Connecting Ethical Choices in Games to Moral Frameworks

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Games have moral impact. They can make players more aware of their own values, and even change them... and not always in the ways you might expect. Using Jonathan Livingston Seagull (the board game!) and Glitch as case studies, this presentation covers three aspects of gaming that are critical for game researchers who hope to gain a more complete awareness of the effects a game is having on its players.

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Connecting Ethical Choices in Games to Moral Frameworks

  1. 1. Connecting Ethical Choices in GamesTo Moral Frameworks<br />Gabriel Recchia<br />AsmalinaSaleh<br />Indiana University, Bloomington<br />
  2. 2. The claim:<br />Games have moral impact<br />They can make players more aware of their own values, and even change them...<br />and not always in the ways you might expect<br />
  3. 3. THREE THINGSto pay attention to if you want to learn the effect a game is having on its players…<br />
  4. 4. PROCESS<br />How does the game actually play out? What’s the in-game experience like?<br />METAGAME<br />What do players say about these experiences, <br />both in and out of the game?<br />MODE<br />How do different ways of thinking about morality reveal different aspects of a game’s moral impact?<br />
  5. 5. To illustrate…<br />
  6. 6. This is Jonathan Livingston Seagull: the board game. Produced by Mattel in 1973.<br />For those unfamiliar with the title, this was an extremely popular book from the early 70s, a fable about achieving moral and spiritual perfection via the rejection of conformity and the cultivation of virtue.<br />
  7. 7. The first player to reach “perfection” wins the game. A little bit easier in the game than in real life, but still not trivial: You’ll need to reach the outermost circle, and then play a “love” card. Love, it turns out, is a scarce resource. <br />
  8. 8. My strategy: Collect every love card in the game early on, preventing my opponent from getting the one card he’d need to win the game. The unintended result: An insanely long game that I was nearly guaranteed to win despite the fact that my opponent was far ahead of me, and a bit of an argument…<br />
  9. 9. Me:<br />“Even if I don’t have anything but love in my hand, I have one free card that I can gradually use to get what I need to move to the outer circle–and you’ve got no way to get any love as long as I hoard all of it in my hand. At this rate, I’ll eventually make it to the outer circle and win, even if it takes all day. (And it will, so feel free to resign anytime.)”<br />
  10. 10. My opponent:<br />“You’re mad with un-power.”<br />“Play the game the way it’s meant to be played.”<br />
  11. 11. We decided to call it a draw, but the argument bothered me: I felt I was in the right, but somehow felt a little guilty, too. I later realized I had two competing values…<br />“Play to win”<br />vs. “Play by the spirit of the rules”<br />
  12. 12. …and we’d resolved the conflict by devising a new rule:<br />“Play to win”<br />vs. “Play by the spirit of the rules”<br />“Agree to stop playing if people are getting upset”<br />
  13. 13. Designer’s intended outcome<br />Players gain greater awareness and appreciation of traditional virtues<br />Players learn the importance of various virtues as stepping stones to moral excellence<br />
  14. 14. Actual outcome<br />Gained greater awareness of my own values, expressed as explicit rules (“Play to win”; “play by the spirit of the rules”)<br />Devised a rule for resolving conflicts among values in particular situations in a way congruent with a higher moral principle (“Consider agreeing to stop playing if people are getting upset”)<br />
  15. 15. PROCESS<br />If you’d only paid attention to the rules and aesthetics without watching the way an actual game played out, you’d reach a rather skewed conclusion about the moral impact of this game.<br />METAGAME<br />If you’d only paid attention to the way the game played out without paying attention to our argument or our reflections after the game, you’d reach a similarly incomplete conclusion.<br />MODE<br />Employing more than one mode of ethical theorizing is important if you want to see the full picture. Lemme ‘splain…<br />
  16. 16. Classical ethics(“ethics of virtue,” “ethics of character”)<br />“What is the right way to live?”<br />
