The Potential Dangers of Minds Getting Played

I clearly remember hearing about a new kind of game back in the late 90s- a friend handed me a magazine while I was playing Descent. The article detailed a new genre of game: Alternative Reality, in which the content of the game connected with the real world, and the gameplay was woven through physical space as much as game space. The article focused on a game called Majestic. Even before law school secured my youthful cynicism, I was already concerned about the potential for disaster with this game: trespassing, distracted operating of motor vehicles, unfortunate confusion with actual crime- by both police and criminals, etc. The game, and the genre, never really took off, and so a lot of the issues got pushed aside and ignored for a decade and a half.

Then Pokemon Go came out.

I) How do we Distinguish Alternative, Augmented, Virtual Realities from Plain Ol’ Boring Reality?

As Jerry “Tycho” Holkins has pointed out, when someone is experiencing a reality that differs from the reality that others are experiencing, we usually conclude that the singular experience of reality is a hallucination of some kind. So, inviting a parallel version of reality is a bit ambitious for a species that still has some fundamental questions about the nature of reality and the capacity to perceive it. But humans tend to be ambitious.

Metaphysics has tried for several millennia to explain what reality is, and epistemology and philosophy of mind (now backed up by nascent efforts of neurobiology) have tried to understand how the human mind interacts with whatever reality is. These kinds of questions seem tiresome and sophomoric because they seem to be trying to solve a problem that we don’t have. Fortunately for philosophers, scientists, and lawyers, humans are good at creating interesting problems.

II) Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Social Media, and AI: A Combination for Confusion

The biggest danger isn’t really just immersing the human mind in an alternative reality. Literature and media have been doing that since the first tools of imparting imagination were created. However, there have always been clear markers about the borders of fiction and reality: the edges of pages, the entrance to the theater, the “play” button. Since video games started making recognizable depictions of reality, political bodies have been concerned with the ability of the mind to keep the fiction of the game separate from reality.

Some games have recently made a deliberate effort to blur the distinction between the game and reality. In Batman: Arkham Asylum, the villain Scarecrow created a visual effect that looked to the player as though the game-machine itself was having technical problems. Metal Gear Solid villain Psycho Mantis had similar behaviors, interfering with the usable controller ports on the Playstation, reading memory cards to learn what other games the player plays, and giving the appearance of technical problems with the visual display.

The connection of games to social media platforms and profiles perforates some barriers between games and reality. These perforations tear wider the more the game uses them. How much more of a leap would it be for a game to read the social profiles of a player and allow a villain to make threats against the actual friends and family members of the player?

This trajectory, combined with increasingly better artificial intelligence programs that can learn and affect both game worlds and real worlds, creates the potential for some bizarre problems that will still seem like science fiction even after the first time we read an article reporting on why a 22 year old is dead after a cat walked across her keyboard while she got a soda. It may not be long until someone is arrested in real life for a murder committed in a game due to a bug or an AI program getting out of control. Or, perhaps even more likely, some hacker will make use of the obfuscated and blurred boundary between the game and reality to either commit a crime or frame someone for one.

III) Pokemon Go: Traps, Muggers, Molesters

If these possibilities seem like pure fantasy, we should remember that we’ve already seen some of the first iteration of the dangers of people trying to handle two realities simultaneously. Pokemon Go serves as an example the nature of the problems and the sometimes tragic stakes of not handling the problems well. There have been reports of muggers and sex offenders using the game to their own malicious ends, as well as reports of accidental deaths and car accidents from the simple carelessness of distracted (or overly-ambitious) players.

If you die while playing Pokemon Go, you die in real life.

IV) Philosophy is still relevant

In 1967, Phillipa Foote introduced the famous “Trolley Problem”: a hypothetical dilemma of choosing to allow a train (or trolley) to kill several people, or choosing instead to intervene and divert the train to kill only one person. The problem was meant to probe people’s moral intuitions, as the goal was not so much the answer to the problem but the justification for the choice. Many people outside of philosophy dismissed this hypothetical as irrelevant nonsense that showed how stupid and meaningless academic philosophy had become in the enlightened, advanced age of the 20th century. Then, in the early 21st century, automotive engineers and programmers confronted the exact problem in determining how to program self-driving cars when confronted with similar dilemmas.

