Ethics, Gaming and Problematic Knowledge

From a teacher’s perspective, the Quality Teaching Framework is an important professional document supporting learning in NSW schools. At a glance, for readers unfamiliar with the QTF framework, here’s an overview:

I’d like to relate a recent and ongoing class conversation, related to the element of ‘problematic knowledge’, raised in dialogue with some experts Year 10 engaged about ‘ethics’ and ‘gaming’.

My Year 10 English class interviewed Jeremy Ray, the presenter of ’5 Inch Floppy’, about an episode of his online video game review show exploring ‘unethical game design‘. I was pleased with the quality of the interview and my class were definitely stimulated by the experience of connecting with the presenter, as a follow-up to our original lesson and as part of our ‘Connected?’ unit. Twitter and Skype were useful tools and we recorded using Screenflow, uploaded to YouTube and the class blog.

NB The boys are doing a PIP (Personal Interest Project) and I am modelling connecting with experts to learn more about a topic. They will do something similar before the end of the year to make some kind of product – film, blog, wiki, documentary etc. – that reveals their learning (process).

Mike Jones has extensive experience writing and lecturing about screen media. His work on gaming and narrative is very impressive and a brilliant keynote presentation at an ETA conference several years ago memorably employed Half Life 2 to explore the emerging conventions of this genre. I contacted Mike regarding the unit and what we had been doing. He had a number of intelligent challenges:

I find the notion of ‘ethical game design’ intriguing, as essentially I have no idea what ‘ethical game design is’. I’ve certainly never heard of the phrase as some kind of umbrella term for a particular kind of game design process, nor as a game genre. 

My first reaction, I must confess, is not a positive one.

Mike goes on to explain his perspective further:

To play devil’s advocate I would say that to suggest there is such a thing as ‘ethical game design’ is to imply that there is a dominance of ‘unethical game design’. And this I find a rather useless and unproductive distinction that cannot be validated. An arbitrary, presumptive, perhaps moralistic assertion rather than a viable analytical distinction.

Such a categorisation has no place in discussion of other artforms – we don’t talk about ethical and unethical filmmaking, or ethical sculpture or painting so why should we categorize Ethical Game design as separate and apart? 

If we except that games are an artform just like any other creative endeavor, then what separates them is quality, craft, process and popularity. All subjective certainly but all can be informed by tangible measures and arguments. But, to bring a notion of whether a game is ‘ethical’ or whether it was made ‘ethically’ into the discussion, to me, is not helpful or tenable. Who is to say whether a art work is ethical or not? Just because a game has violence or depicts ideas that some might find offensive does not make it unethical. That’s a dark road that leads to censorship and book burning.”

Mike’s commentary certainly gives our class something to wrestle with in the coming weeks and, I would suggest, decades. Jeremy Ray’s (and some of his interviewee’s) points about the concern the game industry needs to show regarding unethical game design seemed like common sense to the class, most of them avid gamers, but now a much deeper conversation is taking place. My class (and the teacher) especially needs to grapple with the notion of ‘problematic knowledge’ that Mike’s commentary raises.

 What are your reflections about the QTF or Mike Jones’ commentary regarding the place of ethics in this discussion of games and game design?

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The views expressed at this site are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer.

16 Comments

  1. Paul:

    Mike’s comment is interesting: “Just because a game has violence or depicts ideas that some might find offensive does not make it unethical”. I think that might well depend on the audience. If I make a game that depicts or glorifies violence of any kind and then try to sell it to young children, although making the game is not unethical, certainly the sales act would be. If there were no ethical perspectives then we would have no laws on pornography etc.

    However, I wonder if this is taking us away from the original question of ‘problematic knowledge’? The idea that all knowledge is subjective is clearly post-modern but does it help in education? Would I be better employed trying to create a body of critical analysis in my students rather than reaching for the simple idea that everything is subjective?

    Probably raises more questions than answers but then I know we all have to use the QT framework rather than like its underpinning philosophies. Now, if we could call that framework ‘problematic knowledge’ then we might be on to something…!

  2. Mike Jones states that “we don’t talk about ethical and unethical filmmaking”. I’d contend that this is incorrect. We don’t find snuff films on at our local Hoyts cinema – why? Because they’re unethical. We also have animal welfare groups constantly on the tails of film makers to ensure that “no animals were harmed in the making of this film”.

