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Hocking interview explores moral choice May 14, 2007

Posted by joshg in mainstream games, morality & ethics.
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Gamasutra interviews Clint Hocking, mostly discussing the motivator of exploration within games but they eventually get to my favorite topic:

To try and teach someone a specific set of values in games is trickier because what games ought to do, in my opinion, is present the entire space of the problem. Instead of saying, “You should be honest,” it should say, “This is what honesty means” through the mechanics. This is what happens when you tell the truth or you tell a lie–instead of trying to make a game that says “Lying is bad and honesty is good.”

That’s what literature can do by creating characters who are very rich and detailed and tell a lie and regret it for the rest of the novel and watch how their who lives fall apart. A game I don’t think should do that. A game I think should give the player all the mechanics that surround that and figure out for himself whether telling the truth or lying is right or wrong.

I’m pretty sure I agree with his insight here, despite being a little confused initially by how he distinguishes the effects of the novel and the game. Yes, the novel chooses what the character believes about the consequences of their actions – the regret is authored. A game design won’t be able to explicitly force regret or guilt for immoral actions, but this doesn’t mean a game system dealing with moral choice must (or should) be neutral in how it portrays the consequences. As he says, the designer gives the player the mechanics that surround a moral choice, and the player then has the freedom to learn what they will from those mechanics.

(a whole lot of my thoughts on this after the break) (more…)

The Escapist on faith and philosophy in games April 6, 2007

Posted by joshg in Christianity, Judaism, mainstream games.
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The newest issue of online gaming publication The Escapist focuses on religion and philosophy within gaming. The articles vary from thought-provoking to curious to strangely silly. The two articles that I found the most worth reading were “Jesus was not a gamer” by Joe Blancato, and “A Lack of Faith: Why Christian Games are Doomed to Fail” by Lara Crigger.

“Jesus was not a gamer” pokes a bit at the tendency we have to pray to whatever god/God we know of for help in winning games, and then dives into a survey of how religion and games have mixed historically around the world. The article gives some fascinating examples. I finally have some clue as to what a dreidl is, and while I had heard of the ancient Egyptian game of Senet before, I didn’t realize that the rules had actually been reconstructed. (The article links to a Flash version of the game, but at the time of writing this it seems to be down.)

Interestingly, Blancato looks for a gaming connection to Christianity and finds that there seems to be none. He attributes it at least partially to Christianity’s underground beginnings, but isn’t that the exact circumstances in which he says that Judaism invented the dreidl? I don’t know how deeply the two situations are parallel, though, so maybe I’m misunderstanding.

“A Lack of Faith” is, initially, a pretty harsh criticism of the current state of Christian games. But looking past the nasty subtitle and the Left Behind: Eternal Forces abuse, Crigger actually dives into what I believe to be a fundamental challenge for Christian games, or faith-based games in general. Are Christian games willing and able to create a deep and meaningful look at what it means to have a crisis of faith? The article takes a close look at the story of Job as an example of what a truly challenging faith story looks like, and holds that up as a measure. Ultimately, Crigger is advocating what (I think) I’ve been trying to cheer on via this blog all along – for games to create a deeper and more meaningful representation of what faith is, how it turns your life inside out.

One thing I’d mention is that I think the article doesn’t do justice to just how hard that goal might be to achieve, especially in a Christian context. Crigger brings up this core question from the look at Job:

If by being good, you can entirely avoid misfortune, what distinguishes righteousness from commerce, a mere business transaction between you and God?

Certainly struggling with this question is what makes the book of Job so challenging. Unfortunately, in a slightly different light it’s also what makes creating a compelling Christian faith story so challenging as well. Both game rules and computer systems are excellent at creating representations of predictable, mathematical relationships. But if we try to embody a story of faith with a living and incalculable God in the rules of a game, how do we distinguish righteousness from commerce? How do we keep our representation of prayers from being “mere business transaction(s)” in an economy of game mechanics?

Thoughts from the Left Behind: EF demo January 6, 2007

Posted by joshg in Christianity, mainstream games, prayer.
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I’m back from a nice Christmas spent with family, and I finally tried out the Left Behind: Eternal Forces demo. I guess it felt like an obligation at this point to at least try it, but the demo didn’t seem to pull any surprises on my point of view.

The prayer mechanic worked as I’d heard, and I have mixed feelings about it. It’s a simple model of both prayer and the effects of prayer, which manages to convey some interesting messages. Units need to pray regularly to keep from falling away into neutrality, which expresses how a Christian needs to keep in active contact with God to maintain their faith. (I like this.) On the other hand, prayer never actually does anything external to the unit in question – ie. no healing prayer, no asking for divine intervention. Admittedly, this is hard to map into game rules without turning prayer into a magic-like guaranteed divine action.

(A whole lot more below the break.)

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Left Behind pegged as **Violence!** December 14, 2006

Posted by joshg in Christianity, mainstream games, morality & ethics, violence.
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An article from USA Today sums up some of the controversy in Christian circles over Left Behind: Eternal Forces.

It’s hard to pick a quote when there’s so much verbal sniping going both ways, but my favorite has to be this one from The Tim LaHaye himself:

“These groups don’t attack other violent video games. Their real attack is on our theology,” says Tim LaHaye, co-author of the novels, who endorsed the game.

I think this is a case of him saying something true that implies something completely untrue. Give me a second and I’ll try to make that statement make sense.

Do these groups attack other violent video games? Well, let’s just assume that they don’t for now, although that’s probably not true of all the groups involved. Is their real attack on the Left Behind theology? Okay, sure. But does that mean that their real objection isn’t to the violence? Nay, says I. The issues of violence and theology aren’t independant here – the way that violence is used as part of gameplay is a theological message.

