Jenova Chen part 2: character vs. moral education

Yesterday I posted a transcript of Jenova Chen’s interview on Joystiq in which he discussed how his attempt to create a cooperative game failed and his subsequent conclusions about designing for moral behavior. This sparked some good discussion that I’ll try to recap here.

Here’s one exchange that transpired on Facebook:

Kristen Maxwell: At SXSW 2 years ago i asked Warren Spector about Ultima V’s ethical/political underpinnings and why we don’t see that kind of allegorical use of the medium… he copped out and said that games shouldn’t teach an agenda. Neil Stephenson did a similar dodge at GDC Austin this year when i asked him about the lack of subversive lessons in games (his book Diamond Age is about the transformative power of a subversively-themed game/learning device a poor girl accidentally receives). He said that it wasn’t in games’ interest to promote such an ideology.
Matthew Weise: There is no such thing as a game that has no ideological underpinnings. Politics are everywhere, especially in places where we pretend there are not.
Maxwell: Their dismissal said to me “we’d rather everyone remain ignorant of what thee games are teaching than take responsibility for it”

By contrast, Bart Simon of Concordia’s TAG writes, “Is that really the response to the situated morality of action that we want to take as game designers… to ‘make players see and feel what’s right’? Do we really want to come off being so paternalistic? Not just in interviews but in the actual design?”

While Simon proceeds to argue for a “label on the box” (“this game is designed to make players see and feel what’s right …according to the designer”), Maxwell and Weise point out that authorial values are embedded into games whether we like it or not (and whether we know it or not). Game developers create worlds in which, by design of the rules, what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is at least suggested or incentivized if not enforced. This doesn’t take volition or free choice out of the hands of the player – at a minimum, players can always (rage) quit – but it certainly argues against the idea that developers can claim moral neutrality when they create their games. Unconsciousness, perhaps, or ignorance – but not neutrality.

But what of the project of moral education itself? Simon jumps to a critique of how Chen realized the moral vision of Journey:

The fact remains that while Journey is a fairly ‘on the rails’ experience in which one sometimes gets the feeling of being railroaded (I did ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ and shed a tear all at the right moments I assure you) the opposite condition of some mythical realm of free choice and even handed moral deliberation most certainly does not exist.

Elsewhere, Sam Gilbert agreed that “it’s not really a moral game if you don’t have a choice in the matter. The multiplayer interaction is really sweet and pleasant, and you feel good about yourself and about others when you’re able to help each other, but it’s pleasant because it’s extremely limited. There are no moral dilemmas or sacrifices involved–you’re just sort of forced to be nice to each other.”

And thus emerges the ongoing tension between character education (instilling desirable habits) and moral education (deepening moral reasoning). Having not played Journey, for want of a PS3, I can’t personally evaluate whether it succeeds as a character education tool. If you walk away “feel[ing] good about yourself and about others,” then perhaps it does. But the lack of moral choice in the game would detract from its value in moral learning, except perhaps as a foil for discussion (as in this blog post!).

To flip this conversation around… character education seems to be the more intuitive way to think about video game (im)morality, at least among laypeople. Many of the critiques of violence in games concern themselves with how players repeatedly perform bad acts, rather than whether they’re making immoral or unethical decisions within a biased system. I wrote about this with Prof. Scott Seider several years ago.

Jenova Chen on morality in games

The Joystiq Show #028 pulls off a coup of an interview of Jenova Chen, who offers some pretty profound thoughts in response to Alexander Sliwinski’s “So what did you learn from creating Journey?” question. The answer, basically, is that he discovered some possible truths about the interrelationship between morality and the systems within which we operate:

So my biggest lesson learned is that human behavior may appear to be a bad moral behavior, but it’s not really their fault; they’re just following their instinct. It is the designer who creates the system who has the responsibility to moderate the right behavior you want. By providing feedback for the things you want to see and by providing zero feedback on the things you don’t want to see, you can actually quite control the moral value in the game…. It’s really the system that’s defining the people’s behavior, rather than that person himself is better or worse.

Full transcript follows…
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Ethics and Game Design : teaching values through play

I’m proud to announce that the book to which I’d contributed a chapter, Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play is finally published! My co-author Scott Seider and I contributed the chapter, “Video Games for Prosocial Learning,” a broad overview of how video games fit in the tradition of prosocial education. (I guess it was so broad that the chapter was thrown into the “Situating Ethics and Games” intro section to the book).

