Date Archives October 2008

Post LITA presentation video

The fine folks from the Lita Forum asked me a few questions on video after my presentation. I'm grateful that they managed to edit out much of my incoherence. I held it together quite well during the session, but afterward ... well, not so much. I'm in the second half, if you care to look.

Justifying violence: Situated context

Just War games are fairly straightforward. The player fills the role of the "good guy". Ethically complex Just War games may give reasonable grounds to doubt whether the violence is truly justified, but in general the dominant social norms are respected. Situated context games take a murkier approach. In these games society may or may not find the violence justified, but the player is given a grounding in a character for whom the violence can be understood if not approved of. Games of this sort solve the "how do I justify simulating mass murder and carnage" question by giving a reason that can be strongly identified with even if it runs counter to the rules we govern our societies with. Examples can be seeking revenge for a grevious wrong, being a member of an unfairly oppressed group, or simply setting the game outside of a recognizable social order where nature is red in tooth and claw.

The Grand Theft Auto (GTA) games are the most popular examples of this group. They have received a lot of public attention for their violent and anarchic content and for their refusal to justify the violence according to rules that established society would find acceptible. I purchased the GTA series recently in large part so I could include them in this post. That experience was moderately successful, in that I played enough of GTA: San Andreas to get a feel for how the game was situated. It was less successful in that interface and control issues kept me from enjoying the game to play more than a few hours. I want to emphasize that my lack of enjoyment for this game was due more to trouble configuring an Xbox 360 controller to work on the PC than my dislike of the setting or the role I was playing in the story.

In the game I took on the role of a former gang member who returned to his old neighborhood after a prolonged absence. He discovered that the police were corrupt and his friends and family were set upon by police, crack dealers, and rival gangs. Through violence and intimidation the character achieves respect in his 'hood and sets about restoring the status and fortune of his old gang.

From one point of view, GTA: San Andreas is more honest than many just war games. That is, it doesn't offer up a simplistic view that the world is in a conflict between 100% good forces and their 100% evil enemies. Instead, one views the world of San Andreas as us verus them, and success is a zero sum game. I'm not in a position to say whether or not the violent anarchy portrayed in San Andreas is an accurate retelling of life in Compton in the early 90's, but I can say that while I empathized with the plight of the people in the game, I still can't say that they are good by most measures.

San Andreas doesn't attempt to tell the player that the violence is right, it shows the player that the violence exists in a context and allows players to engage in a violent fantasy of letting their will to power run unchecked. In the end, one's opinion on the justification of violence in San Andreas probably corresponds to one's opinion of whether such fantasy is a release or a sin.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion escapes much of the public critique that the GTA games have enjoyed. Largely, this is because this particular role playing game is clearly fantasy and does not closely simulate actual Earth-like conditions. Still, one has the option of engaging in many of the same sort of violent acts that GTA portrays. One can choose to play a straight-arrow or one can choose to play an amoral killer-for-hire. Oblivion gives the player some freedom to create their own context and the player can choose the rules they will obey. For example, if a player chooses to play a hero-type character she can take quests that have her rescuing innocents and punishing wrong doers. On the other hand, players can also choose to murder indescriminantly as long as they avoid the eye of the authorities.

Criticism of this kind of contextual violence can range from outrage that the game does not filter its content through the current dominant ethical framework to noting that for all the "freedom" touted in this kind of game, the player really doesn't have the choice not to be violent. At best they can choose a particular set of violent acts they approve of.

From my perspective, Oblivion is rather empty when it comes to ethical content. It takes few stands and the choices offered the player lack substance. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the game and played a few different kinds of characters and enjoyed most of them. I just didn't find that it made me think about my choices in very interesting ways. It avoids most kinds of ethical conflict merely by being bland.

On the other hand, playing GTA: San Andreas raised a lot of questions not all of which I have answers for. This is the source of its potential ethical impact on players, as they find themselves playing a man trapped in a savage lifestyle, they confront situations that do not have easy (if any) ethical solutions. I certainly did not get the perception that playing GTA games will help anyone to act more ethically outside of the game world, it does cause players to think about issues in a complex way that avoids the simplistic rhetoric of just war games. This may not make it good, but it does make it interesting and thus useful.