LeHaye has a good reason to try and deflect the notion that the objection to this game stems from the general issue of “Violent Video Games”. For some, it probably does, but the reason that Christian groups are placing this game higher on their moral agendas than, say, Dawn of War certainly isn’t because Left Behind is more violent. But the fact that this is an attack on theology certainly doesn’t mean that it can be brushed aside, thinking, “Oh, that’s one of those academic theological differences that Christians don’t agree on, anyway.”

The theological topic is incredibly relevant: when does our faith justify violence?

Don’t try and tell me that issue is purely academic in our world today. I’ll laugh.

What Every (Christian?) Parent Needs To Know About Video Games September 8, 2006

Posted by joshg in Christianity, mainstream games.
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Via GameSetWatch comes news of what looks to be a very balanced and informative book about – as the title says – What Every Parent Needs To Know About Video Games.

The book is published by a Christian publisher, and its website includes an except from the book. Judging by the glowing review from GameSetWatch and from the introduction, it looks like exactly the information I’ve wished I could hand to parents who don’t know what to do with these video game things their kids are spending so much time on.

The author brings to light both sides of the current video game law controversies without slighting either side. He describes his own passion for gaming with brief glimpses of the game worlds he visits regularly. In short, it looks like exactly the book I would have felt driven to write, had someone else not finally done a good job of it!

This will end up on my To Buy list; if it ends up in my hands, I’ll give a fuller review then.

A Force Jump of faith March 1, 2006

Posted by joshg in mainstream games, morality & ethics.
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Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith took a different route than the original game. No longer were force powers “Dark” or “Light” – everything became neutral. You also played a different character, Mara Jade, who had been a former servant of the evil Emperor. (Perhaps the neutrality of previously “dark” and “light” powers was meant to reflect the conflicted nature of Mara’s training, but probably it was just a gameplay design choice. It made multiplayer gameplay much more flexible and interesting.)

Similarly, Mysteries of the Sith had no narrative branching. However, this didn’t mean that the designers were ignoring choice.

I’m going to talk about the ending of the game, so spoilers after the break.

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Choose the Force, Luke February 28, 2006

Posted by joshg in mainstream games, morality & ethics.
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One of my favorite classics is the Star Wars universe game Jedi Knight. In it, you play Kyle Katarn, a rough smuggler type who discovers his Jedi roots just in time to foil a band of Dark Jedi. The series that followed is an interesting example of different ways to approach moral choice within a game.

In Jedi Knight, the player had a Light / Dark rating that was based on how “evil” they behaved during the game. As you gained more ability with the Force, you could choose from various force powers – some of which were neutral, while others were inherently Light or Dark side powers. A “good” character could dabble in the Dark powers, but this would pull them closer to the Dark Side. The player’s Dark / Light rating was also turned towards evil if they killed innocent civilians along the way.

The game has a turning point, where your path is set on either the Dark or Light road permanently. At this point, the game’s narrative branches to one of two paths. Both endings are, essentially, a victory. In this sense, Jedi Knight is similar to Black and White in that it doesn’t frame a moral failure as a game failure. If you choose to be utterly corrupt and evil, the game will still reward you for your behaviour.

Interestingly, it’s actually difficult to get to the Dark Side path. I replayed it specificially to see the alternate ending once, and I had to really go out of my way to blow up those neutral NPCs early in the game to get enough Dark Side to sway the story. So it’s hard to say that the game is neutral on the matter – it’s nearly impossible to accidentally become Dark, whereas you don’t have to do anything extraordinary to end up on the Light path.

The rest of the series didn’t stick to this moral formula, though. In my next post, we’ll take a look at the expansion pack, Mysteries of the Sith.

Morality as fashion February 9, 2006

Posted by joshg in mainstream games, morality & ethics.
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If someone was to ask for a game that deals with morality, the avid gamer might come up with a few off the top of their head. Games like Black and White, for example.

In Black and White, the player acts the part of a small-scale deity, and becomes known as either a good or evil god through their actions. (If that offends you as someone who takes the topic a bit more seriously, I sympathize; but please do read on anyway.) A player who treats villagers and their pet well is recognized as Good, and their lands are filled with bright skies, flowers, etc. Those who abuse their minions and emphasize destruction and punishment are labelled Evil, and their lands become dark, shadowy places (perfect for an afternoon of deep brooding).

Many reviewers and gamers took this as an example of expressing morality within the context of a game. I used to myself, until someone pointed out this problem: the game has no moral message at all.

Good and evil are presented as opposing sides to choose from, but the game presents both sides as equally acceptable. Your “conscience” is presented as two characters, a white angelic-but-cute old man and a black-red creepy-but-cute chubby devil. They tell you, “We’re your conscience.” That’s both of them together, not the good conscience vs. the evil temptor.

Perhaps more importantly, there are no negative consequences for choosing evil. Oh, you’ll get a tsk-tsk from the good side of your conscience, but there’s nothing that catches up with you in the end for doing wrong along the way. The game is designed to be equally playable as either good or evil, with tradeoffs and challenges either way. Which is fine, from a game design perspective, but it certainly isn’t portraying a reality with a moral message.

One could argue that being morally indifferent can actually be a message, and I would agree. (Not a message I’m very fond of, but a message nonetheless.) However, I find it hard to believe that Lionhead Studios, the makers of the game, are consciously promoting this message through their game. The game doesn’t take itself all that seriously, and the goal seems to be simply to let people have fun expressing themselves while playing however they want to play.

None of this is to say that there aren’t other interesting lessons we can learn from Black and White in terms of portraying faith. While it’s decidedly neutral on issues of morality, it demonstrates other ways to turn theological issues into gameplay mechanics. But I’ll leave that topic for another day.

Next we’ll look at a game series that began with the morality-as-personality-test mentality, but then took a turn towards something more.