Ethics In Gaming

December 14, 2010

Many “concerned individuals”, some genuine, some not, complain about the themes and mechanics of certain games. Some of the complaints are against the murder, assault, rape, stealing, cursing, sexual content, and more that players can experience in such games. The arguments vary from “It’s just wrong/unethical/immoral!”, to “It’s unsuitable for children!”, to “It will make people more violent!”. Lets look at each of these in turn, starting with the ethical argument.

Ethics are essentially a list of rules stating what is right, and what is wrong. This is a personal list, there is no real “universal code of ethics”. However, most people can agree on some basic ones such as it’s wrong to kill, rape, assault, or steal from other people. There are many controversial aspects to ethics though.

For example, we can generally agree it is wrong to kill. But what if you had the chance to kill Hitler, and stop World War 2 and the Holocaust from happening? Would that be wrong? Kill one man to save tens of millions? Ethics is filled with these “grey areas”, so that in practice it is almost impossible for everyone to agree on a complete, definitive set of ethics. Capital punishment, religious oppression and prisoner torture are all things I would consider unethical, yet others feel are justifed. Clearly, just flat out saying something is “unethical” is a pretty meaningless phrase that is just a single person’s opinion.

Some would say the appalling murder of a civilian. Others would say the rightful execution of a criminal.

For arguments sake, lets just say we have a 100% complete code of ethics, which states what is right and wrong for every possible situation we can encounter in the real world, and everyone accepted it.  Could we apply that same code to a game world? To me, the suggestion is just silly. A game world, in depth and believeable though it may be, is still a completely fake, artificial construct. The people in it are machines, designed to mimic humans, they are not actual thinking, feeling beings. When someone says it is wrong to kill in a game, to me they might as well suggest we treat the toaster with kindness and respect, or stop hammering the poor hurt nails, or stop pulling the arms off those Lego men.

I would argue the reason shooting and killing a human being is wrong, is because you have caused pain and death to another person, a human being with emotions, thoughts and feelings. The mere mechanical act of firing the gun was not wrong in any way. This is obvious from the fact no one minds firing ranges, shooting contests and the like. I don’t think anybody has a single problem with a gun being fired at targets in safe controlled conditions. It’s when that gun is fired at a person, people become outraged.

So, it’s the fact damage and/or death is being inflicted on a person that is the problem. Obviously, shooting an enemy soldier in game doesn’t actually harm anyone, so how can the mere act of firing the gun be wrong, regardless of how realistic and bloody it appears? Isn’t a game enemy just an elaborate target?

Firing a gun into a target is fine. Firing a gun into a human’s face, not so fine.

The argument of “It’s unsuitable for children!” is a dead end to me. Yes, these games are unsuitable for children, that’s why they have a big sticker saying the age group they are suited for. Saying “Kids will play them anyway” is rubbish. One of the basic assumptions of our society is that there are things suitable for adults, not suited for children. These include but are not limited to alcohol, tobacco, adult magazines, cars, medicince, bleach, rat poison and chainsaws. Do children NEVER get their hands on these items? No, sometimes they do and the results can be tragic. Is this a reason to ban these products outright? No, we accept a certain low level of risk (that can be minimised with good parenting), so that the adults of our society can use/enjoy them responsibly. We have warning labels on the games, parental controls on the consoles, and shops that refuse to sell unsuitable games to kids (in theory at least, the law needs to be harsher for shops that do). So, to quote The Who, the kids are alright.

As for making people more violent, there is no evidence of this. Provide evidence or don’t make the claim. And even if it did cause violence, which is unproven, what of alcohol and religon, between them causing terrifying amounts of carnage? Far worse then any game. At the end of the day, we live in a democratic society. Freedom of speech is one of most important rights, and that should never be banned, censored or taken away from us. In my view, adults are intelligent enough to decide their own entertainment, enjoy what they want and leave what upsets them. And furthermore, that we aren’t hysterical or stupid enough to bring pretend violence into the real world.

Overall I think the arguments about gaming being unethical are nothing more then shrill hysteria from people who dislike games in general. They simply wish to clamp down on a form of expression and entertainment that they do not understand or enjoy, nor do they care to try to. They see something vaguely unknown and threatening, and wrapped in the cloak of “Save the children!” false morality, they attempt to ban games in a blatant disregard for freedom of speech, not to mention the logic, facts and evidence of reality.

