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Gaming Ontology (Can Games be Art?)

Yesterday Youtuber JennieBharaj posted a video asking the question, “Are video games art?”. I’ll confess that the only thing I know about Bharaj is that her musings are more popular than mine… which isn’t exactly difficult to achieve (insert self-deprecating smiley here). Fortunately, I don’t need to be familiar with ouvre for her to pop up in my Twitter feed, and the video in question deals with a subject that falls pretty firmly into my magisterium. Asking “Is X a Y,” an awkward way of expressing, “Is this particular thing part of this larger category, such as in this case do video games deserve to be classified into the broader realm of ‘Art’?”, is an example of an ontological problem. Even seemingly simple ontological problems, like what does or does not make a thing geeky or qualifies someone to be a geek… they don’t tend to stay simple for very long. For sake of completeness, I should also confess that our ontological problem is also an axiological problem – that is, it deals specifically with a question relating to things like values and the idea of beauty (aesthetics). Which is a handy thing to know, so while you shouldn’t forget it it needn’t be the foremost thing in mind as we move forward.

I hadn’t intended to write this post, but after a sleepless night watching Wrong Turn 5 and Phantom Racer, I’m ready to get it on.

Before I dive into the thing itself, it might behoove ask to take a moment and ask if video games qua art matters as such? I mean, what fucking difference does it make, yo? First, there’s the “prestige” that comes with being classified as art; after all, if these games are instantiations of art then they’re not some frivolous pastime or childish endeavor but are srs bsns worthy of respect and admiration. Doubly so if they can be considered “high” art, rather than being relegated to the “low” art ghetto of pop culture (another one of those pesky ontological distinctions). Alas, wanting bragging rights, or avoiding a sense of “shame” is hardly worthy grounds for making an ontological decision.

With that in mind, let’s start taking a look at the pro and con arguments as presented by Bharaj.

Starting off in the pros category, we’re told that video games are made up of elements which are considered forms of art in and of themselves, thus is games are made up of artistic elements they must be art, yes? This is… it’s not a good pro to start from, because this line of reasoning is what we might kindly (okay, not so kindly) term utter bullshit. This is pretty much a textbook example of a variation on what is commonly called the genetic fallacy; insisting that because a part of the whole is (or contains) X, then the sum total is of course X. While I might be made up of my cells, that does not mean that all the qualities of my cells are qualities possessed by me in toto. Bharaj herself even gives an example of this (perhaps unknowingly) when she mentions plays. Theatre is generally considered to be a performing art (different from performance art). Having been involved in different capacities in various productions, I’m well acquainted with the amount of work involved in putting on a show. Much of that work, such as lighting, sound, and costume design, demands both technical proficiency and aesthetic judgement. These are not easy tasks, and yet it is rare for these things to be considered art qua art in and of themselves; they are simply work products, much like individual brush strokes in an overall painting, that go toward the creation of art qua theatre. While this can, and has been debated, it’s an example of an established artform that is considered only in and of itself.

So if video games are to be considered qua art, we must consider them on the result themselves.

As to her next point, corporations are also legally considered as persons. Relying on the legal definition of what is or is not art isn’t particularly helpful, particularly when we bear in mind the court’s history with obscenity cases. This legal standing is useful to determine if a game designer should be arrested for using the word cocksucker in a game (see the sad, strange life of Lenny Bruce), or if store owners should be arrested for carrying it (look up the saga surrounding Ginsberg’s “Howl”). When it comes to answering ontological and axiological questions, legal definitions of what is or is not are are significantly less useful.

What does it mean when we say that one game is more “artistic” than another? If we’re asking the question of whether or not games are art qua art (versus games qua entertainment or pop culture, for example) to begin with, how is this even a meaningful question? Is “artiness” a spectrum along which something is more or less art? Generally, what we’re doing when we ask these kinds of questions or make these kind of statements is referring to gradients of technical or aesthetic quality. Yet when we do so we are often ignoring both context and content. For example, Michelangelo’s (we’ll touch on him again in a minute) Pieta is often considered the exemplar by which all other pieta pieces are measured. It’s hard to deny that the Big M’s Pieta is a beautifully rendered piece, particularly when compared to something like the Roettgen pieta. Of course the Roettgen piece was done during a time period not long after the reintroduction of fully three-dimensional sculpture to northern Europe (an event generally considered to be marked by the creation of the Golden Virgin of Essen). The unknown artist responsible for the Roettgen piece simply did not have the same amount of technical training that Michelangelo and other Renaissance artists did. Moreover, the unknown artist was producing the piece during a time when artists as such, that is to say a distinct class of person whose profession was to produce objects of art, existed. Does this make the Roettgen piece less a work of art? Does it mean we should interpret it differently because it focuses on suffering as such? While various scholars have done both, in doing so they ignore both the historical identity of the myth of the artist, as well as viewing the Roettgen piece in the larger context of images focused on Mary and the Christ-figure.