    What about the growing discourse of how marginalised groups are portrayed in film? I’ve only looked into the portrayal of disability in film, and that in itself is a very healthy discourse that is influencing film-making. I imagine that gender, racial, cultural and socioeconomic perspectives have similar depth and growing influence.

    And ethical documentary-making is a given.

    I’d argue that we DO talk about ethical film making. Increasingly so.

  3. Darcy
    As always an intriguing post and you certainly couldn’t select a better topic to explore “problematic knowedge” in, than gaming. I think Mike has applied his own world view born from his leadership in the gaming entertainment industry from its early roots and raised leveled a major commonly held assumtion about games being “bad”. Me, I choose to first grapple with is the notion of ethics, especially in the context of the modern society, then seek for where unethical behaviour and gaming intersects:
    - Product placement in games (especially an issue for young people): http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/13960083/ns/technology_and_science-tech_and_gadgets/t/product-placement-rise-video-games/ & http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/thinking-tech/us-army-introduces-gaming-peripherals/9761
    - Gambling industry, where game mechanics are explictly used to increase the ‘take’ value per player especially in ‘Slot Machine’ design
    - National military units using games to recruit overtly: http://games.ucla.edu/games/marksmanship-training/ or subvertly: (I can’t find the game in my bookmarks but it was extremely well produced about leaving school & making money/decsions, funny enough the only time you made money was when you joined the army?)
    - Games used by companies to target young people into consuming foods of poor nutritional value: http://www.cocopops.co.za/GG_Educational.aspx (note the “educational” in the URL?)

    This is not to say “all games are bad”, but “all games are good” is no better assumption. Like all communication medium’s in the 21st century those who get the most of of them are the ones that trully understand them. Its about helping young people develop the critical thinking skills to deconstruct and evaluate them.

    Ben

  4. Hi Darcy
    Must admit upfront that your post makes my brain hurt… the challenge of actually applying the QT theory to real life experiences of students I know – significant mental exercise.
    Thinking as parents (again!), my husband and I have decided that ethical/unethical is very much a part of the game industry – especially the video game industry – and we find ourselves navigating through the mire of choices of games that attract the serious-gamer, young male player. We have decided that we cannot trust the reviews provided by censorship agencies to be reliable investigations of the nature of some games. Our choice of ethics is in conflict with quite a few of the games that our son would like access to, and that his peers have access to – regardless of their parents’ consent or lack of.
    Question being – what critical thinking do we have to apply in order to ascertain the appropriateness of game choices that our son will make – how do we as parents provide appropriate safeguards? Does he need safeguards? Even at Year 10 we would argue that boys still need help with these issues – that it is easier than ever for them to be exposed to difficult ethical decision making hidden within the nature of “game” – but is this preparing them for life? Or is it tainting their development of empathy? In fact many games reward unethical behaviour – games that we would choose not to have our son play.
    We have found that a valuable resource is a relationship with the staff of places like the Gamesmen at Penshurst or the guys at EB Games – usually a high percentage of male, experienced gamers who are happy to discuss the elements of specific games, free of judgement – just information provided to parents for their own decision making.
    Darcy, I just hope that at some stage our son will have an English teacher with the wisdom to put these issues on the table and open up the discussion – thank you for providing this model.

    debhoggoz

  5. mel:

    Rather than engage with the ideas, I want to engage with an aspect of Mike’s vocabulary choice which seems to me to create an interesting effect – perhaps a Freudian choice perhaps purposeful. He says if we “EXCEPT that games are an artform”. Does the sentence read so differently for that one word?

    Do we “accept” or do we “except” games as an art form?

    In either case there is an assumption that can change the way the ethical argument progresses – if we are talking art then we don’t need to go far back to remember the impact of Bill Henson and his photo and his claims to his photo being an art form. Are we then also assuming/accepting that art forms are exempt/excepted from ethics?

  6. Fantastic discussion Darcy. A rich mine field of ideas well worth engaging with.

    (and before anything else, my apologies for the ‘except’ vs ‘accept’ typo – the joys of writing on the run from an iphone with an over-bearing auto-correct – though as pointed out in the comments, it does make for an interetsing talking point…)

    My devils advocate position stakes out good territory to frame this debate i think and the responses from your readers are very astute. The observation that discussion of ethics in filmmaking is commonplace is well taken, though i would suggest the tone and intent of such ostensibly similar discussions between gaming and cinema is very different. The truth is that it is hard to seperate discussion of gaming from its polemic and political discourse; hard to talk about gaming to a general audience (rather than a gamer and game industry one) without invaribly running into issues of violence, children, ethics. Yet the same cannot be said of other arts. Though they may well contain all the same potentially controversial content as a game (violence, sex and ratings debate) the discussion of them as creative works tends to start with the creative work and its creative merit first (in all but extreme cases). There are exceptions – the Bill Henson example where the debate preceeded and overshadowed the work – but such examples are actually very rare in photography, film and visual art, where as they are too often the norm in regard to games.

