Jenova Chen part 2: character vs. moral education

Yesterday I posted a transcript of Jenova Chen’s interview on Joystiq in which he discussed how his attempt to create a cooperative game failed and his subsequent conclusions about designing for moral behavior. This sparked some good discussion that I’ll try to recap here.

Here’s one exchange that transpired on Facebook:

Kristen Maxwell: At SXSW 2 years ago i asked Warren Spector about Ultima V’s ethical/political underpinnings and why we don’t see that kind of allegorical use of the medium… he copped out and said that games shouldn’t teach an agenda. Neil Stephenson did a similar dodge at GDC Austin this year when i asked him about the lack of subversive lessons in games (his book Diamond Age is about the transformative power of a subversively-themed game/learning device a poor girl accidentally receives). He said that it wasn’t in games’ interest to promote such an ideology.
Matthew Weise: There is no such thing as a game that has no ideological underpinnings. Politics are everywhere, especially in places where we pretend there are not.
Maxwell: Their dismissal said to me “we’d rather everyone remain ignorant of what thee games are teaching than take responsibility for it”

By contrast, Bart Simon of Concordia’s TAG writes, “Is that really the response to the situated morality of action that we want to take as game designers… to ‘make players see and feel what’s right’? Do we really want to come off being so paternalistic? Not just in interviews but in the actual design?”

While Simon proceeds to argue for a “label on the box” (“this game is designed to make players see and feel what’s right …according to the designer”), Maxwell and Weise point out that authorial values are embedded into games whether we like it or not (and whether we know it or not). Game developers create worlds in which, by design of the rules, what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is at least suggested or incentivized if not enforced. This doesn’t take volition or free choice out of the hands of the player – at a minimum, players can always (rage) quit – but it certainly argues against the idea that developers can claim moral neutrality when they create their games. Unconsciousness, perhaps, or ignorance – but not neutrality.

But what of the project of moral education itself? Simon jumps to a critique of how Chen realized the moral vision of Journey:

The fact remains that while Journey is a fairly ‘on the rails’ experience in which one sometimes gets the feeling of being railroaded (I did ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ and shed a tear all at the right moments I assure you) the opposite condition of some mythical realm of free choice and even handed moral deliberation most certainly does not exist.

Elsewhere, Sam Gilbert agreed that “it’s not really a moral game if you don’t have a choice in the matter. The multiplayer interaction is really sweet and pleasant, and you feel good about yourself and about others when you’re able to help each other, but it’s pleasant because it’s extremely limited. There are no moral dilemmas or sacrifices involved–you’re just sort of forced to be nice to each other.”

And thus emerges the ongoing tension between character education (instilling desirable habits) and moral education (deepening moral reasoning). Having not played Journey, for want of a PS3, I can’t personally evaluate whether it succeeds as a character education tool. If you walk away “feel[ing] good about yourself and about others,” then perhaps it does. But the lack of moral choice in the game would detract from its value in moral learning, except perhaps as a foil for discussion (as in this blog post!).

To flip this conversation around… character education seems to be the more intuitive way to think about video game (im)morality, at least among laypeople. Many of the critiques of violence in games concern themselves with how players repeatedly perform bad acts, rather than whether they’re making immoral or unethical decisions within a biased system. I wrote about this with Prof. Scott Seider several years ago.

Jenova Chen on morality in games

The Joystiq Show #028 pulls off a coup of an interview of Jenova Chen, who offers some pretty profound thoughts in response to Alexander Sliwinski’s “So what did you learn from creating Journey?” question. The answer, basically, is that he discovered some possible truths about the interrelationship between morality and the systems within which we operate:

So my biggest lesson learned is that human behavior may appear to be a bad moral behavior, but it’s not really their fault; they’re just following their instinct. It is the designer who creates the system who has the responsibility to moderate the right behavior you want. By providing feedback for the things you want to see and by providing zero feedback on the things you don’t want to see, you can actually quite control the moral value in the game…. It’s really the system that’s defining the people’s behavior, rather than that person himself is better or worse.

Full transcript follows…
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Games, Badges and Learning

David Theo Goldberg’s recent post, Badges for Learning: Threading the Needle Between Skepticism and Evangelism, is a worthwhile overview of the current thinking on what role “badges” might play in promoting better learning. He summarizes the debate within the learning sciences over badges as the age-old conflict between Kantianism and utilitarianism and tries to strike a middle ground:

Badges in short are a means to enable and extend learning. They need not be behavioral lures so much as symbols of achievement, expressions of recognized capacity otherwise overlooked. As with any means they can be mistaken for ends in themselves, but there is nothing intrinsic to badging that will inevitably make them so. And dismissing them out of court because they just might motivate learning for questionable reasons, as Cathy Davidson rightly suggests, is to do so at the peril of a good deal of learning they do well to prompt, promote, even proliferate.

Of course, all of this could just as easily be said about grades – don’t some children pursue “A”s as an end in themselves, while others simply enjoy learning, while others (too many) actively disdain good grades? To ignore the fact that badges have some intrinsic attraction for players-cum-learners is to miss one of their main strengths. Of course, that attractiveness can wear off over time, especially if players begin to sense that the badges are being used for not-fun purposes (say, grading).