Games as Art

December 13, 2010

Yes, it’s that time again. One of the more controversial issues regarding gaming is, “Are games art?”. Are they on the same level as music, literature, theatre, film, etc? Should the best games be treated with the same respect as the Mona Lisa, the Godfather, Mozart’s 5th Symphony?

Well, the first thing to do is define art. Can’t decide what is and isn’t art without a definition. The problem is, to me art more or less defies definition by its very nature. For me, art is more defined by what it ISN’T, than by what it is. Art isn’t useful, art isn’t functional, art doesn’t solve a problem, art doesn’t help us survive and live in any way. Art has no logical reason for existing. Art represents the human soul, human consciousness, our spirit of curiosity and creativity, the needs we have beyond simply existing. I consider an object or product “art” if it makes me think, makes me feel, and effects me on a deep level.

By this personal definition, games are certainly art. They are the work of countless talented individuals creating. Graphics artists design and animate characters and worlds. Composers create sweeping, epic music. Designers think up the structure and controls of the game. Writers conceive interesting stories and characters. All of their work combines into a true work of art.

A game like Bioshock has beautiful graphics, wonderful sound, intelligent design, varied and well designed levels, an interesting storyline, themes, and characters, in addition to its fun gameplay. It creates a world I can lose myself in, get extremely invested in the story, be impressed by the dark gloomy atmosphere, have me make meaningful choices, and more. A game like this which intrigues me, which affects my emotions, which allows me to lose my self in a fictional universe, is just as much art as any other medium in my view.

Yup, this is art.

The arguments against games being art seem purely opinion to me. I believe personal opinion can’t really affect the facts (though of course, we come back to issue of art being a hazy area…). An example to explain what I mean: I don’t really think of the Mona Lisa as art. I see it as a decent likeness of a human, done in drab colours. It doesn’t make me feel or think, nor do I have any interest in it beyond its limited superficial beauty. This is my (admittedly uninterested and uneducated) opinion. I don’t go and attempt to argue against other people who think it is a fine work of art.

Clearly, a lot of people get a lot out of the Mona Lisa, so it is considered art. Yet games which are in similar situation, are demonised as “never being art”… It just makes no sense to me. Perhaps it’s because games are “the new kid on the block”? Certain types of music, television and even Roger “games can never be art” Ebert’s beloved movies were all considered as rubbish entertainment for the masses in the beginning, yet evolved to be accepted as art. I had hoped we were enlightened enough at this stage to bypass that stage for games, but apparently not?

There a couple of big arguments against games as art, namely they are mass-produced to make money, and they are generally just mindless diversion. Though creating games is indeed a money-making business, this not preclude them from being art. Da Vinci and Michelangelo were well paid for their works, and William Shakespeare became quite rich from his plays. According to Wikipedia, Godfather author Mario Puzo said in an interview with Larry King that in writing the Godfather “his principal motivation was to make money”. Yet his book and the movie adaptation are widely hailed as fine art. Just because the artist is well compensated for their work, doesn’t mean their creation stops existing as art.

The other argument, that games are bland mindless entertainment with no deeper meaning, is deeply flawed as well. Sure there are plenty of that type of game, but that doesn’t preclude the existence of deeper, more artistic games as well. Just like summer blockbusters never harmed Citizen Kane, and mindless pop music never harmed Mozart, the mass-produced “popcorn” games don’t harm the artistic titans like Bioshock either.

So that’s my view anyway. To be honest, I don’t really care what other people think, and am not to bothered to convince them either. It’s an argument for each individual to make up their own minds about. But as long as I can sit down with a game and be deeply effected by the experience of playing it, I will always consider games to be art.

Game Spaces

December 13, 2010

The concept of game spaces is an intriguing one. A game space is the area the game takes place in, that the player has access to. It is obviously a major component of a game, the choice of which will have a huge impact on the atmosphere, as well as the gameplay and freedom of the player.

