Games and Virtue

#1
Hey guys. I’ve been following discussions here and at the old Dinofarm forums for some time, so “long-time listener, first-time caller” and such. I’ve been working through some ideas about games for a good while now, but the going is slow in my own head. It’s often productive to put things in front of other, smarter people, so here I am.

By way of introduction: I’m interested in games, but I mostly come from the board games world. I don’t play a lot of video games (I’ve been playing more recently, actually, but still a very limited amount). My background is in literature and poetics, and I’m pretty invested in some odd corners of epistemology and philosophy of science and leftism. I have a tendency to use theoretical frameworks for things they weren’t strictly meant to do, which poses a variety of fun and exciting problems when trying to participate in an extant discourse.

I’m not a game designer, so while my concerns often overlap with the concerns broadly of this community, I’m more interested in how we can establish critical frameworks for talking about games rather than prescriptive methods for designing them. It’s an important distinction, I think, so I wanted to be sure to make it. Still, I hope there’s enough of interest to you guys that it won’t be an inconvenience that I’m posting this stuff here. Also, I hope you’ll forgive the half-formed quality of most of this. Everything here is in-progress, and I’d love whatever insight and feedback this community has to give.

So with all of that in mind, my current project is looking at games systems as ethical systems, chiefly through the lens of virtue ethics. Before anyone starts formulating preconceptions of what that means, let me clarify some things.

When I say I’m treating games systems as ethical systems, I only mean to point out that games set up their own rules and reward structures that guide and evaluate human behavior within that system. That should be a pretty uncontroversial claim around here, I’d imagine. The interesting part to me is the way that particular property of games systems lines up with ethics—which, after all, are merely systems that guide and evaluate human behavior in the larger world. So if we take the world of the game in-itself as somehow correlative to the world outside (and including) the game, it is potentially useful to use the language and categories of ethical theories to discuss the nature of the game systems.

From this starting point, I think we can end up at some very interesting places. I’ll try to quickly enumerate some questions I think virtue ethics can provide unique equipment for answering, and give a discussion of each that tries to show how. In all cases, here, I’m talking about strategy games in the way that you’re familiar with, as those are the games I am chiefly interested in exploring in my own work.

* How are mechanical games systems able to provide insight into the human condition? This is probably the most important question to me, personally. I’m pretty invested in the idea that games function as art (remember, I have a background in poetics haha), but they certainly seem to function in ways that are wholly at odds with other forms of art—that is, unlike other artforms, they function mechanically. Of course, there’s plenty of examples of critics using film and literary criticism techniques to look at games, but they’re almost never talking about games systems but rather content. Again, I’d imagine that’s a pretty uncontroversial statement around these parts. Still, It’s not obvious how the mechanical nature of games can produce the kinds of emotional/cathartic/relational experiences that we associate with other artforms.

In the language of virtue ethics, games are teleological. This is partly a consequence of the fact that games have win/loss conditions or award a score for performance, etc. A player, in interacting with the game’s systems, makes claims about the value system of the game, and eventually the player receives feedback as to the quality of their claims. In this way, the game teaches the player how to be a good player of the game. This teleological quality is ethical by default: it determines what is good or bad, successful or not, what is the game’s ultimate cause. As a player explores the particular telos of the game, they will accumulate an understanding of what behaviors the game regards as ethical or not. That skill, to have insight into the telos of a system and find the boundaries of ethical behavior, is a particularly important and importantly human skill.

Still more importantly, perhaps, this experience communicates to the player something about who they are and how they choose to experience the universe outside of the game. A poem or movie might present a version of the physical world that has been made strange and unfamiliar, thus giving us the opportunity to consider our own experience in new ways. Game systems, then, present an abstract/ethical world that is similarly “enstranged,” and allow us, in wrestling with that strangeness, to gain some insight into otherwise unconsidered parts of ourselves.

That games provide this kind of ethical training ground, where players can practice identifying and especially performing ethical behaviors, is a kind of art that other artforms only approximate. A poem or movie might ask us to consider things different from our experience and how these things might fit into our ethics, but games give us the opportunity directly to develop and apply practical heuristics for living ethical lives outside of the game. (As a side note, I don’t want to come across as implying that other arts can’t work in the realm of the abstract, or that games can’t concern themselves with the physical. My point here is that games have a unique, structural in-road to the abstract/systemic world that make them uniquely equipped to explore that territory.)

