In the past week, I’ve been having a little back and forth with Joel Goodwin on his blog Electron Dance about ethical choices as they are currently depicted by videogames. As my answer to his last comment grew and grew, and as I realized that I was not arguing anymore, but restating Goodwin’s argument in my own words, I thought it would be best to develop it here more fully, as a sort of addendum to my article on The Illusion of Choice.
I first intervened on his blog (on the last part of his excellent series on Dishonored) to comment on this comparison: “The ethical choice of Dishonored and Bioshock is artificial, as worthless as the “trolley problem”, a popular thought experiment in ethics. Here’s the cut-down version of the trolley problem: five people will die unless you throw a switch in which case only one person will die. There are variations of the problem but basically Spock said it best with “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”” My main argument was that the ethical choice in these videogames is more meaningful than the trolley problem because they appear in the context of a precise narrative. In a sense, we should not considered these choices from the point of view of the player (what would I do?), but rather from the one of the fictional character controlled by the player (what would Corvo do?), just like in any other narrative medium dealing with ethics – and unlike the trolley problem, which exists in a vacuum. I still agree with that part, but I would retract from the rest of my argument now and propose instead, as Goodwin did, that this narrative meaning doesn’t make these choices less hollow. In fact, such a context is exactly why we should not even qualify them as “ethical” in the first place.
Let’s talk of ethics before coming to videogames: I do not think it is possible to meaningfully talk of ethics in general terms, apart from a specific situation. I do not believe it is possible to establish some kind of universal law, or universal value, that we could evenly apply to every situation. We can only evaluate each unique circumstance and try to see what could be the “best” option in this particular case. There is no generalities in ethics; only specifics. I mean, some principles can be adequate almost anytime – I could say for example that no harm should ever be done to an unwilling human being, but the concept of “unwilling” is muddy, to say the least, and can be interpreted in various ways, so even though this principle is true most of the time we still have to consider the specifics of each situation in order to evaluate how exactly “unwilling” (or “harm”) may apply to this context.
He’s not the go-to philosopher when it comes to ethics, and he’s far from the best thinker on the subject (Spinoza is king there), but Wittgenstein’s ideas on the matter will be quite useful here. As he wrote in his Lecture on Ethics: “the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language”. It doesn’t mean that we should avoid talking of ethics, but that our language cannot adequately express something like an “absolute truth” or a “greater good”, frequent expressions in ethics that have no meaning of their own, but instead a contextual meaning that has to be derived from the situation in which they were used. For Wittgenstein “ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts”. Some propositions are not suitable for language, or more exactly cannot be said but only shown, and ethics are among them. In other words, our language may be inadequate to express ethical concerns, general expressions like “absolute truth”, “greater good” and so forth, but it is able to describe a particular situation, and work from there; philosophy is an operation of logical clarification, of elucidation.
Coming back to our trolley problem, we could say that Spock’s “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” is one of these problematic ethical proposition when we consider it apart from the context in which Spock uttered it, but that the trolley problem is better because it is a description of a situation that raises the same question; the trolley problem shows an ethical question, while Spock tries to say it (this is not exactly true, since Spock’s intentions alter the apparent meaning of his words, but I’ll come back to this). This thought experiment is indeed better than Spock’s proposition (again, when taken on its own), but it is still quite awkward, mainly because the description is extremely limited and artificial. This artificiality is due largely to our a priori knowledge of the consequences for each possible action: I can either pull the switch and kill someone or not do it and let five persons die. In real life, an ethical dilemma is difficult precisely because we can never know these consequences beforehand: how can I be absolutely sure that pulling this switch will kill only one person, and not two or three, or that it’s going to work at all? Will I even think of pulling that switch?