The story for the philosophical field of Aesthetics (the area concerned with understanding art and beauty) is similar. In the coming years, the interactive entertainment media industry will have to confront problems of understanding the boundaries of how, when, and why fiction is experienced. The analysis of essays on the use of the fourth wall and meta-humor will be important to cutting-edge games looking to balance novel thrills with consumer safety.

V) Solutions: Design for Safety, Be Helpful

The law can make some efforts to protect the public, but it’s almost always going to be reactive, not proactive, in these matters.

Developers should design for Audience Meta-Awareness. Yes, the much-touted quality of immersion adds fun to the experience. However, it is necessary to provide safety outlets for that immersion. The game creates a space- players need to always be able to see the door to the space and get out of it. They need to be clear about when they are in that space and when they are not. Games that actively seek out players to update them about the game undermine that distinction. Games that don’t allow players to put down the game, or don’t allow players to know when they have put down the game, are looking for problems.

The community can create safety nets, as we saw with Pokemon Go players acting as safety guards in potentially dangerous scenarios. However, if we’ve learned anything from the internet, it’s that groups of people knit together by cyberspace are not always a recipe for safety and well-being. Still, the more that games resemble mind-altering drug experiences, the more important it is to have a sober friend nearby.


4/14/17 UPDATE: One of my favorite web series on game design, Extra Credits, apparently also thinks this is an interesting subject. They provide a lot of examples of the concepts I addressed.


I’m Betting That Overwatch Loot Boxes Aren’t Gambling (under 31 USC 5362)

Disclaimer: As with all of my posts, this is NOT LEGAL ADVICE. This is academic analysis on a subject of law – and I don’t even have a good tool set (WestLaw, Lexis, etc) for that.

1- Introduction: Micro Transactions and Loot Boxes

The business model for free to play games is to include micro-transactions for aesthetic, trivial add-ons. For Counter Strike: Global Offensive, this manifests as the opportunity to pay a few dollars to buy a key to unlock boxes which are randomly distributed during play. Paying to unlock a box gives a play a random chance to receive aesthetic enhancements for a weapon (a “skin”). The rarity of the skins varies widely. Some of the most rare and prized ones are occasionally sold on eBay (or other 3rd party sites) for over $1,000.*

The question is: Are Loot box systems gambling? What about cereal boxes, TCG booster packs, or other things that allow children to participate in contests involving chance?

Some internet-folk grew a discussion thread to eight pages on the Overwatch forums discussing this topic, and not a single one of them reached for a legal definition of the subject at hand. People just talked about how they felt about the subject. Apparently, it takes a law degree to find the first search result on Google. Law has some flexibility – and that makes these questions difficult-, but there are rules, people!

2- What is the Definition of Gambling?

(For simplicity, I removed references to Insurance, Commodities, and Securities.)

31 U.S. Code § 5362 – Definitions

(1)Bet or wager.—The term “bet or wager”—

(A) means the staking or risking by any person of something of value upon the outcome of a contest of others, a sporting event, or a game subject to chance, upon an agreement or understanding that the person or another person will receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome;

[Lotteries and gambling administration]

(E) does not include—

[Insurance, Commodities or Securities]

(viii) participation in any game or contest in which participants do not stake or risk anything of value other than—

(I) personal efforts of the participants in playing the game or contest or obtaining access to the Internet; or

(II) points or credits that the sponsor of the game or contest provides to participants free of charge and that can be used or redeemed only for participation in games or contests offered by the sponsor; or [Fantasy Sports]

3- Analysis: Winning the Gamble Must be Distinct from Winning the Prize

The real key is in part (1)(A): “upon the outcome of a contest of others, a sporting event, or a game subject to chance, upon an agreement or understanding that the person … will receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome.”

Let’s take three examples that are not legally considered gambling: buying TCG booster packs, putting random prizes in cereal boxes, and… *sigh* there are a lot of reasons I don’t want to mention a certain online service that sends subscribers monthly boxes containing a random assortment of goodies… but imagine that such a thing exists.

My best guess** is that the law requires the “certain outcome” and the prize (“receive something of value”) to be two different and distinct things. In the case of cereal boxes and booster packs, the “certain outcome” is the prize. There is a chance of getting a Holographic Charzard, but winning only means getting the Holographic Charzard. You cannot “win” the card without, at the very same time, having the card: winning the prize always already entails having the prize.

