Ethics and Game Design: A Conversation (Part One)

A year or so ago, Karen Shrier, an alumna from the MIT Comparative Media Studies program, asked me to contribute a forward to a book she was co-editing on Ethics and Games with David Gibson. The opening of the piece I wrote for her book gives some sense of how I personally think about these issues:

What a videogame does at heart is teach you how, in the midst of utter chaos, to know what is important, what is not and act on that" -- Colonel Casey Wardynski

"I'm reviewing the situation. Can a fellow be a villain all his life?" or so asks Fagin, the scheming and ruthless mastermind of an army of thieving young boys, at a key moment in Oliver!, the musical based on Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist. Fagin's "situation" may be an odd place to start in thinking about the potential role of games in providing ethical and moral instruction--after all, Dickens used Fagin to embody the negative influences which besieged young men when society turned their backs on them--but bear with me.

In Oliver!, through the song, "Reviewing the Situation," we have a character digging deep into his own goals, values, and place in the world, and openly proclaiming that his experiences as a "villain" make him ill-suited to most of the trappings of a "normal life." Fagin's self-reflection leads him to construct and test a series of scenarios (marrying, joining respectable society, getting a job, living alone, freeing the young men in his employee, reaching old age), each embodying an alternative version of himself. Fagin plays out their consequences as a series of thought experiments, before pulling back and deciding to "think it out again." In the course of "Reviewing the Situation," Fagin engages in a range of different cognitive processes--projecting alternative versions of himself, and speculating about possible choices and anticipating their consequences--all in a particular kind of mental space that has no immediate consequences for his current social situation, though it has the potential to reshape the way he sees himself and his place in the world. Here, for example, he explores what it would be like to work for a living: "Is it such a humiliation for a robber to perform an honest job? So a job I'm getting, possibly, I wonder who my boss'll be? I wonder if he'll take to me...? What bonuses he'll make to me...? I'll start at eight and finish late, At normal rate, and all..but wait! ...I think I'd better think it out again."

Now consider a typical adolescent, seated in front of her computer screen, beginning to construct a character for a role playing game, and facing the same range of questions about her potential identities and goals. Should she join the dark horde, embrace a life as a villain, commit atrocities on other players, and in the process, begin to experiment with and potentially exorcise the darker side of her own personality? Or, should she become one of the good ones, going out to do heroic deeds, sharing the loot with others in her party, rescuing those in distress and helping newbies learn to play, and developing a sense of responsibility and accountability to others in her guild? Should she design an avatar that reflects the way she sees herself or should she embrace a fantasy radically different from her real world personality or situation and in so doing, see what it might be like to walk in a different set of moccasins?

Like Fagin, she can try on different personas, test different scenarios, and imagine alternative moral codes through which she might navigate the challenges of her day-to-day existence. She has the option of taking risks, dying, rebooting, and exploring another course of action: "I think I'd better think it out again." While young people have often found it difficult to anticipate the future consequences of their current actions, the game offers her a powerful tool through which to accelerate life processes and thus play out in the course of an afternoon several different scenarios and their consequences. And through in-game cameras that allow players to record and replay their actions, she can literally review the situation, going back to key choice points and retrospectively evaluate where she went wrong and how bad decisions led to negative consequences. Seen in this way, the computer game constitutes an incredible resource for self-reflection and personal exploration, one with rich potentials for moral and ethical education. No other current art form allows such an intense focus on choices and their consequences; no other art form allows us this same degree of agency to make our own decisions and then live through their outcomes.

Over time, Karen's project expanded into two edited collections, the first of which is already out in the market, the second of which will appear late this year or in early 2011. If you want to buy the first book, Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play, Karen's publisher is generously offering readers a chance to buy a copy at half price if they follow this link. You can see the table of contents for the collection here. The second book will be called Designing Games for Ethics: Models, Techniques, and Frameworks.

