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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…)


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.

Everybody Dies September 21, 2006

Posted by joshg in indie games, morality & ethics.
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Introversion Software, makers of the game Darwinia (which I’ve blogged about before), are about to release their newest game, DEFCON. You can find out more at the game’s website, http://www.everybody-dies.com.*

Inspired by the 1983 cult classic film, Wargames, DEFCON superbly evokes the tension, paranoia and suspicion of the Cold War era, playing on the fascinating aspects of psychological gameplay that occur during strategic nuclear warfare.

I’ve already preordered this one via Steam (hey, $5 off the $15 price if you preorder). It hooked me in pretty much instantly; the premise is excellent, the visual style is fantastic, the gameplay sounds like a lot of fun, and the trailer has just the right combination of hype, dry sarcasm, and disturbing imagery reminiscent of Cold War era propaganda.

DEFCON also brings to light some serious ethical questions, and I think Introversion makes it clear that they’re being deliberate in dragging these questions out into the open. The Steam forums for DEFCON have already had people asking questions like, is it right to play a game where your goal is to decimate your enemy’s civilian populations while hopefully only most of your civilians die in the process? Is this game, despite being a military simulation, giving an anti-war message?  Who has these nukes in real life, anyway, and can we trust them with such a horrific power?

There are nine more days to go before I can let you know how the game itself answers the questions it raises.  It’s fantastic to see a game come around that’s able to confront people with this kind of Hard Problem, and look to be a blast to play despite (or because of) it.

* Yes, I linked it twice, because an URL that awesome deserves to be emphasized.

Hands-On Info on Left Behind: Eternal Forces July 12, 2006

Posted by joshg in Christianity, morality & ethics.
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Kotaku’s Brian Crecente has taken a brief hands-on look at the gameplay of Left Behind: Eternal Forces.

Stow the pitchforks, turns out all of that talk about Left Behind: Eternal Forces being a disguised hate-game is a bunch of crap. I just spent a few hours meeting with some of the Left Behind Games folks about their religion-themed real-time strategy title, and while it’s chockfull of subtle Christian messaging and even some overt proselytizing, it’s not at all about running around killing heathens and metrosexuals.

It looks like there are some interesting messages in the gameplay itself.  For the good guys, killing anyone (including the ‘enemy’) will actually cause spiritual harm to themselves, whereas converting enemy units will enhance your spirituality.  The spiritual harm done can be managed, so you can still use violence to stop the Antichrist’s minions, but it certainly isn’t the “kill the infidels!” message that some people had assumed.  There are some other interesting details worth checking out in the article.

Now I’m conflicted.  I still don’t like the overall theology of the Left Behind fiction, but the game sounds like it’ll be more interesting than I had expected.  An actual anti-violence message in an RTS?  Who do I have to shmooze to get a review copy so I can make up my mind whether to like this thing or not?

L, R, L, A, A, B, Jump (to conclusions) June 23, 2006

Posted by joshg in Christianity, morality & ethics.
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Kotaku, the game news blog of offensive colors (and often, language; don't say I didn't warn), points out news of what they refer to as "spyware" in Left Behind: Eternal Forces.

More after the break on why I think that's stretching the terminology a bit far. (more…)

A game to help cope with divorce June 2, 2006

Posted by joshg in morality & ethics.
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This is sort of borderline on-topic, but it felt relevant enough to be worth linking to.

A small group of child psychologists and therapists based in Israel have developed a new serious game called Earthquake in Zipland for the PC, a title which is specifically designed to help children aged 9-14 of separated and divorced parents to cope with the new reality in their lives.


a moral MTV (no, really) May 2, 2006

Posted by joshg in activism, morality & ethics.
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mtvU has launched Darfur is Dying, an activism game designed to convey what is happening in Darfur and to help rally support for further aid and political action.

The game does a good job of getting the point across through gameplay. There are two parts to the game: foraging for water, and helping the village. The water foraging involves travelling to a well while avoiding Janjaweed militias, who drive towards you from the distance in armed pickup trucks. The limited view of the land, the always-present view of the militia coming from the distance, and the rhythm of constantly running and hiding all do an excellent job at conveying the perpetual fear and sense of helplessness that the people there live with every day.

The village management portion of the game adds a much-needed depth of context to the experience, recreating vital parts of village life such as farming, maintaining shelter, and staying healthy.  In the village, you focus on building, and more importantly rebuilding; at set intervals, a dialog pops up saying the village was raided by militias again. In their wake you must rebuild homes and replant farms. I like how this captures a sense of the large-scale harm that such violence has on an area; local and regional economic growth is nearly impossible, as you have to fight just to maintain and rebuild what is constantly being destroyed.  As well, the rebuilding efforts all use up water, which you must replenish by returning to the water foraging game.  I will nitpick a little about the interface, as it would've been nice to simply be able to walk diagonally to get to a field instead of alternating two other directions, but other than this it's very user-friendly.

While thisn't a religious game, it reminds me very directly of the work done by some of the Christian organizations that I admire most. There's no denying that religious groups have long been at the front lines of situations such as this to bring aid, from old Catholic hospitals to the present-day activities of groups such as MCC.  (Not to say that only Christian groups provide aid, but I'm more familiar with Christian examples.)  As well, there's an increasing movement within Christian missionary organizations to become more "holistic"; that is, those groups which were traditionally just focused on savin' souls are now realizing that bringing people aid as well as truth is simply the right thing to do.  After all, Jesus said that giving the least of these a cup of water was just as though you gave it to him, but I don't recall him saying anything about giving the least of these a tract.

Anyway, it's good to see games with a moral message like this entering more directly into the mainstream consciousness. Though, it would've been nice to see the game direct the audience to somewhere where they could provide financial aid for those groups on the ground in Darfur, instead of pointing to political activism alone.

Perhaps religious-based aid groups will soon get on board and use activism games like Darfur is Dying, or the earlier WFP game Food Force, to promote their activities and tell the world why it's so vitally important to support the cause of helping those in need.

(via) Link.

The devil’s in the decisions March 21, 2006

Posted by joshg in Christianity, morality & ethics.
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I’m just back from a short vacation, so I’m going to fall back on an old gripe of mine to keep the blog updates rolling. Flash back to this article from the New York Times on the rise of Christian games:

There is, however, one vital element of the ”cool” secular gaming experience that Christian developers say they will not embrace: the moral relativism embodied in the R.P.G., or role-playing game. In a game like World of Warcraft, the player is given the opportunity to experience the same virtual environment through the perspectives of a variety of different characters, some much less upright than others. The Christian gamers’ position is that, while you may fight the Devil and lose, you may not fight as the Devil.

This just boggles my mind, for so many reasons, but let’s see if I can restrain my urge to go, “Eeeeeeagh!” long enough to break down the reasons why. (more…)

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.


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.