In contrast, consider some examples that are legally considered gambling: slot machines, lottery tickets, and blackjack. In each of these cases, the outcome entitles the player to a prize: the slot machine dispenses quarters (“makes it hail”) as a result of the outcome. For a slot machine, the outcome itself is only a sequence of matched cherries or bars; for a TCG booster pack, the outcome of opening a pack is having a stack of cards.

This distinction may seem pedantic or petty, but it allows people to play games of chance without involving money. It allows people to play poker among friends for no money, or to made idle wagers for fun. It allows Disney to sell boxes of figurines with one shrouded “mystery” figurine included and it allows schoolteachers to play “Science Bingo” in class. It’s a tiny distinction that allows a lot of innocent behavior.

4- Application To Loot Boxes

However, there is still an interesting metaphysical investigation required to conclude this legal analysis: is the opening of a loot box like the opening of a booster pack, or is it like playing a slot machine? Is it actually two different events, or only one? Does the computer run the RNG when it is unlocked, and then determine the prize based on the outcome of the RNG? Or does the loot box already “contain” the prize before the opening?

Blizzard already told players not to bother hoarding loot boxes in the hope of getting future skins, because the contents of the box are already determined when the box is given to the player. If this is true (and if my guesswork-analysis is correct) then there is good reason to think that loot boxes are not legally considered gambling under 31 USC 5362.

I don’t know if a judge would actually go to this level of technical granularity, but there has been a long-standing debate about whether electricity should be legally classified as a “good” or as a “service” – and the distinction relies on a scientific understanding of whether you are being given electrons at your home, or just having your electrons vibrated. It seems like the order of operations carried out by a computer program is somewhat of a macro-level question than the movement of sub-atomic particles.


*A tiny cottage industry grew out of this: 3rd party websites that allowed people to wager their digital property from Valve’s game. Several of these sites were recently issued cease-and-desist letters after one of them was revealed to be promoting itself under false and misleading pretenses on YouTube.

** I looked around, and was surprised that I didn’t find a case, law review article, or law that dove into this issue with more specificity. I suspect that there has been a case about this, or at least an article – I just don’t have access to a law library right now.

Darkness In The Dungeon of the Mind

Unknowable Darkness

Humans are instinctively afraid of the dark because it hides – indeed, it is – the unknown. Lovecraft’s mythos is horrific because of the themes of the unknowable and incomprehensible. His most terrifying monstrosities are not horrible in their descriptions, but in their defiance of description. As subjects for the unspeakable, Lovecraft included entities from unknowable dimensions, beings of size and power that operated on cosmic scales and geologic time frames. The heart of his weird fiction was the powerlessness and smallness of humanity in comparison to the size and age of the universe. The difference in scope is highlighted by his use of characters of science and academia – those who focused on intellectual pursuits, those best suited to understanding, describing, and explaining anything in existence – and their utter inability to psychologically approach the weirdness confronted in the tale.

We can get through life because we know that Lovecraft’s writings are fiction, and the threat of Cuthulu’s or Azathoth’s indifference evaporates when we turn off the screen of our e-reader. But there is something as unfathomably vast, as untouched by scientific comprehension, and as potentially horrifying that we live with each day: the human mind.


How To Explore The Darkest Dungeon

Darkest Dungeon is a mechanically and graphically simple game. It is a roguelike dungeon-crawler (one of the oldest genres of computer games), with turn-based combat and a small world (though each visit to one of the five locations is a different procedurally-generated iteration). The general structure of the game is not a novel concept: you arrange, equip, and direct a party of adventurers through an unexplored region in which you randomly encounter monsters, traps, or treasure. True to the game’s name, the dungeons are always dark, and so the party must bring a supply of torches in order to see. The level of the light provided by the torch is one major factor that will impact the stress your characters suffer. As the stress of your characters builds, they may become overwhelmed and develop traits which undermine their performance on the adventure.

I’m not very plugged into the survival horror genre, but I remember thinking that the sanity bar in “Amnesia” was a clever idea because of the affect it had on actual game play: making the screen blur and making running actually more difficult. Developers have to make careful decisions about how to guide game play functionality, because too many factors on game play with make the game confusing and disorienting. Because game play is, categorically, what sets games apart from other media, those factors which underpin game play are core to any careful analysis of a game.


