Morality, Amorality, Games and Video Games

Note: I treat ‘games’ and ‘video games’ as different and overlapping, picture a Venn Diagram. For some thoughts on this, Games As Literature channel has recently made a video talking about the question “What is a video game?” that quickly teases out some of the important differences and similarities between the two. 

When they hear the word ‘Morality’, many people will roll their eyes. Actually, I do too, but that’s usually because someone is trying to put their system of morality on me, and I’m not about to listen to someone lecture me on what the rules of life are.

Morality in general, the idea of it as a system of rules or principles to live by is an interesting one, especially when we think of it in a somewhat ludological fashion. So how am I defining morality? I’ll start with google’s definition:

“a particular system of values and principles of conduct, especially one held by a specified person or society.” – google search

There are many ethical models in the world but for now I’m focusing on morality. Some moralities divide us into good and bad, some of them are a bit more accepting of human nature, but their defining characteristics are in how they function, they are rule-based systems that are accepted by and/or policed by groups and individual human beings for the running and maintenance of a social group. Monopoly wouldn’t work if the banker wasn’t being watched by everybody or if they didn’t buy in to the rules of the game.

Morality is not a human universal… because well, it’s a fact. There are a few models of ethics in the world and morality is simply one. As far as I know, morality as it has been defined above, developed separately in the West (Socrates) and in the East (Confucius). It might have developed elsewhere, but it wasn’t documented, or I haven’t done my homework. Most likely the latter. There are other ethical models called ‘virtue ethics’, and the rest of the world was a bit more flexible or “amoral” in their ethical models, I’ll call that ‘Amorality’.

Amorality, the way that I see it, is not the lack of ethics.Some models of ethics, work like machines, like morality (think the 10 commandments), some ethical systems encourage people to be skillful and play it by ear. Amorality is any model of ethics that doesn’t attempt to set in stone the way people should live. Amorality is an ethical model that is based in adaptability and flexibility. Think of morality and amorality as a spectrum between rigidness and flexibility in ethical models.

‘Games’ (including sports) operate similarly to morality; they are rule-based systems that are accepted by and/or policed by groups and individual human beings, but not necessarily for the running and maintenance of a social group. The goals of games are often different than morality, such as entertainment, social bonding, education, fun, competition, etc. But the point here, for this blog post, is that people are policing the rules in games. Some game designer or community made the rules for the game, but the people playing them have to accept them and make sure everybody else is accepting and using them too in order for play to happen. Otherwise, the game just won’t work, or won’t work as intended. It may be that when people change the rules of a game for themselves, they might actually be improving the design of the game. Or conversely, they might be destroying its original intent (if it had one).

What games don’t do is create their own natural laws. They just use the physics of the natural world for the background. Connect Four doesn’t require the players to somehow set up “grav” to play. It’s there already and so you can drop your piece and it falls naturally to its place. Much easier than learning to code, right?

Video games on the other hand have the task  of having to create natural laws. You have to create, even if it is super simple, a kind of physics for the game to operate. This is exciting, I believe, and is one of the unique capabilities of video games really. The physics can be as robust (within the technological limitations), or quite as simple as you need them to be. You can create new, odd, and wacky laws that operate in ways that mess with people’s expectations of how the world should operate. VVVVVV, is a simple example of this, and its super fun.

Some guy playing VVVVVV

Things get rather complicated though when a video game goes into the multiplayer realm. Now the code is taking over the social rules, in mechanistic ways. In games this was generally left for humans to police and enforce themselves, but not so much in video games. This has interesting, exciting, messy and possibly disturbing consequences if we take video games as a metaphor for how the world is being run. As scientific and technological capacity progresses, humans continue to to mechanize the rule of law (codified morality) in the real world as they do their game worlds. The rule of law combined with mechanistic laws is basically morality on crack, and the coercive and assimilative power it wields may only fare well for those who are in control of such systems. Games can indeed teach a lot! Morality codified and mechanistically applied to people does not create flexibility in human behavior, it eliminates it. Hyper-morality in the real world. No judge, just prison, or whatever.

Some of the fun of games are people’s failures to follow the rules or people’s sneaky tricks to get around certain rules. This kind of emergent social play that can happen within the game space and as video games take over, rules get quite oddly mutated. The multiplayer video game tends to manage people in the ways akin to the way they manage their natural laws. There isn’t usually someone policing the players’ use  of a weapon in an unconventional way in a local multiplayer match in your favorite shooter game. You  cannot decide to load your gun with different ammo, throw it, shoot yourself with it, or whatever, unless it is specifically programmed into the game. There aren’t mistakes by the referees in walking over the line in NBA 2K16, it will catch you every time, like a natural law.

There are game designs that are more ‘amoral’, but I don’t think games like this have hit their full potential. Amoral game types are more closely akin to the ‘multiplayer sandbox games’. I believe this is one of the real reasons why Minecraft was such a hit; its amorality. They set up the physical world, the natural laws and let people play together in it. Of course, games like Rust, are geared towards people being violent towards each other, being able to craft weapons and fortifications, but not really able to have robust social interaction with other players.

It would be interesting to see a multiplayer game with a robust physics simulation  and with as much social connection as possible, without attempting to control the players behavior in it. It would be interesting to see what happens. Of course, this game will probably not be made, not in this day and age, because all multiplayer games are subject to monitoring and control by governments. It would be the equivalent of the dark Internet of video games, but without being connected to the real world. But who am I kidding? It will probably be a place where people will just do a bunch of bad stuff.

You can’t take an English speaker, plop them in in the middle of China and not expect them to try to find someone to speak English with. That is, players raised in the world today will most likely just bring morality, violence and everything else they were raised with into this  imaginary sandbox game. Like many a religious person who lost their faith, the ‘non-believer’ usually ends up being just as religious to whatever it is they choose to adopt in stead.

I ran out of coffee before finishing this one. Maybe that’s why it ended up a bit cynical. 😉





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