    Im not sure i accept the parralell to Snuff Films (and their absense from the megaplex) as a way to suggest that Games and Films both fall under the same umbrella of ethical debate about what is and isnt acceptable. That would seem to me a simplistic distillation of a much too complex idea. And it also seems to subtly suggest that some games are like snuff films or indeed are capable of something similar, when the truth is that by their computer generated nature, they are technically incapable of anything like a snuff film.

    However, moving to a more macro-level view, there is no doubt that it is important for students to develop critical skills by which to scrutinise any media form. However it bothers me that these discussions tend to march in advance of any discussion of intent, art, narrative, voice, vision, style or form. Which is not at all to suggest that this is what Darcy is doing, only that in general it would seem to me that discussion of gaming both in the classroom and the general populous is centred on problematising games as a default position in a way that film and TV is not.

    I would argue that if we engage with games as art, narrative and authored experience first – seeking to examine their ideas, themes, contexts, motivations and narratives before any probelmatisation – then we actually empower ourselves (and students) to reach more rational, less reactionary, more considered perspectives on the debates these works spawn. If we jump to the assumption that games are ethically problematic as a first point of departure, we make very difficult any clear-headed conclusions.

    Im quite certain that 50 years from now we will look back at the debate around games and laugh in the same way we scoff at the idea that Elvis shaking his hips on TV in the 50′s would corrupt the minds of young people. There is nothing new about such debates concerning new mediums and there is also no precident in the past for such controversies holding up overtime in a significant way. 

    I should also say that the issue around sale of violent games to minors is a distraction and not a core problem. The ratings system is overseen by a diversity of community members (including hardcore conservatives such as Fred Nile) and it is they that decide what rating a game recives and so who it can be sold to. The simple fact is that violent games are NOT sold to children in Australia. They are sold to parents and adults in exactly the same way as movies. If there is a problem with children accessing inappropriate content it is a problem with adults making such content availible in the home. The problem as been the absurdity of Australias lack of an R18 classification which meant that games entirely designed for adults were having the bare minimum of gore taken out in order to scrape under the bar of MA15. The misguided south australian attorney general seemed to beleve this was helping the problem, when it was only making it worse putting games never intended for under 18s into MA15 wrappers. So overt focus on the problem of Violent Games and Children as a central ethical debate for games is wholly misdirected, emphasising a problem that actually does not exist at an industry level. The average gamer is 32years old, well educated with a high degree of disposable income. Teenagers and children do not have high levels of disposable income (except via parents) and as such, by and large, game developers do not design, market or make violent adult games for anyone except adults.

    Now having said all that, it’s important i put in the disclaimer that im not a school teacher and as a teacher of professional practice my responsibilities are very different. When i teach screenwriting, game narratives and screen production my only responsibilities are craft, process and ideas. What my students want to say and how they want to say it is entirely up to them. I guide them toward the skills to express but It is not my role to suggest what students can or cannot say, nor how they say it. 

    (though, the clear exception is when i am teaching documentary filmmaking. But this is arguably a quite different context as it is, by defintion, the “creative treatment of actuality” and so carries with it quite different demands, particularly around process. But this is a much larger discussion for another time.)

    So all this is to say, that i have very little to offer to the discussion about how to use the teaching framework to explore issues of ‘ethical game design’. Only to say that such a discussion, though very important, should not be in advance of the discussion of games as art. Understand the art first – its intentions, themes and ideas – seperate and removed from any ethical readings. Only then when the artist’s  intentions and ideas have been comprehended can a viable, rational position on ethics and ethical processes be reached. 

    Regards,
    Mike Jones

    • Mark
      I like how you talk about Games as “Art” I like to also think of games as “culture”, Fruit Ninja’s & Bio Shock are clasic peice’s of Australian Gaming culture.

      Ben :-)

  7. Carl Heise:

    Delicious discussion above.