In our experience with badges – and gamification in general – at iCivics we’ve found a substantial increase in player engagement with our learning games. Just look at the simplest metric, average time on site, and how it leaped after we added badges, points, and other gamification elements:

Effect of gamification on average time on site

Last month (February 2012), average time-on-site was 7:20 as compared with 5:40 in February 2011. That’s a 29% increase in time spent interacting with our games and other resources! It excites me to contemplate what might players be learning in the extra 1:40 that gamification helped create.

In videogames, badges (or “achievements”) can serve extrinsic functions such as summarizing complex stats down to something developers can analyze and use to tweak their games.* But to leap that far ahead in learning games seems premature to me — there is so much more we should be exploring in terms of how badges can motivate learners to experiment or try new things. Badges have been key tools for game designers who want to increase replayability, or who simply want players to experience more of the game they so painstakingly created.** And if our goal is to foster learning, isn’t there something great about rewarding exploration and experimentation when so much of the rest of our society instead punishes failure?

* See the latter half of this analysis of the psychology of badges on IGN by Rick Lane.
** See, specifically, the “Skate this Way” and “Uncharted Territory” purposes of achievements in this thorough Gamasutra piece on achievement design by Mary Jane Irwin.)

What games can teach us about justice

One decade ago, Edward Castronova woke economists up to the fact that virtual worlds like Everquest contain legitimate economies, and suddenly everyone was talking about them as living economic laboratories. I’m interested in how such worlds can cast light on our political economies, and particularly the question of what’s fair and what’s just.

This NPR Planet Money podcast (“From Harvard Economist to Casino CEO“) about how Caesars Entertainment Corporation’s CEO, a former Harvard Business School professor, Gary Loveman, uses empirical data to shape the gaming experience. Yes, this is “gaming” as in gambling, but the relationship to Farmville and World of Warcraft is more than semantic. Just like WOW and other online games, modern casinos have access to a deep amount of data about user behavior through their rewards cards. But unlike Blizzard, Caesars cannot tweak its formula to guarantee particular results — for example, making sure that newbies win enough to keep them coming back. They can know who all the flailing newbies are, though, and dispatch employees to make things right for them (e.g. comp them some extra coins, dinner, or a limo). As Loveman observes, the goal is to comfort the newbies who fall into the low “long tail” of gambling returns.

Caesars’ approach to resource allocation has interesting implications for what a just distribution of resources might entail in a larger game – the game of our real economy. After all, Caesars isn’t providing a safety net for losers because they care — they do so because it’s good for business. Companies like Blizzard and Zynga are similarly tweaking their rules constantly to ensure maximum profitable participation rates. How might what they are learning inform the way we think about the rules of our political economy? Can game worlds – whether Caesars Palace or Azeroth – provide a Rawlsian space to experiment with different notions of “justice”?

What’s so special about badges?

I’m here at the launch of the 4th Digital Media and Learning Competition, “Badges for Lifelong Learning,” and listening to the ways in which badges might be superior to traditional grades. The major leap seems to be capturing informal learning in a quasi-formal way that, until now, was only relayed explicitly via resumes or accidentally via Google searches. But it seems that there’s also a spectrum of assessment techniques that flows from totally rigid to totally open, along which badges are more flexible (nimble?) than grades but more formal than pure text:

(Quantitative, simple, rubric-based)
Free assessment
(Qualitative, rich, unstructured)

Ethics and Game Design : teaching values through play

I’m proud to announce that the book to which I’d contributed a chapter, Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play is finally published! My co-author Scott Seider and I contributed the chapter, “Video Games for Prosocial Learning,” a broad overview of how video games fit in the tradition of prosocial education. (I guess it was so broad that the chapter was thrown into the “Situating Ethics and Games” intro section to the book).

I’m excited, too, that several of my colleagues from Harvard/MIT back when we were writing this chapter are also in featured — Jaroslav Švelch and Sam Gilbert. I’m looking forward to reading their contributions. And I really want to thank our ringleader, Karen Schrier, for bringing this eclectic group of scholars (and, in my case, pseudo-scholars) to put the whole project together.

Of course I hope people will get the word out about the book, and that libraries will go and buy it, but if you’re not interested in shelling out $132, I’m making available an earlier draft of our submitted chapter here:

Download Video Games for Prosocial Learning by Gene Koo and Scott Seider.

Abstract: In this chapter, we consider the capabilities video games offer to educators who seek to foster prosocial development using three popular frameworks: moral education, character education, and care ethics. While all three of these frameworks previously considered literature and film as helpful tools, we suggest that video games are unique from these other media in the multiple levers through which they can influence the worldview, values, and behaviors of players. Similar to literature and film, video games possess content — plot, characters, conflict, themes, and imagery — with which participants interact. Unlike other media, however, video games scaffold players’ experiences not only via narrative and audio-visual content but by the rules, principles, and objectives governing what participants do. Moreover, many video games possess an ecosystem that impacts players’ interpretation of the game itself — for example, on-line hint guides and discussion groups as well as the opportunity to play in the company of peers in either physical or virtual proximity. We consider opportunities and challenges presented by each of these unique facets of video games for fostering the prosocial development of participants.

