Monday, February 11, 2008

(Gameplay) Ethics: A Primer

And now for something completely different. This is recycled content, having appeared first in a conference paper and later in my master's thesis, available here. If you've already read it, you'll be pretty bored here. I lay out my ideas about ethical gameplay here, a concept to which I'll be returning and hopefully improving.

In “Simulation versus Narrative,” Gonzalo Frasca posits the possibility of meaningful argument in simulation games. Drawing on the topic of a worker's strike, famously explored in literature and film in Emile Zola's Germinal and Ken Loach's Bread and Roses, Frasca describes a hypothetical real-time strategy game called Strikeman. What Strikeman offers that is unique to the videogame form is a story comprised of not only the author's singular vision, but also the activity of the player, the effect of random and pseudo-random events, and the specific limits and probabilities encoded into the simulation by the author. The form of the story would constantly change, but because simulations are inherently iterative, the internal logic of the world becoming apparent to the player only through repeated play, patterns would emerge over time. In these patterns, Frasca argues, is the author's thesis: a viewpoint being argued about the events being simulated. Behind the viewpoint in question are the author's implicit beliefs about the subject at hand, the worldview on which the argument rests.

James Paul Gee argues that videogames' ability to model worldviews, or “cultural models,” allows players to articulate and challenge their own unexamined assumptions about the world. In “Cultural Models: Do You Want to Be the Blue Sonic or the Dark Sonic?,” Gee examines a variety of war-themed games, from the superheroic Return to Castle Wolfenstein to the darkly realistic Operation Flashpoint to the explicitly political Under Ash. Under Ash, an action game in which the player takes on the role of a Palestinian fighting against Israeli soldiers and settlers, hints at an unrealized potential of the videogame medium: the ability to argue for the validity of a moral viewpoint.

A vital distinction must be made between morals and ethics. Many dictionaries consider them to be synonymous, but in common usage, at least in American English, the two words can have a variety of subtly different meanings. My definitions are provisional, and while they bear some similarities to existing popular definitions, they are specifically tailored to be applied to the interpretation of videogames. I am not suggesting that “real-world” morals and ethics function the way I describe here, but only that they do so in the context of the videogame medium.

I define ethics as a discourse concerning what is correct and what is incorrect. What is ethical is dependent on a specific activity, determined entirely by an explicit, constructed system of rules, and cannot be questioned by the participants. I define morals as a discourse concerning what is right and what is wrong. Morality, unlike ethics, is not tied to a specific activity, but can be applied over multiple activities, and possibly all experience. Moral rules enjoy considerably more variance than ethical rules: because they are wider in scope, they are more nuanced, and subject to interpretation.

Ethical frameworks, while they might attempt to model moral behavior—as in the examples of ethical codes for doctors or lawyers—need not have any connection to morality at all. In chess, that players should try to capture their opponents' pieces is an ethical rule, not a moral one. It has no relevance to the world outside chess. This rule is also not subject to interpretation or argument. It is simply, factually, true. A player that makes no effort to capture the opponent's pieces is not playing chess. The same cannot be said of moral rules like “love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus' formulation of the “golden rule,” nor can it be said of “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law,” Kant's categorical imperative. These rules concern the very act of being human, but one does not cease to be human if he or she rejects or violates them. They are much less specific than the rule concerning the capturing of pieces in chess, and open to many more interpretations. No, these definitions are generally not English-speaking people mean when they say "moral" or "ethical," though they are built in part from conversational usage. I'm told Tracy Flick had some interesting thoughts on the correct distinction. That said, a lot of people seem to disagree with my terminology here. Without arguing that further, I'll just add that I'm using these terms in terms of videogames, and here make no claim about ethics or morals proper.

Morals and ethics exist independently of each other, and while they must each be internally consistent, it is possible for the two to explicitly contradict one another. Law is an ethical system that is constantly revised to prevent such conflicts. Torture, for example, is illegal under international law. Assuming one accepts the existence of international law, the legality of torture is not open to debate. The morality of torture, however, is fundamentally unconnected to its legality. Torture is not less moral now than it was before the Geneva Convention. Conversely, it would not become more moral if the U.N. were to repudiate the Geneva Convention tomorrow.

