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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.