Tiny Kant


Do our moral stan­dards apply when we behave badly in the craft­ed world of a videogame?

One of the more impor­tant debates in the his­to­ry of eth­i­cal phi­los­o­phy was over the ques­tion, “What will we tell the mur­der­ers?” Here’s how it went down.

In 1785, Immanuel Kant pub­lished a book, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, where­in he argued that we should expect any moral worth the name to apply in all cases, no excep­tions. Eventually, the book made its way into the hands of a French author named Benjamin Constant, who replied by say­ing, “Well, that does­n’t seem prac­ti­cal at all.” Say that your friend is being chased by a mur­der­er, he replied in the peri­od­i­cal France. You hide the friend in your house. Inevitably, the mur­der­er shows up and says, “Hey, I’d real­ly like to mur­der Brian; is he, by any chance, hid­ing in your house?” What do you do, Immanuel Kant? What do you do?

Obviously, said Constant, you lie, and not just to the mur­der­er. We lie pret­ty reg­u­lar­ly, as a mat­ter of fact–usually lit­tle white lies to spare one anoth­er’s feel­ings. We might even acknowl­edge that lying is, on the whole, wrong, but it also greas­es the wheels of soci­ety. If we did­n’t lie from time to time, civ­i­liza­tion would col­lapse with­in the week, and that would be worse.

To which Kant basi­cal­ly replied, “Hey, I never said it would be easy.” If lying is wrong, he argued, then it’s always wrong and you still have a moral duty to tell the truth, even to the mur­der­er at your door. It’s a good idea to be ready for what hap­pens after that, but eth­i­cal­ly speak­ing, you have no right to side­step the con­se­quences of the truth with a lie.

If that seems unrea­son­ably obsti­nate, it helps to under­stand the prob­lem Kant was try­ing to solve. Doubt was the watch­word of the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion of philoso­phers, and they had con­vinc­ing­ly thrown pret­ty much all cer­tain­ty right out the win­dow. The most promis­ing avenue for resolv­ing those doubts–especially doubts about right and wrong–was a field called meta­physics, but that, too, had been crit­i­cal­ly under­mined by a Scottish philoso­pher named David Hume. Just about Kant’s entire career was spent build­ing a ratio­nal approach to meta­physics so that his gen­er­a­tion would stand a snow­bal­l’s chance in hell at address­ing the vex­ing prac­ti­cal issue of what we ought and ought not do: hence the title, Groundwork for a Metaphysics of Morals.

What Kant came up with (among other things) was a dis­tinc­tion between two types of moti­va­tion for choos­ing one type of behav­ior or anoth­er. There are cat­e­gor­i­cal imper­a­tives: guide­lines that are uni­ver­sal­ly (or, more pre­cise­ly, cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly) cor­rect because they’re always the behav­ior that you ought to choose. That’s the one that sparked the debate with Benjamin Constant. Then there are the hypo­thet­i­cal imper­a­tives: guide­lines we fol­low in order to achieve spe­cif­ic goals that we set for our­selves. Tell some­one that they should keep their mouth shut if they don’t want to look like a fool and what you’re voic­ing is a hypo­thet­i­cal imper­a­tive, the hypo­thet­i­cal part being, “if they don’t want to look like a fool.” As it turns out, that’s a goal some peo­ple never both­er to set for them­selves.

The handy thing about cat­e­gor­i­cal imper­a­tives is that they are, at least in prin­ci­ple, the sort of thing you can fig­ure out ratio­nal­ly. What it boils down to is a stan­dard for rec­og­niz­ing right from wrong. We assume that most peo­ple are capa­ble of doing that to some degree (the legal sys­tem even makes it a stan­dard for assess­ing men­tal com­pe­tence), but how? Socialization some­times plays a part: we’re taught to regard some behav­iors as wrong, the same way we learn good man­ners. Sometimes we’re taught bad man­ners, though, which rais­es doubts about the tra­di­tion­al morals we’ve learned, too. So how do we ver­i­fy those morals?

What Kant tells us is that you can rec­og­nize true morals by the fact that they’re cat­e­gor­i­cal: they always apply. If you have trou­ble mak­ing a piece of advice universal–if, that is, you can’t imag­ine it apply­ing at all times, regard­less of the circumstances–then what rea­son do we have for sup­pos­ing that it’s moral, rather than mere­ly use­ful? If it is immoral to keep quiet in the face of injus­tice, then “keep your mouth shut” isn’t a gen­uine­ly eth­i­cal maxim. Likewise, if Constant was right–if it’s some­times right to lie in order to keep civ­i­liza­tion going–then nei­ther is “thou shalt not lie.” Given a choice between pre­serv­ing the moral value of truth­ful­ness, and deny­ing that it was ever gen­uine­ly wrong to lie, Kant insist­ed on the hard­er path.