Taken together, the two books bring together an impressive array of game designers, theorists, and critics, representing a mix of people working on mainstream commercial and alternative "serious" games production, a global community of people trying to think through the core issues implied by the books' titles. I read the first volume with great interest (and no small amount of pride at seeing my former student at the center of such an effort): the topic is one which deserves more attention than it has and the book offers us some important ways to complicate the typical arguments around games and media effects. These books are important not only to those deeply invested in games but to the growing community of people invested in new media literacies and education, given the centrality of games to the cultural lives of young people and the importance of encouraging self reflection and ethical skills.

In the hopes of calling more attention to this project, I asked Karen if she would do an interview for this blog. The interview has grown into a conversation between Karen and two of her contributors, Miguel Sicart (IT University of Copenhagen) and Colleen Macklin (Parsons The New School), which explores games (in many forms) as ethical systems and as vehicles for shaping the empathy and identification of their players.

As the book's preface suggests, ethics and games is an "emerging field of study." What role do you see this collection playing in generating interest and awareness around this topic?

Karen: A major goal of my co-edited collection, Ethics and Game Design:Teaching Values through Play is to bring together the diverse and growing community of voices and begin to define the field of ethics and games, identify its primary challenges and questions, and establish the current state of the discipline. To start to unpack this, I brought together experts from a variety of perspectives--such as computer science, art history, education, philosophy, law, game design, management, media studies, and psychology. These designers, practitioners, educators and researchers wrote almost 40 chapters on everything from the ethics of Farmville's game mechanics; to a case study on designing Train, a non-digital game about the Holocaust; to the types of ethical play styles of teenagers. Our goal is to encourage game designers to think through and address ethical questions and issues in their designs; to motivate educators to seek new ways to support ethical thinking and reflection through play; and to inspire researchers to develop relevant frameworks and methodologies, design principles and theories for understanding this complex field. Attention to this field is essential for developing citizens who can think deeply about ethics; fully engage with complex issues; reflect on their values; and decide what is right for them, their families, their societies and the world.

My hope is that the collection will provide the foundation to start an engaged, rigorous dialogue around games, play, and ethics. The book collection, however, is just the first step in building a larger community of researchers, policy makers, journalists, educators, game players, and designers who are interested in moving the question beyond whether games are inherently good or bad, to how games and play can support ethics and citizenship skills.

And wow, it was a lot of work putting this collection together, but it was totally worth it.

Games and play are fundamental to all human societies and have historically been used explicitly and implicitly to teach values. What lessons can we learn from thinking about pre-digital games as "ethical systems"?''

MIGUEL: First of all, I am not sure we should make a pre-digital/digital divide without mentioning what makes digital games so unique. It may be possible to argue that in fact, there is nothing unique to digital games, and therefore what we learn from thinking about non-digital games is also valid for digital games.

In the case of ethics and games, I'd argue that there are at least two unique elements in digital games that differentiate it from the past: one, the possibility of single player games, and more importantly, of solitary play. Digital games have afforded single player games that make players engage alone with the game system. Two, the black-box effect (rules are invisible to players and have to deduct them from play - and they are not discussable/easily modifiable) is stronger in games. Of course, there are mod communities and hackers, but still, the access to rules and their configuration is much more complicated than in non-digital games.

In terms of thinking about morality, this implies that there are significant differences with the non-digital world. Essentially, I'd claim that morally interesting non-digital games make it complicated to claim that games can be understood as ethical systems, since the role of the social (which is, in my opinion, always bringing in the political and the moral) is deeply intertwined with the systems design. In other words: how much of the ethical analysis of a non-digital game can argue for the morality embedded in the system, and how much can it refer to the moral social play? With digital games, specially with single-player games, we can have an optimal sample: from the rules, through the player, we can deduct the values, and given the black-boxing of the system, we can claim that those values are inscripted there by designers.

So, after this digression (apologies!), what I want to say is that maybe we can learn from digital games how to look at non-digital games as ethical systems, without the role of the social. And therefore, what we can learn from pre-digital games is that multiplayer is always ethically interesting, and that negotiation of rules, sportsmanship and player-to-player behavior, that is, many of those elements external to a systems-centric understanding of games, are fundamental for the ethics of play. Because what pre-digital games tell us is precisely that: play is moral (regardless of Huizinga's claims), not only because there are many players, but also because the systems are of ethical interest.