In short, that some games might be technically or aesthetically advanced than others, or we might find them impressively done, is again not enough to make a determination of whether they are art in and of themselves.

So, now we get to Chris Crawford insisting that since video games are meant for entertainment, and as a product for sale, rather than as an expression of and exploration of beauty, they can’t be art in and of themselves. As the wonderful ladies of Girls Gone Geek discovered in 2012, this is one of those points on which I will nick Professor Elemental’s fighting trousers and go to town.

That Michelangelo guy I mentioned above? He didn’t paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for free. Big M was all about making that paper. So much so that he was one of the most prolific hype-men of his day. The story about how he was so dedicated to painting aforementioned chapel that paint dripped into his eyes and partially blinded him? A lot of people think that story originated with Big M himself to make him seem more badass, and thus ultimately demand higher prices from his patrons and a larger place in the myth of the artist. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that in and of itself (as while it might mean the Big M was a bit of a dick as a dude, it doesn’t make him less an artist). More than once, Alan Moore has stated that what really started him writing for a living was the fact that his wife was knocked up and he needed to get off the dole. Molly Crabapple, whose work often explicitly critiques capitalist systems and structures makes money from that same work.

We really, really, really, really, really need to get rid of this masturbatory, dilettante fantasy that art for art’s sake, and wanting to make money from one’s work sit across an ontological divide and never the twain shall meet. Many of the greatest works of art were created solely based on a profit motive, and that does not a damn thing to decrease their status as art. So sure, we can side with Crawford et. al. provided we’re willing to ignore the entire history of art from at least the Renaissance forward.

Aw, shit, Ebert and authorial intent. This one is so flawed that I’m not even sure where to begin. Yes, authors and creators often have a vision in mind. Yet like combat, these plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy. The themes and meanings behind any number of famous works of film and literature have been endlessly debated. Often the resulting interpretations are widely at odds with what the original author intended. When we have evidence to suggest otherwise we can state that these interpretations are wrong, and yet that these wrong interpretations have been drawn does nothing to diminish the status of the original work as art.

When it comes to the idea of interactivity, things get even trickier. I’ve talked more than once about how the idea that we passively consume media is simply wrong. We do not consume so much as we engage with art. Even if we conceive of ourselves as passive viewers, are neurons are going pew pew and whooga whooga. These are the actual noises that neurons make – I have proven this with science. Even if it were true that we are merely passive consumers of art, there are multiple examples of art that is specifically meant to be interacted with.

Yet this idea of interactivity is an important, even crucial one. I’ve talked before about how the act of game design is essentially an act of artificial metaphysics. While my primary focus in that post was tabletop roleplaying games, the same is as, if not more true for video games. Even the simplest platformer has metaphysical conditions – miss a jump, fall down a pit and die. Some games try to get fancy and introduce messy morality systems. Just as I said there, much of the problem is that when we engage with a video game what we are truly engaging with is the operant conditions of the game; our behavior and engagement with the game are ultimately controlled by the nature of the game’s coded metaphysics in the form of rules. While the art and music of the game are all part of that experience, in most cases they are there not as the main event in and of themselves, but as supporting mechanism by which to present the game qua game.

Thus when we are considering the question of video games qua art, I find that it is with this experience of game qua game that should be the focus of any such discussion. Even the most immersive visuals and captivating storytelling are only there to make us want to engage with this central element. Can that engagement be experienced as an engagement with art, or are we always so focused on the bounding rules and conditions that make the game a game for it to bridge the ontological gap in which game makes sweet, sweet consensual love to art?

So before asking if video games are art, we need to struggle with asking the question if there’s even the possibility that they can be, or if the essential nature of being a game inhibits the possibility of art.

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Posted by on October 4, 2014 in Geekery, Philosophy, Pop Culture

 

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On Fandom and Ethical Responsibility

I made a mistake today, internet – I read a thread on a forum, all 300+ posts of it. In this particular thread, some entitled manchildren were chittering their outrage over the fact that responses to “GamerGate” have painted gamers with an overly broad brush; moreover, they were offended that so many individuals seemed to be endorsing a “You’re with us or against us mentality,” and the shouting was just alienating them.