If Kant’s right, and it’s cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly wrong to steal, then the fact that you’re steal­ing food to feed an old lady does­n’t mag­i­cal­ly flip the moral polar­i­ty. But what if none of it–neither the old lady, the food, nor the food’s owner–are real, just evoca­tive lit­tle arrange­ments of pix­els on a screen? Or, to reframe that ques­tion: Does the game Tiny Thief invite you do wrong?

We could ask the same ques­tion about a great many games, but there’s a lot to rec­om­mend Tiny Thief (cre­at­ed by Spanish devel­op­er Five Ants and pub­lished by Rovio of Angry Birds fame) as a test case. The most straight­for­ward rea­sons are that it’s cheap (about $3), wide­ly avail­able (on both Android and iOS devices), and as sim­ple to play as just about any game on the mar­ket, so there’s rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle to keep you from pick­ing it up and form­ing your own opin­ion. On top of that, it’s a clever, visu­al­ly appeal­ing and well-constructed exam­ple of its genre, so if you tire of the philo­soph­i­cal com­pli­ca­tions, you might also enjoy sim­ply, you know, play­ing it.

To put a name to that genre, Tiny Thief is an update of the point-and-click adven­tures that were once the main­stay of LucasArts’ gam­ing divi­sion. In titles like The Secret of Monkey Island and Sam and Max Hit the Road, play­ers use the cur­sor to poke and prod at art­ful­ly ren­dered back­grounds, prompt­ing an onscreen char­ac­ter to inter­act with the mise-en-scene in mys­te­ri­ous, often unex­pect­ed ways. Each screen is laced with visu­al puz­zles, rou­tine­ly built around vaude­vil­lian gags and occa­sion­al­ly build­ing to the com­plex­i­ty of a Rube Goldberg machine. Solving each puz­zle resolves, in turn, some ele­ment of the narrative–or, con­verse­ly, the nar­ra­tive pro­vides a frame­work for mak­ing the puz­zles hang togeth­er as a game. Which aspect stands out most promi­nent­ly depends as much on your point of view as on what the design­ers had in mind.

Because it also inher­its part of its style from platform-puzzlers like the Mario vs. Donkey Kong games, the ten­sion between puz­zle and nar­ra­tive is even more pro­nounced in Tiny Thief than in its LucasArts pre­de­ces­sors. Each stage has a cen­tral puz­zle, always cen­tered on find­ing and acquir­ing a par­tic­u­lar object or objects. So that there’s no mis­take, an intro­duc­to­ry ani­ma­tion draws a bold white cir­cle around the object you need. There is a story, told inter­sti­tial­ly via word­less comic strip pan­els, but con­cen­trate on that big, white cir­cle, and you need never give the plot a sec­ond thought.

What you’d be miss­ing is the tale of a medieval peas­ant who, on the strength of a tal­ent for pil­fer­ing and a sym­pa­thy for the down­trod­den, winds up becom­ing a cel­e­brat­ed hero. That’s pret­ty tra­di­tion­al stuff, but Tiny Thief tells it charm­ing­ly and with a great deal of color and lev­i­ty.  What dis­tin­guish­es it from ref­er­ence points like the leg­end of Robin Hood is the direct role you, as play­er, take in the action.

That’s espe­cial­ly preva­lent in the early stages. By way of tuto­r­i­al, the first puz­zle prompts you to make off with a sleep­ing guard’s pic­nic bas­ket, shades of Yogi Bear. The fur­ther you progress, the more jus­ti­fi­ca­tions the nar­ra­tive pro­vides to excuse your behav­ior. There’s that old lady to feed, for one, and a greedy mayor in need of come­up­pance. The game never works espe­cial­ly hard to push past the car­toon­ish­ness of such jus­ti­fi­ca­tions, though, and I sus­pect it’s all a bit tongue-in-cheek. After all, you knew the game was about a thief when you picked it up. It’s right there in the title. Why both­er preach­ing to the con­vert­ed?