Justifying violent content: the just war

Just looking at my shelf of games and my collection on Steam, a disturbing number of titles that I have played simulate violent acts. There are entire genres of games called shooters. In strategy games, by and large, one strategizes in order to kill one's enemies. Role playing games tend to focus on combat. Even sandbox or open world games seem to offer open worlds where one can kill and destroy on a whim.

One very popular way that games makes violent acts seem acceptible is to frame their action in settings that reasonable people would agree justify violence. This can be done with varying degrees of success and requiring varying degrees of willful suspension of disbelief. Let's call this way of justifying violence the Just War Doctrine.

Using one of 2007's top shooters: Call of Duty 4. The Call of Duty series has had a lot of success simulating World War II (the good war). One would have a difficult time arguing that the old chestnut of killing Nazis isn't justified by the crimes against humanity committed by the Third Reich. Not only is the player justified by simulating a soldier for a nation at war, but they are additionally justified by fighting against the perpetrators of the holocaust. The 4th installment in this series moves the setting from WWII to modern warfare. The player still has a cloak of justification given by wearing the uniform of a country. (Players switch back and forth between playing a British S.A.S. soldier and a member of the U.S.M.C.) Why is it ok to play a game where the object is to shoot and kill one's enemies? It is ok because the violence has been sanctioned by a democratic government.

To the credit of Infinity Ward, the creators of the Call of Duty games, they do raise ambiguous and troubling questions. In one memorable mission, I played an S.A.S. soldier raiding a freighter at sea carrying a rogue nuclear weapon. When the announcement comes over the radio "weapons free. Crew, expendable" My squad opened fire on the unsuspecting and unaware mechant sailors navigating the boat. The emotional impact of this was very different than fighting the so-called terrorists on the ship who were armed and opened fire on us.

Deliberately simulating violence that is less easy to justify than fighting against the Nazis doesn't mean that COD4 leaves the just war doctrine behind. Successfully completing that mission saves the world from a nuclear device in the hands of extremists willing to use it against civillians. The cost may be high, but in the end the balance sheet shows the violence as justified.

Many other games don't come anywere near the line between justified and unjustified violence. Whether the enemy are ravenous orcs, hordes of zombies, xenophobic aliens, or demons from hell, game designers go to great lengths to de-humanize the violence by having the players fill the role of humanity's last hero fighting unhuman evil bent on destroying all of us. After all, what is the ethical response to an undead invasion bent on eating humanity's brains? Load your shotgun and grab your crow-bar!

Some may make the valid observation that simulating even justified violence has a negative effect on the player. This point is well taken, even though some studies show that children who game are at least as well adjusted as children who do not. Looking at the games themselves, many at least put a veneer of justification on violence and simulated carnage by creatively finding situations that many reasonable people would say justifies violence.

Next up: games that don't offer a justification for violence, but ask the player to simulate the context of people driven to violence by their situations. We may not be able to say these actions are good, but we may come to understand how people can find themselves doing horrific acts.

Video games and encouraging reading

I suppose articles like this recent one in the NY Times and their reactions are a sign that video games are, in fact, becoming a rival of the accepted media formats. They still annoy the hell out of me. So I'm going to rant. (I'll return to my series on violence and ethics in games, but I've been playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and I'm changing my mind about a few things. More on that later.)

The article discusses video games as the future of reading and outlines some literacy outreach programs in libraries to hook the young on reading. In the end, both the article and the reader reaction missed the point. By a mile. The problem is not that video game advocates are not critical about their chosen medium or that public libraries have either lost or abandoned the book-centric sense of purpose they once had. Both of these things are happening and in some cases they are flaws. However, the real issue is that we don't have a clear idea of why reading or literacy is important.

Is there something about accessing information via visually decoding words on a page that is inherently superior to accessing information through watching an image or through listening to someone speak it? I don't think so. At least, I don't think the differences are as great as the complaints about the NY Times article make them out to be. My first evidence for this is completely personal. I have a LOT more patience for a crap book than I do for a crap television show or a crap video game. I like to read and I rarely will stop reading a book because it is too simplistic. I am VERY quick to give up on a videogame or tv series if that is case. (Yes, I'm looking at you Sanctuary and KOTOR II. I'll stop reading a book because I don't want to work hard at understanding it, but I'll reread pulp novels just to stop my head from thinking for a few hours. It is entirely possible that I'm an outlier and there is a greater concentration of quality in written material than exists in other media, but the days are gone when writing was the only choice for preserving information for the future.

