Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Perpetually Shelved Idea

Once upon a time this post started out as me talking about a project I’ve tinkered with off and on over the years. It was never completed, primarily because over the years I’ve grown leery of talking about projects that aren’t finished or close to finished. Not because I’m worried someone might steal my ideas, or because I think talking about a project before it is finished will somehow cause it to never be finished, but because I dislike projects that are overhyped and never see completion, and because I’ve found at times that the in the act of talking about a given idea I’ve actually expended all the interest I had in that idea, and so it never gets done. Admittedly, that usually means that it wasn’t a strong enough idea to begin with, but that doesn’t always temper the resulting disappointment.

So I deleted what I had written about the specifics of the idea itself, and will instead talk about the specifics of what has happened with the idea I was going to talk about.

Back in 2006 I came up with an idea for a comic series that I thought was interesting. While elements of the idea had been done before, and in some respects continue to be done, they’d never been done in quite this way (at least not that I’m aware of). I was pretty excited about the idea, and at a local convention shortly after bounced it off a lot of the folks I talked to, pro and otherwise. Yes, everyone gets this at a lot at conventions. I’ve been on the receiving end of it myself more than once. Yet in general people seemed pretty supportive of the idea, so I decided to at least try and move forward with it.

I didn’t, and honestly still don’t, have the money to pay an artist to do some sample pages to shop around. There have been times that I’d have needed a jetpack to hit the poverty line. I understand that artists work hard to produce pages and deserve to be paid for their work; though for all that I take umbrage at those artists reminding everyone they deserve to be paid for their work up front, and then turn right around and don’t offer the same when they’re looking for some to write for them. Though for the most part that is a post for another day. I did manage to find a couple artists willing to work on sample packages to shop around and see if we could drum up interest in the book and go from there… only to have them flake on me and either disappear outright or suddenly tell me they couldn’t do the project. So I let it sit for a couple years, and more or less the same thing happens again.

Fast forward to 2010. I’m at a local convention, and they’re hosting a charity auction. I buy a lot of stuff, including a lot of stuff I really have no interest in, to help folks raise money for a good cause. One of the things I picked up was five pages of art service from a group that had volunteered there time and talent as one of the auction awards. I bid on it. Honestly, I didn’t pay much for it; mostly because no one seemed willing to bid against me, as I was prepared to go fairly high for the item.

2010 and the early part of this year were pretty crazy for me for a number of reasons, so I really didn’t have time to sit down and write five new pages, or cut something down to that length. I did let folks know that at the time, and earlier this year I even took time I really didn’t have to cut the idea I mentioned earlier down to four script pages, but a theoretical cover page. I dash off a quick e-mail to let them know I’m looking to finally move on this… and I hear nothing back. I’m a bit miffed at this, but by and large I let it slide. A couple people urge me not to be so laidback about things, so a few weeks ago I dust of the script, clean it up a bit, and send a bit of a more formal note. It was a polite note. It included the script, and suggestions for the art team, while leaving room for folks on their end to make suggestions. While I’ll crack the whip when I need to, when I’m working with an artist I like to give he (or she) plenty of room to show their stuff. The result… I hear nothing back.

I could e-mail again, but at this point I’m not sure it serves any purpose. At this point, I’m used to seeing this particular project get shelved. I’ll either eventually find an artist for it, or maybe I’ll turn it into prose. I like the idea that started this all, and if nothing else I’ve had time to develop as a thinker and as a writer; I think that once it comes to light the results will be stronger than they would have been had they seen the light of day back in 2006.

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Posted by on August 31, 2011 in Comics


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Modelling Ethics in the Virtual Realm (Moving Past Hugging Puppies for Jesus or Killing Puppies for Satan)

Today’s Twitter feed involved a post from Felicia Day which linked to the article “Psych Study Finds Gamers Play Their ‘Ideal Selves.'” It’s not a bad article, and has the virtue of being short (which I often lack). It also touches on something I’ve mentioned before in the article, “A Philosopher and a Witcher… in Spaaaaaaaaace,” and in a roundabout way touched on in “‘This is how the world ends…’“. Namely, that systems of ethics as depicted in most games are crap. This isn’t to say that the games themselves are bad, just that this particular aspect is often a sour note in an otherwise good game.