Still, most of you pre­sum­ably would not steal a real pic­nic bas­ket. Why you’d not only con­done, but also par­tic­i­pate in the same crime in the con­text of a game might seem obvi­ous: it’s just a game. Which can be a pithy way of say­ing that games cre­ate a spe­cial con­text where the con­cerns that usu­al­ly mat­ter no longer apply. But assum­ing for the moment that Kant was on to some­thing (you can always drop that assump­tion when we’re done here), aren’t there sup­posed to be some con­cerns that always apply? If steal­ing is cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly wrong, then the fact that we’re steal­ing in the spe­cial con­text of a game should­n’t change any­thing, right?

To save Tiny Thief on that count, it helps to look more close­ly at what we mean by steal­ing. Provisionally I think we can agree: steal­ing is tak­ing with­out per­mis­sion some­thing that belongs to some­one else. The char­ac­ters in Tiny Thief aren’t real­ly peo­ple, though; they’re rep­re­sen­ta­tions of peo­ple, and a rep­re­sen­ta­tion is not real­ly “some­one else.” Since, then, there’s no “some­one else” to whom they might belong, the objects in Tiny Thief aren’t real­ly being stolen.

If that’s true, then we can play Tiny Thief and still main­tain that steal­ing is cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly wrong with­out mak­ing hyp­ocrites of our­selves. We call it steal­ing because it’s made to resem­ble real theft, much the same way that we call it steal­ing when a bas­ket­ball play­er plucks the ball away from his oppo­nent mid-dribble. In fact, though, there’s no theft in either game.


So does that mean moral­i­ty does­n’t real­ly apply to what we do in most games? Let’s not get ahead of our­selves here. There may not be any theft in Tiny Thief, but it’s chock full of rep­re­sen­ta­tions of theft. Representations, it turns out, can be just as trou­ble­some.

One way to illus­trate how so is to ask why we play Tiny Thief in the first place. According to one school of thought, rep­re­sen­ta­tion is a big part of why we play nar­ra­tive games. The idea is that there is a vic­ar­i­ous thrill to hit­ting upon the right com­bi­na­tion of moves and choic­es that will, say, allow Link to res­cue Princess Zelda. We may not have done any­thing gen­uine­ly hero­ic, but guid­ing the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a hero lets us momen­tar­i­ly feel hero­ic.

Is that why we play Tiny Thief, then? For the vic­ar­i­ous thrill of steal­ing with­out actu­al­ly steal­ing? Does that motive still apply when the behav­ior a game rep­re­sents is immoral? It may be that we can’t have it both ways. If we play vir­tu­ous char­ac­ters because we want those same virtues for our­selves, then it’s rea­son­able to sup­pose that we also some­times play immoral char­ac­ters because we want to enjoy their vices. Tiny Thief does­n’t feel vicious, though. Playing it, I never much got the sense that this is what it would be like to live as a thief. The gap between how the hero behaves and what the play­er does to trig­ger that behav­ior is sim­ply too broad.

Probably there are times when some or even most of us do play for the vic­ar­i­ous expe­ri­ence, but given how dis­mal­ly Tiny Thief fails as a sim­u­la­tion of theft, this like­ly isn’t one of those times. Whatever else it might do, the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of theft in the game does­n’t let us have the expe­ri­ence of steal­ing with­out the con­se­quences. That’s only because it does­n’t evoke the feel­ing, though; it does­n’t even real­ly try. Nevertheless, it remains true, that while Tiny Thief rep­re­sents theft over and over again, it very rarely rep­re­sents that behav­ior as wrong.

That may, in fact, be the clever­est part of the game’s design: the cre­ation of a world that works accord­ing to its own moral order. Nearly every stage offers mul­ti­ple oppor­tu­ni­ties to pil­fer some­one else’s belong­ings. The only char­ac­ters shown to suf­fer as a result are all rep­re­sent­ed as scoundrels. Their suf­fer­ing is brief, but just. The thief him­self suf­fers only when he’s caught in the act, and his pun­ish­ment is never worse than embar­rass­ment, fol­lowed by the oppor­tu­ni­ty to try again. There is never a time in the game when it is cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly wrong to steal from the pow­er­ful, not even when the play­er is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly work­ing to res­cue the pow­er­ful from their ene­mies.

