I recently read Miguel Sicart's The Ethics of Computer Games (2009), and while I found aspects of the work to be problematic, on the whole I enjoyed reading it. Probably because it combines two of my favorite subjects: ethical philosophy and video games. Other texts have combined the two before, but I think Sicart's approach is perhaps the most intricate to date and, on many levels, the most successful.
I'm not going to recap his work here, but I will say that one of the things I found most interesting about it is that Sicart sort of eschews mention of his own values as a critic while discussing what makes for an ethical or unethical game, and this clouds the language a bit. It's quite obvious that, for Sicart, games that make the player or community reflect about their own ethics in a substantial or meaningful way are the most "ethical," and thus valuable social artifacts. I'm sure we'd all agree with this.
But at times he distinguishes the game texts examined as those that seemingly want to engage ethics in an explicit way; other times, it seems he is talking about all games. Indeed, calling a game "unethical" seems to imply more than a mismanaged game design goal; it's a complete value statement that seems to imply a lack of worth to the player and the gaming community on the whole.
It doesn't quite work out that way: Sicart bestows lofty praise upon BioShock while calling certain aspects of the game "unethical" (a conclusion which I wholeheartedly endorse), and while he doesn't delve into the two games' more enjoyable qualities, he does dismiss the ethical systems in Fable and Knights of the Old Republic as being flimsy and thus unethical. These are games that most players, critics, and reviewers alike have deemed worthy of play, albeit rather flawed in the way Sicart mentions.
My question, however, is if we are indeed limiting this discussion to games that explicitly invoke morality, what do we say about a game that is deemed altogether unethical? That is, what do we do with it? Do we as enlightened critics still play it and enjoy it, considering it a guilty pleasure that degrades our sense of morality? Do we dismiss it and go on to greener, more ethical pastures? When you invoke a discussion of ethics in your criticism, certainly you're also implying that what is most ethical in terms of gameplay and interaction is most worthy of one's innate values and intelligent reflection.
I guess my problem is that Sicart never places social value on the idea of "fun" as fun, and not fun as learning. It is evident that Sicart has enjoyed these games himself, no matter what he may think of their invocation of morals and values, but that fact seems to be hidden under a lengthy discussion of how games are powerful tools for reflecting upon one's morality.
But should fun take second place to ethics? I think this is the sort of question that all game critics wrestle with, particularly when they are a.) drawn to the subject due to its very "fun" nature, and b.) wanting to engage the topic of video games in a way that is particularly academic and thefore aims for something "higher," and grander than "mere" fun. There has to be a larger lesson learned, and a fun game can be seemingly dismissed if it does not meet a certain academic criterion (in this case: ethical quality).
To his credit, Sicart does touch upon the sometimes-lunacy of the "unethical games promote unethical behavior" frenzy, and he also briefly broaches the idea that certain unethical behaviors can provide a kind of cartharsis, no matter the design or "meaning" extracted from a player/community's experience.
But can't a game just be fun? Or, to paraphrase Freud, can't a cigar just be a cigar? This may seem like a horribly reductive question to ask in an admittedly academic-minded blog, but there is a fine line separating the questions of "Why do we need to elevate something that we simply know in our gut is fun to the level of academic glorification?" and "Can I call something unethical and still extract pleasure from it without somehow giving a part of my brain away to the unethical inside it?"
Two of my favorite games from this year are Sega's very well reviewed (albeit undersold) MadWorld and House of the Dead: Overkill. By all accounts, these games are designed as guilty pleasures. House of the Dead verges on B-movie self-satire, but it never really breaks the fourth wall in a meaningful way. It's a game about shooting zombies and feeling grimy while doing so, nothing more.
MadWorld comes closer to the kind of inherently "ethical" gameplay that Sicart associates with the voyeuristic gorefest Manhunt. Sicart calls Manhunt an exemplary ethical title in the sense that it offers a "closed, mirroring" ethical system of gameplay that compels the player-subject to adhere to rules that become increasingly ghastly and, if fully utilized, so depraved that it causes the "virtuous" player to be self-reflective. This realization, though tied to unethical gameplay, is itself an ethical end-product of the design and the experience of the player.
Unfortunately, Sega's MadWorld isn't so much about depravity and compelling the player to examine his/her own violent motivations and spectatorship as it is about tearing cartoony ninjas apart in the most visceral, hyperbolic, and satisfying ways imaginable. If this is "catharsis," I'm not sure what latent desires it is satisfying; the characters are thin and otherworldly, their deaths more fiction than fact. The whole game is pure stylized artifice and never (not even in its more serious moments, such as a reference to the gladiators of ancient Rome) self-referential in the way that Manhunt becomes a game about violent tendencies pushed to the brink by media voyeurism and survivalism.
When Jerry hits Tom over the head with a mallet, it doesn't really signify anything. But it amuses people. On what level? Well, violence can be amusing when it's not happening to the spectator. Nothing added, nothing lost.
MadWorld is that sort of unethical quagmire: a game about nothing, signifying nothing, invoking morality in the sense that it is about large-scale murder and genocide, but also providing absolutely zero ethical framework with which to engage the subject matter. And yet it's damn fun. It is Tom and Jerry to the nth degree.
So I wonder what Sicart's newly enlightened reader is supposed to do with a game like MadWorld? Keep the gameplay experience in the darkened parts of our brain, hidden beneath more appropriately ethical fare? Game designers would scoff at the idea, particularly when MadWorld is so successful, if not in terms of profit then in terms of fun generated. Your average, "virtuous" player and game community would likewise scoff at the idea of marginalizing a great game for the sake of gravitas. But what about the enlightened, thoughtful, self-reflective game critic? Aren't we really just a combination of the aforementioned parties—designers, players, community members?
This is an unfair question to aim at Sicart and his text. The book is obviously about engaging an interested reader's questions about morality and ethics when applied to the digital age, not about "what to do" with simple fun and complex fun in the grand scheme of things.
But I think it is a fair question to ask of gamers in general: How do we as human beings balance the stupefying satisfaction with that which enlightens, helps us grow? Can either one be considered a "worthier" experience, and by whose criteria? Whichever makes the most money? Whichever best reflects the conditions of our time and society? Whichever tells us the most about ourselves? Whichever we'll somehow remember ten years from now?
I don't have an answer to this, and I'm not sure how one would answer this question. In many ways, it's a superfluous question, as the thoughtful and academic will continue to be drawn to that which interests them, just as gamers in general will continue to seek out that which is fun. But when we talk about value—not just in the sense of morality, but the "value" or "quality" of an experience relative to the person experiencing it—we seem to put things on a qualitative scale that inevitably lionizes some experiences while marginalizing others.
MadWorld and Overkill satisfy me on some primal, nebulous, indefinable level. I consider both games to be well made and also extremely "valuable" experiences. If given the option, I would never take back the time I've spent to replace them with loftier, more intelligent experiences. What does that say about my values? I think it just says I'm human, and that I realize that there is a time for ethics, there is a time for the unethical, but that there is also a large, nihilistic time for the non-ethical, the part of me that doesn't care.
And if we're talking about values, I think that's a good thing. There has to be a Camus-style part of all us that doesn't give a damn, so that when we do care, when we do choose to engage the subject matter in a meaningful way, it becomes that much more meaningful... that much more significant to us. I'd go so far as to say that without games like Madworld and Overkill, there could not be a BioShock. That does not mean that one game is any more or less valuable than the other.
Just different degrees of ethical.
Read more on the Game in Mind blog.