I’m excited, too, that several of my colleagues from Harvard/MIT back when we were writing this chapter are also in featured — Jaroslav Švelch and Sam Gilbert. I’m looking forward to reading their contributions. And I really want to thank our ringleader, Karen Schrier, for bringing this eclectic group of scholars (and, in my case, pseudo-scholars) to put the whole project together.

Of course I hope people will get the word out about the book, and that libraries will go and buy it, but if you’re not interested in shelling out $132, I’m making available an earlier draft of our submitted chapter here:

Download Video Games for Prosocial Learning by Gene Koo and Scott Seider.

Abstract: In this chapter, we consider the capabilities video games offer to educators who seek to foster prosocial development using three popular frameworks: moral education, character education, and care ethics. While all three of these frameworks previously considered literature and film as helpful tools, we suggest that video games are unique from these other media in the multiple levers through which they can influence the worldview, values, and behaviors of players. Similar to literature and film, video games possess content — plot, characters, conflict, themes, and imagery — with which participants interact. Unlike other media, however, video games scaffold players’ experiences not only via narrative and audio-visual content but by the rules, principles, and objectives governing what participants do. Moreover, many video games possess an ecosystem that impacts players’ interpretation of the game itself — for example, on-line hint guides and discussion groups as well as the opportunity to play in the company of peers in either physical or virtual proximity. We consider opportunities and challenges presented by each of these unique facets of video games for fostering the prosocial development of participants.

Would love any feedback on this chapter, on the book, or on the entire concept of games and ethical learning!

My heroes meet: Will Wright and E.O. Wilson

NPR’s Open Mic featured a fascinating discussion between two of my personal heroes, Will Wright and E.O. Wilson. Their overlap, naturally, was in ants, which were a personal fascination of mine since very young. I remember with great fondness that my roommates bought me SimAnt as a gift during my freshman year of college (it was also one of the few games for Mac back then), and I played the heck out of it, even though it wasn’t a terribly deep game.

Wilson is typically far-sighted in seeing video games as pointing the way to better education. While he imagines this future teaching centered on virtual reality, I continue to believe the greatest hope for learning will be in teaching systems-thinking, something that Wright has excelled at doing.

For Wilson, the greatest unanswered question in biology is “the origin of altruistic social behavior.” I suspect this question is what drew me to my interest in ants as a child: how these animals work together as a social organism to accomplish incredible tasks. And again this is the kind of concept that’s best conveyed via a video game – complex interactions among many small parts, as well as the ability to switch perspectives to take the point of view of one of those parts. I’d love to see Wright take on this grand task that Wilson has laid out: can altruism be the basis of a fun, exciting, blockbuster game?

Read/listen to the story: Ant Lovers Unite! Will Wright and E.O. Wilson on Life and Games.

Peter Molyneux on good and evil

In this in-depth interview with Gamasutra (May 1), game developer Peter Molyneux explains how he approaches offering players deep moral choices:

PM: What’s fascinating about it is that when we thought about good and evil, it’s so tempting to say, “Well, good is saving lives, and evil is hurting lives and killing people.” But actually, I think where the real emotion comes is when you really start testing people.

If I said to you, “Your family is over there. What would you do to save them?” “Well, I would do anything.” “Really? Would you really do anything? Would you actually kill a thousand people to save your family? And what does that say about you?”

I think, finally, that decision made people think, because it forced them to think, “My goodness, my natural reaction is of course I’d save my family. Of course I would save the people I love.” But actually, when it comes down to it, would you? Would you sacrifice everything for that very selfish act of having what you want? There are a lot of philosophical questions that come up in your mind when you’re doing that.

David Nieborg had written an excellent review of Fable 2’s moral dimensions earlier.

What might a pro-social rating system look like?

