Recent Comments

Patriotic Pepe
Melanie Wolske

Hi Richard,

I just saw your comment! Thank you so much for your insights! Your point about the right’s use of memes is especially poignant now with the CNN/Reddit debacle. In my personal experience, political memes created by the left on Twitter and Tumblr are increasingly about coping and self-care in these trying times… a form of gallows humor, so to speak. Yet, the right seems to weaponize memes to attack what they perceive as the establishment (the media, traditional Republicans, academia, the liberal society), and in that regard, I do believe they’re subversive, although dangerously so. However, whenever those in power start to appropriate meme culture — whether on the left or the right — any potential for subversion immediately evaporates IMO. Memes are in their essence counter-culture and thus I think they don’t work when employed by the powerful. Thank you again for your response!

Shilpa Davé

This is a great post and clip! I think if you go into comic book stores now you would see some new heroines and especially new women of color such as Moon Girl and Ms. Marvel. In the X-men comics, Jubilee or Jubilation Lee was Chinese American and she first appeared in 1989–I remember this! In the films, she is a background character.

Ethical Empires
Fredrik Knudsen

Thanks for your thoughts and comments. I think, in grand strategy games, morality is already a key factor; after all, this genre is often marketed as allowing the player to explore immoral options. Gamers that play these games often desire these moral quandaries. For example, in Stellaris, there was a call by players for the developers to allow xenophobic empires to raise sentient beings as cattle for meat, a request specifically made due to its ethical problems. These players likely aren’t cannibals, but there’s a fascination with the unethical which can be explored safely in the game space. By definition, grand strategy games give a large amount of power to the player (though usually direct control is limited), and what they do with that power helps create that ethical experience.

I agree with Yang to a certain extent: when wielded clumsily, empathy becomes nothing more than a marketing tool, one that sells the plights of others as a commodity. Games, I believe, can do a bit more, but it’s difficult. Robert Mejia cited the difficulty of doing so in his Monday article when he said “That effort to operationalize ethics ironically reduces the ethical weight of these choices to a cause and effect logic.” I believe a way to entice the player into a more meaningful and constructive empathy is to be more subtle and use the rhetoric of the game itself, like Stellaris has done. Rather than simply presenting the plights of people, the user interface itself is designed to quietly confront the player for their actions. One irate gamer even attacked the game director for Stellaris for pushing a political agenda when he discovered the wording of the “Refugees Welcome” policy, even though there was plenty other strong rhetoric in the game. I think, in this quieter way, games can create a more active learning space where suffering isn’t just consumed.

Also, if you’re thinking of picking up Stellaris, I would HIGHLY recommend it. Its emphasis away from victory or defeat is one of its best qualities.

Ethical Empires
Whitney Pow

Thanks for your thoughts, Fredrik – I think bringing the idea of scale into the way affect and morality function in games is a really salient point. Grand strategy games are fascinating in that they operate from a “god’s eye” view—reproducing the visual politics of domination through referencing a certain zoomed-out process of viewing the land through overhead map views. (Mapping and games is also something I’ve been working through – how types of power, and empire, are reproduced through the way we conceive of and represent land and the bodies that live on it in video games.)

It seems like Stellaris is attempting to do something different by using an animated portrait of an individual as a way to push against the numbers-as-people (“pop”) statistic that are so inherent to the way grand strategy games work. I’ve been playing a bit of Civilization VI lately, and I think you’re right that there is a tendency for these games to have a very zoomed out, and “cold,” approach to the way that bodies and empire function.

You bring up the idea of scale, with “zoomed out” views of empire as being in some way “cold” and detached, and the idea of “zoomed in” views of empire, with portraits of individuals, as channeling something different, and perhaps more affective and emotional. You bring up empathy as something that these portraits evoke – an affect that is contested in a lot of queer games circles (for example, here’s game designer Robert Yang’s article that pushes against and problematizes the idea of empathy in games: http://www.blog.radiator.debacle.us/2017/04/if-you-walk-in-someone-elses...). Is empathy necessary to the way morality functions in grand strategy games? Are empire and empathy necessarily deeply intertwined and unable to be separated?

Would it be possible to create a game about empire without evoking empathy, but still able to push the idea of morality which is, as Robert Mejia mentioned yesterday, something that is necessarily emotional and affective? Is it possible to create a grand strategy game from a position of disempowerment, or does that produce a kind of oxymoron?

Thanks again for your post – it brought up some really interesting thoughts for me, and I hope to pick up Stellaris in the Humble Monthly!

Ethical Empires
Robert Mejia

This is a great piece on how games may be able to overcome the presumed ethical constraints of their respective genre. As you mention, large-scale strategy games are often designed from a perspective that deemphasizes the ethical impact of the player’s actions. Yet, even for massive games like these, where it is feasibly impossible to know the unique impact of every action on every individual game character, as you point out, there are ways of collectively representing this impact. What I think your piece does is that it illustrates how genre operates as an inadequate alibi for ethical game design, and that conscientious game designers can create an emotional (and by extension ethical) investment in even the “coldest” of genres. Thanks so much for sharing!