  17. 17. Classical ethics:The task of the moral individual<br />from Norton, D. (1988). Moral minimalism and the development of moral character. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, volume 13.<br />“To discover his innate potential worth and progressively actualize it in the world”<br />Learn to recognize the virtues (wisdom, courage, temperance, justice...) and cultivate them with repeated practice<br />Actively decide who to become and endeavor to become it<br />“Acquire the resourcefulness and force of character to overcome external and internal obstacles”<br />
  18. 18. Modern ethics(“ethics of rules,” “quandary ethics”)<br />“What is the right thing to do in particular (moral) situations?”<br />
  19. 19. Modern ethics:The task of the moral individual<br />Recognize moral principles and rules of behavior that are consistent with them<br />Use reasoning to determine which rules, if any, apply in particular situations<br />Take the action most consistent with the applicable rules<br />
  20. 20. Modern ethics:The task of the moral individual<br />i.e., exactly what my friend and I got a crash course in…<br />
  21. 21. Although the intended outcome of the game (conceptualized in classical terms) clearly failed, thinking in terms of the modern mode revealed a sharpening of ethical awareness that could otherwise have gone unnoticed.<br />Next: More on process and metagame, and the importance of the classical mode.<br />
  22. 22. PROCESS<br />WATCH PLAYERS PLAY<br />
  23. 23. LOOK AT WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS WHEN PEOPLE PLAY.<br />“Can’t we make inferences about the moral impact of a game based on its rules, content, and so on? Do we really have to trudge through acres of real gameplay data?”<br />
  24. 24. LOOK AT WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS WHEN PEOPLE PLAY.<br />“Can’t we make inferences about the moral impact of a game based on its rules, content, and so on? Do we really have to trudge through acres of real gameplay data?” <br />Yes, we do, because nearly everything we find interesting about games is an emergent property. JesperJuul (2002) differentiates between three kinds of emergence in games…<br />
  25. 25. Rule interaction<br />Situations not predicted by the game designers, but easily derivable from the game rules<br />
  26. 26. Combination<br />The variety of possible states and game sessions that a game's rules allow<br />
  27. 27. Emergent strategies(“true” emergence)<br />Truly emergent properties that are not immediately deductible from the game rules<br />
  28. 28. The point? If a simple rule interaction in a board game can completely alter its moral impact, we’ve got no chance of predicting truly emergent strategies and the impact they’ll have on players. The best we can do is to roll up our sleeves and watch what actually goes on in the game. As well as what goes on in the forums, as we’ll see next…<br />
  29. 29. METAGAME<br />HEAR WHAT PLAYERS SAY<br />
  30. 30. DON’T IGNORE WHAT HAPPENS OUTSIDE THE GAME.<br />Some of the most important opportunities for self-examination happen not inside the game, but outside it—when we speak about it with others, or reflect on our in-game experiences.<br />
  31. 31. Glitch<br />
  32. 32. Glitch<br />
  33. 33. “The symposium [that this presentation was composed for] will consider the claims that video games might serve as a platform for ethical inquiry, that they offer a new means of investigating social relations between human beings, and that their interactive capabilities allow them to act as mirrors for self-examination…”<br />Does Glitch do any of these things? Even after playing it for several hours, it’s unlikely you would notice much that would allow you to answer in the affirmative. But spend a little time in the forums, and you get a very different impression…<br />
  34. 34. Glitch: a “game about culture”<br />Forum threads frequently explore questions such as…<br />What kind of society do we want?<br />What kind of behavior do we want to encourage or discourage?<br />What should be permitted vs. disallowed?<br />How do we strike the right balance between transmitting existing norms and traditions to new players, and allowing them to shape their own?<br />
  35. 35. A few quotes from the forums…<br />“Someone mined my rock – OK or not OK? I waited 3 hours for this herb which someone came along and swiped – OK or not OK? I left 900 beers at a party and someone grabbed all of them, knowing that what they were doing was wrong because they actively tried to elude us – OK or not OK?”<br />“This is a game about culture, and we are that culture [...] This is a social game, and as we get into our groove and become more social IN it, a culture will be built on top of [it].”<br />My favorite example of forum posts/comments revealing how games can serve as “mirrors for self-examination”: “A Stunning Realization: Why I Like Glitch”<br />
