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One man’s call for ethical gaming

“Unmanned,” a game about a drone pilot.
“Unmanned,” a game about a drone pilot.Molleindustria

"BioShock" is one of the most beloved games ever. When it came out in 2007, it garnered almost universally positive reviews, and many outlets praised the moral ramifications of its gameplay.

Particularly well received was a mechanic in which, upon encountering a "Little Sister," one of the creepily cute little girls found all around the underwater city of Rapture, you had to decide whether to harvest her for the powerful material, ADAM, she contained, killing her in the process. Or you could rescue her, winning you only half as much ADAM and making it harder for you to upgrade your character's abilities.

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"Creepy Moral Dilemmas Make BioShock a Sophisticated Shooter," read the headline in Wired.

But Miguel Sicart, an associate professor at the IT University of Copenhagen's Center for Computer Games Research, who focuses on ethics in video games, said he was less impressed when he played the game.

"What is the meaning of sparing these girls, or killing them, if there is a narrative output that is mostly indifferent to your actions as player?" he recently wrote me in an e-mail. As he explained, the game doesn't really force players to sit with the moral implications of what they're doing — 95 percent of the story and gameplay are the same regardless of which moral choices you make. The only difference is how much ADAM you have at a given moment and which ending you're presented with after beating the final boss. (Moreover, as an Ars Technica post pointed out when the game was released, the game is actually built in a way to give you nearly the same amount of ADAM in the long run, regardless of which choices you make.)

Sicart's new book, "Beyond Choices: The Design of Ethical Gameplay," released by MIT Press in September, is a call to arms against this sort of superficial moral content in games, and it serves as a provocative reminder that for all the justifiable excitement over the flourishing of game development as an art, there's still a huge amount of unfulfilled potential when it comes to the creation of meaningful, memorable titles that fully tap what makes us human.

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It's clear from "Beyond Choices" that Sicart thinks that despite the popular trend of including "BioShock"-esque choices in games, most games released today aren't much more sophisticated, morally, than "Pac Man."

"I seek games that are open for interpretation and that regard me as a moral player — not because I make a decision that is rewarded with points but because the way that I play the game deserves recognition of my own morality," Sicart writes in the book. "I want games that put my ethics into play."

Sicart's primary motivation in writing his book, he explained via e-mail, is "not only that games can be ethically meaningful, but also that game design can systematize that process, so those games can be made, played, and analyzed." So just as there are now certain best practices for developers creating, say, a first-person shooter, Sicart wants to establish a smarter conversation for developers trying to push the frontiers of what he calls "ethical gaming."

Mainstream games, Sicart wrote to me via e-mail, "seem to be adopting the false idea that if you give players choices, that's enough to engage them morally and thus make compelling entertainment." Instead, he argued, we need to "truly embrace the complicated, but feasible task of making games that matter morally, while being entertaining and playful."

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So how do you do that? It varies depending on the game, of course, but Sicart's book has several interesting ideas, some of them radical. Why not make moral choices permanent, for one thing? Most games let players take Option A, play a little more, decide they erred and would have preferred Option B, and reload to the point before they made the decision. Real life doesn't work this way. An element of permanence could ramp up the moral stakes, even as it violates contemporary "rules" of game design. Or what if players made a choice, but weren't fully presented with the results of that choice until hours later, when it was too late? In real life, we don't always know what a given action will lead to. The world is a very tangled system, and complexity often increases after we have made a seemingly simple choice, leading to unanticipated results. Sicart's book encourages developers to bring this sort of real-world nonlinearity to games' moral dimensions.

"Beyond Choices" does include examples of titles that he finds morally interesting and engaging. One of them is "Unmanned," a 2011 game about a drone pilot by the indie developer Paolo Pedercini (which I haven't played), in which, he writes, "players' interactions [are] focused on performing mundane activities. Eventually, even piloting is framed as yet another element of normal daily life."

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So the player is forced to simultaneously control a drone and to reflect on what it means to sit thousands of miles away from a conflict, raining fire down upon people he or she has never met. It's a far cry from the shoot-reload-repeat experience of so many war games. As Sicart explains, the activities players do in addition to controlling the drone — smoking a cigarette, flirting with a co-worker — only heighten the underlying tension and weird moral schisms involved in drone piloting.

There are all sorts of reasons, many of them economic, why developers favor more straightforward games — games with easily digestible concepts of winning and losing, with high scores, with lists of "achievements" that can be checked off. So it's good that Sicart and other voices in the gaming community are applying some pressure in the other direction. There's no reason "traditional" games can't exist alongside more experimental, morally engaging ones. But if players aren't presented with the latter, they might not realize what they're missing.


Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.