Shadow of the Colossus - The Wander's Contract with Dormin
Robert Mejia

Thank you Fredrik and Whitney for your thoughtful responses. Whitney, you raised the question of whether I believe that affect is essential for morality, and my answer is yes, definitely yes. Though different ethical systems may grant affect more or less weight, the ability to recognize the Other, on some level, is essential if we are to understand the consequences of our actions. Granted, affect encompasses more than positive recognition—one could hate the Other—but affect is central to recognizing the Other as something more than a function or node in the system. Whitney, you also raise an interesting point about whether genre-specific mechanics make easier or exacerbate how games mobilize morality. I think the answer is complicated. On one hand, it is easier to flesh out the nuances of a limited range of characters in contrast to the hundreds of thousands that might populate an open world game. On the other hand, game designers make choices, and so there is no reason why some of the same mechanics in a game like The Walking Dead or Shadow of the Colossus cannot be implemented in an open world game. Likewise, we have been focusing on the individual thus far, but open world games could incorporate a communitarian approach to ethics, which would mean fleshing out the character of a given community (as opposed to specific individuals). I think Fredrik offers an interesting example of this with his discussion of Stellaris (http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/imr/2017/05/10/ethical-empires). In any event, I think ethical games are at their best when they encourage the player to care about the consequences of their actions—over and above any transactional benefits of those actions (e.g., trophies, skills, et cetera). Thanks again for both of your thoughtful responses.

Shadow of the Colossus - The Wander's Contract with Dormin
Whitney Pow

Thanks for your thoughts on morality and games, Robert! You bring up a very thought provoking point by considering morality in mainstream games like Fallout 3, The Elder Scrolls and the Mass Effect series as being a mechanical and transactional system. I’m interested in how morality is utilized in games as a way to create barriers to game content, and I wonder if there are ways to consider game choices outside of this oddly economic “moral” system.

I thought it was interesting that you bring up The Walking Dead series as creating a different kind of moral experience, particularly through the introduction of emotion and affect. Do you think affect and emotion are necessary in creating a gameplay experience that is able to engage with morality outside of this transactional system? Or do you think affect and emotion allow us to engage with this transactional system in a different, transformed, way?

I wonder, too, if we can consider game genre, genre-specific mechanics, and linearity alongside how these games mobilize morality, affect and choice. What might The Walking Dead be doing differently with morality in a largely narratively linear game, as compared to some of the “open world” games you mention in your post? It seems as though “open world” games might utilize morality transactionally because some of these “moral” quandaries appear as side-quests and fetch quests (though moral choices do appear in main quests, too). I wonder if different game genres and mechanics sustain different levels of affective engagement, how this might change how we perceive moral choices in games as well.

Shadow of the Colossus - The Wander's Contract with Dormin
Fredrik Knudsen

I think you highlight well one of the difficulties of gaming: creating a lasting, thoughtful response by the player. “Moral Choice” systems with in-game manifestations, like you point out, can potentially weaken the impact because the consequences of the player’s action are resolved in the game mechanics themselves. I think that, often, these consequences disappear as soon as the game program is closed from a player’s perspective, limiting the potential of the game to incite thoughtful response. Maybe one way of creating that impact is to leave some results of decisions open-ended, like SOMA does when the player is (spoilers) forced to decide to kill their copy or leave him alive, confused and in a horrific state of affairs.

Sally Field as Norma Rae (1979)
Aimee Loiselle

I find it particularly interesting with the Rosie the Riveter image. The actual archival source of the first “Rosie” image was a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell. The Westinghouse poster with “We Can Do It” was not intended to be “Rosie” and was directed as part of a factory campaign at all workers, men and women. In the case of Norma Rae, it has become a artifact in neoliberal culture as it represents individualist rebellion removed from any systemic or social context. The individual appears as the source and recipient of change driven by individual action. The success of neoliberal cultural meanings and the ability to appropriate images based on radical collective movements for messages that center individualist choices and results has been a real obstacle to more organized activism that emphasizes issues and structural solutions.

Sally Field as Norma Rae (1979)
Heather Lusty

Great post. I instantly thought of Rosie, and how that appropriation of her image, which I know is meant to represent all factory women, really also excised her from the work and subsequent social issues that plagued women while they were propping up the domestic econom. Great TV miniseries a few years back called Bomb Girls (I think), which examines life for the girls who went into a munitions factory. I think there’s something naively idealistic (but at the same time damaging on a wider scale; the suggestion of exceptionalism negates larger movements and sacrifices that are subsumed) about iconic female figures - women never operate in a vacuum. The love of a good narrative often dilutes the real importance of the breadth and challenges of movements.