Quicksave: Ethics of Computer Games


In The Ethics of Computer Games (2009), Miguel Sicart expands on his dissertation and endeavors to “understand the ethics of computer games” (Sicart, 2009, p. 7), a broad goal which yields an equally broad explication. The “big picture” point of his book is that everything people experience is ethical, because people are ethical beings are bring their lens of ethics to bear on every object and relationship–including videogames.

Chapter 1 — Introduction
Chapter 2 — Ontology of games as designed objects
Chapter 3 — Player as a moral being
Chapter 4 — Framework for analysis of computer game ethics


Identity—Sicart disagrees with Turkle’s notion of the “second self,” asserting that it implies a subordination to a “first” self which influences the second self but remains immune from being influenced by role-playing as that second self. While I believe that Turkle would probably agree that the relationship is mutually transactive, Sicart makes sure the reader understands just how permeable the barrier is between the first and second self:

“In Turkle’s work the presence of that first is somewhat unclear, yet it does undermine the second self’s ethical autonomy. I will argue that being a player means creating a subject with ethical capacities who establishes phenomenological and hermeneutical relations with the subject outside the game, with the game experience, and with the culture of players and games. It is not a self parallel to the out-of-the-game self, but a mode of being that takes place in the game” (Sicart, 2009, p. 11).

Again, most videogame scholars would agree with this perspective. Gee’s “identity work” principle states that role-play inspires personal reflection and fosters social growth, just as Barab and his cohorts detail in their studies of “transformational play.” The play-self is informed by “real” self and, in turn, the experiences of the individual under the guise of the play-self inform the “real” self by giving the individual novel, lived-through situations with which to contemplate his or her identity. This focus on the player’s agency as a moral agent is what sets Sicart’s work apart from prior literature on videogame violence and computer ethics:

“The way games are designed, and how that design encourages players to make certain choices, is relevant for the understanding of the ethics of computer games.

But the main argument of this book, the one that I believe marks a turn from the conventional discourse relating to computer games and ethics, is my dedication to putting the player in the center. As designed objects, computer games create practices that could be considered unethical. Yet these practices are voluntarily undertaken by a moral agent who not only has the capacity, but also the duty to develop herself as an ethical being by means of practicing her own player-centric ethical thinking whole preserving the pleasures and balances of the game experience. The player is a moral user capable of reflecting ethically about her presence in the game, and aware of how that experience configures her values both inside the game world and in relation to the world outside the game” (Sicart, 2009, p. 17).

Design—“It is not about how we inhabit a world, but how that world allows us to inhabit it” (Sicart, 2009, p. 36).

Sicart specifies that he is discussing computer game ethics, not simply game ethics in general, because 1) computer games have rules that cannot be altered or ignored by players; and 2) most computer games situate the player in a simulation, a carefully designed virtual environment meant to depict certain aspects of reality, typically infused with fictional elements (pp. 15-16). These simulations usually present more efficient, conveniently structured recreations of natural physical and social environments, filtering reality through a lens which focuses on the gameplay-relevant elements, and restructuring those elements to communicate clear goals for the player. Lastly, even though the rules are so powerful as to be immutable, computer games often obscure the presence and complexity of the rules which results in the “black box syndrome” (Salen & Zimmerman, 2005, p. 88) which “strengthens the supremacy of the rules system in the experience of the game” (Sicart, 2009, p. 27).

He breaks down games in terms of two “fundamental elements:” SYSTEMS and WORLDS (p. 21).

Of course, these two elements should align in purpose and function but, often, the rules of a game contradict the fiction of the world. This happens in XIII, when an amnesiac assassin is not allowed to kill a police office (his example) and in Uncharted: Among Thieves when plucky artifact-plundering Nathan Drake is meant to be an likable hero, yet players are forced to use him as an avatar through which to kill hundreds of people (my example). “The design of rules, then, can create values we have to play by” (Sicart, 2009, p. 22).

“The representational aspect of a computer game–its visual and narrative elements—is of secondary importance when analyzing the ethics of computer games. Games force behaviors by rules: the meaning of those behaviors, as communicated through the game world to the player, constitutes the ethics of computer games as designed objects” (Sicart, 2009, p. 23).