  36. 36. “The symposium [that this presentation was composed for] will consider the claims that video games might serve as a platform for ethical inquiry, that they offer a new means of investigating social relations between human beings, and that their interactive capabilities allow them to act as mirrors for self-examination…”<br />By paying attention to metagame and the actual gameplay (rather than just rules and game content), we can see evidence for all of the above. Finally, let’s turn to…<br />
  37. 37. MODE<br />DIFFERENT WAYS OF THINKING ABOUT MORALITY REVEAL DIFFERENT ASPECTS OF A GAME’S MORAL IMPACT<br />
  38. 38. Both modern and classical ethical theory should be used as lenses for ethical analysis if one wants to see the full picture.<br />“ethic of character”<br />“ethic of rules”<br />“What is the right thing to do in particular moral situations?”<br />“What is the right way to live?”<br />
  39. 39. We’ve seen how looking through a modern “ethic of rules” lens drew attention to moral insights that might have otherwise gone unnoticed in Jonathan Livingston Seagull. What about the classical mode?<br />
  40. 40. Classical ethics:The task of the moral individual<br />“To discover his innate potential worth and progressively actualize it in the world” (Norton, 1988)<br />Learn to recognize the virtues (wisdom, courage, temperance, justice...) and cultivate them with repeated practice<br />Actively decide who to become and endeavor to become it<br />Acquire the resourcefulness and force of character to overcome external and internal obstacles<br />
  41. 41. Pretty deep stuff. Can games actually do any of that?<br />For the answer, I refer to a set of excellent slides from game researcher Sebastian Deterding. He’s been generous enough to release his slides under a Creative Commons license, so the next few slides of this presentation are adapted directly from his presentation…<br />
  42. 42. “Aristotle thought that the measure of us as human beings is not how victorious we are in life, but how we cope and empathize with tough luck. Whether we muster the courage to fully accept the hand that fate has dealt to us, whether we do not complain or haggle or run and hide in some palace, but take on responsibility and suffer the consequences. Aristotle had a word for a person who does this.”<br />
  43. 43. “He called such a person a hero.”<br />
  44. 44. “And that, I would venture, is the last and deepest lesson of games. Games may encourage us to become designers of our reality. To make it gameful, and, more importantly, playful. To create engines of possibility rather than exhaustibles. To craft experiences of mastery, autonomy, and meaning, rather than of repetition, control, and alienation. To become aware of and question the vision of the good life that our designs declare.”<br />- Sebastian Deterding<br />
  45. 45. I borrowed these slides not only because of Sebastian’s excellent points, but to point out the context in which I first came across these slides: a lively debate in the Glitch forums over whether Glitch succeeds or fails at supporting these classical ideals. Whichever side of the debate one comes down on, the very fact that the question is being actively debated (by players, not professors of philosophy!) carries a powerful message in itself.<br />
  46. 46. In sum: to learn about the effects a game is having on its players’ ethical frameworks, pay attention to what players actually do, listen to what they actually say, and remember that there are different ways of thinking about ethics. Obvious, really. Why, then do we continue to judge games on their surface content, rather than digging deeper to learn the messages that players are actually taking away from them? Why are we surprised to see casual MMOs inspiring personal insights and discussions about culture and just societies? And why do we continue to assume that the only ways games can get players to think about their values are if they include explicit moral instruction or excruciating ethical dilemmas? If we are to reach accurate conclusions, we must get out of our heads and play some games—or at the very least, watch others do the same.<br />
  47. 47. Cite: <br />Recchia, G. & Saleh, A. (2011, October 11). Connecting ethical choices in games to moral frameworks. Ethical Inquiry through Video Game Play and Design: A Symposium, Prindle Institute for Ethics, DePauw University, Greencastle, IN. <br />Contact: <br />gabriel@transformativegames.com<br />

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