Any game that has a “win condition” has an ethical framework. This applies to all games, not just videogames. First and foremost, these games are possessed of an overriding ethical imperative: win. If the game has a win condition, a player who does not try to win is not playing the game. As Johan Huizinga notes in Homo Ludens, a player who does not try to win faces greater censure from society than a player who cheats in order to win. One interpretation of Huizinga's claim is that a player who cheats breaks only those rules concerning the means of play, whereas the player who throws the game violates the goals of play. The goal constitutes what players must do, while the rules offer only clarification on how the goal is to be accomplished—what actions are allowed, and what actions are not. A strategy or technique that helps a player win, while not explicitly violating any of the rules, is always ethical in terms of the game in question. The ethical framework comprises both goal and means, and although the former is more fundamental to the game than the latter, they are both necessary for a game to function. With an established goal, the game's rules, which determine how the game can be played, give rise to the ethics, which determine how it should be played.

I use the term “ethical” to denote imperatives that are dependent on the accepting of a role, as in the specific ethics of a given profession, and also in terms of play in general—playing a videogame ethically could be seen as the player's agreement to play the role allotted to her by the designers. Some degree of freedom is present, of course; were such freedom absent, it would not be play. However, just as an actor may be allowed to improvise, but must ultimately play his role to the author's conclusion, the player must play “in character” to play the game. If the player does not accept this role, she is not playing the game, but rather playing a game with a game. This activity of “metaplay” (not to be confused with the paratextual "metagame" of fan cultures), in which the player designates goals unrelated or contrary to the game's internal ethics, has a wide variety of forms. Metaplay, at least in single-player games (where there are no social expectations of ethical play), is not “cheating” in the sense that the word is used in everyday speech. It simply means that the player in question is not, strictly speaking, playing the game.

In addition to the ethical frameworks inherent in any games, videogames can potentially add an unprecedented level of narrativity. This narrativity is achieved by mapping recognizable symbols onto the rule system. This mapping process allows for the suspension of disbelief necessary to involve the player emotionally in the gameworld.

The interaction of these symbols gives videogames the potential for rich narratives. However, if the narrative is not sufficiently integrated with the rule system, it will appear arbitrary, and fundamentally disconnected to the experience of play. This disconnect between narrative and rule systems is one of the central problems for the potential of videogames as a storytelling medium, forcing a distinction between authorial narrative (the story written by the designers) and emergent narrative (the story enacted by the players). However, even in the most non-linear games with the greatest potential for emergent narrative, the rule system and choice of symbols are selected by the designers, and as such the players' freedom of interpretation is inherently limited. In videogames, the author might be dead, as was famously suggested by Roland Barthes, but she is still the author, and she must not be confused with the reader. To make the transition from ethical imperatives to moral arguments, the designers must fully embrace authorial status.

Moral arguments can easily be attributed to texts in traditional narrative forms such as literature and film, but in videogames, a narrative thesis unconnected to the game rules creates a disjointed experience. Without a connection to the ethics, the gameplay and the narrative will operate independently of one another, as is often the case in games that rely extensively on “cut-scenes,” which are essentially short film sequences that interrupt active gameplay. Moral imperatives can exist in a game only when the ethics can be interpreted and applied to the “real” world in which the player resides, and this can only be achieved by connecting internal ethics to the external world through narrative. Most, if not all, of the game rules must be connected to recognizable symbols, and those symbols must have referents in reality.

Rules and a win condition are all that is necessary for an ethical framework, because ethics point inward to a specific activity. Conversely, because morality must gesture outward to the world a large, it cannot consist only of abstract symbols. For a game to have a moral argument, it must have an ethical framework, a narrative that can be connected in some way to what we speciousl refer to as “real life,” and a careful integration of the two. Specifically, the moral argument of the narrative must be connected to the win condition. It might be necessary, in making distinctions between what is right and what is expedient, to develop some new ideas as to what constitutes “winning.” This will require a somewhat nuanced perspective on the avatar.

The avatar, in most games, is more than an extension of the player into the gameworld. Rather, the avatar is simultaneously an extension of the player and a different character that is not the player. I refer to this different character as the protagonist. Since the protagonist has only diegetic information, his or her motivation for interaction in the world must be entirely diegetic. The player, who has access to the game's non-diegetic information, will have additional goals, often involving tasks with no narrative meaning, such as scoring points or unlocking content. Narratives, even videogame narratives, have a logic of their own, and even when the narrative fails to emotionally invest the player in the story, it can usually be assumed that the protagonist is quite involved. The narrative, even when viewed by players as epiphenomenal, is the entirety of the protagonist's reality.

In the interest of symmetry, this post concludes here.

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