A horror game such as Resident Evil or Dead Space can use dark, cramped, winding corridors for its game space. The darkness and inability to see whats ahead creates fear of the unknown in the player. The cramped conditions can cause claustrophobia. The colour pallet will generally be dark and gloomy. Other touches such as blood streaked walls, echoes and screams from far away, flickering lights and so on are often employed. All these aspects of the game space can combine to form a fearful, foreboding atmosphere.

The horror… the horror….

Contrast this with action-adventure games such as The Legend Of Zelda and Assassin’s Creed. In this genre the game space is usually a massive, wide open world of light and colour. Filled with cities, NPCs, dungeons, enemies and items to find, it creates a rich sense of freedom and discovery. The player is not really ushered down a lone path, but rather given a large world to explore and enjoy at their leisure. There is generally a much lighter, brighter “go anywhere, do anything!” kind of atmosphere for these games.

Endless exploration!

First person shooters are another genre, where the game spaces can vary wildly. If we look at a handful of the most popular ones:

  • Call Of Duty: An extremely linear, scripted “rollercoaster ride”. Player is shuffled forward along a certain track with AI companions, experiences non-stop action all the way.
  • Halo: Mixes linear corridor shooter segments with more wide open battlefields, where the player has a choice of routes and tactics.
  • Half Life: Like Halo, has some corridor shooter segments, and like Call Of Duty has plenty of scripted events. However, also has exploration elements, platforming and puzzle solving, areas where the player can go at their own pace.
  • Bioshock: Set entirely in the cramped, leaking underwater city of Rapture. Somewhat like Half Life’s style, but also has horror and free roaming elements.
  • Metroid Prime: A completely open world that the player wanders, solving problems and defeating enemies. This unlocks new powers, allowing access to new areas. Player is completely alone and fully in control.

Even within a single genre, game spaces can have many different styles. From super linear action to wide open adventures, the game space is a hugely important and interesting area of game design.

Game Rules

December 11, 2010

Every video game needs to be defined by a set of rules. Both the design team and the player need to know exactly what is being represented in the game, what are the abilities, challenges and goals?

Lets say we are making a racing game. Will it be on a linear track (Gran Turismo), a track with multiple routes (Motorstorm), or a completely open world where the player chooses their own route (Burnout Paradise)? What real world phyics do we wish to simulate? Gravity obviously, but what about wind resistance, different track surfaces, weather conditions? Should the car suffer no damage at all, cosmetic damage only, or be completely destroyed in a crash? Is the player trying to win the race (Mario Kart), score the most points (Project Gotham Racing) or destroy as many enemy cars as possible (F Zero X)?

Clearly there are a massive amount of rules to set out the boundaries of the game. But are they necessary? Just imagine our racing game with no rules. The player could go anywhere, at any speed, for no purpose or reward. What would be the point? When we play a game, we make a type of pact with the developer: “I will accept your rules, so long as they appear clear and fair to me, and attempt to play the game you have made for the rewards you have defined”. This is why millions of people will play a racing game like Forza, where a single serious crash can ruin an entire 10 minute race. They accept that this game has rules attempting to simulate reality, along the lines of “IF serious crash, THEN engine breaks”. Whereas millions more play racing games like Mario Kart, where its an intentionally outlandish ruleset, more like “IF serious crash, THEN play wacky sound effect”.

Two very different rule sets!

As I’ve said before, the rules of a game need to be straightforward and well explained to the player. A set of arcane rules will frustrate players. For example, a rule that a players car will degrade over time and need to be repaired would be hugely irritating, if not explained at the start. The players car would just be getting slower and slower, the player having no idea why. The rules also need to be, or at least appear to be, fair. If Car A is fast but weak, while Car B is fast but also strong, the player will not be happy. Why should one car have a strength and weakness, while another car has two strengths and no weaknesses? Finally, rules don’t always NEED to, but should at least try to appear sensible in the context of the games world and story. Looking at today’s FPS games, most of them have regenerating health. Makes perfect sense in Halo, where you are equipped with an energy shield that recharges. Makes very little sense in Call Of Duty, where you are just randomly healing bullet wounds. Its not a massive issue really, but one that should not be ignored either.