Yet the game goes even fur­ther than that. It starts out by prompt­ing us to treat theft as a hypo­thet­i­cal imper­a­tive: if the hero wants to eat, he ought to steal. That ends up being a wild­ly per­va­sive pat­tern. Nearly any prob­lem can be solved by steal­ing or doing some­thing very like it, and in the absence of any counter-example, the tri­umph of good through theft comes to resem­ble a cat­e­gor­i­cal fea­ture of the world. It isn’t just that it’s never wrong to steal from the pow­er­ful, in the uni­verse rep­re­sent­ed by Tiny Thief, it’s always the right thing to do.

Stranger still, the story presents it as an avenue toward reform. While each stage is strewn with bonus valu­ables to take, and the basic screen-tapping mechan­ic of play remains con­stant through­out, the con­di­tions for pro­gress­ing from one stage to the next grad­u­al­ly begin to look less and less like theft. Soon, the thief grad­u­ates from lib­er­at­ing pirates of their trea­sure to flus­ter­ing an invad­ing army and win­ning the favor of roy­al­ty. That insis­tent shift of motives, so emblem­at­ic of the hero’s jour­ney from petty rogue to nation­al hero, is the sub­stance of the game’s nar­ra­tive arc, but the oppor­tu­ni­ties that make it pos­si­ble arise only as the result of a career in bur­glary. Stealing not only improves the thief’s sit­u­a­tion: it improves him.


Does that match our expe­ri­ence of actu­al theft? Do only scoundrels suf­fer the con­se­quences? Is it pos­si­ble to restrict the loss­es to the pow­er­ful? Do we become bet­ter peo­ple for our thiev­ery? If we’re not naive or mis­guid­ed enough to think so, then we have to admit that Tiny Thief mis­rep­re­sents its sub­ject.

That, it seems to me, forms a start­ing point for talk­ing about the moral­i­ty of games. Tiny Thief does­n’t prompt us to steal–after all, its thefts are only rep­re­sen­ta­tions. It con­sis­tent­ly favors a one-sided rep­re­sen­ta­tion of theft, though, and in doing so, it con­structs a world that mis­rep­re­sents the act of steal­ing.

Does that make Tiny Thief an immoral game? That depends: Is it cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly wrong to mis­rep­re­sent? If so, then Tiny Thief must also answer for its style. Cartooning, too, is a form of mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion, lib­er­al­ly rear­rang­ing the pro­por­tions of human anato­my to achieve its aes­thet­ic effect. Most of us don’t con­sid­er car­toons immoral, though, so maybe there’s a time and place for mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions of a cer­tain sort. Granting that, we might be able to exon­er­ate Tiny Thief once and for all if we can just con­vince our­selves that its mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions of theft are every bit as car­toon­ish as its mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions of human bod­ies.

Maybe the real offense is to mis­lead, espe­cial­ly when we do so delib­er­ate­ly. Misrepresentations we can excuse, so long as they don’t mis­lead oth­ers into think­ing that they’re accu­rate. There’s no pre­tense to accu­ra­cy in the visu­al style of Tiny Thief and no one is like­ly to mis­take it for real­i­ty. When we ask if its rep­re­sen­ta­tions of theft are like­wise car­toon­ish, we’re real­ly ask­ing if they might mis­lead play­ers into sup­pos­ing that it’s okay to steal.

And here I have to con­fess: I’m not entire­ly sure of the answer. I am rea­son­ably con­fi­dent that you’d have to go out of your way to inter­pret the game as encour­ag­ing peo­ple to reen­act its scenes, though I sup­pose it’s pos­si­ble some­one might try. At any rate, I don’t think it very like­ly that the design­ers at Five Ants set out to encour­age a life of crime.

I am, how­ev­er, less con­fi­dent that one or more of them might not have set out to make some point about power, prop­er­ty and the rights of the dis­pos­sessed. It’s not as though there’s no prece­dent for it. The rhetor­i­cal approach to game design has been rather pop­u­lar in recent years, rid­ing in part on the momen­tum of Ian Bogost’s book, Persuasive Games. What I can say is that, if we’re right about most of the pre­ced­ing, then the integri­ty of games that rep­re­sent in order to per­suade must ulti­mate­ly depend on how they piece those rep­re­sen­ta­tions togeth­er into a con­sis­tent world. A world con­struct­ed to mis­rep­re­sent in order to force the play­er into accept­ing the design­er’s pre­ferred con­clu­sion (whether moral, polit­i­cal, per­son­al or aes­thet­ic) is almost cer­tain to mis­lead in one respect or anoth­er.