* How might we develop a set of critical categories for assessing a game’s success as a game? The preceding actually leads nicely into this question. If we take this ethical interaction as central to a game’s identity as a game, then we have a huge set of possible criteria for assessing its success. All of the tools from millennia of ethical scholarship are available for our use in looking at games. If a game is indeed in-itself an ethical system, we can then ask: How well do the mechanical structures of the game cohere as an ethics? How closely does the ethics of the game’s systems mirror (in structure and/or content) our own ethics? In the places where it diverges (in structure and/or content) from our own ethics, does it do so in productive and interesting ways? How opaque/inaccessible is the teleology of the game system, and does that serve the telos well?

And, most importantly, I think: Does interacting with the ethics of the game allow me to be the kind of person I want to be? Virtue ethics is very concerned with what human flourishing looks like, and looking at games in this way acknowledges that these experiences are paradigmatically formative. Some of Keith’s previous work on actor removal touches on this, and I think a framework of virtue ethics can allow for a much more robust and coherent theoretical understanding of the subject.

* How are we to distinguish between different types of games (those perhaps with differing design goals) in a way that is theoretically robust, without degenerating into glibness or into some other compromised state? This is a smaller concern, perhaps, but I find it telling. Keith’s interactive forms can be easily read (and commonly is read, I think) as dismissive of the kinds of games he doesn’t personally like. I think the accusation is that he’s sort of setting up a little cottage industry, where he’s doing theoretical work that supports his design work, which starts a kind of positive-reinforcement cycle that excludes legitimate work from consideration.

I don’t think that’s what Keith is trying to do, but I do think it’s difficult to make any prescriptive claims of this kind without acknowledging the teleological nature of these claims. To define a Game in opposition to a Toy and Puzzle and so on, is to imply that these things have final causes—a perfection of purpose that they are being toward. Even the “value” that he assigns to each one is, in my estimation, better presented as a virtue. A virtuous Toy is one that most fully exemplifies “mapping,” and a virtuous Puzzle is one that most fully exemplifies “solving,” and so on. To assess how well a Puzzle accomplishes being about solving is to make an ethical assessment of its virtuousness.

Again, I don’t think this is an especially novel claim over what Keith’s already said about the forms, but having the theoretical underpinnings to make normative ethical claims about the forms makes them much stronger as a framework, and somewhat more useful as a tool.

To tack on an unsatisfying conclusion, I think this virtue-approach to games is a potentially useful one, both for critical work and for design work. If we are able to open up new spaces for talking about and assessing games, then we have necessarily opened up new spaces for making them. I am not positing that this is the only way of conceiving of games; I’m a strong believer in the necessity of a plurality of epistemological approaches.

I know this is all very abstract, and I wish I had more practical examples of what I’m talking about, but I haven’t yet gotten to the point of doing the difficult business of practical, prescriptive work with this yet. It’s (obviously) incomplete at best, and might be merely incoherent. Feel free to chime in with ideas or questions or whatever. Also, I’m sure I’ve overexplained some things and underexplained others, so I’m happy to make any clarifications I can.
 

Juli

New member
#2
How are mechanical games systems able to provide insight into the human condition?
Are you talking here strictly of mechanical systems, or are you including how mechanics relate to theme? E.G., a game, in prescribing a winstate, implies that actions taken towards that winstate are ethical. If you have to shoot up some dudes to reach that winstate, the game is therefore arguing that shooting up dudes is ethical. Does this fall under the purview of the ethics of game mechanics, or would you consider this a literary analysis?

Overall, the feeling I got from this section is more that you're saying that the process of learning a game's system is similar to the process of a person learning from their society/culture which behaviors are and are not acceptable. Hence, learning the ethics of a game would map to learning the ethics of the real world. Is that accurate?

I don't know much about virtue ethics. I'm pretty sure I've heard the phrase before, and that's about it. Is there any good crash-course/summary you know of that would be accessible to a layman and make participating in this conversation easier/more productive?