Stress and Psychological Damage As a Game Play Mechanic

In Darkest Dungeon, characters overwhelmed by stress will develop a random trait (e.g., Paranoia, Hopelessness, Fearfulness, etc.). This will cause them to have a chance of being uncontrollable—they might refuse to act during combat or act of their own (impaired) volition. The brilliance is making the mental state of the character directly impact game play: rather than telling me that my archer is overwhelmed by the descent through gloomy and perilous ruins, the game shows me that my combat-trained adventurers cannot connect their will to their actions via their mind—that their mind cannot function in that expected capacity.

My most horrifying moment in this game was when my warrior cut himself with his own sword during combat, while madly raving about his need to bleed. Maybe it struck a dormant chord with my memories of people I knew in high school who struggled with self-mutilation as coping effort for their depression and anxiety, but I stared dumbly at my screen for long moments after that turn. Stunned and aghast, I suddenly understood what the game was actually about: the struggle with one’s own mind in coping with a terrifying, hostile, dangerous world. This game is about watching adventurers break and falter as stress overwhelms them, and trying to save them from the total destruction of succumbing to psychological injury while pressing toward a noble objective.


Darkest Dungeon is an Exploration of Something Universally Terrifying: Our Human Psyche.

In the game, you are summoned to your ancestral estate, bequeathed to you by a relative who explored forbidden depths beneath the grounds. As you explore an ancient estate, festering with a recently unleashed and mysterious evil, the real exploration is of the corners of the human mind. As stress illuminates those recesses of impermissible thought and taboo contemplation, characters are set upon by their own inexplicable urges, vices, and fears. However, in an inspired and inspiring design decision, there is occasionally a heroic reaction to the overwhelming stress. A minority of the time, when a character is overwhelmed by the stress of their circumstance, a positive trait (in place of a negative one) bursts forth, imbuing that character with additional power and capacity to carry on.

The exploration of the mind mirrors the exploration of the dungeon: as you explore the unknown, you are likely to encounter danger and harm, but occasionally, you find treasure. Stress becomes the torch by which you discover the parts of yourself that otherwise remain hidden and unknown.

Darkest Dungeon is an impressive example of a game that incorporates mental health directly into the core game play and story without being either patronizing or pitying about it. Indeed, the entire mechanism seems so obvious: would repeatedly wandering into dangerous, scary places have a noticeable impact on your mental functioning? Probably! Yet most RPG-adventures and dungeon-crawlers have the kinds of heroes who are impervious to fear or stress, so this kinds of interaction is scarcely considered in most games.


Dismissing Horror With the Light of Science

Andrew Scull documented the shift in Western social approaches to mental illness over the course of the last few centuries. The general shift was from the view of mental illnesses as supernatural and unknowable to scientific, psychological, and neurobiological. As science began to understand the brain, mental illness became a thing that could be understood and addressed. This progress continues to steadily lessen the fear and stigma around depression, OCD, schizophrenia, autism, and other diseases and conditions whose bearers would previously have been ushered out of functioning society entirely. As afflictions of the mind are understood more as chemical imbalances or neurological disconnections, rather than as demonic possessions or as indications of a subhuman status, the terror of the unknown recedes, as shadows from a torch.

In Darkest Dungeon, keeping your torch at the brightest level minimizes the stress your party absorbs. As much as darkness imposes fear, light invites confidence. Just as Lovecraftian horrors would lose their terror if they could be seen, understood, or described, mental illness is losing its own grip of social terror as science begins to see, understand, and describe the tremendously complex organ that is the human brain.

May your torch burn bright.



Individuals or Groups in Fallout?

Bethesda released Fallout 4 this month. It’s the sequel to one of my all-time favorite games, so I’ve talked about it with most of my friends. As with books and movies, people often ask “so, what is the game about?” I think there are two general ways to answer this question for the Fallout games, and which of those two choices you pick may reveal something important and fundamental about how you see the world. Like seeing glasses of water as half-empty or half-full, some people tend to see Fallout (and the world) as about individuals, while others understand the game and society in terms of the relationships between groups.