I’m not sure these people are worth caring about, and I say that specifically as someone who has previously discussed the existential absolutism of Alan Moore’s V. I’m also the same person who specifically examined the moral dilemmas raised by popular, reactionary activism as well as the underpinnings of existential responsibility on a social scale. I’ve also made it clear that on a personal level I have zero problems with drawing a line in the sand. I’d link to my track record of criticizing fanboys, but then I’d be here all day adding links.

As much as moral absolutism might raise troubling questions, I have problems giving a single fuck about people who feel that the criticisms of a fandom have unfairly victimized them. Because geekery has always been a rather cesspooly place to be; the internet has only made that more immediately visible, and attempts to change that have all-to-often resulted in pushback not only from the frantically masturbating fanboys, but from the creators behind them (the issue of Spider-Woman’s posterior on a cover being a recent one that springs immediately to mind).

I’m sure some of these people taking offense are perfectly good people in some respects – perhaps they do indeed find racism and sexism objectionable. Yet by taking umbrage because they’re accused of “not doing enough,” or because they think they can remain uninvolved, they are engaging in various degrees of moral cowardice, an accusation I have exactly zero problems making.

When it comes to culture, there is no neutral position. None. Zip. Zero. A bagel. Culture is not something we are simply passive consumers of, but something that we all have a hand in creating. So when your policy is to choose to not be involved, you are actively making the choice to allow the existing culture to continue. You can whine all you want, but that makes it no less true. Of course, there’s always that old chestnut, “Should I not engage in things I like just because they’re problematic?”. We can of course choose to ignore the fact that these things are problematic, or we can be somewhat less shitbaggy and admit that even though we enjoy them these things are indeed problematic.

We can also make the choice to not engage with these things whether or not we enjoy them because of their problematic nature. There are games, books, comics, etc. that I pass on either because I find their nature problematic in and of itself; or perhaps like the work of Card, Miller, or Goodkind the work is simply a mouthpiece for the creator’s infantile views; or because I simply find the creator, be it an individual, company, or even someone involved, to be so reprehensible that I won’t support the project, and thus given the impression that I would support future projects (Tom Cruise movies being a case in point – I find Scientology even more reprehensible than the Randian wankfest that is libertarianism, and his status as an actor has enabled him to serve as its face). I find the idea that we should avoid moral decisions that might in some way be detrimental to us to be a baffling one. If your values hinge on the condition that you never be negatively impacted as a result of holding them… saying that I am unimpressed is an understatement of near-infinite proportions.

There are people I like, and who I not only don’t think are bad people, but are people who actively speak up against injustice that I don’t associate with as often as I once did, or at times would like to, because my association with them is largely prefigured around mutual “geeky” interests; thus my interactions with them involve stepping into cultural milieus that I am increasingly uncomfortable with being an active part in. I don’t limit that to simply denying myself the products of fandom. I’ve lost friends because I’ve pointed out that I find someone’s  course of action morally objectionable. I wound up homeless for a while because I wasn’t willing to subject myself to a situation and persons I found morally objectionable.  Thus I’m willing to walk the walk, even when doing so has cost me in not-insignificant ways.

So when there are people out there taking the brunt and being shit on because they’re not male, not white, not straight, or whatever other factor and they dared to have an opinion about fandom or the products of its adulation, I’m going to give zero fucks about your bruised feels and desire to curl up in your fortress of solitude and not hear about it. Does this mean that each and every person must of necessity be out there on the “front lines.” No, there are perfectly good reasons for not doing so, though as I’ve pointed out “neutrality” isn’t one of them.

There are no isolated ethical actors, and there are no isolated ethical actions. Choosing not to be involved is an action, and it is the action of a coward. So if you want to get offended because you didn’t like someone’s tone, or thought they were shouting too loud, or are made uncomfortable because they’ve forced you to confront your morally bankrupt cowardice you are worth giving exactly zero fucks about, because you are not simply tacitly endorsing, but are actively creating the culture that you (might) claim to find objectionable.

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2014 in Activism, Geekery, Philosophy, Pop Culture

 

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Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut not Worth the Price of Admission (and it’s Free).

Last week I got the urge to replay the first two games in the Mass Effect series. While looking something up in relation to those earlier games I noticed that the new downloadable content for Mass Effect 3, in this case a pack that was supposed to modify the endings, was slated to drop 6/26/12, which fell beyond the date I would be finished with the second game, but would be right in the middle of where I would be if I went ahead and started the third game.

