Torill Mortensen

Torill Elvira Mortensen is an associate professor at IT-University of Copenhagen. She has studied games since 1995, and writes mainly on game content and culture. Her work includes articles on multi-user games and player strategies as well as hedonism, utilitarianism and player ethics. Mortensen has been a board member of DiGRA and is a board member of the game-sig of ECREA and Norwegian Lotteries (Norsk Tipping.)

Forever a moral subject

by Torill Mortensen

With the book The Ethics of Computer Games Miguel Sicart, assistant professor at the IT University of Copenhagen, positions games firmly as a subject for classical studies. By taking on the philosophy of ethics and morals, he writes games into a range of scholarship as old as the oldest academic discourses passed down to us. To position a new and so very playful medium into the philosophy of ethics is a bold stroke, but in more ways than one a timely and necessary one.

The Ethics of Computer Games consists of 8 chapters over 264 pages. Two chapters are simply the introduction and the conclusions. The other 6 chapters are concerned with game design, the players, the ethics of games, applied ethics in case studies, and unethical game content and the ethics of design. The book is perched between a structuralist view of game ethics through the focus on the ethics of the game and the game design, and a user-centric view through the focus on the player as an ethical subject. In this balance, it tilts towards the ethics of the structure, where ethics is inherent in the rhetoric of the game, in how it communicates or hides intent, and how it manipulates or opens up for manipulation through the choices it makes available to its players. 

Miguel Sicart is firmly embedded in the tradition of game studies that demands that the scholar plays games, and his analysis of the games are enriched and informed by his play. The introduction opens with a deeply felt experience, with a sense of guilt, and an acknowledgement of this guilt. “I am not quite sure how it happened, but I felt guilty. No, no, I was guilty.” This is the first sentence of the book, and it brings us directly into the dilemma discussed in the book, the conflict between whether the game makes the player feel guilty, or whether the player actually is guilty. Can a pretend act make us guilty? And are game acts pretend acts, if they have taken place? By following Sicart in his process of questioning his own acts as a game character, we risk questioning the reality of acts, morality of thought, ethics of game engines. And as Sicart describes his adventure into Deus Ex (Ion Storm Inc 2000) where he discovers that the game may be setting him up, he is used by those in control, and following orders does not make him the good guy, we are led on a meandering path through his thoughts on game structures and how they invite moral choices (p. 1).

Sicart employs a varied and eclectic collection of theoretical viewpoints, perhaps typical of games scholars. The game study community is multi-disciplinary and international, and despite still being fairly small in 2012, it is diverse and heterogenous, something Sicart’s choice of theories show. His choices of theory however emphasize studies of problematic play rather than the philosophy of ethics. The main philosophical theories he brings into in play are the ideas of Aristotle, Badiou, Foucault, Gadamer and Heidegger, with other viewpoints introduced as second-hand sources as far as they are used by the many authors introducing examples of ethical and moral issues involved in sports and play.  While Aristotle can be seen as one of the main influences of all philosophy, also the philosophy of ethics, neither of the others are known for their work on ethics and morals.  These theories are mainly employed in chapter 3, Players as Moral Beings. This means that the main position for linking the book to the tradition of philosophy is the player, even if the player is a limited presence in the book. As a strategy to explore the ethics of the video games, this appears to be indirect and weak, and it begs the question of why Sicart has not engaged with more of the philosophers who look at ethics, for instance Immanuel Kant, particularly as this is a work on play, a central concept in Kant’s philosophy of aesthetics.

This flaw in Sicart’s book is to a certain extent mitigated by two discursive strategies. First, the book keeps talking about the player, and particularly the author as player, through the many examples of moral and ethical dilemmas in the face of gameplay and game structures. Next, Sicart’s options are presented as limited, as he writes about a type of text that has so far not been particularly much explored and questioned within the framework of philosophy. The rhetoric of video games may be under ways to being written and getting explored, but so far there is no previous discussion of the ethics of games, beyond scattered examples with a more normative and layman understanding of games.

This layman’s understanding of the topic is however also clearly represented in chapter 6, “Unethical Computer Games”. Where chapter 2, “Computer Games as Designed Ethical Systems”, introduces a sophisticated discussion of the structural demands, expectations and restrictions of a game, and how this can be read as ethical, chapter 6 offers the more immediately and commonly accessible topic of unethical content. By referring to the debates that have started as a result of several instances of extremely bad decisions around game fictions, Sicart shows how certain types of content elicits very strong reactions from the general public. 

In this discussion Sicart sides with the commonplace moral judgement of games, and agrees that games with what at first glance appears to be unethical content is a bad thing, as it devaluates the value of games as means of expression (p. 198-199). Here he turns to a strongly normative language, claiming a direction for computer game design where the designers need to take on the responsibility of “ethical maturity”. This is a demand that is weakened and rendered problematic in the view of the already weak discussion of what ethics are, as the framework of this demand does not give us, the readers, a sufficiently strong understanding of  ethics to understand fully what is meant with ethical maturity.