There's more about this post that I want to comment on/question, and I find the subject really interesting, but I'm really tired and a bit out of my depth, and frankly this is kind of making my head spin. But I'll have to revisit it after I've had some sleep.
 

Xom

New member
#3
I think a familiar example of this would be,
  • Do you deal more damage because you adapted to the other player's strategy?
  • Do you deal more damage because you got a special sword at the end of your 1337th hour in-game?
  • Do you deal more damage because you restarted the game until there was good random loot in the first room?
  • Do you deal more damage because you blackmailed the butler into helping you on turn 1 because you know he's guilty from your previous playthrough?
 
#4
Are you talking here strictly of mechanical systems, or are you including how mechanics relate to theme? E.G., a game, in prescribing a winstate, implies that actions taken towards that winstate are ethical. If you have to shoot up some dudes to reach that winstate, the game is therefore arguing that shooting up dudes is ethical. Does this fall under the purview of the ethics of game mechanics, or would you consider this a literary analysis?
I'm interested in applying virtue ethics to mechanical systems, yes. It is 100% possible, and certainly easier, to talk about ethics in terms of theme/content. So to take your example for a moment:

A game prescribes a win state, and actions that move toward that winstate are therefore ethical. I'm actually making a stronger statement than saying that those actions are analogous to ethical actions. I think that a game system is a teleological system (because it has an end goal/purpose), and teleological systems are ethical systems in kind.

From there, we could look at the content/theme and say something like, "because the game systems incentivize violence in the form of shooting up dudes in progress toward winning, it is promoting gun violence as ethical action." That's an argument that can be made. I don't think that's a mechanical argument, chiefly.

A slightly more mechanical argument would be something like Keith's treatment of actor removal, which I alluded to above. In a game that leans on actor removal, good play involves exerting complete dominance over enemy actors (which would be player avatars or AI minions or what-have-you), which has a two-pronged effect. The first is mechanical: the game state is going to tend less and less complex over time, as in Chess, until finally you have an easily solved end-game. That's an unattractive quality of actor removal which has to be contended with in designing that kind of game. The second is cultural: the act of domination inherent to actor removal games informs the larger culture surrounding the game, producing ultimately the kind of toxic communities we see in a lot of online shooters and such.

I like this example because it gets at the way mechanical game systems inform player attitudes and such. The mechanisms of the game manifest outside of the limited sphere of the match, and I think can't be treated as if they exist in a vacuum.

There is a larger point to take from this though, and has been more difficult for me to get across. In providing a microcosm ethical system (mechanically) for players to interact with and within, games are able to put a spotlight on the assumptions and unexamined beliefs that those players have about the ways they acquire virtue. This bit is less about the specific ethical lessons being learned, and more about the ways in which those ethics are learned. In order to become a good player of a game, a player has to contend with the unfamiliar ethical system of that game. In doing so, they are able to learn something about the way they learn ethics. This is (or could be?) a purely mechanical interaction. It's knowledge acquisition, it's learning. And the ethical dimension of that learning is what I'm pointing to.

Does that make sense?

Overall, the feeling I got from this section is more that you're saying that the process of learning a game's system is similar to the process of a person learning from their society/culture which behaviors are and are not acceptable. Hence, learning the ethics of a game would map to learning the ethics of the real world. Is that accurate?
Absolutely. I think my answer above answers this as well. I would actually make the stronger argument that the process of becoming good at a game is in actuality the same process in kind as learning ethical behavior from their society/culture.

I don't know much about virtue ethics. I'm pretty sure I've heard the phrase before, and that's about it. Is there any good crash-course/summary you know of that would be accessible to a layman and make participating in this conversation easier/more productive?

There's more about this post that I want to comment on/question, and I find the subject really interesting, but I'm really tired and a bit out of my depth, and frankly this is kind of making my head spin. But I'll have to revisit it after I've had some sleep.
I would recommend you take a look at the SEP article on virtue ethics first. The SEP is a great resource and I recommend it all the time. It is a technical encyclopedia, so some of the language will be a little "philosophical," but don't get too bogged down in it. I want to stress, however, that virtue ethics is a HUGE topic, and I'm using only a tiny simple-minded corner of it to do what might be non-intuitive work. My basic argument is that games establish virtue systems mechanically, and players learn those virtue systems in a way that is the same in kind as learning virtue in the "real world." I think that this is the main strength and defining characteristic of games as an artform.

