Beyond choices: The design of ethical gameplay.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2013.
cloth, 200 pp., ISBN 978–0–262–01978–1, US$29.00.
MIT Press: http://mitpress.mit.edu/
Today, video games are more popular than ever, with series like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto selling millions of copies on opening day alone. Successes such as these have shifted the gaming industry to publish more and more high budget sequels and sagas. However, not everyone is happy about this. Miguel Sicart, an assistant professor of IT at the University of Copenhagen, argues in this book that today’s games are often unimaginative or reskins of old ones. He argues that instead of games just being thrills or nostalgia, they can be used as an artistic medium to present the player with ethical experiences to engage their moral imagination.
However, Sicart’s ideas for ethical gameplay goes beyond choice making narratives made popular by Mass Effect or Infamous, hence the title of the book. Sicart calls for a much more subtle approach to ethical gameplay. He reinforces his arguments with examples from not only famous and obscure video games, ranging from the popular Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Fallout 3 to the lesser known Unmanned and Every Day the Same Dream, but board games such as Risk and War on Terror. He also uses other forms of art such as the film Apocalypse Now and even a plush toy in the shape of gonorrhea to contribute to his discussion. Sicart also implements a number of interviews from philosophers and actual game designers to explain his philosophy.
As for his actual theory on ethical gameplay, he breaks down the different elements of his theory into separate chapters to help explain it as a whole. The early chapters of the book define what ethical gameplay actually is, first by defining ethics and aesthetics and how they interact with each other to make a compelling experience, citing Far Cry 2 and Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead as examples. Sicart then defines what a game is and what games role in society is, using a rich pool of philosophical definitions and theories. He then follows with a chapter on players and player’s engagement with a game, explaining from what perspectives that a player might be playing from or what they might want to get out of a game and how to design games with this in mind, citing games such as Limbo and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
It is not until Chapter 5 that Sicart gets to the heart of his theory on how games can be ethical experiences through well thought out game design and problems that may have no real ethical solutions. To engage a player ethically, the game designer has to first give the player a situation in which they truly have to weigh the potential ethical outcomes and test themselves as a person. However, these are merely the choices that a player faces. To go beyond choices, the game designer has to create tension between actions and their meaning.
In Chapter 6, Sicart gives a number of examples of how games can be designed to create this tension to make ethical gameplay. The chapter has four key factors, which are narrative and characters, game world, rules, and context. Each section has a number of examples of games that implement these elements in their design including Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer, Fallout New Vegas, Dys4ia, and even the Russian party game “Mafia”.
As an avid gamer, I quite enjoyed Beyond choices. However, I do not think the book is for everyone, nor for every gamer. First off, not every gamer will understand ethical gameplay nor will they experience it, which is something Sicart acknowledges. Beyond choices also calls upon heavy philosophical theories and studies, which can be a little hard to comprehend without the right background. However, Sicart does a masterful job of presenting these ideas in an easy to understand way that does not sacrifice their meaning. Overall, the book is meant for game designers that wish to give these types of ethical experiences to those gamers seeking them out.
Overall though, I highly recommend Beyond choices: The design of ethical gameplay. Sicart makes a compelling argument for his theory that, if taken to heart by game designers, will make a more interesting game landscape in the future. Any designer looking to make their game standout as art or any game enthusiast interested in learning more about video game design and their potential to help us explore and express our values as human beings should read this book. — David Pettersen.
Copyright © 2014, First Monday.
Review of Beyond choices: The design of ethical gameplay
by David Pettersen.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 5 - 5 May 2014