Would love any feedback on this chapter, on the book, or on the entire concept of games and ethical learning!

My heroes meet: Will Wright and E.O. Wilson

NPR’s Open Mic featured a fascinating discussion between two of my personal heroes, Will Wright and E.O. Wilson. Their overlap, naturally, was in ants, which were a personal fascination of mine since very young. I remember with great fondness that my roommates bought me SimAnt as a gift during my freshman year of college (it was also one of the few games for Mac back then), and I played the heck out of it, even though it wasn’t a terribly deep game.

Wilson is typically far-sighted in seeing video games as pointing the way to better education. While he imagines this future teaching centered on virtual reality, I continue to believe the greatest hope for learning will be in teaching systems-thinking, something that Wright has excelled at doing.

For Wilson, the greatest unanswered question in biology is “the origin of altruistic social behavior.” I suspect this question is what drew me to my interest in ants as a child: how these animals work together as a social organism to accomplish incredible tasks. And again this is the kind of concept that’s best conveyed via a video game – complex interactions among many small parts, as well as the ability to switch perspectives to take the point of view of one of those parts. I’d love to see Wright take on this grand task that Wilson has laid out: can altruism be the basis of a fun, exciting, blockbuster game?

Read/listen to the story: Ant Lovers Unite! Will Wright and E.O. Wilson on Life and Games.

Gamers with Jobs’ ongoing discussion on morality in games

Interesting chat in last week’s Gamers with Jobs Conference Call instigated by a listener email on the “trend” towards moral choices in recent games (especially Infamous for PS3). The caller wondered if games should offer better rewards for “good” or “evil” choices, which generated a great discussion among the podcasters. Julian “Rabbit” Murdoch noted/complained that in games, “evil” is often the quick and easy path, while “good” often coincides with patience (and larger long-term rewards). His observation makes me wonder whether such gameplay implicates not so much morality (right vs wrong) than virtue – specifically, the virtue of patience. This particular approach to virtue is particularly interesting given that video games have a reputation as tools of twitchy, instant gratification.

In that same podcast, Rabbit also emphasizes that it makes more sense to tie the consequences of moral choices to story outcomes, much more so than game effects like upgraded weapons or skills, although the distinction can be blurry. (The example he gives is villagers giving you critical information in gratitude for helping the village). This division between gameplay and story illustrates the continuing incapacity of games to make stories into games, which I argue is because remains an absence of a social physics engine which would make such gameplay as fun as throwing objects around using existing physics engines.

Video game interfaces for real-life war

XBox sniper controls?

XBox sniper controls?

As war becomes increasingly virtual, will it also become increasingly inhuman and thus inhumane? PW Singer lays out issues related to this question at TED, posted recently, in which he specifically cites Grand Theft Auto as evidence that “we do things in video games we wouldn’t do face-to-face.” He quotes one soldier who specifically says, “It’s like a video game.” Yet Singer also acknowledges that Predator Drone pilots apparently suffer higher rates of PTSD than their on-the-ground counterparts.

Will video game interfaces make what Singer terms “cubicle warriors” cold-blooded killers? Right now these remote-controlled robots largely borrow hardware interfaces from video games — see the image linked from this FOX News story or check out minute 10:30 in Singer’s talk. But what happens if and when they begin borrowing software interfaces from games as well? (The remote-control systems do already feature crosshair targets — but video games had first taken that from real guns.) Is an Ender’s Game scenario — when the soldier doesn’t even realize he is fighting a real battle — possible?

Interface design isn’t quite the same as “codelaw” — that is, embodying laws in code — but in some ways it’s even more powerful, and therefore more potentially insidious. Many of the examples of choice-shaping that Thaler and Sunstein cite in Nudge are, in fact, interface innovations. But if interfaces can dehumanize, can they also re-humanize? Video games are not known for their emotional range, but I agree with those who believe that’s a matter of historical accident, not destiny. If video games can evoke authentic emotion, can we infuse it into our military software interfaces? The fact that Predator drone pilots suffer PTSD suggests that a digital screen need not cripple our humanity.

(Thanks to colleague Ed Popko for flagging these to my attention!)

Peter Molyneux on good and evil

In this in-depth interview with Gamasutra (May 1), game developer Peter Molyneux explains how he approaches offering players deep moral choices:

PM: What’s fascinating about it is that when we thought about good and evil, it’s so tempting to say, “Well, good is saving lives, and evil is hurting lives and killing people.” But actually, I think where the real emotion comes is when you really start testing people.

If I said to you, “Your family is over there. What would you do to save them?” “Well, I would do anything.” “Really? Would you really do anything? Would you actually kill a thousand people to save your family? And what does that say about you?”

I think, finally, that decision made people think, because it forced them to think, “My goodness, my natural reaction is of course I’d save my family. Of course I would save the people I love.” But actually, when it comes down to it, would you? Would you sacrifice everything for that very selfish act of having what you want? There are a lot of philosophical questions that come up in your mind when you’re doing that.

David Nieborg had written an excellent review of Fable 2’s moral dimensions earlier.