I'm glad you find this interesting! It's always hard for me to gauge if the things I'm thinking about are relevant to anyone else's life, or if it's just me gazing down my own navel haha. I hope this provides a little clarity, and I look forward to more discussion!
 
#5
I find it odd that you connect game systems to virtue ethics, rather than make the more obvious comparison to consequentialism. In a reasonably systems-focused game, a reasonably systems-focused player will be seeking the goal by any means, rather than trying to embody particular virtues. You could maybe suggest that the more calculation-heavy a game is, the more consequentialist it is, and the more intuition-heavy, the more virtue-oriented it is. Although I would think role-playing is far more similar to virtue ethics.

But on the whole, I don't see how games systems are connected, or particularly related to ethics at all. Goal-directed games provide metrics by which to judge our actions within them, similar to how our ethical beliefs provide metrics by which to judge our real-world actions, but actually, for most people most of the time, ethics are the least important consideration in our decision making. Game playing is like any kind of goal directed problem solving activity. The bit about looking at different types of games as embodying different virtues makes me think you are applying this analysis at multiple different levels, so maybe there's more to it that I'm not getting.

"A game prescribes a win state, and actions that move toward that winstate are therefore ethical."
I mean, you are saying those actions are more ethical, but they are actually just more successful in terms of reaching the goal. In the real world it certainly seems that ethical behaviour and "success" do not align very well, so I don't know why we should assume that they do in a game. The goal of a game can be labeled anything you like, it could be "become the richest person in the world", or "fly to the moon", or explicitly immoral things like "conquer the world through violence".

The more interesting part of ethics to me is not "how to achieve a goal", but rather "which goal to strive for", which is explicitly lacking from goal-directed games. Games of this kind are entirely focused on the first question, and in that way do not differ from any other kind of optimisation problem.

Maybe it will make more sense to me if you explain the connection more fully, but it doesn't seem all that compelling to me at the moment.
 
#6
I find it odd that you connect game systems to virtue ethics, rather than make the more obvious comparison to consequentialism. In a reasonably systems-focused game, a reasonably systems-focused player will be seeking the goal by any means, rather than trying to embody particular virtues. You could maybe suggest that the more calculation-heavy a game is, the more consequentialist it is, and the more intuition-heavy, the more virtue-oriented it is. Although I would think role-playing is far more similar to virtue ethics.
I go to virtue ethics here because I think it provides more insight. Taking a consequentialist approach doesn't get us very far ("I do these things because they make me win"). I think the distinction between calculation-heavy games and heuristics-heavy games is probably a useful one; I'm taking on board a lot of the same assumptions Keith has about strategy games and hidden info. I don't think perfect info games are likely to be very good at getting at the nature of virtue acquisition, and that's a relatively interesting argument for hidden information in games, and against perfect information. We're already doing some relatively interesting work that consequentialist ethics can't do!

I think there's still a lot being lost in translation, here, which is inevitable because I'm doing a poor job explaining myself. I'm not applying virtue because I think it's a "strictly correct" evaluation of this or the other. I'm applying virtue because I think it's in some large ways illuminating, and I've attempted (poorly) to show some ways a virtue-approach can both allow us to make novel claims about games systems, and provide a more robust theoretical underpinning for some existing claims about games systems.

But on the whole, I don't see how games systems are connected, or particularly related to ethics at all. Goal-directed games provide metrics by which to judge our actions within them, similar to how our ethical beliefs provide metrics by which to judge our real-world actions, but actually, for most people most of the time, ethics are the least important consideration in our decision making.
And this is a huge part of the reason I've gone to virtue here, and not something like consequentialism or deontology. Because virtue ethics is far less interested in providing "metrics by which to judge our actions," and far more interested in figuring out how to learn to be an ethical actor. And figuring out how to be an ethical actor is, in my estimation, structurally very much the same as figuring out how to be a good player of a strategy game. A player doesn't have to be thinking about ethics to be doing ethics, in this case. It's heuristics development, in the context of an ethical (game) system.