I have talked before about my disappointment with the ending of Mass Effect 3Had I not already been playing the earlier games I likely would have avoided the Extended Cut pack entirely, but as it wasn’t I didn’t see any particular reason not to go ahead and give it a try.

Honestly, I should have just given in and watched the changes on YouTube. I’m going to use bold letters for this part, because I am feeling very emphatic; not only does the Extend Cut not address a single of the problems I had with the game’s ending, but it doesn’t even do what it claims it sets out to do.

My primary problem with the ending of Mass Effect 3 was never lack of “closure”; it was lack of a coherent, well-written endgame. Rather than feeling as if any of the choices I’ve made have mattered, as if the hours I put in collecting war resources and getting my readiness up to 100% (and don’t get me started on how it fell to 99% when I had to restart due to a crash), I still get magical AI/god/Reaper-collective-consciousness boy, who feeds me a little song and dance before giving me three choices (after, of course, facing down the Illusive Man and still not having enough Paragon points for the final dialogue option even after doing all kinds of Paragon shit). That, far more than the predictably ambiguous scene which implies that Joker and Edi are about to become the dysfunctional parents of a future race of technorganic beings, is why the ending of the game falls utterly flat.

But let us set that aside for a moment, and talk about closure, and making players feel like the choices they made throughout their Mass Effect experience matter. This, rather than the poor writing of the endgame, were the issues that Bioware claimed they were addressing with this content pack. As I said above, they fail to accomplish either of these goals. Rather than being given information that might have been both interesting and personal to my experience, such as what happens to Tali? How does having left Wrex alive and curing the genophage affect the galaxy? What about Garrus? The Virmire Survivor? What about the Rachni (whom I spared for the second time)? No, the updated endings don’t bother to address any of the specifics of my gameplay experience; instead, I got some narration accompanied by static images telling me that I have brought about technorganic synthesis at the cost of my own life, and in doing so ushered in a new golden age. Sure, some of the static shots show the characters I traveled with or interacted with along the way, but as I said, nothing truly reflective of my experience of the game beyond which of the final three options was chosen. Not to mention that there’s nothing in the “hidden” post-credit scene that at all explains how what is happening there is in any way linked to either the gameplay that has gone before, or the ending that I chose.

The Extended Cut content pack for Mass Effect 3 might be free (at least until next year), but it isn’t worth the cost of admission. It does nothing to address the actual problems with the game’s ending, and goes so far as to not only fail to accomplish its stated goals, but in giving me a canned response unrepresentative of my gameplay experience manages to leave me feeling further alienated and dissatisfied with the way the series ended as a result.

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2012 in Pop Culture

 

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Weighing in on Mass Effect’s Event Horizon

I don’t post much these days. In part that’s because I have very little to say that is directly relevant to the reason I started this blog. My comic reading has been declining for a while now, and once I finally got around to reading Marvel’s Fear Itself the decline took a sudden, sharp increase. I’ll be honest: Fear Itself was terrible. Certainly there were individual issues that were good (watching Squirrel Girl out kung fu Wolverine being a moment I was particularly fond of) when taken as an aggregate, as an entire narrative arc, dare I say it when viewed as an “event” it was not worth the time it took to read. It was Fear Itself that forced me to unambiguously confront the static nature of mainstream comics; the ways in which they simply recycle what has gone before with what I suspect Terry Pratchett would unflatteringly call a “newish” coat of paint.

Whether or not you agree with Alan Moore that the industry has been locked in a paradigm largely defined by what he did with Watchmen there’s no real innovation in comics. While narrative might have grown more mature in certain senses, and not simply in the “let’s add more blood and tits” sense, the superhero genre has not grown. Unfortunately with the superhero genre largely being defined by the “Big Two” this means that even non-mainstream comics suffer from this problem, since as has always been the case in so many other ways Marvel and DC are where many of the indie crew takes their cues from. It makes a certain kind of sense to follow the conventions that have worked for the successful companies, right? (Note I said it makes a certain kind of sense – I never said it was a good kind of sense).

Regardless, this was not a realization I was terribly comfortable with addressing directly, rather that the oblique fashion I had always approached it with in the past. I like superhero comics. I think great things can be done within the genre while still using the conventions of that genre (while still allowing us to twist and break those conventions as we please). Yet I increasingly have no desire to read superhero comics… because there’s only so much of the same shit, different day I can stomach.