Ethics deal primarily with uncertainties, so the trolley problem is rigged from the start, and can justify dubious behaviors: like Goodwin said in the comments, this kind of artificiality allows us “to make those Jack Bauer decisions”. If I can be absolutely certain that the only way to save the lives of millions of people is to torture this one guy in front of me, then maybe I will consider this option viable; but never in real life will such a clear-cut situation occur, unlike what movies or TV shows often try to imply. I can never know if torture is going to give me the information I need (hell, we even know now that torture doesn’t lead to reliable information), nor can I know if this is the only possible action. For Goodwin, this is what videogames do when they offer only two options (apart from quitting the game): in Dishonored¸ I can either kill my target or make it “disappear”, usually in some dubious manners. The game gives me some agency, but prevents me from refusing this dirty work or engaging in any kind of diplomatic talk, so it tricks me into thinking like Jack Bauer in order to justify the murder I have to commit, or at least the “disappearance” I have to arrange, as if there was no other possibilities. In a movie, it would be easier to question the protagonist’s motives and distance myself from his actions; but in a game, I have to make the choice and carry out these actions, or else there’s no game, or at least I’m not playing it. The distance between the protagonist and me is gone, and I am thinking, à la Bauer, “there is no other choice”, when clearly there is.
In my reply to Goodwin I disagreed with this idea, by arguing that the narrative context shapes the meaning of these so-called ethical choices, even though they are undoubtedly artificial when you consider them apart from the game. I was thinking mainly then of the Little Sisters’ choice in Bioshock, which is quite artificial and hollow, but the structure of this choice is meaningful inside the narrative of the game. As I discussed before, this artificiality is pretty much the point: the act of choosing and the subsequent rewards force the player to adopt an Objectivist’s perspective on these Little Sisters, who become nothing more than a resource in the player’s mind. It is true for Bioshock, but then again it is that rare game where choice is deliberately structured to be artificial, because this artificiality is the game’s subject, so it’s only one exception – another proof that we cannot think in absolutes (and incidentally, it is pretty much what the game is about: the inflexibility of Andrew Ryan’s ethics leads to the fall of Rapture). In other words, Goodwin was right: in a game like Dishonored, the so-called ethical choice to kill or not to kill is dubious at best and leads to those Jack Bauer moments.
And I should have known because this is precisely what I was aiming at in my article on Bioshock (and because I read the Ethic of Computer Games not so long ago, in which Miguel Sicart addressed the same issue): our choices are shallow because we cannot escape the game’s philosophy. In Dishonored, if I choose the violent path, the game will react accordingly: the player’s blade becomes bloody, the world is meaner, the “chaos” meter is higher (essentially more people to kill, Weepers and rats), and there’s a different ending in some characters’ narrative arc. These reactions are logical from the perspective of the fiction (if I murder every guard on duty, surely the authorities are going to double their security system), but these consequences are far from “neutral”, ethically speaking, since we know they have been designed and conceived by someone else: the game has a point to make (violence breeds violence) and this system exposes its own set of ethics. In Dishonored, I can choose to be murderous, but I cannot choose what “violence” means in this context: the game already has the answer for me.
So, I wasn’t completely wrong because the narrative does change our reading of this choice: the trolley problem aim to ask if it is ethical to sacrifice one human in order to save many, not only in that trolley situation, but in every situation where a similar question could arise. It’s an exemplification of a general ethical problem. This is not the case with Dishonored: the game doesn’t try to argue that diplomatic talk is impossible in every situation, but that for this character, in this fictional universe, in this situation, discussing is not an option. The player cannot talk his way out of a murder because silent Corvo would not do it – and it’s up to the player to decide why he won’t (this is the whole problem, as we will see). Dishonored is much more specific than the trolley problem, and in that regard it is less troublesome, but this doesn’t completely invalidate Goodwin’s argument.