Game playing is like any kind of goal directed problem solving activity. The bit about looking at different types of games as embodying different virtues makes me think you are applying this analysis at multiple different levels, so maybe there's more to it that I'm not getting.
Yeah, that part definitely changes the scope of the claim. I absolutely think virtue is applicable to games in a huge variety of ways, so that gives some idea of another use we might find for it.

"A game prescribes a win state, and actions that move toward that winstate are therefore ethical."
I mean, you are saying those actions are more ethical, but they are actually just more successful in terms of reaching the goal. In the real world it certainly seems that ethical behaviour and "success" do not align very well, so I don't know why we should assume that they do in a game. The goal of a game can be labeled anything you like, it could be "become the richest person in the world", or "fly to the moon", or explicitly immoral things like "conquer the world through violence".

The more interesting part of ethics to me is not "how to achieve a goal", but rather "which goal to strive for", which is explicitly lacking from goal-directed games. Games of this kind are entirely focused on the first question, and in that way do not differ from any other kind of optimisation problem.

Maybe it will make more sense to me if you explain the connection more fully, but it doesn't seem all that compelling to me at the moment.
I think it's going to be useful here (and honestly would have been better positioned at the start of this thread, hindsight being what it is) for me to unpack how virtue ethics is different from other ethical theories, if only to give you a better idea of where I'm at with this stuff.

I would make the uncontroversial claim that utilitarianism is the prevailing ethical system of our time, and utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism. This is important because virtue ethics seems an idiosyncratic approach to ethics for a modern person, and a lot of the categories don't line up with the ways we typically think about ethics.

Virtue ethics, for instance, asks a different set of questions than other forms of ethics. I alluded to this earlier in this post. Rather than attempting to determine right action, virtue is to an extent attempting to determine right being. The question is not first "What is the proper action in a given situation?" but "How can a person learn to be good?" The identification and doing of The Right Thing is, in virtue theory, a consequence of being a virtuous person. I make the claim that being a good player in a strategy game is functionally identical to being a virtuous person.

Another important difference between virtue and other forms of ethics is that it is starts from a teleological claim (or a set of teleological claims). Aristotle, for instance, posited Human Flourishing (eudaimonia) as the telos (that is, the proper end goal) of human life, and built his virtue system around that. There are several points in Aristotle's writings where he acknowledges that the current political/cultural climate of his day didn't properly reward the virtues he set forth--and he sees this as a failing of the state/culture. If it seems that ethical behavior and success don't correlate in modern society, that would indicate that the society at large is not set up to promote human flourishing.

In a strategy game, this telos is comprised, at least in part, by the win condition(s) of the game. For a player, being able to identify which actions will best satisfy these win condition(s) (and in what ways, etc) is a kind of virtue within the system of the game. So we can look at the game in this way, showing how the mechanisms support (or don't) the player's experience of the telos of the game, how the game accommodates or impedes the player's acquisition of game-virtue, and how these facts reflect (or don't) the corollary systems at work in our everyday lives.

The answer to how games are ethical systems is chiefly in this claim that games are teleological. The presence of telos basically necessitates that a system is an ethical system. It is, as I said in the first post, "ethical by default."

I'll reiterate here that I'm only trying to establish this as a method of inquiry and criticism. I suspect it will prove useful not only as a descriptive tool, but as a prescriptive set of criteria for the assessment and design of games. I'm not interested in establishing this (or any form of analysis, really) as the one "correct" way of approaching games criticism and design. Learning and progress can only happen inter-paradigmatically; but that's another discussion. :)

Hopefully that at least begins to answer your questions. Thanks for pushing back! This has been a really helpful exercise for me getting my thoughts in order, so I've gotten some real value out of this even if you remain unconvinced (though I do hope people are starting to see what I'm poorly describing).
 