Not that I’m here to talk about Fear Itself, or even comics – this is all just my way of thinking out loud, as well as providing a spoiler buffer for those who might find the link via a source that includes a portion of the post’s text. Which means it is time for the awkward segue into a post I hadn’t planned on writing; however, with Bioware’s Dr. Ray Muzyka posting a statement about Mass Effect 3 and the way people have been responding to its ending, I decided to set aside all the reasons which had made me not write this, and write it anyway.

I have invested a great many hours into playing the games that make up the Mass Effect trilogy. According to Steam I’ve invested ~91 hours to the first game, ~117 hours to the second, and I would guess ~40 into the third. If we add all that up and divide by 24 we wind up with ~10.3 (that’s a repeating 3, if you’re feeling the need to be precise). That means I have spent roughly 10 and 1/3 days of my life playing a Mass Effect game, and that doesn’t even count the time I spent reading things that were in some way related to the game (news articles, wiki entries, character class guides etc.).

If we look at all the days of our lives, 10 1/3 isn’t so much, is it? Should we total the hours, we will spend far more of our lives than that asleep, or in voiding our bowels. Yet when compared to the average videogame experience, some of which I’ve spent over 100 hours with, others which have been completed in 6 – 8 (and a few in less than that), 10.3 days of my life is a rather heavy investment of time and energy.

That I spent so much time with these games suggests that I have derived an above-average amount of enjoyment from them. This is not to say that I think they have been perfect games. I have talked before about the ways in which I think the Paragon/Renegade system, and the overly-obvious way that system was implemented in dialogue simply reinforces an archaic “kill puppies for Satan/hug puppies for Jesus” morality system. While I like the character of Thane Krios overall, I find the dualism he articulates to be so weak that a first year undergraduate could destroy it without breaking a sweat, and EDI’s comments about what constitutes the transhuman condition to be very ill-defined. Certainly I appreciated that on the whole Mass Effect was willing to touch on philosophical issues, but I tended to be disappointed that they tended to do so in ways that were both blunt (often clumsily so) and watered down. While playing the second game my fingers were reduced to bloody nubs, and my mouth became a font which spewed nothing but profanity more than once during the course of Garrus’ recruitment mission.

While I consider all of these valid critiques, and they were all things that to one degree or another detracted from my play experience, none of them was significant enough either on their own, or when taken as an aggregate, to spoil that experience.

For all those hours invested in these game, for all the enjoyment I derived from the playing of them, the ending of Mass Effect 3 was an utter disappointment. There is no other way to put it. It was poorly explained, did not sensibly follow from what had come before it, and in all respects was a textbook example of poor writing. In short, the ending of the game was simply not up to par with the overall quality of the series, and when viewed as the crowning moment of the experience that is Mass Effect left me bitterly disappointed. While I do think the vehemence of some of the backlash has been unwarranted, simply dismissing it as fanboy entitlement, or claiming that people shouldn’t be upset because it is just a game are, as far as excuses go, complete and utter bullshit. I’ve talked before about the ways in which our capacity for empathy can be engaged by things which are not at all real in the classic sense of real (as well as here, though the focus in this case is dreams, rather than fiction). In a very real sense, and in a way that has absolutely nothing to do with being unable to distinguish reality from fantasy, these games, and the characters contained within, become real for us. While they might not exist, they affect and influence us in ways which have meaning.

I also quite strongly disagree with the idea that Mass Effect 3‘s position as being the last of a trilogy, and thus being in certain respect an ending in and of itself, somehow obviates the installment from conditions we might otherwise expect it to have. I’m afraid that is simply not the case, and the reason it is not the case is by its nature as an installment. While the underlying condition of a trilogy is indeed that each portion is part of an overarching narrative, they must also each have their own working parts; each unit must, in effect, duplicate the macrocosm on the microcosmic level. To put it in less fanciful terms – if one of the parts is busted the whole damn thing has problems.

I also want to touch on the idea of the artist’s vision being inviolate. That this is the ending the folks at Bioware wanted, and as such we must, by its very nature, respect it. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, such utter horseshit that I am not entirely sure where to begin. First, it presumes that videogames are in fact capable of being art. I remain unconvinced of such claims on the whole. While it might certainly be true that videogames have the potential to become art, and perhaps some have managed to become art, I suspect that nature of games as games might well provide a not-inconsiderable barrier to engaging with the experience as an experience, rather than engaging with the experience within the context of rules and how to achieve the best outcome (a point I have touched on when I discussed the implementation of morality and decision systems in games). However, for the sake of argument I am willing to set aside my doubts, and accept that games can be art. I’m going to tell you a secret: art is changed because of audience demand all the time. In the realm of videogames it happened in relation to Fallout 3‘s ending. Films and television shows use focus groups and early screenings, and reshape their final product based on these focus groups and screenings on a regular basis. Fine artists, including those artists we hold up as being the very incarnations of art, frequently shaped their work based on the desires of their patrons. Art is important. Allowing the artist a degree of autonomy is also important. Art does not, however, exist in a vacuum. Moreover, art is also frequently product, and like any product is going to find itself subject to commercial demands. It may not be pretty, but it’s certainly true.