    What is problematic is how knowledge is constructed, not that nature of content of that knowledge. In this case, I agree with Mike that ‘ethical game design’ is a misue of terms. Ethics, in terms of the English classroom, need to be held seperate from morality. Where Ethics seems, to me, to be a set of questions one uses to ascertain correct behaviour, morality is less concerned with questions leading to correct, than it is with answering the question, and expecting others to come up with the same answer. Ethically, I think we can’t present one view of a text in an English classroom – this includes ‘games’. Morally we can hold whatever view we like, but our ethical obligation is to teach students to be able to access the ‘how’ of a text in a manner that makes it as transparent as possible for them.

    I think the seperation I have made is a little clumsy and arbitrary, but it serves to keep me on track when I encounter a text I believe is problematic, for whatever reason. Ethics = skills and objectivity – where possible (and plurality/multiplicity of meanings). Morality = singular dominant culture view of a text (which is good to identify, but not to teach at.)

    Carl

  8. Darcy Moore:

    @Paul I quite like the QTF and think it allows many ways of seeing. I suspect my sympathies lay with post modernism and happily embrace paradox (even the paradox that post modernism is inherently conservative). ;)

    @ronda My blog will never get through another filter ;) However, you point about an extreme genre of film is well made. Thank you!

    @debhoggoz Your point is the main reason I am exploring this topic with the boys. I want them to see games as an art form and reflect intelligently on a range of issues that are outside their normal gamer discourse. They all know I have a long history of playing games which helps.

    @benpaddlejones I really appreciate your links and engagement with this ‘problematic knowledge’. I suspect we could do something with this whole thing on a number of levels and in a number of spaces.

    @mel Yes, regardless of any individual’s perspective on art and ethics, it will remain a vexed issue. Some comment about the Nazi exhibition of ‘deviant art’ in the 1930s is probably appropriate here or the heterdox Hindu art on the Sun Temple at Konark but I will save that for another post about ‘values’.

    @Carl Yes, I completely understand your well-made point about our role. My class was analysing the message in the program they watched, how they were positioned, appeals to authority and other techniques. Then Mike challenged and deepened our thinking.

    @mikejonestv Thanks for your comments, Mike. All I have to add is that my class are into games (and so am I). We watched the ’5 inch floppy’ episode where clearly the presenter positions himself as a gamer but says it is important that ‘we’ consider the vexed issues that are sensationalised in the mainstream media in a rational, intelligent way. The program mostly reviews games for gamers but this episode took a different tack. Encouraging the games industry to discuss ‘ethical game design’ and encouraging gamers to be reflective is an an excellent position to take IMHO and I was very impressed with Jeremy Ray (when we chatted on Skype) and his angle on the question we are exploring. Having said that, your position, about art, is of fundamental importance to me as a citizen and human being. I want art to be free.

    Paradox and the very zen sound of one hand clapping may be our next lesson. ;)

    • Carl Heise:

      Mike – my response implied you had not done that, when I assumed you had. Pretentious internet is bad. :P

      I imagine it would have been a rigorous and engaging activity.

      I love it when a class takes me into the field of Anime and Gaming, when we can talk Ghost in the Shell, William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Half Life 2 all in one class it is a buzz.

  9. Jessica Lowe:

    His comments about ethical artforms are interesting. I remember in high school going to see Bill Henson’s exhibitions, and spending a lot of time analysing, even valuing the voyeristic qualities of his work. Later on, as we know, his work was seriously critiqued and the whole argument of morality was brought to the surface regarding his voyeuristic photographs of naked minors. If we are viewing material through the lens of art, we can tick off anything as acceptable. I used to look at Bill Hensons work through the lens of art, and I had no problems with it. However, if I was the parent of a minor around the same age as the individuals being photographed, I am sure I would have reacted differently.
    Just because it is “art”, does not mean that the “artist” has a free ticket to create material that is free from any accountability. It brings up the whole question: Should there be a governing body that holds gaming creators to account?
    The thing that makes this decision so difficult is the problem of democracy and liberalism. Mike is saying, if we are going to deem violent games unethical, then we are on a road to book burning and censorship- where lnes are drawn for everything we do. Real liberalism, in its purest form would be where no lines are drawn for anything. But clearly in our society we have to draw lines. Hence our laws and our justice system. We arent going to let people become mass murderers and place that under the art category- free from ethical laws.Because it harms people, and as a society we do not like to hurt people.

