Maxime Deslongchamps-Gagnon

Maxime Deslongchamps-Gagnon is a PhD student in the Department of Art History and Film Studies at the University of Montréal. His research focuses on moral emotions in videogames. He is interested in player’s moral engagement, the ethic of emotions, and the role of cognition and play in moral emotions.

Structuring, Communicating, and Engaging Values in Games

by Maxime Deslongchamps-Gagnon

Let's face it, our opinions and behaviours are not always in conformity with our values. Occasionally, we ignore people in need, we lie, we waste, even if, ironically, we believe in the cause and merit of generosity, honesty, or environmentalism. However, in any project, especially in the production of games, the occasion for calculating every single decision and its possible outcomes arises, ensuring that our creative process can be critical and consistent with the ideals to which we aspire. This opportunity is rarely seized by the game industry and game designers, and sometimes even brushed aside by the gaming community. Haven't we all heard or read "it's just a game" at one point or another? In a context where games are still trivialized to escape one's own responsibility, Mary Flanagan and Helen Nissembaum's book Values at Play in Digital Games (2014) happens to confront this kind of excuses, defending the expressive potential and sociomoral scope of games.

Intended to be more practical than theoretical, Values at Play in Digital Games aims to exemplify how games can contained ethical and political values in their structure and to explain how the designer can locate and manipulate these values. Throughout chapters, the argumentation is mainly supported by analyses from a design point of view that show the variety of sources through which beliefs and ideals can be introduced in games, whether they are formal, technological or social, whether they come under undeliberated choices, or whether they are influenced by external actors (from players' appreciative comments to companies' financial interests). The book includes short essays on the history of values in videogame hardware (Kyle Rentschler) and in board games (Celia Pearce), as well as personal accounts from designers and researchers on the integration of values in games, both in educational (Karen Schrier and Tracy Fullerton) and industrial (Frank Lantz) contexts.

Values at Play in Digital Games is divided in three parts. The first section, "Understanding Values at Play," provides a thin theoretical framework in which three premises are established: "(1) there are common (not necessarily universal) values; (2) artifacts may embody ethical and political values; and (3) steps taken in design and development have the power to affect the nature of these values" (p. 11). The second premise is the central argument of this part. More than thirty cases are presented in order to illustrate the ways values can emerge from games. Most of those analyses support the semantic architecture proposed by Jonathan Belman in the last chapter of this section. Belman enumerates 15 non-exhaustive game elements composing the semantic architecture (pp. 33-34):

  1. Narrative premise and goals;
  2. Characters;
  3. Actions in game;
  4. Player choice;
  5. Rules for interaction with other players and nonplayable characters;
  6. Rules for interaction with the environment;
  7. Point of view;
  8. Hardware;
  9. Interface;
  10. Game engine and software;
  11. Context of play;
  12. Rewards;
  13. Strategies;
  14. Game maps;
  15. Aesthetics.

The semantic architecture is compared to the syntax of language, in the sense that it is the relation between game elements, just as the combination of words, which generates meaning. For example, a sexualized character (2.) and a third person point of view (7.) that lends itself to voyeurism produce the objectification of the protagonist Lara Croft in Tomb Raider (Core Design, 1996) (pp. 53-54). Values are prone to be created, eliminated or nuanced when one of the game elements is modified.

The last two parts of the book focus on the third premise enunciated earlier ("steps taken in design and development have the power to affect the nature of these values"), and take more the form of a guide for the designer than a presentation of the meaningful capabilities of games. The second part "The Values at Play Heuristic" is dedicated to the process of the construction of in-game values. The author's goal is to provide a heuristic method for designers to reflect their own works critically. This method is separated in a closed loop of three components, each one having its own dedicated chapter: the discovery, the implementation and the verification of values. The first chapter, "Discovery," is dedicated to dispensing practical advice on the ways one can adopt constructive habits throughout the production process in order to evaluate which values the game's design conveys, as well as whether these values comply with the designer's initial intentions. The "Implementation" segment addresses specific problems such as the emergence of discrepancies between opposing values, which require an informed decision to either remove or diminish the conflict. The chapter entitled "Verification" introduces scientific methods similar to those used in effect studies to measure the effective adoption of values among players. With the Values at Play heuristic, the designer should be better equipped to respond to problems related to the in-game system of values.

The third and shortest part, "Values at Play at Work," is intended for instructors who want to teach their students to be conscious of what ideas their design can embody, notably with the help of the brainstorming tool Grow-a-Game (Tiltfactor, 2007). This section also makes room for anecdotes in which the authors share their individual experiences and draw lessons from creating games in the classroom. The authors later take on a more political tone, claiming the need to change our very conception of game in order to integrate its ability to have a crucial social impact, and to make our school curriculums aware of their responsibility in training aspirant designers to be critical.

Throughout the book, Flanagan and Nissembaum refer to a conscientious designer, who progressively becomes a role model for thinking values in games. One major advantage of this conception of a role model is that it is useful to establish standards and to inspire the reader to reach them. The conscientious designer meets the three core premises of the book and is actively looking to problematize their own work. The authors use interesting writing strategies to mention, oftentimes implicitly, the kind of attitude one should have towards their creation. For instance, they adopt a vocabulary which reminds of the habits of localizing ("to look to"; "through careful attention to" (p. 114)) and having in mind ("to consider"; "awareness to" (ibid)) the values arising from gameplay. With the model of the conscientious designer, the reader has a guide of conduct and thought that may shape their own creative process.