For the record, I say these things as someone who has absolutely no desire to see a new/revised/expanded ending to Mass Effect 3. I fully went into the game expecting Shep to die. In truth, I expected Shep and/or Shep’s love interest to plunge themselves into the fiery heart of the Crucible, thereby becoming the Catalyst and saving the galaxy. I appreciated this not being the ending, as such an ending would have been predictable and cliche. Which would have made it several orders of magnitude better than the way in which the game did end. Changing the ending, however, even if those changes make the ending better, does not change the fact that I have already experienced the ending – it is now a part of me. I would much rather that it has been done right the first time instead of supporting a petition to lock the door well after the horse has escaped, burned the barn down, made his way to Vegas and spent all my money on hookers. My point is not simply to log my own discontent with the ending, but to stand counter to those who feel that we should neither feel discontent, nor should we voice it. I will, however, say that you should voice it without being a dick… a point which I will freely admit many people have failed on.

Overall, my experience with Mass Effect was an enjoyable one. It was a worthwhile journey. The destination, however, was not worth that journey; so much so that I remain unsure that I will make the journey a subsequent time with other characters.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2012 in Geekery, Philosophy, Pop Culture

 

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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).

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

 

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A Philosopher and a Witcher… in Spaaaaaaaaace

Last week was a maggot-ridden pile of shit. I’m not going to go into particular details as to why. To try and  blow off some steam I’ve spent the past few days finally playing The Witcher. Yes, I tend to be well behind the times when it comes to these things. As a result of playing The Witcher I started thinking about Macross Frontier. I realize it’s a bit of a mental leap from Polish dark fantasy to Japanese roboplanes in space, right? Or maybe not. In this case the opening notes of the song to the opening cinematic, and notes which pop up in a few other places, strongly reminded me of the opening notes to the song “Aimo” which is a recurring theme over the course of Macross Frontier.

I developed a love for outer space at a young age. I suspect that I’m not particularly alone in either this or my love for giant robots, eh? So while I don’t keep up with all the cutting edge journals and whatnot, I do try to keep an eye on what’s going on out there in the universe. So when I find out about things like extremeophile bacteria here on Earth that are looking like they can substitute arsenic for phosphorus in their DNA, or the idea that there are potentially exploitable hydrocarbons on Titan I get pretty excited.

Of course I’ve spent too much time reading philosophers, so I can’t just leave it at “Damn, we might one day be able to send our shit out to Titan, and solve our energy crisis for at least a few years.” No, I have to go and ask pesky questions about whether or not doing so is the right thing to do.  Of course when I do that I start to realize that when you get right down to it most classical theories of ethics are full of so much shit it isn’t funny.

Unfortunately I don’t have the space to do an indepth critique to show you why these theories are problematic. For that matter last time I did a fairly surface analysis it still took a few thousand words. So I’m going to jump right in, and tell you that the problem with most classic conceptions of ethics is that they take as part of their foundation the idea of the autonomous ethical actor, and autonomy in general. That’s just a fancy way of saying that the classic Western view has, in general, figured us as complete beings in and of ourselves; as such our ethical decisions also originate from within ourselves. Presuming, of course, that one is capable of being an ethical actor. According to Aristotle, to use one example, if you have a vag then you’re not capable of rationality, and therefore are not an ethical actor. Rationality has, in general, been the driving force behind how one reaches ethical decisions, so even when you’re not dealing with a philosopher who disqualifies you because you’re an innie instead of an outie your dog, or a rock aren’t ethical actors.

We of course live in a world which is filled not only with other people, but with dogs and rocks. Our decisions affect those people, dogs and rocks. Sure, we can try and plan our ethical actions so that the results of them take those people, dogs and rocks into account, but why shouldn’t we consider them as a factor in the thinking as well as the doing. More to the point, why shouldn’t we place just as much importance on them in our decision making as we do on “rational” humans. This is what intersubjectivity, which I’ve touched on before, is. It’s simply an acknowledgment that we are not alone in this world; we are not isolated actors, ethical or otherwise (of course the existentialist might well argue that all our actions are in a very real sense an ethical/normative action, but that’s a discussion for another time).