I guess I haven't much answered the question as rephrased it and answered what I actually wanted to answer. I'll give a shot at a short answer then: pre-digital games can help us trace the history of play as a moral activity, as one used to teach, educate and promote a number of values in our society by means of systems designed to embody

and foster a number of values.

COLLEEN:I think we can learn a lot. From a cultural perspective, looking at

the historic trajectory of games engaging with social and political issues is pretty exciting. I am thinking here of Situationist Games, The New Games Movement, Buckminster Fuller's World Game and the recent surge of "big games" fostered by festivals like Come Out and Play and (for the first time this year) IndieCade. In fact, many big games bridge pre and post digital games, gaming in and with the real world, which might happen to include and use computers (i.e. mobile devices). These kinds of games take place out in the streets actively blurring the edges of the magic circle and raising all kinds of interesting questions about what happens when public space and game space, game rules and social norms collide. If an ethics is a dynamic negotiation between people and/or entities, I think this kind of negotiation between spaces - inside and outside the game, digital and nondigital - is a productive place to start thinking about "ethical systems."

In the chapter I contributed, I talk about the design of a big game called Re:Activism, which so happens to have "serious" content, but that's not the part that is so interesting to me on an ethical level. What I think is interesting are the complex relationships between the designer, the player and the publics that encountered the game.

Much of the debate about video game violence would assume that games as a rule exert a negative moral and ethical influence on players. How might the essays in this book complicate such an understanding of their impact on players?

MIGUEL: Even though this is something Karen should answer, since she's the editor, let me chip in: I think this collection helps describing why players are moral beings, arguing strongly against the implicit discourse of the computer game player as a moral zombie that is so ubiquitous in popular press and anti-videogame literature. Players are ethical agents, and they have moral fail-safe systems that help them engage with the ethical complexities of computer game play.

KAREN: Again, the purpose of this book is to move the conversation away from simply demonizing games as violent or inappropriate, to really understanding why games are so controversial, and determining the potential (and limits) of games to help us think about and reflect on ethical issues and complex social dynamics. Building on what [one Ethics and Games collection contributor] Nick Fortugno said at a talk a few years ago, there are books that embody what many would consider negative ethics (e.g., Mein Kampf) and books that embody positive values (e.g., The Bible), but we should not deem books themselves as evil or good as a result. As we have seen throughout history, the introduction of each new medium incites fear that it will negatively affect our youth. This happened even during the movement from orality to the written word, where educators were worried that writing things down, rather than memorizing all texts by rote, would destroy young minds. We need to be open about what games can do, rather than focusing on some specific content in a few particular games. Or, at least let's talk about why certain violent content bugs us, or let's reflect on what types of cultural dynamics are at work when some people strive to ban all games.

Thus, many of the authors in this book start to complicate ethics surrounding games, and investigate the nuances of the player and game relationship. For example, Erin Hoffman takes a philosophical approach to understanding the purpose of death in games, and how violence and death may serve to help us contemplate the human experience. J. Alison Bryant and Jordana Drell take a more educational approach and investigate how families play video games together to see how to better foster dialogue about values through group play. Just like ethics themselves, no one feels these issues are black or white, but something to be discussed and deliberated.

Moreover, I want to make it clear that in editing this collection, or designing games, I personally do not seek to decide for someone else what is right or wrong, morally appropriate, or socially acceptable. Rather, I believe there is a need to equip young citizens with the ability to reflect on their values, consider other perspectives, make

complex arguments, and decide what is right in a given context. After all, values are constantly shifting from offline to online, transnationally, and across peer groups and social contexts. How you act at work is different from how you would act on an online parenting discussion group. What is appropriate in one country may not be relevant in another, and what you on the playground may be interpreted differently than in the boardroom. The way we individually and collectively vote on issues today may be different to how we cast our ballot in twenty years. We need to be our own arbiters of right and wrong during complex moments and shifting contexts.

I do feel that games provide a unique opportunity to practice these types of skills.

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 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; 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.