Wii Fit and Games of Guilt

Most games play on a narrow range of human emotion, rarely straying from excitement, anxiety, or awe. So it’s worth noting when a game comes along that relies on a rather unusual feeling for an entertainment title: guilt.

(In using the term “guilt,” I am primarily drawing on our colloquial understanding of the term, the feeling of conflict between what one has done and what one believes one should have done, rather than any specific psychological or philosophical definition. I suspect much of our understanding of the word “guilt,” outside of the law, comes from marketing for diet products).

If Wii Fit succeeds in whipping American butts into shape, it will partially be through imparting a feeling of obligation to do some exercise every day. But it also courts danger in this regard: a nagging game can turn off a would-be exerciser as easily as its non-interactive predecessors. (How many treadmills became bulky clothes racks after the heat of zeal congealed into lethargic shame?). Serious commitments require both a carrot and a stick, but too much stick kills the fun.

Wii Fit employs a smörgåsbord of characters to engage players: there’s your Mii avatar, the diagram-y yoga instructors, and the anthropomorphized Wii Fit balance board. While the Mii gives some basic feedback (its shape changes as you gain/lose weight) and the yoga instructors provide tips and positive feedback, it’s the balance board that helps you set and keep your goals and chides you when you go astray.

The balance board character, a strangely expressive white rectangle, is no match for the average mom, but skip a day or two and does serve up a “You don’t call, you don’t write” routine:


There’s no reasoning with the board on this matter. Go on a week-long business trip? Too bad – that smug little rectangle doesn’t offer excuse options. On the other hand, neither does it dwell, moving on with perfect cheer and letting bygones be bygones. Unlike a true nag, it never brings up your transgression again — the prick of guilt is instant and ephemeral. But it is there.

So Wii Fit, via the balance board character, “cares” whether you play with it or not, and whether you do so regularly. (Once you start, the game tracks but doesn’t mind which exercises you choose). A game that makes you feel guilty for ignoring it isn’t novel; pet simulators like Nintendogs also mark your absence, during which time your virtual puppy gets increasingly hungry, thirsty, and disheveled. The possibility of neglect, and the guilt that accompanies it, seems to stimulate some sense of care and responsibility.

Wii Fit doesn’t merely concern itself with your decision to play; as an interactive title that attempts to change the user, it also attempts to address your other, probably more important choices. Consider this sequence, triggered when you gain too much weight vis-à-vis your stated goal:

Overweight 1 Overweight 2 Overweight 3 Overweight 4

We’ve often discussed reflection as a vital element of moral choice-making in games. On the scale of moral choices, staying healthy isn’t high up there (except for the ancient Greeks), but this device of asking the player to reflect on out-of-game, real-life decisions is worth considering for application in other games for change. Particularly notable is that it’s the player, not the software, who sets the goals in the first place. The Wii Fit is there to help keep you on the path that you’ve laid down for yourself.

Set a goal Reaching your Fit goal

Is this method of reflection effective as a mechanism for personal change? Or does it, together with the goal-setting and the nagging, only drive away those who have trouble staying on the bandwagon? We should start seeing some answers in the next few months.

– Gene Koo

GTA4: reintegrating the divided self

2 faces of NikoBy the close of our discussion about GTA4 on Wednesday, some of us expressed pessimism that computer games possessed any capacity to invigorate moral reasoning or reflection. Matthew remained hopeful, but expressed his dismay that the critical reception of GTA4 seems to set a ceiling, not a floor, for morally-deep games:

…The series cheered (and criticized) for glorifying violence has taken an unexpected turn: it’s gone legit. Oh sure, you’ll still blow up cop cars, run down innocent civilians, bang hookers, assist drug dealers and lowlifes and do many, many other bad deeds, but at a cost to main character Niko Bellic’s very soul. GTA IV gives us characters and a world with a level of depth previously unseen in gaming and elevates its story from a mere shoot-em-up to an Oscar-caliber drama. Every facet of Rockstar’s new masterpiece is worthy of applause…
IGN review by Hilary Goldstein

Maybe Niko loses his soul, and maybe you, the player, care. Or at least try to care. And so maybe through its long reach, however flawed, GTA4 also opens new frontiers to explore, and it becomes our duty to turn that perceived ceiling of possibility into a challenge.

Andrea Flores, responding to the recurring theme of “schizophrenia” throughout the discussion, brought in the idea of ritual, especially as described by anthropologists like Arnold Van Gennep and Victor Turner, to understand the interplay between real (the player) and game (the character). Like the “liminal space” of ritual, perhaps the “magic circle” of games offers a passage from one state to the next. If so, the tension among player, avatar, and character might well be something to exploit rather than bemoan; indeed, I find quite compelling the idea of the avatar as a “symbol” that the player manipulates to conduct the game-as-ritual.