Of course this is where shit starts getting tricky, and we can wind up without real answers. I mean does this mean that we shouldn’t eat animals, make use of natural resources, or even move for fear that we might harm bacteria and/or insects and upset the balance of the intersubjective world. Well… no. I’m perfectly fine with eating animals, though I do happen to think that our methods of food production need some pretty serious overhaul (and no, I don’t think “organic” farming is in the same neighborhood as the most practical and ethical answer). I’m wearing clothes, living in a house, and using technology; so on some level I am obviously okay with the extraction and use of resources, but again I think we need to do some serious thinking about these things and our engagement with them. As much as some people hate to hear it this is another one of those times where it’s as important to have the questions as it is to arrive at an indisputable answers, because it’s the process of questioning that helps make us better people.

Which, in a roundabout way, leads me back to The Witcher. One of the things I like about it is that it broke from the tradition of having a “morality” system that more or less has “hug puppies for Jesus” and “kill puppies for Satan” as its two poles, and with those events which influence that morality rating not only standing out as blatantly obvious, but as playing out as largely isolated factors. Sure, they might affect your reputation, or dialog options in later parts of the game, but how much impact did they really have. Sure, you killed the monster, or helped the monster kill the villagers, but how did that action then ripple out to affect others? While The Witcher doesn’t impliment this perfectly, and doesn’t do it for all actions; for example, I accidentally killed a guy who was running in panic trying to escape an area I was fighting in – I didn’t even think about it, and had already chopped the shit out of him before I realized he wasn’t one of the bad guys. While that is a fairly major oversight, what is in effect, with the scenes that demonstrate how your choices have had an effect not only on the direct story of Geralt of Rivia, but on other persons and things, is, as I said, a step up from the old way of doing things.

In the end it doesn’t matter if there’s life out in space, though it’d be cool if there was, right? It doesn’t matter if there’s life out there, because we are not alone. There’s life right here on Earth. So let’s upgrade that to intelligent life, and quit behaving as if we’re all somehow magically isolated, ethically and otherwise, from the world around us.

 

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2011 in Philosophy, Pop Culture

 

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Of Dickwolves and Arcades That Cost but a Penny

I really should be getting work done right now, but as with various other topics that have popped up on here today’s Twitter feed has me distracted. That distracted has reached a point where it must be vomited forth from my brain or I’m not going to get anything done. In this case that distraction has to do with the “dickwolves” strip that Penny Arcade did back in August. For those of you that don’t know, the comic in question can be found here: The Sixth Slave. The comic mentions rape. For those of you that don’t want to read it the comic basically deals with a videogame hero who is on a quest to rescue five slaves. A sixth slave begs the hero to take him with him, and among the horrors he describes enduring is being  raped to sleep by dickwolves on a nightly basis. This strip made a lot of people, people who felt like Penny Arcade was trivializing rape and rape culture, rather angry. In their next strip Mike and Jerry (the people behind the characters of Gabe and Tycho) released an “apology” done in their usual caustic style; they also, at a later date, released a “Penny Arcade Dickwolves” T-Shirt. Both the follow-up strip, and the T-Shirt were also upsetting to various individuals.

I’ve read a fair bit of what’s been posted about and around this issue. If you’re interested for yourselves there’s a Debacle Timeline and over here a blogger and rape survivor who works in the industry talks about her response.

I’ll be honest: when I first read the joke I did not read it as a rape joke. That’s not to say I didn’t read it as a joke involving rape, but that I did not regard it as a joke about rape.I read it as a joke about the way videogame quests, particularly MMO quests, are structured, and the way in which once you’ve accomplished the immediate goals the problem is “solved,” even when the problem obviously still exists.

Had I read it as a rape joke I suspect my reaction would not have been as blase as it was. I’ve known at least four women who admitted to being raped, and I’m aware that it is entirely possible, even likely that other women I have known have been raped or sexually assaulted in some way and I just don’t know about it. Two of my philosophical mentors are women, and while I don’t always agree with them (and sometimes go out of my way to bust their chops because that’s just how I do) I respect them both a great deal.

I don’t think rape is funny. Quite honestly I find it, like slavery, to be significantly more abhorrent than murder in that I regard it as a type of crime that is intended to infringe upon, and strip away the basic humanity of a person. These are crimes that are as existential as they are physical, and leave victims feeling violated on a fundamental level long after the physical scars have healed. Yet at the same time I have made rape jokes. Generally toward other men, and specifically men who happen to be friends of mine (one caveat being that I did once make a sex trafficking joke in mixed company; it was likely done in poor taste regardless, but was done in a room of people I presumed knew me well enough to know I was just trying to get their goats, as it were). I have said that I was going to make things, or people, my bitch.