What I think is happening is that many people mix up reading with higher level reasoning. I agree that our society benefits from having its members being able to read and understand complex ideas, but I think we can go farther. Our society also benefits from visually literate members who can "read" complex cinematography and understand them in context. Our society benefits from music literacy as well. Not just because decoding dots on a five-lined staff into sounds is a stimulating mental activity, but because the intellectual activity of interacting with music in and across cultures enriches us all. Reading is important to musicians but it is secondary to the sound and ideas in the music itself. I think we should look at reading texts in the same way. That is to say, reading words and understanding their meaning is important, but it is a secondary activity to engaging with the thoughts and emotions that the words convey.

In order for us to understand the impact of video games on literacy, we need to remember why we think reading is so great in the first place. I am a reader. I'll get sucked into a book more quickly than I will into a television series or a video game. I am also a teacher and I know that if I can entice student to interact with a new idea by listening, speaking, and acting as well as by reading it, that idea has a much greater chance of taking root. In the classroom, I'll assign a reading if I think it has the highest chance of leading to student learning. If another media has better odds of leading to learning, I try to choose it over reading. For the kind of library instruction I teach on a regular basis, let me tell you, I don't have them read "How to search a database" manuals. That would waste everybody's time.

So when it comes to public outcry over libraries choosing games over books, I get annoyed. Certainly games tend to be juvenile and simplistic, but they can be a lot more. If juvenile and simplistic games are the problem, the answer isn't a blind push for books. The answer is an informed push for developing gaming and new media literacy.

How do games justify their violent content?

As I've mentioned, I've been reluctant to write about the ethics of violence in games. However, last week, Jack Thompson was disbarred in Florida and that changes the landscape of the conversation significantly. Mr. Thompson's presence in the debate meant that it was all too easy to reduce any conversation about violence and ethics in the gaming media down to a shouting match between: "video games are the gravest assault upon children in this country since polio" and "first-amendment violating, thought-crime, fascist!"

Now that reason has temporarily triumphed, I want to look at violence and ask how certain games justify it in their narrative. I do this in hope that in asking these questions we can learn something useful and reach conclusions without the polarized rhetoric. The first question I want to ask is: how do games frame violence in their narrative and storytelling?

Looking at the games I've played and going so far as to purchase and play some familiar examples of violent games, I've stumbled upon three broad categories that generally describe how games justify violent content. First games situate their violent content in a justified situation. I call this the "just war" doctrine. Using socially accepted justifications for violence: gamers simulate soldiers in a just war, police protecting society from criminals, or the last defense of human civilization from genocidal aliens. These games present violence as justified, necessary, and good. "Personal context" games are another set of games takes a less black and white approach to violence. Rather than presenting the player as fighting for good, they situate the violence in a context. Role-playing games in particular situate action and player choices in a character. Thus a player simulating a "terrorist" in a game can see the charachter's choices in context and perhaps justify the actions as being a "freedom fighter" or perhaps not justify them any further than an extension of the characters will to power. A third option is games that do not attempt to justify violence at all. Games that refuse to justify violent acts either in a socially acceptable context or in a personally justified context raise different kinds of questions. For a "just war" game, it is relatively easy to judge whether or not the violence is ethical. If a person accepts the conflict simulated as being just, then the violence is justified. In personal context games, the ethics of the violence can be judged according to how identifies with the simulated context, i.e., if one can find empathy for the character one can understand why the violent acts were committed. This third set of games risks undermining social constraints against violence by not seeking to justify or condemn it. They also, if they are well designed, offer the player insights into understanding the nature of violence and its effects that other games do not.

I'm at risk of running on here, so I'm going to describe each of these three categories in future posts. In order to examine the just war justification I will look at the games Call of Duty, Doom, and Swat. Situated context games will be explored in Grand Theft Auto, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Oblivion.
For unjustified violence, I will examine The Witcher and Deus Ex.