-based GPS-enabled game that lets players to step into the shoes of historic figures involved in the Battle of Lexington, and relive the events leading up to and after the battle, so they can figure out together who fired the first shot. To do this, the players explore present-day real-world Lexington, MA, and also interact with virtual historic figures and objects accessed through a mobile device. The purpose of my project was, in part, to help students start to realize that historic moments are interpretable, and that there were many perspectives on what happened during this specific moment. Likewise, I believe all moments–both past, present, and future–are interpretable. I believe that being able to critically analyze these moments, and consider other’s perspectives, helps us be better at deciding what is right or wrong in a given context.

History is a great way to practice interpretation, analysis, multiple perspectives and empathy–all important components of understanding complex social and ethical issues. Some may balk, but historical thinking and ethical thinking are, to me, not very different. History just adds another dimension to a moment–time–which affects how you

analyze a particular context. To be a good historian, you need to embody a historical time period, and its unique values, morals and norms. I would argue that historians could (and do) readily apply their skills to current and future moments. When playtesting Reliving the Revolution with Middle School students, I was pleased to see how

naturally the students translated their skills to thinking about current events, and wondering how, for example, the War in Iraq would be written about differently in textbooks there versus here.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to apply my experience to a new game, Mission U.S.: For Crown or Colony, which was developed as part of a Corporation for Public Broadcasting grant, and as I mentioned earlier, designed by Channel 13/WNET, Electric Funstuff, historians at CUNY, and EDC. The climax of Mission U.S. is the Boston Massacre, which the player, in the role of a printer’s apprentice named Nat,

experiences first-hand. Yet instead of showing one version of the event, we built the game so that each student in a class could potentially see totally different versions of what happened. To do this, we created eight different vignettes about the Massacre, some

that displayed the Loyalist/British take on what happened, and some that leaned more to the Patriot perspective. The choice of vignettes that are presented are randomized for each player. After playing the Boston Massacre module of the game, the students then have the opportunity to discuss with their peers why there were multiple interpretations and perspectives on the event. Later, they also have the ability in the game to participate in a deposition where they could tell an officer what they think happened at the event–their testimony even has consequences on their game play. I know it sounds

crazy, but even just the idea that there can be other points of view on the past–and that kids can be active arbiters of historic moments–is an epiphany for many young students. Most students just get fed history facts from a textbook! But being critical thinkers of past

and present moments is necessary for developing engaged citizens in a democracy and a globally interconnected world. No one opinion or interpretation is enough, so we all need to be responsible for considering many points of view and appropriately expressing our own.

I hope this collection will inspire everyone to find ways–perhaps through games and play–to teach these important skills to young people (and adults, too!).

Colleen Macklin is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Design and Technology at Parsons The New School for Design in New York City and Director of PETLab (Prototyping Evaluation, Teaching and Learning lab), a lab focused on developing new games, simulations, and play experiences for experimental learning and social issues. Projects range from a curriculum in game design for the Boys and Girls Club, a card game for the Red Cross Climate Centre, and big games such as Re:Activism and the sport Budgetball. In addition to work in social games and interactive media, her research focuses on the social aspects of the design and prototyping process. In this vein, she is working with the Social Science Research Council on a prototyping approach to creating innovative mobile learning spaces with youth, public schools and cultural institutions, with funding through the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative. Member of the game design collectives Local No. 12 (see backchattergame.com) and The Leisure Society. India China Institute Fellow (2006-2007). Interactive work shown at Come Out and Play, SoundLab, The Whitney Museum for American Art and Creative Time. BFA, Media Arts Pratt Institute, graduate studies in Computer Science, CUNY and International Affairs, The New School.

Miguel Sicart is Assistant Professor at the IT University of Copenhagen, where he teaches game design. He received his Ph.D. in game studies 2006; taking a multidisciplinary approach to ethics and computer games, he studied issues of game design, violence and videogames and the role of age-regulation codes. His book, The Ethics of Computer Games, which is based on his doctoral work, was published by MIT Press in the spring of 2009. He is currently working on developing a design framework for implementing ethical gameplay in digital games.

Karen Schrier is a doctoral student at Columbia University, where she is finishing her dissertation on ethics and games. She also currently works full-time as the Director of Interactive Media at ESI Design, an experience design firm in New York City. Her first co-edited book, Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values through Play, was published last March by IGI Global; the next book in the collection will be published in early 2011. Previously, she worked as a portfolio manager and executive producer at Scholastic, where she spearheaded digital initiatives for the Corporate and International divisions. She has also worked at Nickelodeon, BrainPOP and Barnes & Noble’s SparkNotes. Karen was the Games Program co-chair of the ACM SIGGRAPH Conference in 2008 and 2009, currently serves on the advisory boards of the Computer Game Education Review (CGER), and is an adjunct professor at Parsons The New School. Karen has spoken on games and learning at numerous conferences, including GDC, SIGGRAPH, AERA, Games for Change, NECC, and SITE. She also helped develop numerous games and digital properties, such as Mission U.S.: For Crown or Colony?; Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge, and Scholastic.com; and Nickelodeon’s ParentsConnect. Her digital and non-digital games have been featured in festivals such as Come Out and Play. Karen holds a master’s degree in Comparative Media Studies from MIT and a bachelor’s degree from Amherst College.

Comments

  1. Dear Professor,

    I wish to add one personal remark to my former comments. Not having found your e-mail, I will post it here.

    Several weeks ago I finished reading “Convergence Culture” and it still resonates in my mind. Although my university background does not have very much to do with studying culture (especially popular culture), I am seriously considering some re-qualification in order to include elements of such research in my future PhD thesis.

    Hence, I would like to thank you for your inspiring book. It has certainly been a very important read.

    With best wishes from Poland,

    Stanisław Krawczyk

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  5. not sure what ethics have to do with game design