- The Ethics of Computer Games
Electronic Arts’ decision to erase the Taliban from the most recent iteration of the Medal of Honor first-person shooter series came as a response to public pressures about the propriety of allowing impressionable gamers to take on the role of Taliban fighters in a game oriented around the contemporary war in Afghanistan. Those who protested the Taliban’s inclusion wondered how it could ever be right for any game to purposely invite identification with a present-day enemy. These kinds of controversies are not new when it comes to responses to computer games. Over the past three decades, both popular and academic discourses have flourished around questions of video game effects, especially surrounding issues of violent computer games and effects.
Miguel Sicart’s recent work, The Ethics of Computer Games, begins by acknowledging the broader controversies concerning computer games, but chooses to address these concerns from a different perspective. Rather than [End Page 398] looking at effects, Sicart aims to provide readers with some philosophical tools that allow for an engagement with questions about the ethics of computer games and those who play them. His primary argument advocates an understanding of computer games as ethical objects and experiences and those who play them as ethical agents. This perspective provides a useful counter to popular perceptions and to effects scholarship that has too often assumed a technological determinism that perceives gamers as passive receptacles.
Sicart begins by carefully defining computer games and distinguishing them from their analog counterparts in order to get at the ontology of the computer game. In following from a ludological perspective, Sicart explains how the core of a computer game exists in its incredibly complex, computer powered system(s) of rules, what these rules allow in the game world, and, more importantly, how these rules cannot be negotiated as play occurs. Sicart argues that computer game rules exercise tremendous power for the way they embed values that shape the gamer’s experience. These rules and what they potentially mean produce ethical discourses as players engage their boundaries.
It is these players that sit at the core of Sicart’s argument. For all their formal properties, computer games and their rules systems must be experienced by gamers who make choices, some of which are ethical. Sicart draws on Aristotle to argue that computer games exist as potentialities in their rules that are then activated by players as they experience the game. From Foucault, Sicart sees games as power structures producing player-subjects and subjectivities. Becoming a player-subject combines both ethical thinking in and from the game’s rules and ethical thinking from experience outside the game. This argument about ethics and the player-subject allows Sicart to defend controversial games like the Grand Theft Auto series. If player-subjects have a capacity to develop and exercise moral reasoning, then even unethical games may be meaningful for this development to occur.
Sicart focuses on the game as system, the player’s moral reasoning within the game, and the player’s reasoning as members of a broader community. These three elements forge the locus of a virtue ethics approach to computer games. The virtuous player makes choices afforded by the game system and in a dialogic relation to a given game community. Sicart also emphasizes these kinds of virtuous choices by turning to information ethics and its notion of the infosphere. He suggests that computer games and the communities they produce can be understood as infospheres, ecosystems in which virtuous player choices have the capacity to responsibly exercise what he terms “creative stewardship” (135). Virtuous choices come from gamers themselves and their ability to exercise moral choices in a given game. Games that disallow these choices represent poor ethical game design.
For Sicart, ethical game design allows gamers to reflect on ethics while unethical game design disallows this reflection. The most ethical games encourage gamers to confront ethical dilemmas as part of an experience of [End Page 399] the game’s rules and encourage virtuous gamers to think about their in-game decisions through...