1) Wasteland v. Shelter

The entire Fallout Universe is set in an alternate future Earth that results from a history that diverges from our timeline around the 1950s. In The Fallout Universe, dwindling natural resources ultimately lead to global nuclear annihilation in the year 2077- though the happy-go-lucky hokey culture of the iconic 1950s middle-America never went away. Pockets of the population survived the nuclear holocaust in large underground Fallout Shelters, called Vaults. In each of the four main Fallout games, the player controls a character that emerges from one of these Vaults to explore the desolate American ruins (called “the Wasteland”) and navigate the emerging post-apocalyptic civilization.

My own interpretation is that a Fallout game is “about” an individual: the player’s character, who emerges from the vault and explores the Wasteland. The alternate understanding is that the games are about a post-nuclear war America, and the societies and choices that might exist there. I think that the design (e.g, the isolation in the player character’s generic identifier) and mechanics of the game (a first-person RPG) focus the game on the player, rather than the world. The contrast with another Fallout game, Fallout Shelter, makes this distinction even more clear.

When project lead Todd Howard announced Fallout 4 at this year’s E3, he also announced a simple game for tablets and phones: Fallout Shelter. This game allows a player to design, build, control and manage a Vault of their own. This game requires players to optimize work assignments within the vault, balance resources, manage growth, and face disasters. In contrast, Fallout 1-4 require a player to create and manage a single character. Then the player must move that character through the Wasteland to find supplies, fight enemies, and make individual decisions in their interactions with non-player characters. Other game design elements also emphasize the difference between the focuses of Fallout and Fallout Shelter. For example, Fallout Shelter continues after a Vault Dweller’s death, whereas a game of Fallout ends when the player’s character dies.

2) Kierkegaard v. Hegel

It can be difficult to talk about some things that are extremely basic to our experience. We don’t stop to think about how we could describe the primary colors or define some commonly used word, much less explain three-dimensional space or what it feels like to feel. So, most people don’t reflect on some of the axioms they use in interpreting the world. Luckily for we plebeians, it is the business of philosophers to ask questions that “normal” people never get around to asking.

Soren Kierkegaard is known as the father (or grandfather) of existentialism, as well as one of the most prolific Christian theologians. He focused much of his philosophy on a concept of “subjectivity,” or “inwardness.” While we think of “subjective” as a term to describe something uncertain, indeterminate, or disputable, Kierkegaard rarely means anything like this. His use of the term refers to individual experience and existence—the things that no one else can feel or be on another’s behalf. (See also: phenomena, ownmost) For some people, this is the fundamental operation of the world: reality is only ultimately understood as individual subjective experience. This is not to say that the rest of the world does not exist, but only that the world is understood as an individual experiencing that world. This might be more clearly understood by a comparison to an alternative view.

G.W.F. Hegel is one of the most influential philosophers in history (just look at the last paragraph of his intro on Wikipedia!). His ideas still influence most of the humanities and social sciences, and in turn influence public policy and law. His most enduring ideas— synthesis-antithesis-thesis, slave-master dialectic, and other ideas assorted the End of History—all find their basis and application in a particular understanding of the world. Hegel understood the world in terms of broad groups and populations. Though he paid more attention to nationalities and cultural groups, Karl Marx would pick up his ideas with a sharper focus on economic classes, and 20th and 21st century branches of feminism similarly rely on understandings of groups of sexes, genders, race, and so forth. Whatever they type of group, criteria of classification, or mode of organization, this view sees the world as sets of people. What matters, fundamentally, is the structures and systems that guide the interactions and relations of these groups.

Except in the most extreme cases, neither of these contexts aims to deny the existence of the other. Hegel’s view of people as masses and classes does not deny that individual humans exist or have experiences. Despite his more polemic and attention-grabbing assertions, Kierkegaard acknowledges that large groups of people may have enough in common to be grouped together for at least the purpose of discussing issues at a large scale. However, these two base concepts are so different that they can have trouble understanding one another, and apparent conflicts between them can be frustrating for both sides.

3) War Never Changes, Even on the Internet

I’ve seen a few disagreements in cyberspace. (I’ve seen them in physical reality, too; the same precepts apply, but arguments are easier to dissect and consider when they are recorded in unaltered writing… because logos.) Particularly on subjects of social or political concern, parties can reach an impasse which I think stems from the same kind of difference that I find between Kierkegaard and Hegel.