From a positivist perspective, there is certainly much to learn from real players’ experience of the moral dimensions of a game like Grand Theft Auto. (Grand Theft Childhood is one place to start; the GoodPlay Project, where Andrea and Sam research, is another). From a normative and developer’s standpoint, there’s also so much to imagine, to build, and to test.


GTA4: choice and consequence

Looking just at GTA4’s story, our playtesters also bemoaned the lack of meaningful consequences. Not only can Niko never die, in practical terms he never runs low on cash or any other resource. From a moral perspective, the most interesting – and therefore most disappointing – resource is Niko’s relationships. Among the player’s major tasks in this game is to nurture Niko’s relationship vis-à-vis his business associates, girlfriend(s), and above all, family. Though hardly innovative (see: dating games), the presence of a relationship mechanic in GTA, given its genre, is profound. The problem, according to our reviewers, is that the developers failed to realize the promise. You can have Niko improve his friendships by hanging out more with his buddies, and good relationships lead to in-game benefits (in other words, they matter), but except for a few notable moments, Niko’s commitments aren’t pitted against each other.

Perhaps the greatest enemy of meaningful choice is an overabundance of resources. If two options lead to the exact same results, there’s not much to distinguish the two. (Kant might disagree, but games and gamers have a strong utilitarian bias). Similarly, if resources are essentially infinite, choices that lead to varying amounts of resource awards are also essentially indistinguishable. Consider by contrast the Splinter Cell hostage scenario discussed in our last session: the player is forced to harm his reputation with one of his two employers no matter what he decides to do (though some choices are more Pareto-optimal than others).

To be fair, GTA4 does present several similar moments, but there don’t appear to be serious consequences of choosing between killing someone or letting him go. (Caveat: none of us has reached the ending yet, of which there are supposed to be two). Perhaps this means the player is free to make her own interpretation. Or, in the case of our reviewers, it ends up feeling empty.

LolaOverabundance has some interesting effects on gameplay. Consider the infamous GTA example of paying a prostitute for sex, and then killing her to get your money back. In GTA4, visiting such prostitutes restores Niko’s health when he’s injured, but it’s hardly the most efficient way to do so – buying a hot dog is both cheaper (in the game) and far more efficient (for the player). Thus while it’s still possible to pay a hooker for sex and then murder her to get your money back, the game mechanics give you no good reason to do so. In which case, why leave the mechanism in? It’s as if the developers just wanted to provoke and (as Peter surmises) invoke nostalgia. Then again, Kant would remind us that truly moral choice require immoral options.

As for relationships as a resource, Eric found that late in the game he had accumulated so many friends that he spent most of his playing time fending off phone calls and running stupid errands. This is realistic, to be sure (curse you, Facebook!), but a game that relies on the limited resource of a player’s own patience rather than something internal to the system is always at risk of inducing boredom. This seemed to be the experience of our playtesters, who bemoaned the lack of more meaningfully bounded gameplay. But GTA’s market success implies that the majority of mainstream gamers perhaps prize that wide berth of freedom, including the freedom to bore oneself.

GTA4: values at play

Mikhail FaustinGTA4, viewed strictly from a narrative, “playable movie” perspective, does offer a coherent moral worldview, one in which the bonds of kinship trumps other personal commitments. It’s not a universalist worldview but rather one tied strictly to, as Helen Haste emphasized, the conventions of a known and well-understood genre. Condemning any of the GTA games for “teaching” evil behavior would only make sense if players were unable to recognize genre play – a danger that some research suggests is both overrated but, perhaps, most possible for people who sit far outside the portrayed culture. As Helen pointed out, stories such as Hansel and Gretel convey their moral messages not because the audience confuses fantasy with reality, but they construct a system encompassing both worlds. (“The moral of the story” is abstracted from the specifics of the narrative: Hansel and Gretel doesn’t, I imagine, teach children about pushing old women into ovens!).

If GTA4’s characters take seriously their strong, maybe even stereotyped code of honor, there’s also a clash with the game’s sandbox recreation of New York City. Once the brutal edge of the Euphoria Engine wears off, Sam observed, the open-ended aspects of the game take on a cartoonish feel (Matt specifically cites South Park): running over pedestrians goes from sickening to interesting to flat-out convenient (given that the game’s physics make driving safely almost impossible). It’s another example of the game’s schizophrenia: what it tries to say departs from what you do.


GTA4: ruleplaying vs. roleplaying

PoliceThe GTA formula melds two types of gameplay – a rules-based “sim” and a plot-based “story” – into a proven, potently popular, amalgam. Yet sim and story also sit in tension: is the player gaming the rules or the role? As with the character/avatar split, our playtesters felt torn between the two. The tension, it seems, proceeds from the fact that very little in sim mode feeds into story mode, and vice versa. For example: considerable energy goes into maintaining Niko’s relationship with his girlfriend. But having Niko dally with prostitutes seems never to affect that relationship. even though Eric both dreaded yet wanted to see such a plot twist unfold. If the game aspires to having a “social physics,” this is a part of the game where gravity stops working.