Ultimately, I’m inclined to give Tiny Thief the ben­e­fit of the doubt. It plays as a farce, breezi­ly unin­ter­est­ed in press­ing any rhetor­i­cal les­son. Not all games are so ambigu­ous about their inten­tions.

Recently, there’s been a great deal of debate over The Castle Doctrine, designed by Jason Rohrer and cur­rent­ly in the alpha phase of test­ing. Its topic is home inva­sion, and by exten­sion, self-defense. On his blog, This Cage Is Worms, Cameron Kunzelman raised a moral objec­tion, about which he felt strong­ly enough to swear off play­ing the game, even before he had got­ten the chance to. “In Rohrer’s model,” he writes, “you are jus­ti­fied in doing any­thing you want to some­one who breach­es your per­son­al sov­er­eign­ty, whether that is your house or your per­son. You can kill some­one for break­ing your win­dow and com­ing into your home.”

The game cer­tain­ly looks to play that way. Rohrer has explained The Castle Doctrine as a mas­sive­ly mul­ti­play­er online game that lets play­ers con­struct vir­tu­al homes, booby trap those homes to deter or kill bur­glars, then go out on sor­ties to steal from the booby-trapped homes of other play­ers. It’s a premise that drains theft of near­ly all the lev­i­ty that Tiny Thief puts into it.

You could square Kunzelman’s com­plaint with all this talk about imper­a­tives and rep­re­sen­ta­tions by say­ing that what he’s ulti­mate­ly object­ing to is the way the game’s world had been designed so as to mis­lead play­ers into accept­ing the doc­trine that lethal force is jus­ti­fied in the defense of one’s home and fam­i­ly. That’s a stance that was bound to draw con­tro­ver­sy, par­tic­u­lar­ly given the still raw dis­ap­point­ment and out­rage sur­round­ing the death of Trayvon Martin. In the after­math of George Zimmerman’s acquit­tal and the debate that sur­round­ed it, many feel that the jus­tice sys­tem has put peace-loving cit­i­zens at the mercy of a cohort that is not just will­ing, but eager to test the lim­its of self-defense doc­trines like Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. It’s not unnat­ur­al, then, for a game that seems to endorse the use of lethal force to throw us back on the ques­tion, “What do we tell the mur­der­ers?”

Still, it occurs to me that Rohrer’s actu­al intent for The Castle Doctrine might be more nuanced than that. Not least of all, there’s the fact that each play­er is encour­aged to alter­nate between play­ing defend­er and aggres­sor. At the same time, if you’re unable to excuse Tiny Thief for water­ing down the con­se­quences of theft, you can con­sole your­self with the knowl­edge that The Castle Doctrine is less for­giv­ing of fail­ure. The game’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion of death is char­ac­ter­ized by per­ma­nence, and play­ers who lose their char­ac­ters must start again from scratch.

Given those ele­ments, it’s just pos­si­ble that Rohrer wants play­ers to devel­op a healthy frus­tra­tion over the futil­i­ty of a sys­tem that invites harm and rewards para­noia. If that’s the case, then you can bet that there’s some­one on the other side of the polit­i­cal and moral issue ready to object every bit as strin­gent­ly as Kunzelman has, and on sim­i­lar grounds. “Rohrer has an axe to grind against the prin­ci­ple of lethal force,” they’ll say, “and he’s cre­at­ed a game that mis­rep­re­sents real­i­ty in order to force play­ers to his point of view.”

Is one inter­pre­ta­tion more eth­i­cal than the other? Probably not. Remember, no one is actu­al­ly steal­ing in The Castle Doctrine. No one is actu­al­ly being killed. Like Tiny Thief, its trans­gres­sions are rep­re­sen­ta­tions, ren­dered in pix­els and code. They are almost cer­tain­ly mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions, as all games mis­rep­re­sent their sub­jects to some degree. Both sides are inclined to under­play it in favor of stump­ing for a par­tic­u­lar polit­i­cal view, but the salient moral ques­tion here is one on which they implic­it­ly agree: is the game con­struct­ed so as to mis­lead its play­ers? That’s a haz­ard to which rhetor­i­cal games are espe­cial­ly prone, the temp­ta­tion to mis­lead being never so strong as when the goal is to per­suade.

L. Rhodes

About L. Rhodes

L. Rhodes is an Atlanta-based writer, squandering a perfectly good philosophy degree by writing about video games. He occasionally writes about digital culture at Upstreamist.net and can be followed on Twitter @Upstreamism.