Many disagreements feature an assertion of some fact about the world (in the form of statistics or data about large groups, large scales, or general systems and structures), which finds a response in the form of a personal anecdote (a friend’s experience, a single individual counter-example, a personal story, etc.). This personal experience appears to contradict the first assertion, and both parties reaffirm their positions without exploring the difference in the kind of evidence offered. Progress is rarely made, and each combatant will leave the fight feeling certain of their own victory, and annoyed that their opponent was too stupid to even understand such a clear and convincing outcome.

One significant effect of these different viewpoint axioms is what kinds of things can constitute valid evidence. For those associated with Hegel’s position, most single, individual experiences can be dismissed as statistically outliers or generally poor basses for public policy decisions. However, for those who embrace Kierkegaard’s understanding, individual experience is of paramount importance in shaping individual thought and opinion; larger scales may certainly be considered, but can never replace personal, subjective experience.

4) Believing in the Atom: Quantum Mechanics v. Classical Physics

In Fallout, there is a religion that believes in an inherent divinity of the nature and structure of the atom. Adherents to this sect view nuclear devastation as an act of creation rather than destruction, and see nuclear radioactivity as a source of both physical and spiritual power. The fact that atoms comprise all matter and can be split to unlock tremendous energy inspires awe and wonder for these worshipers. While that is awesome, I find it more amazing that the particles which make up atoms obey entirely different laws than the objects which the atoms themselves make up.

It seems self-evident that the all of the physical world ought to be governed by the same set of laws. We expect all objects, from apples to planets, to behave the same way everywhere in the universe. The fact that sub-atomic particles don’t behave like planets is a vexing concern for many scientists (even those not spending their lives trying to resolve this contradiction by developing String Theory). What seems to annoy scientists the most is that each law clearly works in its respective domain. Neither disproves or overpowers the other, yet they remain incompatible. In the same way, viewing humanity from either the individual perspective or from a scope of large populations seems functional, and neither viewpoint disproves or obliterates the other.

I don’t know whether it’s even the right question to ask, whether Kierkegaard or Hegel was “right.” Maybe that’s the wrong way to think about the matter. But I think understanding these two approaches brings coherence to a lot of apparent noise in internet discussions, and makes comprehensible what might otherwise just appear to be deranged ranting. It will be a lot of work to bring these two worldviews into harmony, but just recognizing them might be a very fruitful first step.



Grinding for Moral Consistency in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel

“Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!” is set between Borderlands 1 and 2, and allows players to play as some of the bad guys of Borderlands 2. One trailer (6:40) for BLPS cracked wise about the moral implications of advancing the cause of future enemies, but this question is central to the theme and story of the game.

I. “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” –Kierkegaard

The game of BLPS is played as a flashback. After the events of BL2, the mercenary Athena is captured and interrogated by the victorious heroes of the two previous games. She explains her role in the events between BL1 and BL2, and you, the player, play out those events as she describes them. As a freelance mercenary, Athena is hired by the central antagonist of BL2 (Handsome Jack) to save the moon of Elpis from a renegade military commander. (Yes, the plot is heavily influenced by Conrad’s Heart of Darkness)

A recurring theme is the decision to advance the cause of Handsome Jack, as the post-BL2 interrogation reflects on the horrors he inflicted. The story poses to players the challenge of reconciling Jack’s heroic actions of saving a moon (and its colonial population) with his villainous acts of destruction carried out in BL2. The game asks us whether Jack was a good guy or a bad guy, and by implication also asks: How can we understand his apparent transformation? How can we make sense of a character that displays contradictory traits? How can we evaluate good and evil?

These are deeply important questions for our lives. Discerning between good and evil is at the core of ethics, and permeates decisions we make in our personal, familial, political, theological, and professional lives. Adopting the wrong approach to the ethical questions posed in BLPS can have catastrophic implications if applied elsewhere in life: apathetic indifference, sympathy, empathy, or pity for evil, absolute subjectivism, blind and unquestioning tolerance, or strict act utilitarianism all lend themselves to a variety of atrocities and horrors we intend to avoid through ethical examinations.

II. Virtue Theory Gives a More Complete Evaluation than Some Teleological Formulations

The game challenges the maxim that “the ends justify the means” by presenting several applications of that ideal, including one betrayal by a prominent protagonist NPC to kill Jack and the player. The story also makes a specific note of Jack’s decision to kill three probably innocent scientists on the suspicion that one of them might be a traitor—a decision which he openly relishes, afterward. An NPC asks the player-character for their opinion of Jack’s choice, questioning both Jack’s motive and his nature.