#7
Hi, sorry to resurrect - if you’ve moved with this discussion, please ignore me with impunity! As a very amateur philosopher, I just found this topic too fantastic not to take part in. I’ve toyed with the idea of applying ethical theories to games before and think it’s extremely interesting! But I wouldn’t have posted if I didn’t have anything to disagree with, and I have that! I had to cut out one of my two points because it was so long.

However, my main point is that the ethical systems of games are entirely disconnected from the ethical systems of so-called “reality”, which I’ll call “the world”. Goodness and badness, or indeed virtuousness and viciousness, mean totally separate things in the game and in the world. In the game, a ruthless murderer could be perfectly virtuous. And have you ever played a game where giving to charity is a good move?

It’s not just ethical systems but everything else about a game, except the physical board and pieces etc., which is existentially separate from the world. So not only are ethical concepts redefined, but so are concepts relating to objects. So when in a game, we think of a person, that is a totally different thing to a person of the world. Game people probably don’t have human rights, for example, while world people probably do. Just because HL2 has toilets in it doesn’t mean you should make regular bog stops. Giving something in a game the same name as a world kind is at most analogy, it doesn’t change the fundamental reality of the game. (In other words, theme is superficial and doesn’t affect the mechanics or the ethical system.)

Therefore, world ethics are inapplicable in games and vice versa. The fact that shooting everything that moves is virtuous in the game is not contradictory with anything, and perfectly compatible with world ethics, since in the world, you’re just clicking a mouse, and there’s nothing wrong with that. So, when thinking of ethics in games, beware of applying world ethics to games, or assuming game ethics ought to be applicable in the world! This is the classic mistake made by most games trying to look cool by putting in a “moral dilemma”, eg. BioShock, any TellTale game.
 
#8
It's good to get some more discussion in this thread! 😊 Your argument is pretty orthogonal to my original claims (which were exclusively about the ways in which formal characteristics of games are ethical), but I think that discussion has died, so let's dig in a little.

I think the claim that games narratives are somehow more divorced in content from real world ethics than other narrative forms (films and novels, say) is a pretty spicy claim. If a character in a novel behaves in grossly immoral ways, we don't shrug our shoulders and say "Well, it's not real life!" Instead, we take it as an opportunity to explore our own real-world values, and ultimately decide how we feel about the main character's actions (or that's what I do, at least). The fact that a book is printed on paper doesn't keep us from identifying with the story and applying it one-for-one to our real-world life.

So I guess I'm going to need some guidance, here, because I see no reason why narrative in a game is necessarily different from other, more established, forms of narrative.
 
#9
Those thoughts are very interesting, and prompted me to go to the SEP entry for Fiction, to get a taste of existing philosophical thought on the topic. I didn’t get very far - here’s a demonstration of the kind of nonsense it’s full of...

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/fiction/ said:
...there are objects, such as fictional objects, that don't exist. Fictional antirealists will take such talk with a grain of salt, since they do not acknowledge a sense in which there really are any fictional objects. Fictional realists, on the other hand, will think that it is literally true that there are objects like Hamlet and Holmes that don't exist.
So we’re on our own with this one... o_O

My own experience presses me to argue that there is a difference - although I have enjoyed several videogames’ narrative elements, they have always been distinct from the mechanical parts; and in a more fundamental way than narrative, picture and music are in film, for example. In the latter, the different parts are constituents in the whole work. Separately, they tend to be poor art - imagine listening to ninety minutes of film soundtrack with no pictures or dialogue - but together, and only together, work as a single piece. In the case of games, I find narrative and mechanic entirely separable with no loss of artistic integrity. (Don't be fooled by the fact that many respected games (Metal Gear Solid, Half-Life, Skyrim) have poor narratives, and many of those games with decent narratives (Grim Fandango, The Walking Dead, BioShock) are poor mechanically.)

So what, metaphysically speaking, could explain that? What is the difference?

It’s possibly the fact that in novels, films, theatre etc. (narrative media) it is necessarily taken by the audience that there is a story being told. A story is more than a sequence of events, it is the causal links that bind them together, in some broad sense. You could, for a start, consider Aristotle’s four sorts of causes; material, formal, efficient and final; but this list could be both excessive and inadequate.