    I believe that Mikes argument that gaming should not come under ethical scrutiny because it is not separate from art is flawed. As I have noted; Bill Hensons work has come under fire and raised this issue. The other day I was reading a newspaper article about a new theatre production that displayed violent rape and murder scenes. Is this ok? In a purely liberal world, maybe. But our world isnt like that. Many of us dont like to view violent rape scenes. If it is out there, we have the choice not to view it, but when it comes to gaming- and young people- I think that they are more vulnerable to being moulded by the things that they view. And this is purely my opinion: The content that young people have access to, or that they are bombarded with daily, baffles me. Rhiannas latest crotch grabbing extravaganza of a film clip is just one example. When people release content into the world, they are creating a culture, whether they choose to believe it or not. Not everyone is a great critical thinker, or has great metacognitive skills. Some people blindly recieve the superficial messages of the content they are viewing, or engaging in. I am thinking primarily of children and young people.

    The only key is to teach young people how to navigate their way through this content, to understand the motives behind the material that is out there, and to understand the different ways that people respond and react to content. I think we need to raise up teenagers in the kind of wisdom that takes others into consideration, rather than raising up young people who do whatever the heck they want and label it as freedom of speech or art.

    By the way.. this is a very big argument!

  10. Jessica Lowe:

    What I meant to say at the end there was.. this blog post raises many significant issues to be debated!

  11. Deb McPherson:

    What a terrific conversation- many thanks for stretching my brain this morning.

  12. I suppose the term “unethical game design” will instantly make some think about violence, sex, and language in games. But that’s more about “content”. The “design” of a game refers more to its gameplay systems. How the combat works, how much experience is needed to level up, which weapons are good against which armour, which attacks are faster yet weaker, etc.

    I mentioned games are a marriage of art and business in the interview, and it has also been said that games are a marriage of art and science. That line is blurred in game design, as there has never been an art form like it. The interactive nature of it is a new dimension that opens up the possibility of manipulating the reward centres of our brain. This is power, and power can be used for good or evil. Currently, it is used for profit.

    Do I think preying on the weak, depressed, or otherwise vulnerable to addiction is unethical? Yes. Do i think free citizens should still be able to consume what they want? Also, yes. But the main difference is that gambling is restricted to adults, who are expected to be fully aware of the risks, and hopefully by that time have discovered whether their personalities are prone to addiction.

    And when video games use the same techniques as the gambling industry, they may be making a much lower dollar amount from the player, but the addiction can still be destructive. A very real chemical reaction in the brain is achieved, which in the worst cases can lead some to neglect important parts of their life. Many players aren’t even aware this exists.

    So while much falls under the video game category, it’s well known (and taught) in game development communities that certain games are similar to pokie machines, or Skinner Boxes, dressed up as a video game. Not only in regard to magical spell visual effects and elf costumes, but the disguise is present in the very mathematics the game is based on.

    It’s not a black or white thing; plenty of games marry meaningful fun with behavioural control. I believe when we educate people to recognise these elements, they can make better choices about how they spend their time.

  13. Simon Hutchison:

    Hi Darcy

    I watched the episode from 5 inch floppy a while ago and was a part of the forum at ‘Game On’ and discussions there. As a parent and teacher I feel it is certainly a growing area of concern. Concern not born from alarm but a concern that children are taught the difference.

    From an educational perspective it is important that students are shown both good and evil to explicitly understand the affects of both. For years we have been talking about the implications of ethical practice in the media particularly in advertising. It is in fact embedded in the HSIE syllabus in primary school. Games and how they are designed simply needs taught in the same way.

    Busniess, marketing and advertising are all industries that have changed immensly in the past decade. Often games are seen as the new media for that kind of exploitation. There is nothing new though about the exploitation of our senses, thought patterns and pleasure centres in the good old fashion sell.

    Putting games and gaming industry under a separate kind of scrutiny opposed to movies, tv and other forms of entertainment is kind of stupid. What is needed though, is for all kinds of media to be srutinised in the same way under legislation that supports a ratings system. One that is consistent, fair and considers the manipulation of the consumer according to their ability to understand what is really happening to them when they participate, watch or listen to that media. We don’t have one. The government has been very slow to implement something that caters for ALL media including games. People in those positions of power still believe that games are only played by children and that is where the problem lies.

    Once there is a system that places a rating on games, movies, tv and other forms of entertainment it doesn’t mean there wont be children playing R18+ games just as there are children that drink, smoke and participate in drugs. It will though provide the parents a guideline as to what is going to contain appropriate material for their children. It will also provide the games industry a system in which to appropriately market their wares.

    This is a very important topic of discussion and I am happy that you are encouraging it.

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