One way to evaluate Jack and his transformation between BLPS and BL2 is in an appeal to virtue theory. On this interpretation, Jack’s actions may have saved Elpis, but his nature and character were malicious and malevolent throughout the escapade. This view affords us the outcome of seeing Jack as a bad man who did a good thing. This view is also consistent with the entire knowledge of Jack’s wanton evil in BL2, in which he is malicious and does only bad things.

III. Grinding, Grinders, and Moral Ground

In any game with a leveling and/or gear system, players often find they want to gain an advantage by gaining extra levels for added bonuses, thereby making it easier to meet future challenges. This is often done through repeating simple and mindless tasks, which slowly and steadily advance the player towards the next level or have a chance of yielding desired items. This slow, steady process is called “grinding.”

BLPS introduced a new feature to the game called a “Grinder.” This machine accepts three items and returns (with some probabilities involved), a better item. This does some amount of “grinding” for the player, helping advance the attainment of better gear more rapidly.

Moral identity advances by an analogous method: a slow, steady, repeated process of small decisions, actions, and attitudes.

IV. The Need for a Good Evaluation of Goodness

Throughout BL2, Jack addresses the player characters as bandits, asserting that they are no different from or better than the marauding psychopaths they slaughter. Jack explicitly sees himself as the righteous hero—even with his dying breath. Because evil will always think itself good and present itself in a positive light, we must have a better approach for evaluating morality than general, easy-to-apply standards handed to us by the most convenient authority.

Thoughtless Atrocities: Why Lots of Shooting is preferable to a Little Raping.

I address a debate between Penny Arcade and Jim Sterling.

The issue is: For videogames, is shooting morally different from raping? They’re both bad things, obviously–  but isn’t the point of video games to let us go into a different sort of reality where we can do bad things without actually hurting anyone? There are at least three recognized approaches to questions of morality: Utilitarian, deontological, and virtue.

Utilitarians are interested in total net outcomes, so if no one is actually hurt and someone is happy because they played the game, it’s probably ok. (If the player ends up hurting people as a result of playing, the utilitarian might object.) Deontologists have to decide whether the rules that govern morality apply to imaginations and simulations of immoral behavior (18th century Kant doesn’t say much about virtual reality as we think of it).

Virtue ethics is general more concerned with how a person is motivated and what traits she or he cultivates. They might want to know: “Why do you want to simulate shooting or raping?” If you have a desire for immoral behavior for which you are simple finding a socially acceptable outlet, the virtue theorist does not approve. Goodness, on Aristotle’s view, is not wanting to do something bad but choosing not to. That is mere continence. Being good consists in wanting to do good things, not in merely avoiding the evil one desires to enact.

There is another approach to this issue, perhaps from the camp of the phenomenologists (who are interested in what we experience and how). In modern video game, I can shoot and kill 100 “bad guys” in minutes. I can shoot them with sniper rifles from hundreds of yards away. I can surprise them when they turn a blind corner. Not that we would want to, but could we imagine a simulation in which our avatar rapes 100 people in only a few minutes? Without wanting to get too into the awful details, rape seems (and I’m lucky that I wouldn’t really know) to be a very personal and intimate crime. It takes more time than does the pulling of a trigger. It involves being in the other person’s space— part of what makes it horrid is how up-close and deeply personal it is. It has a feel and an experience altogether distinct from running into a room of enemies and spraying bullets and running out. The murders of video games may be considered more acceptable than the simulations of sex crimes because the experience of the simulation is decidedly different. One can be uninvolved or unaffected by a repeated and impersonal slaughter-simulation, but one cannot be aloof or disengaged in a simulation of a personal, knowing, invasive act.

(NOTE: I have never done, nor ever intend to do, EITHER of these things! Sometimes explaining hell means imagining hellishness. Maybe killing a room full of people feels just like committing a sex crime. I hope I never get to find out empirically.)

Most videogame slaughter can be understood as mechanical and impersonal. It is inconceivable that sexual crimes could be simulated in a comparably impersonal and wholesale fashion. I conclude that the impersonal slaughter of videogames poses less of a moral problem than does the simulation of rape because of the distinctly different phenomenology of the experience. (Of course, there are plenty of other reasons to accept the same conclusion that do not conflict with the reasoning I offer here.)