Of course, as Josh Diaz pointed out, meshing ruleplaying with roleplaying is no simple task as a matter of both design and computation. Theoretically, player choices within the open ruleset should affect the course of the story. Such a meshing eludes our current technology and technique. The more open the rules, the more possibilities a designer would have to account for – in a fully open system, the player might kill off a character who’s critical to the plot later. (Thus in many games the main characters are strangely immortal until the plotline needs them to die). The designers of GTA4 upped the challenge by erring on the side of openness. As Matthew points out, they stretched out the system to make the gameplay “bigger.”

What’s at stake here is that when critics and developers address the “morality” of a game, they’re generally talking about the game’s narrative level. At that level, the player’s avatar has killed another character. But the level of gameplay or system, the player might merely be engaging in manipulation of the game’s physics engine to score points. Playing Halo 3 with your buddies is more like playing tag than engaging in a street shootout, because the most literal on-screen narrative (guns and ammo) is far less important than the system (physics, teamwork). So well- or ill-intentioned efforts to inject “moral content” into a game can be undermined by the game system itself.

GTA’s critical and commercial success suggests that there’s something to learn from its design about weaving together story and system. For one thing, GTA does offer a way out of the problem of the “railroad” plotline that plagues the adventure game genre. Merely providing spatial movement in open but inert environments is a tease: look, but don’t touch. (This was one reason I couldn’t finish The Longest Journey). GTA took the opposite perspective: touch; better yet, trash! Given GTA’s origins as a “sandbox game,” this dimension of freedom is unsurprising. If there’s a failure of execution in GTA4, as our playtesters seem to feel, perhaps it’s because this legacy obligates Rockstar to offer an even stronger, and even more tightly-integrated, storyline. The game isn’t just competing with other diversions for the player’s attention; it’s also competing with itself.

So, then, a hypothesis: perhaps situating a linear story within a sim makes that story — and its moral dimensions — more palatable? And a corollary: maybe empty freedom makes story constraints all the more meaningful? After all, eventually most GTA4 players tire of stunt jumps and get back to advancing the career of Niko. And, as Matthew points out, GTA4 cleverly unlocks new “verbs” within the sim as the player advances the story, offering new dimensions of experimental freedom as the plot progresses, essentially offering rewards for going to the next stop on the plot’s train track.


GTA4: character and avatar

Niko BellicGTA4 received strong critical acclaim for its gritty storyline and characters. Niko, the protagonist, isn’t a blank avatar for the player to inhabit and shape. Rather, he’s a character with a backstory, personality, and his own motivations. Have him kill someone on your way to an early mission and he expresses disappointment in himself, not unlike the hero of a Greek tragedy bemoaning the fate the gods have dealt him. The player is invited to respond to him as alternatively sympathetic and off-putting as his story and history unfolds.

Among the game mechanisms we’ve discussed that encourage moral engagement, probably the most difficult is offering opportunities for reflection. A character with his own views and a modicum of free will, potentially at odds with the player, could serve as a mirror to the player’s choices – a puppet that can question the puppeteer.

But despite the rich possibility in this schism between Niko-as-character and Niko-as-avatar, Doris found the experience “schizophrenic.” She found it hard to reconcile her own motivations with Niko’s. Sam concurred, despite going out of his way to “inhabit” Niko’s character. Matthew suggested that perhaps Niko and his story become a bit of an “ideological salad bar”: so as to appeal to the broadest spectrum of gamers, the writers create a character with an often-conflicting mix of motivations and traits, letting each player latch on to those aspects that explain the character’s actions and the story’s meaning in the most satisfying way.


GTA4: our panel of reviewers plumb for moral meaning

grand theft auto IVWhen we first fired up Grand Theft Auto IV on Wednesday night, the gameplay experiences we demonstrated – running over pedestrians, being thrown out of your car, getting into a fistfight with random strangers – elicited gasps from our somewhat mixed audience of gamers and newbies. But I found it telling that, by the end of our conversation, even the newbies seemed to grasp the images for what they are: ragdoll physics played for gags. The short half-life of Euphoria illustrates Sam Gilbert’s chief complaint with the moral world of GTA4: “Through repetition, actions become meaningless… consequences are few and minor, and meaning and investment drips away.”

The next few posts are a reconstruction of the conversation our playtesters (Sam, Doris Rusch, Matthew Weise, together with Josh Diaz and Eric Robinson) had with the full group. (I should note that I (Gene Koo) have not played GTA4 yet to any serious extent, so I’m relying on y’all to correct my mistakes). I was particularly excited by the new folks at this gathering that included Helen Haste, Barry Fishman, and Scott Siedel, all of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Dave Peth of WGBH.