Flanagan and Nissembaum succeed in describing clearly thought processes that lead to critical design, but entertain a narrow vision of the purpose of implementing values in games. The authors make no distinction between a game structure that evokes a value without advocating it and a game structure that encourages to adopt a value. Attention is mostly drawn on the promotion of values, such as in the chapter "Verification," in which it is stated that their transmission can be assessed by measuring changes in participants' behaviours, knowledge or attitudes. But why does the main appeal of integrating values in games need to be educative? The conscientious designer should not need to instill values to whomever, and for this reason, insisting on the necessity to measure the effects of gameplay is somewhat reductive. In an article published after Values at Play in Digital Games, Sébastien Genvo ascribes more inclusive aims to what he calls expressive games: "Compared to persuasive games [see Bogost 2007], the aim of expressive games is to have a broader approach of expressiveness. Games can also be used to express views about broader societal problems and foster public debates without aiming at prescribing attitudes" (2016, p. 103). Working around thematic values to stimulate discussions on specific topics seems to be a sufficiently noble objective for the conscientious designer. Expressive games may also be the kind of game they should aspire to create, without denying their responsibility for other values that come from their interventions in production, whether they are intentional or not.

Another problem lies in the uncertain relation between play and the communication of values. What happens to a value once it is introduced in the structure of a game? How does one engage players to it? These questions matter even on a practical level because they have consequences on the way one should design their game. It is stated that the semantic architecture delimits in-game values. To reuse one of the authors' examples (see p. 16), American football is configured in a way that the values of nonviolence and privacy cannot be logically interpreted from the game. Instead, its system of rules produces the values of violence, antagonism, territoriality, cooperation and teamwork. This set of values, within which some of them seem contradictory, is determined by the structure of the game, but their actualization depends "on the context of play and who is playing" (p. 10). Following this relativistic conception of the experience of in-game values, which would have needed further explanations, no principle is established in order to classify the relevance of each unfolded values. American football does certainly not promote equally the five aforementioned values. The semantic architecture undeniably allows the localization of these values in a given structure, but does not permit to assess their respective importance in a given experience, which impacts the authors' arguments.

In order to properly address the problem of establishing relevant or hierarchical values in a game and of players' engagement to these values, we need to look elsewhere. A theory of moral and political emotions adapted to gameplay experience might offer some worthwhile insight, since videogames are hyperaffective experiences and values possess an emotional component. The link between emotion and values has been studied for a long time, especially among axiologist and sentimentalist philosophers. Cognitive theorists consider emotions as judgments of values. Others go further and claim that they give access to moral values (e.g. De Sousa 2001). Analyzing the kind of emotions a game and its characters, goals and events try to elicit might be an interesting way to reveal the values being communicated. Flanagan and Nissenbaum acknowledge that one property of values is their "general importance" (p. 5). In other words, one develops concerns for the respect of the values they possess. Since behind every player's emotion lies a concern (Perron 2016), we should not only seek to understand how videogames can embody values, but also how they transmit their general importance and the issues that they involve, thus provoking specific attitudes and moral emotions. It is because Spec Ops: The Line (Yager Development, 2012) generates concern for civilians and guilt for armed interventions that its critique of war is apparent, and because other first-person shooters elicit a problematic pride, joy or satisfaction for similar actions that they can be blamed for glorifying war. A theory of moral and political emotions is, in that sense, a promising approach to question the actualization or experience of in-game values.

Other avenues of research remain to be explored. Do games have intrinsic values, such as honor or imagination? How to think about games in terms of social consequences without excluding their autotelic virtue? What incompatibilities may occur between certain types of games and certain values? Do competitive games automatically undermine altruistic cooperation? Do management games surrender creativity for the sake of efficiency? Flanagan and Nissenbaum raise some of these questions that need further consideration. Despite the limits of its theoretical framework, Values at Play in Digital Games builds a bridge between the political, the ethical and the design point of views in game studies. It is an obligatory starting point to the construction of a theory of in-game values and to the accountability of the game communities.


Bogost, I. (2007). Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Flanagan, M. & Nissenbaum H. (2014). Values at Play in Digital Game. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

De Sousa, R. (2001). Moral Emotions, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 4(2), pp. 109-126.

Genvo, S. (2016). Defining and Designing Expressive Games: The Case of Keys of a Gamespace, Kinephanos, April 2016, pp. 90-106.

Perron, B. (2016). Emotions in Video Games: Are You Concerned? In B. Perron & F. Schröter (eds.), Video Games and the Mind: Essays in Cognition, Affect, and Emotion, Jefferson, N. Car.: McFarland, pp. 189-209.


Core Design. (1996). Tomb Raider. Eidos.

Tiltfactor. (2007). Grow-a-Game.

Yager Development. (2012). Spec Ops: The Line. 2K Games.

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