This was the mostly-serious question I put to our games group last night at our monthly meeting. The question emerged from previous discussions we’d had about how the meta-game-industry – critics, player feedback – influences game development. While the ESRB ratings are about as fuzzy as MPAA film ratings – and equally subject to manipulation – there’s no doubt that they influence actual design decisions. One former developer talked about how his team worked to keep a shooter at a “Teen” rating, which meant, for example, that players should not be able to manipulate dead bodies. (Shooting them while alive, of course, is perfectly fine!).
Cheat Code Central
We struck on a range of possibilities: an ESRB-like rating system, better search categories in game databases, better game criticism, and of course self-critical game design. Although it opens the door to even more subjectivity, we were all interested in shifting the focus from a checklist of features (blood? gore? bad language?) to an evaluation of the gameplay experience. Whether the graphics feature blood or not, does the game encourage cooperation and mutual sacrifice?
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Wii Fit and Games of Guilt

Most games play on a narrow range of human emotion, rarely straying from excitement, anxiety, or awe. So it’s worth noting when a game comes along that relies on a rather unusual feeling for an entertainment title: guilt.

(In using the term “guilt,” I am primarily drawing on our colloquial understanding of the term, the feeling of conflict between what one has done and what one believes one should have done, rather than any specific psychological or philosophical definition. I suspect much of our understanding of the word “guilt,” outside of the law, comes from marketing for diet products).

If Wii Fit succeeds in whipping American butts into shape, it will partially be through imparting a feeling of obligation to do some exercise every day. But it also courts danger in this regard: a nagging game can turn off a would-be exerciser as easily as its non-interactive predecessors. (How many treadmills became bulky clothes racks after the heat of zeal congealed into lethargic shame?). Serious commitments require both a carrot and a stick, but too much stick kills the fun.

Wii Fit employs a smörgåsbord of characters to engage players: there’s your Mii avatar, the diagram-y yoga instructors, and the anthropomorphized Wii Fit balance board. While the Mii gives some basic feedback (its shape changes as you gain/lose weight) and the yoga instructors provide tips and positive feedback, it’s the balance board that helps you set and keep your goals and chides you when you go astray.

The balance board character, a strangely expressive white rectangle, is no match for the average mom, but skip a day or two and does serve up a “You don’t call, you don’t write” routine:


There’s no reasoning with the board on this matter. Go on a week-long business trip? Too bad – that smug little rectangle doesn’t offer excuse options. On the other hand, neither does it dwell, moving on with perfect cheer and letting bygones be bygones. Unlike a true nag, it never brings up your transgression again — the prick of guilt is instant and ephemeral. But it is there.

So Wii Fit, via the balance board character, “cares” whether you play with it or not, and whether you do so regularly. (Once you start, the game tracks but doesn’t mind which exercises you choose). A game that makes you feel guilty for ignoring it isn’t novel; pet simulators like Nintendogs also mark your absence, during which time your virtual puppy gets increasingly hungry, thirsty, and disheveled. The possibility of neglect, and the guilt that accompanies it, seems to stimulate some sense of care and responsibility.

Wii Fit doesn’t merely concern itself with your decision to play; as an interactive title that attempts to change the user, it also attempts to address your other, probably more important choices. Consider this sequence, triggered when you gain too much weight vis-à-vis your stated goal:

Overweight 1 Overweight 2 Overweight 3 Overweight 4

We’ve often discussed reflection as a vital element of moral choice-making in games. On the scale of moral choices, staying healthy isn’t high up there (except for the ancient Greeks), but this device of asking the player to reflect on out-of-game, real-life decisions is worth considering for application in other games for change. Particularly notable is that it’s the player, not the software, who sets the goals in the first place. The Wii Fit is there to help keep you on the path that you’ve laid down for yourself.

Set a goal Reaching your Fit goal

Is this method of reflection effective as a mechanism for personal change? Or does it, together with the goal-setting and the nagging, only drive away those who have trouble staying on the bandwagon? We should start seeing some answers in the next few months.

– Gene Koo

GTA4: reintegrating the divided self

2 faces of NikoBy the close of our discussion about GTA4 on Wednesday, some of us expressed pessimism that computer games possessed any capacity to invigorate moral reasoning or reflection. Matthew remained hopeful, but expressed his dismay that the critical reception of GTA4 seems to set a ceiling, not a floor, for morally-deep games:

…The series cheered (and criticized) for glorifying violence has taken an unexpected turn: it’s gone legit. Oh sure, you’ll still blow up cop cars, run down innocent civilians, bang hookers, assist drug dealers and lowlifes and do many, many other bad deeds, but at a cost to main character Niko Bellic’s very soul. GTA IV gives us characters and a world with a level of depth previously unseen in gaming and elevates its story from a mere shoot-em-up to an Oscar-caliber drama. Every facet of Rockstar’s new masterpiece is worthy of applause…
IGN review by Hilary Goldstein

Maybe Niko loses his soul, and maybe you, the player, care. Or at least try to care. And so maybe through its long reach, however flawed, GTA4 also opens new frontiers to explore, and it becomes our duty to turn that perceived ceiling of possibility into a challenge.