Some of these things were said when I was less… self-reflective than I am now, but in truth some of them were said well after. I didn’t mean any harm by them, and it certainly wasn’t my intention to perpetrate rape culture or opression in general. It’s just the way we talk, right? Except that’s part of the problem, innit? It’s one of those things we don’t really reflect on; for that matter, it’s one of those things we don’t even think require reflection. For someone who is more Nietzschean than not that’s a pretty big oversight. Philosophy is a mirror. Right now looking in that mirror I have to confront some things I’d rather not see; the same sort of things I had to confront when reading through George Yancy’s book on race. In particular Yancy poses a hypothetical question about the race of the person you are likely to marry, and the way that most white students answered “white” without even thinking about it. Setting aside the fact that while I’m perfectly okay with committed relationships I will never, ever actually marry, my response to that was basically “Well… fuck.” I asked myself a lot of questions about whether I tended to be more attracted to white women for self-determined aesthetic reason, or because there was some deep seated conditioning in there that had been going unquestioned (or maybe a mix of both). I still can’t provide myself with an answer I find entirely satisfactory.

That said, I still don’t find the original strip particularly offensive. I can certainly see where some folks would have a problem with it, but I think where the issue really becomes problematic is when people started responding to it. If my foul fucking mouth hasn’t clued people in yet, I am not a big believer in maintaining a “G-rated environment.” I also believe that there’s really no way to avoid offending someone, somewhere, and that too often trying to do so simply results in speech that, much like the invisible gardener, is rendered unintelligible. This doesn’t mean you get to be a fuckwad, and when you go out and start telling people who were offended by the strip that kicked this all off that they need to be “raped,” “raped again,” or “raped to death,” you’ve crossed the line from voicing your dissent and trying to articulate a position straight into fuckwadville. When folks like @HoodedMiracle start launching ad hominem attacks about someone’s status as a rape survivor… not only have we come to fuckwadville, but I think we well and fucking truly found ourselves a prime candidate for mayor.

That said, I have criticism for some of the folks on the other side of the debate as well. Some of your responses have been well reasoned, and even when I do not agree with you I understand and empathize your point of view. However, there are also people who have referred to Mike and Jerry as “rape apologists” and claimed they’re not engaging in ad hominem attacks because it’s true. Still an ad hominem attack, folks. More to the point, this type of issue runs straight into one of the same problems that Yancy runs into. Sometimes you need to call people out, right? However, sometimes when you straight up call people out you’re not going to get a positive response. Even if you’re right, people just don’t want to see that kind of shit about themselves. Privilege does play a role in it, but even placing privilege aside we’re not really that reflective by nature, and most of us don’t really want to consider that we might be bad people, or even if not bad people as such, that we are doing bad things. That’s one of the reasons I right this blog, eh? I would like people to be more self-reflective, and to live their lives in a philosophically engaged fashion.

Ultimately, I do think Mike has not really handled this situation in the best way possible. I would like to assume good faith, based on things both Mike and Jerry have said over the years on various topic. I would like to think that some of how this situation has been responded to is a guy who has admitted to suffering from a pretty severe anxiety disorder trying to handle the situation, and that some of the comments he has made recently are a result of frustration. Which doesn’t get him entirely off the hook entirely, but it makes things more understandable. It also doesn’t let him off the hook for not speaking up more, and putting his foot on the neck of some of the assholes decided to move into fuckwadville. Yes, I know that in at least one case he did do exactly that, but one visible case isn’t really enough. The one thing I think absolutely must not be done in these kind of situations (other than not going to fuckwadville, obviously) is trying to shut down dialogue. I know how absofuckinglutely frustrating it can be to try and have a productive dialogue when it seems like the other side wants to do the exact opposite. The problem is, when we don’t have that dialogue no one on either side of any issue has an opportunity to learn anything; sometimes it’s less about right or wrong, and more about trying to have an ounce of fucking understanding. Understanding and empathy are pretty important things. We’re not autonomous actors, but are all bound together in a web of intersubjectivity.

I feel like I’ve already said too much, and yet feel like I haven’t said enough. I feel like there’s the opportunity for some important shit to be said here, while feeling that we’re doing more talking at each other than talking to each other.

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2011 in Comics, Philosophy

 

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