This chapter is, in the reviewer’s opinion, the weakest chapter, and the weakness runs through all its different arguments. Here the lack of a strong exposition of the concepts ethics and morals, with a solid grounding in the philosophy of ethics – which Sicart to his defense is aware of and mentions in his introduction – becomes evident. His discussion of “effect studies” is general and fraught with sweeping statements about a field that is much larger than the specialised studies of games and violence apparent in his list of literature. Sicart’s view of effect studies expresses most of all a common frustration among the game scholar community with the way a number of strongly biased and often weakly developed studies have gained a powerful foothold in the public discussions around computer games. The best part of the chapter comes out of his strong insistence that the player needs to be treated as an ethical and moral subject, a human being able to make distinctions and decisions: not, as he writes as “moral zombies, unable to critically reflect on what they do inside or outside the game.” (p. 201).

The most novel concept through the book is the idea of ethical vs unethical design. Considering Miguel Sicart’s strong connection to game structuralists such as Aarseth, Juul, Bogost and Frasca, all thanked in his acknowledgements, it is not surprising that this is also the strongest and most developed part. This makes the chapters 2, 4, 5 and 7 the strongest and most coherent chapters in the book. The chapters 2 and 4 are concerned with ethical systems and the ethics of game structures, chapter 5 has a very entertaining and readable progression of case studies, and chapter 7 discusses unethical design. All of these chapters focus on the structure, and how the structure invites and allows, or restricts and forces, moral choices for the player. 

Sicart ties the ethics of computer games strongly to the structure, and how the structure gives the players agency or not. This does not mean that an ethical computer game automatically is a game where the player has agency, as he distinguishes between closed and open ethical structures. An example of his advice to the designers: “Open ethical games are those in which the ethical reflections of the player goes back into the game system, where the ethical process of development does not stop in the designer’s computers but goes further into the player community (p. 219).” Focusing on the way a game is designed, Sicart discusses whether or not a textual (in the wider understanding of text) structure is ethical, and how it can lead to ethical gameplay.

Sicart’s book has, despite the strong focus on structure, still a firm eye on the player. The structure of the game is a container for the players’ actions, and it gains its ethical or unethical status dependent on how it gives the players agency. The manipulation of player agency appears to be the main point which carries the summaric advice to designers in chapter 7: opened and closed, ethical or unethical systems are defined by player agency, by the degree to which the player can act in the game. 

This focus on the player is clearly expressed in the conclusion, where Sicart underlines that his strongest argument is the need to consider players to be moral beings. This works well with the structure of the book, where the main questions around ethics and the few connections to philosophy that are used well are centered around the player. Even if this is a strongly based on structuralism, it’s also focused on the relationship between the player and the text. By positioning the focus of the ethical discussion there, the book points in a somewhat surprising direction, and exposes yet another field of well-established theory which could have supported Sicart’s argument: it underlines the lack of discussions on reader-response theory in game studies. Sicart discusses the process of meaning-making of the player, but he does so without the support of this already developed framework. This, however, is hardly the fault of Sicart and his text, but rather a result of the immaturity of the field: there are simply not enough hands yet at work typing out scholarly articles to engage with all the theoretical aspects which might have been relevant for the very complex argument he makes.

It is also difficult to ask for an incorporation of literary theory into game studies without facing the game studies manifesto as written by Espen Aarseth in his first editorial to Gamestudies, but this book is an example of how it may be time to start utilising theories of related subjects to the extent they are useful. The arguments Sicart make invite a deeper exploration into the relationship between the player and the game, the reader and the text, and it can also invigorate and renew the theoretical fields to which it is related, by testing, questioning and expanding it into the realm of game-texts.

Ethics of Computer Games is, according to this review, a book that teases the reader. It approaches its topic tentatively and almost timidly, as it does not really dive into ethical theory, but stays within the realm of the game, coupling a to a large extent common-sense understanding of ethics with a strong investment in the position of the player. In this manner it leaves the reader wanting, hoping for a thicker description of the gamers’ experiences, a more involved exposition of relevant theory. At the same time it makes bold normative statements, and shows no fear of pointing out how, according to Sicart, a game should be designed, or what kind of ethical decisions are right and wrong.

While this means the book is uneven to the point of having obviously weak patches, it still has a value as a starting point for a series of interesting discussions. This is a book that is quite likely to be used, referred to, cited and argued against for a long time to come. Miguel Sicart has written what at the moment is the book on computer game ethics, and the book is both interesting and valuable, based on this alone. It helps that it’s easily accessible, has lots of lovely examples, and leaves you feeling you “get” this philosophy stuff. 

In many ways, Sicart’s book is an open design, which leaves a lot of agency to its reader. It leaves you feeling that you have agency, and that you are, in his world, a moral subject.


References

Ion Storm Inc. (2000): Deus Ex. Eidos Interactive.

Aarseth, Espen (2001): “Computer Game Studies, Year One”, in Espen Aarseth (ed): Game Studies, vol. 1., issue 1. At http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/editorial.html



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