In addition to the developer’s rules, players will often (sometimes unconsciously) implemement their own “gentleman’s”, or “common sense” rules. For example, in a turn based game such as chess, there may be no formal time limit to a players move. But after a minute or two, most people will say “You’ve had enough time, come on!”. Or in an FPS, camping (hiding in one spot for the entire game) is usually looked down on despite being allowed by the games rules. We all know that one friend who will argue “It’s allowed!” despite the entire room calling him a poor sport. Needless to say, that friend won’t be played with again.

Related to poor sportsmanship is outright cheating. This a lot more serious, and involves outright breaking the game, hacking it, or exploiting unintentional loopholes. For example, in Call Of Duty there was a trick to select a rocket launcher in such a way that upon death, the cheating player’s body would cause a massive explosion, generally killing loads of the enemy. This was a glitch that was since fixed, but loads of people used it gladly until it was. While a poor sport will generally be looked down on or mocked, a cheater usually attracts savage hate from normal gamers. Using cowardly tactics is annoying, actively breaking the game to give yourself an advantage is just plain wrong.

From all this, it is clear that a games rules need to be carefully laid out and tested for problems and imbalance. A single (perceived or real) unfair rule can sink an otherwise perfectly good game.




Gaming Communities

December 11, 2010

When I think of gaming communities, one particular community springs to mind above all others:

Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs)

This is a huge segment of gaming, with World Of Warcraft alone having 10 million+ subscribers. These games are unique in that they bring thousands or even millions of gamers together, as opposed to the dozens or hundreds in traditional genres. As a way of socialising with friends and new people alike, these games are no doubt terrific. But what about the actual gameplay? I have experienced a couple of these games, and thought they were pretty poor. The goals are the kind of tedious grinding I had hoped we’d have done away with by now, with many quests boiling down to “Kill x amount of y enemy for small reward”, rinse and repeat literally hundreds of times.  Forget unique, interesting goals, this is just busy work. The real fun is from how you interact with, help out, or fight against your fellow players.

In theory at least. The problem with playing with other people is that they are people. And not just any people, but anonymous, powerful and knowledgable within their own fake world, immune to repercussions people. This does not encourage friendliness! When playing “Guild Wars”, I created a noble knight as my character. I wore shining armour, had a sword and shield, and used a certain set of sword based skills. Through some quest I was given some basic magic as well, and equipped that. In my mind, I was a “spellsword”, a warrior who could bust out some flaming bolts in an emergency. Awesome, right?

Wrong. At least to other people. “LOL use (insert name of some skill here), only noobs use magic with a warrior!” A common question was “What build are you?”. What is a “build”? It turns out people had sat down with their game manuals and their calculators and their Excel Spreadsheets and worked out, down to multiple decimal places, the optimal damage output for each character and skill type. These numerically optimal skill sets were called “builds”. So, forget creating a character, skills, and equipment to your liking, based on imagination or fun or creativity. No, create a robotic, numerically based character as defined by nerds with formulas. Most people would either ignore me or literally laugh in my face when I said I had no build and didn’t want one. Fun times.

If I sound bitter, that’s because I am. These games had massive potential to be the best, most innovative experiences out there. And they just boil down to boring gameplay that rewards working out maths formulas and endless grinding, more than creativity and having fun. Discovering that the community seems to be the biggest shower of… not nice people… ever, doesn’t help at all. The fact that people are using prebuilt templates in a game about creating your own character boggles my mind. What do these people get out playing? They clearly have no interest in the lore or story of the game, no interest in creating a character by themselves, no interest in having fun. They only seem to care about efficiency. What’s their purpose for playing? Why don’t they go solve maths equations instead, that’s what they’ve managed to reduce these games to anyway…

I can understand this attitude from the very top competitive players, and I can understand that there are nice people to be found out there. But from my experiences, in multiple games of this type, the average community members are just awful. They are as judgemental and close minded as the Catholic Church, as cliqued and stratified as a stereotypical US high school, as smug and self-satisfied as a spoilt child, and as rude and ignorant as every other anonymous forum/chatroom goer. The fact that people PAY to experience this nightmare is something my mind is unable to process.  This is where we gamers get the image of basement dwelling, unwashed, socially retarded freaks from! Perhaps I’m just the wrong type of person for these games, and should stick to single player games…

A program created to show you ideal builds for Guild Wars. Useful, but not a set of laws we HAVE to follow!