  1. GTA4: character and avatar
  2. GTA4: ruleplaying vs. roleplaying
  3. GTA4: values at play
  4. GTA4: choice and consequence
  5. GTA4: reintegrating the divided self

Slate’s Chris Baker on the morals of GTA4

I find it interesting that the subtitle for this chat about Grand Theft Auto 4 in Slate hits heavy on the parts of the discussion that implicate morality, even if a lot of the conversation is about other stuff. It also seems to me that “morality” is often discussed in the negative, e.g. “just because it’s violent doesn’t mean it’s (totally) immoral.”

Here are the relevant highlights:

Grand Theft Auto IV is definitely not for kids. (It’s rated M for Mature, the equivalent of an R rating for films, and can’t be sold to anyone under 17. I’d seriously caution any parent to learn more about the game before deciding if it’s appropriate for their kids.)

But there hasn’t been any definitive research showing that virtual violence in video games can spill over into real world behavior.

A ringing endorsement: not proven to cause violence. (See Josh’s earlier post on this kind of anemic self-defense).

My friend Will Tuttle, an editor at Gamespot, compares the game’s story to Doctorow’s novel Ragtime. But he said that the violence was frequently unnerving, and carried more weight than in past entries in the series.
“They’re using the Euphoria engine to create disturbingly realistic ragdoll animations,” says Crispin Boyer, a Senior Executive Editor at the 1UP Network who gave the game an A+. “Nail a pedestrian with your car and they’ll bounce around like Evel Knievel botching a bike jump. It’s sickeningly real—kinda makes your stomach lurch sometimes.”

The crowd does respond realistically—some people will flee, and others will run aup and help or try to fend you off. An ambulance will be called, and some passersby might dial 911. In general, the way pedestrains react to you—and to each other—is amazing. You can actually just stand around watching people, listening to their phone conversations, watching them have fender benders and getting into fights, etc. with no involvement from you.

So, some rudimentary sense of social physics?

The lead character’s conscience is mostly expressed through the game’s excellent dialogue, and through morally ambiguous situations he finds himself in.

I’d love to learn more about this… if it’s what it sounds like, it evokes my memories of playing Torment.

For people who haven’t played the game: The protagonist is a newly arrived immigrant about to go on his first date. He suggests that they go to the “fun fair”, the in-game version of Coney Island. His date is bemused and a little put out that he’d want to do something so cheesy, but she feigns a little enthusiasm to be polite. And then they go bowling. It may sound mundane, but the richness and subtleness of the characterizations surprised me.

I think the deeper writing and characterizations add a richness and a level of nuance to a the game. But it’s still sort of like the Sopranos, it’s about very bad people who do very bad things, though some characters are comparatively more ethical and honorable than others.

(Hey, anyone want to hook me up with a PS3?)

– Gene Koo

Persepolis for Xbox 360? (cross-post from GAMBIT blog)

…In light of something as moving and personal as Persepolis, the idea of playing a game that dealt with repression and revolution like Just Cause did made me recoil. My initial revulsion at the game’s shallowness came surging back even more intense than before. Disgusted, I asked myself why it seemed impossible to make a game that dealt with social upheaval the way Persepolis did…

Read more on the GAMBIT blog

— Matthew Weise

The Police Officer’s Dilemma: the racially-enhanced shooter?

Should I shoot this guy?The University of Chicago’s Joshua Correll has created a basic first-person shooter to advance his research into how race influences life-and-death decisions like a policeman’s decision to shoot a potentially threatening subject. (Thanks to Nicholas Kristof for spreading the word).

> Play the game now. <

My score:
Game Over
Your Score: 610
Average reaction time:
Black Armed:644.76ms
Black Unarmed:839.96ms
White Armed:661.56ms
White Unarmed:765.72ms

That’s it. Cold, hard evidence that I am, as Avenue Q puts it, “a little bit racist“: I shot armed black men 21 ms faster than armed white men, and holstered my gun 73 ms faster for unarmed white than black men. For whatever reason, the game didn’t report back on my false positives, though I think the one person I’d shot incorrectly was black. And this is despite my going in knowing exactly what this game was intending to demonstrate!

While I’m not qualified to delve into the psychology of this test/game, I am — as with the Door Game — curious about whether and how this game creates consequence out of choice, and then in turn offers a moment of reflection on that choice. What kind of additional framing would exploit that teachable moment — maybe, at a minimum, the ability to post a comment after seeing your results? Compare your results with others’?

Finally, I also wonder whether this mini-game (I hesitate to call it a “casual game”) can become part of a fuller game experience. Like, maybe, a special level in S.W.A.T. V?

– Gene Koo