Narrative works are necessarily perceived in this way, because without this, the work has no coherence and therefore doesn’t exist as a whole. Perhaps you recall the recent film, Loving Vincent, about Van Gogh, comprised entirely of hand-painted frames. Now, if that were all it was - a sequence of over 140,000 paintings - it would be extremely boring (especially given that most of those paintings would be very like the ones next to them). What makes it a film - and worth watching - is the fact that each of these paintings help to depict a narrative. If we had not perceived the narrative throughout, we could justifiably say the work has failed.

I would argue this is in contrast to games. Mechanically coherent games can be considered complete and successful works without consideration for narrative, or even “theme” in Keith’s broad sense. Considering game objects as things which obey the rules of the system and which have certain properties/capabilities according to those rules is perfectly adequate for perceiving a game as a whole, coherent work. Any imposed narrative generally demands, in addition, the application of non-essential properties to these game objects. For example, you may arguably have to consider non-player characters as having a right to life in order to perceive the narrative of Dishonored, but this moral property is superfluous to understanding the essential parts of the game. As a result, it can be dismissed by the player without contradiction, garbling the narrative.

[Further clarification, if required, of why that example demonstrates a distinction between games and narrative media: if we were, similarly, to examine A Christmas Carol, and decide to disregard the fact of Tiny Tim’s right to life, the coherence of the work itself breaks down. The supposed redemption of Scrooge then has no basis - since what had he done wrong before to be redeemed from, if Tim’s death meant nothing? Without those essential causal links, the story ceases to exist as a coherent whole, and not only is the work worse, it actually fails to exist as a whole work. Without a coherent story, it is simply a sequence of events. In our example from Dishonored, disregarding NPCs’ right to life may or may not make the work worse, but it does not force the non-perception of the game as a coherent whole. At worst, it becomes a game with a silly theme, but it is still a coherent game.]

Interestingly, I haven‘t been able to go as far to say that an imposed narrative cannot be perceived as part of the game; only to say that it is generally non-essential to the perception of a full, coherent work. Is it yet possible that narrative games can work, if they somehow encourage the perception of the narrative? Or could a narrative be designed that requires only those properties that are essential to the game’s mechanical part?

Any thoughts? Criticisms? Am I in any way comprehensible?
 
#10
I don't really disagree with your basic assumptions, here, but I also don't think these claims strongly support your original claim.

Even if the mechanical systems of a narrative game are completely separable from its narrative/thematic systems (a spicy claim, to be sure), we still have a narrative with which we must contend. Even if we suppose such a narrative is not integral to the experience of the game, it is still a part of the game. So if that narrative system takes on ethical concerns, then there are ethical concerns in the game. That may come across as glib, but I mean it genuinely: the narrative's presence as an artifact put there on purpose by a person makes it important.

It is interesting, as you point out, that a game can fail more on one side than the other, but I have a hunch that the two feed into each other more than we're owning here. It's true that we can assess a game's mechanisms separately from its content/theme/narrative, but the simple fact that these things are presented together does necessitate an acknowledgement, I think, that they are somehow related. It is relevant when a game's mechanisms are at odds with its theme--and it's relevant when they're in harmony--simply because they are presented as a unified whole. There's a pretty intense value judgment inherent in declaring some part of a game "non-essential," and I think it would be very difficult indeed to defend such a claim with any kind of rigor, at least with the theoretical tools available to us currently.

I find this subject difficult to think/talk about, and I suspect it's because the categories available to us are messy and unuseful. To do any real work here, we'd likely have to take a step back and start make big crayon outlines of basic concepts before we started making any substantive claims. And it seems we've gotten a good bit away from ethics, here, haha.

Now as far as mechanisms being ethical, that's what I was getting at from the start of this thread...
 
#12
I would love to reject the claim that simply by juxtaposing a game and a narrative, there is a tendency to produce a whole narrative-game work: sometimes I used to listen to muzak while reading a novel, but I didn’t experience a musical novel; they were juxtaposed, but not co-operating as a single work. But you’re right that to go much further on this discussion would require going back to square one with all of our concepts. I’ll return to this topic as soon as I’ve written my PhD thesis!