Andrea Flores, responding to the recurring theme of “schizophrenia” throughout the discussion, brought in the idea of ritual, especially as described by anthropologists like Arnold Van Gennep and Victor Turner, to understand the interplay between real (the player) and game (the character). Like the “liminal space” of ritual, perhaps the “magic circle” of games offers a passage from one state to the next. If so, the tension among player, avatar, and character might well be something to exploit rather than bemoan; indeed, I find quite compelling the idea of the avatar as a “symbol” that the player manipulates to conduct the game-as-ritual.

From a positivist perspective, there is certainly much to learn from real players’ experience of the moral dimensions of a game like Grand Theft Auto. (Grand Theft Childhood is one place to start; the GoodPlay Project, where Andrea and Sam research, is another). From a normative and developer’s standpoint, there’s also so much to imagine, to build, and to test.


Soul of the Machine: Awakening the moral conscience of impersonal systems

Ever since Ultima IV showed us how computer games might embrace virtue, I’ve longed for similar titles with moral depth. Over a year ago, Kent Quirk awoke me to the power that computer games offer and why they are so important right now. At a local Games for Change meetup, Kent showed off Melting Point, a game about climate change. What impressed me about Melting Point was that Kent wasn’t proselytizing for a particular policy or worldview but rather hoping players would understand the interplay of complex systems (climate and economy) and make up their own minds about what, if anything, we should do about it.

This made me realize that computer games can merge two important features — player choice and systems-modeling — to achieve something even more powerful: nurturing morally aware systems-thinking. In other words, I began to see games as a tool to enable people to see that the complex systems around us — whether global trade or ocean ecosystems — have moral consequences, and that we aren’t just idle observers but actors both within and over those systems.

And it’s at this very moment in human history that we, as a species, must learn to see ourselves as moral agents within systems.

Never before has humanity had the power to destroy each other and the world as we know it, whether in clouds of radiation or of carbon dioxide. Never before has so much of humanity been at the mercy not of human tyrants and local lords but of machine code and faraway tribunals. The world, as Max Weber predicted, is becoming an iron cage of systems and bureaucracies beyond human ken.

It’s beyond our common understanding because homo sapiens didn’t evolve to naturally grasp large, complex systems but rather small networks of people. As psychologists are steadily learning, scruples aren’t merely nice but actually hard-wired into our brains. Ask someone whether it’s right to push a big man in front of a runaway train to save the lives of five bystanders, and parts of our brains begin firing to tell us, “no.” But ask whether it’s OK to throw a switch that decides between the fate of a man on one track versus that of five on the other, and those same neurons stay quiet.

So our genetic code instructs us to treat our face-to-face relationships as potentially moral, but our innate moral sense may not extend into our systemic or mediated relationships. Bringing chicken soup to our sick neighbor strikes us as self-evidently virtuous, but shaping our nation’s health care policy — not so much, at least not until it begins affecting us personally. Viewing policy as a structure that embodies collective morality is learned, not instinctual.

Computer games offer at least two possible responses to our collective human predicament. First, they can open players’ eyes to the moral implications of systems by experimenting with them and witnessing the results. Games might offer moments of reflection and of epiphany, connecting personal morality with systemic awareness. A player might see how tweaking health care policies affects a family’s lives, or how environmental regulation could shape the destiny of a polar bear. Games might lead people to begin to see a soul within the machine.

And perhaps systems might begin to learn lessons from game design. Why must the computer systems that exercise more and more control over our daily lives be morally inert? If computer games — mere software — can lead players to weep, perhaps the mechanization of our world needn’t be soulless. If a global society demands that our interpersonal relations become abstracted into an iron cage of systems, can’t we re-envision such systems as a purposeful tool for realizing our collective moral vision?

Computer games won’t solve the problems that face humanity and our planet. But media, from cuneiform to newspapers to film, have always assisted humanity to reach new levels of moral self-realization and galvanize moral action. How fortuitous it may prove that computer games with their unique capacity for choice and systems-modeling should arise at this critical juncture of our evolution.

– Gene Koo