I tend to use the phrases “hugging puppies for Jesus,” and “killing puppies for Satan*,” because that’s more or less what the moral choices presented in most games break down as; you either behave like a saint or an utter bastard. Sometimes there are one or more neutral options presented, but these are often specifically weighed to avoid having a meaningful impact on the experience of game play (Mass Effect in particular comes to mind in this regard). I can understand the desire some players might have for this neutrality option; they just want to experience the game without having that experience become “complicated.” I, on the other hand, dislike this option because it’s even less realistic than the hugging puppies for Jesus and killing puppies for Satan model.

Some games have done it slightly better. As I mentioned before I think that The Witcher is a game that mostly pulls this off. I think one of the ways it pulls this off is it that there is no “morality meter,” or something like the ridiculous, and blatantly obvious, change of appearance that takes place in the Fable games. In real life we don’t always have a clear indicator of the morality of certain behaviors. Certainly, we might behave in a manner that we believe is good, or that we are told is good (even if the view from an outside observer that doesn’t share our beliefs suggests what we’re doing is in fact a hideously cruel and evil thing), but we have no way of knowing that what we are doing is a good thing. We can’t just open a stats screen and go, “Ah yes, I see my handy alignment gauge has moved by X points as a result of making that choice.” There’s also the fact that a choice I might perceive as moral, and that might somehow, magically, be perceived by most reasonable persons as being the “good” thing to do will not be perceived as the recipient of that action as being the moral choice. And I’m not just talking about, say shooting members of Caesar’s Legion or Powder Gangers in the head, because that’s obviously going to piss them off, as they most likely don’t want to be shot in the head. What if I were to do something to help a person in need? That’s a good thing, right? But what if this hypothetical person resents my “interference,” and feels that I’m undermining her autonomy? Did I still make the moral decision in this case? How can I know?

Morality isn’t transcendent, but a negotiated web, so one of the ways I can know is by the responses to my actions. Obviously not a perfect solution in that it is incomplete, but it is a way of modelling ethics and morality in a closed system. However, the responses need to be realistic; for example in my above moral quandy, some people might like what I’ve done, while other people (including the benefit of my generosity) might not. Some games, including The Witcher incorporate this, or elements of this already; it’s also a huge step above from having everyone, even if they’re in the same area, respond to your actions in the same way.

Just as we need to take away the crutch of morality meters, game benefits, or at least obvious game benefits need to be done away with. If the player can simply look at things and say, “Hey, I can get this cool buff if I hug puppies for Jesus,” there’s really no reason for the player to act in a way so as not to get that benefit; particularly if the other gameplay consequences are relatively innocuous. While this might make sense from a, “Give them phat lewts to keep them playing view,” it’s harmful to the immersive experience. I have absolutely no reason to engage with the story, or to consider the choices and their consequences, if the only reason I am making certain choices is to receive an immediately tangible benefit. If anything it should be something akin to the other way around. If I choose to embrace the power of blood magic because it will let me kick some ass, yet everyone in the world thinks blood magic is evil, that’s something I’m going to have to deal with even if all my other decisions have involved hugging puppies for Jesus. Would that likely alienate some players? Sure, but someone’s likely to disagree with the decision no matter what you choose.

I suspect that part of the problem is that much of the material that games draw their inspiration from, be that films, literature, or other (successful) games, is that so many of them fall into the trap of hugging puppies for Jesus and killing puppies for Satan. Addressing this issue is going to involve a lot of thinking, and a lot of work. It will also likely mean drawing on the services of people who are knowledge and experienced with ethics and considering ethical issues (why yes, that is me blatantly stating that I’m a good candidate, thank you for noticing). It’s going to involve rethinking some design principles, and working with programmers so that these rethought principles can be brought to (virtual) life. I for one think it’s a worthwhile task, but then again I do have an agenda; I freely admit that I’m for engaging people philosophically through “unconventional” methods, that’s one of the purposes of this blog, after all.

However, I think the effort would be worth the reward, both for the video game industry, and for the consumers of said industry’s products. (Also, since Marvel still hasn’t hired me to write Deadpool I could use the work.)

*I will confess to stealing the phrase from the title of Lumpley Games’ rpg Kill Puppies for Satan (An Unfunny Roleplaying Game).


Posted by on August 4, 2011 in Philosophy, Pop Culture


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