“Only when we have described the rules of the game can we analyze the game world, the narrative, and other audiovisual elements in relation to the core values and behaviors proposed by the game system. In other words, a computer game’s morals rest in its design” (Sicart, 2009, p. 24).

Sicart uses Jesper Juul’s definition of games to support his systems-world dualism of design, then elaborates by saying that analysis of design can be parsed into four categories: systems, worlds, both, and their interrelationship–“implying at least four dominant modalities of understanding games” (p. 25). In Chapter 2, Sicart uses Half-Life 2 to illustrate this point. The systems of the game involve the mechanics of shooting and physics manipulation, and the world builds a narrative in which the player character is a freedom fighter–and, more importantly, a friend to his allies. They work in tandem whenever the player must use a gravity gun to solve a puzzle, but they are at odds whenever the player attempts to shoot a friendly NPC. In those instances, the game rule supersedes the simulation rule “and these types of overrulings… are key elements for the understanding of computer games as ethical objects” (Sicart, 2009, p. 30). “Rules create the game; the fictional world contains it” (Sicart, 2009, p. 33).

Having rules, games have an ergodic nature–meaning the game as a system 1) states clear rules and goals and 2) evaluates players’ progress and determines their success and/or failure (pp. 30-31). The term “ergodic” was coined by Espen Aarseth and it is a “fundamental concept in the history of computer games research” (p. 30)–at least as far as Sicart, a fellow graduate of the IT University of Copenhagen, is concerned.

The rules of a game determine which aspects of the world must be represented in the game environment. Though a game’s narrative might encompass more physical territory or social interaction than is present in the game or accessible to players with any degree of agency, all that must be simulated are the elements and systems with which the player needs to interact in order to negotiate the rules within the system and achieve the goal. In this respect, “the formal structure of the game, understood as its rules and mechanics, is to some extent accountable for the end result of the fictional world” (Sicart, 2009, p. 32). By logical extension of the fact that the rules are the core ethical component of computer games, those elements of level and world design which are determined by the rules are also “ethically relevant” (p. 32). “In fact, virtual environments are constrained by the game rules, since all the elements that are not fundamental to the game are a mere setting for the actions of the game” (Sicart, 2009, p. 34).

Players are embodied agents, bringing their perception of reality to bear on their conceptualization of virtual game environments. Sicart uses the example of falling in video games, which we tend to consider a bad idea, unless the game (or genre) indicates otherwise. “This comparison [to the real world] implies that there are actually connections made between the real world and the game world in the mind of the player” (Sicart, 2009, p. 34), which he argues are on a deeper level than simply connecting the physics of reality to those in a virtual environment. Players also consider themselves embodied beings in the game world, having social agency–and responsibility–in the context of the game narrative.

The player, explicates Sicart, is the missing piece to defining the ethical gameplay of a computer game. It is not enough to analyze the rules of a game to understand its ethical design; the researcher must also account for the ways in which players will interpret the rules, react to them, create new rules, and psychologically process the experience. Sicart explains that the concept of “empowered players” is what enables emergent rules, like when an MMO community ostracizes those who harass new players (p. 36).

The “player-subject” is an ethical skin which an individual wears as a playful identity, co-constructed by the ontology of a game as determined by its rules and world, in order to remain faithful to that game’s ontology and optimize his or her game experience. However, this negotiated identity is simply a lens through used by the real-world individual in order to enact and interpret the in-game events as ethically meaningful. The construct of a player-subject is dependent on a moral being voluntarily assuming a role in a virtual environment. The moral being still has primary agency over the game experience; it is what determines the morality of the player-subject and, at times when the game asks the player to consider the ethics of a game with a level of self-awareness beyond that of just the player-subject, it is the moral being generating this player-subject which then takes precedence in interpreting and making decisions (Sicart, p. 77).

“To play computer games is a cultural process in which we grow up and mature as players” (Sicart, 2009, p. 89). So, more experienced players are more capable of understand a game’s rules in the context of other games with similar experiences, and are more literate in the rhetoric of games.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s