Means and Ends

I’ve just read the Project Horseshoe report on Creating Ethical Dilemmas in Games and thinking about Kantian ethics and computer games. Now I don’t know a lot about Kant, but I understand one of the foundations of his theory of ethics was to treat people “never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end“. This seems to be in direct conflict with the usual attitude in games, which is to treat people (especially NPCs) and means, not ends. This makes me wonder about the viability of such games.

Part of the magic circle of a game is an agreement that this is “just a game” and so we can treat each other as means. It’s not supposed to be personal. Sometimes the circle can leak and games can have effects that spillover to real life, including damaged relationships, but the offending player has some right to claim that her actions weren’t meant to be taken seriously.

Most games encourage this attitude, especially when it comes to dealing with NPCs. They are less ‘people’ and more ‘units’ to be manipulated to your advantage. The more anonymous they are, the less you care about them (big companies have ‘human resources’ departments for this same reason).

So it would seem that, in some measure, games contain an assumption that goes directly against Kant’s maxim, which is problematic for designing ethics-driven decisions in games. Can you really expect someone to make any kind of ethical response to their treatment of a one-dimensional fictional character?

The debate about whether a game should reward ethical behaviour seems to falter on this point. If ethics is about treating people as ends, then any gameplay reward for, say, giving money to a beggar is immediately undermining the lesson. It is turning the action into a means for reward and not an ethical decision at all. For ethical choices to be significant the decision must be an end in itself. Which is not to say that decisions can’t have good or bad gameplay ramifications – in fact an ethical decision is all the more interesting if it conflicts with self-interest – but as long as decisions are made for rewards’ sake, they are not ethical.

It seems to me the only way to make ethical decisions significant is through meaningful role-play. Good role-play can make us forget the game and accept a situation as real. I have had this experience in a live-action simulation game, but it is harder to construct in a computer simulation as there is more to remind you that the game is artificial and take you out of your narrative immersion.

Strong character design is key. The characters need to be deep enough for you to recognise them as ends in themselves. Then you will choose to help or hurt them according to their identity, not according to the rewards you will receive. Establishing this kind of relationship in a game is far from easy. I can think of only a couple of cases of it being done well.

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Published in: on July 29, 2010 at 7:08 am  Comments (2)  
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  1. What if games provide recognition of types (patterns) of behavior, without immediate reward? Perhaps something like this, some form of detached or abstracted long-term reward, could incorporate the behavior into the gameplay without undermining the experience of a Kantian ethical decision, as you describe it.

    I’m thinking, eg. of endings in the original Fallout, which provide narrative closure that recognizes the large-scale decisions made by players without having offered any gameplay reward.

    Perhaps some aspect of long-term gameplay reward could be involved as well, and the distance of the reward from the individual choice would allow for the individual experiences to feel like an ‘end’ … but the line between authentic experience and game-able choice is probably a tricky one. My guess is that the key is not to telegraph to the player that you’re tracking their behavior in this way, ie. keeping the ‘reward’ hidden for as long as possible.

    • I don’t mean to say that ethical decisions shouldn’t have consequences. Quite the reverse, they absolutely must or else they have no impact, but the consequences should be narrative consequences not “game” consequences. For example, if I steal a child’s lollipop I might make her cry, and she might avoid me in future or perhaps tell her parents and get me in trouble. Those are fine narrative consequences and they encourage me to make my decisions on the basis of the effect they have on the characters in the world.

      If, on the other hand, the game announces that I lost 1 Karma Point then I am immediately prompted to think of the act in game terms. I am lifted out of the story and made to think about the mechanics behind it. And as long as I think of the game as just a mechanical system, any ethical connection with the content is lost.


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