Quicksave: Values at Play

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In the book Values at Play in Digital Games (2014), Mary Flanagan and Helen Nissenbaum write about how various values—primarily ethical and political values—are evidenced in videogames, and how designers can consciously integrate values into the play experience. Though they choose to focus on ethical and political values, the Values at Play model is culturally agnostic and is a value-free tool to analyze how people can communicate values through play.

Summary: Their “core premises: (1) there are common (not necessarily universal) values; (2) artifacts may embody ethical and political values; and (3) steps taken in design and development have the power to affect the nature of these values” (Flanagan & Nissenbaum, 2014, p. 11).

“We propose three key reasons why it’s important to study values in games. First, the study of games enriches our understanding of how deep seated sociocultural patterns are reflected in norms of participation, play, and communication. Second, the growth in digital media and expanding cultural significance of games constitutes both an opportunity and responsibility for the design community to reflect on the values that are expressed in games. Third, games have emerged as the media paradigm of the twenty-first century, surpassing film and television in popularity; they have the power to shape work, learning, health care, and more” (Flanagan & Nissenbaum, 2014, p. 3).

They believe, as I do, that Schön’s work on reflective practice is a key conceptual link in fostering conscientious social agents (p. 11).

In Chapter 3, they–along with contributing writer Jonathan Belman–create a list of aspects of games which can be used to promote values through play:

  1. Narrarive premise and goals
  2. Characters
  3. Actions in game
  4. Player choice
  5. Rules for interaction with other players and nonplayable characters
  6. Rules for interaction with the environment
  7. Point of view
  8. Hardware
  9. Interface
  10. Game engine and software
  11. Context of play
  12. Rewards
  13. Strategies
  14. Game maps
  15. Aesthetics

They also coin the Values at Play (VAP) heuristic, which is supposed to be “a hands-on, dynamic approach to considering values in design” (p. 75). Its three components—discovery, implementation, and verification—represent the design, development, and assessment of values-focused game.

The chapter on discovery can be summarized like this:

  1. “key actors” = get the right people involved
  2. “functional description” = understand your intent
  3. “societal input” = be mindful of context
  4. “technical constraints” = don’t design something unattainable
  5. “defining values” = craft a clear and consistent meaning

The last chapter (that is written by the authors, not a contributing writer) focuses on verification, on the assessment of games designed to convey values through play.

“Verification is crucial to any technological system. It is relatively simple to verify that a toaster achieves its aim of browning bread evenly without blowing a fuse. It is somewhat more difficult to verify that a Web search engine finds what users are seeking. Verifying values in games poses even greater challenges, primarily because assessment must take into account the complex interdependencies among the game (as artifact), its players, and the context of play” (Flanagan & Nissenbaum, 2014, p. 119).

They suggest three interpretations of the idea that games have verifiable values:

  1. people change their attitudes, beliefs, and actions
  2. appreciation and understanding are broadened and/or deepened
  3. a game could have a “systematic impact on players’ attitudes, empathy, or affect” (p. 120)

They fail to outline a rigorous methodology of verification, but they do encourage the reader to think about verifying values in play just as a designer would assess any other aspect of a game’s design—as an iterative process which should be assessed and reassessed continuously, by many groups of people, throughout the entirety of game production. Essentially, they suggest the same three methods which game designers already use: meetings, playtests, and scientific assessments.

Review: It’s a good book to read if you’re just starting to think about how games can be designed to convey values. However, if you’ve read other scholarly books on game analysis, this one reads very similarly:

Games are important —> case studies —> here’s my concept —> more case studies —> generic tips for implementation

Their case studies are fine, but they’re not cite-worthy, especially since they’re basic descriptions of well-known games, with little to no reference to academic writing embedded in their accounts. All of the philosophy and science is stuck squarely at either end of the book. Gee, Bogost, and many others have written game analyses worth citing—but the ones here are just to illustrate the listed terms.

Still, their concept of the Values at Play heuristic is useful, in that it canonizes the pragmatic approach to designing games with value-laden play. Also, their list of game aspects is handy if you need a cite for an exhaustive list of avenues through which one can design or analyze design of games with values at play.

Verdict: Fledgling designers will find plenty of anecdotes and practical advice, but there isn’t much here for academics. If you’re interested in their case studies, it might be worth a careful read. Otherwise, you can skim this one.

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