A real ethical choice entails an amount of free will (and free thinking) that is just not possible in a videogame (or at least in current videogames). In real life, when I choose one option over another, I’m making an ethical decision because I can also decide what my actions mean. My choice will have consequences in the real world, but since they will not be designed by another fellow human being (they’re “natural” consequences instead of artificial ones), I will be able to interpret them (or ignore them) as I see fit. There is no ethical choice in Dishonored, but a representation of an ethical choice, which is not at all the same thing. In that sense, it may seem similar to how a movie would represent the same dilemma, but there is a major difference: Corvo has no real psychology of its own, except a desire for vengeance, and the player is supposed to fill this empty vessel. Coming back to Wittgenstein, this is quite a problem: the choice to kill or not in Dishonored is like a description of an ethical situation, less one of its most important aspects… the consciousness of the human being engaged in it.
Let’s compare with movies: when Spock says “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” in front of a camera, we have more than a simple ethical proposition: we have an individual who says this proposition. And how he says it is as much important as the content of the sentence or the context in which he uses it. This is as good as description as we can get: a precise event, and a defined individual, whom we know not only from his words but also from his body and his actions. Incidentally, when we analyze this scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, we can see that these words do not really correspond to the trolley problem because at this moment Spock is trying to justify his own self-sacrifice. As far as I know (my knowledge of Star Trek is pretty superficial), Spock is an utilitarian, but somehow I doubt he would accept the same proposition if he had to order the death of someone else, which is what the trolley problem is about. Superficially, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” apply to both the film and the thought experiment, but these two contexts change our understanding of these words; and no doubt that in Star Trek, they are far more complex and subtle. Sure, this is still a representation, far less complicated than a real ethical situation, and one under the control of an artist, but a description will always be simpler than real life, even in an academic philosophical context. There are a lot of nuances to be made here, especially since I didn’t talk of the relation of the artist towards his subject (does the filmmaker agree with its protagonist, take a distant, “neutral” approach, or ridicules him for his behavior?), but my point is that a good movie, with its unique relation towards reality (the ability to present real human beings in movement), can offer the best description possible of an ethical situation (there is a lot to be said about this, but I’m preparing a longer paper on a similar subject, and I don’t want to stray too far from the one at hand).
In Dishonored, Corvo doesn’t say anything; I can role-play as much as I want and shout any ethical maxims at my computer screen, the game will never take this into account. Why I kill is not important, the game only considers my action – but in ethics, the “why” is the whole matter, and where the real conundrums arise. For example, almost everybody will agree that the act of killing another human being is not good, but the opinion is much more divided around the death penalty issue. Circumstances and intentions change our reading of the same action. In Dishonored, in a way it seems like the game wants to give me some interpretative freedom: since he’s mostly blank, I may do what I like with Corvo, and interpret him as I see fit. But how can I reconcile this with the fixed ethics of the game, that will implicitly condemn violence in the same authoritative manner whatever are my intentions? For the most part, I do agree with this outlook: I condemn the use of violence as well, but knowing why violence was used would greatly nuance my judgment, which the game cannot do. Dishonored thus presents an ethical statement that will not consider the most important aspect of the situation represented: the human consciousness. With this lack of nuance, and of what constitutes ethics in the first place, how can this be considered as an ethical choice?
I ask the question about Dishonored, but it could be addressed to any Bioware games or most videogames that try to depict ethical dilemmas – well, we cannot speak in absolute, so the question will be slightly different for each game, and we would have to see how they all structure their own choices. We can say, though, that unlike movies, videogames struggle to present a good description of a given situation because they cannot take into account the player/protagonist’s intentions (and I’m thinking mainly of single player games, because a discussion about MMORPGs would be completely different). It must be said that in that regard Dishonored is way more subtle than most games: in Mass Effect for example, the important choices are judged a priori by the game, by telling you that the action you’re about to take is either Paragon or Renegade. In Dishonored, this judgment doesn’t come from a similar external moral meter, but rather from the ludic system itself (more enemies), or simple representational aspects (the bloody blade). The player has more interpretative space, and doesn’t necessarily see his actions in a clear-cut manner like in Mass Effect, but then again there is only one main choice (to kill or not), repeated throughout the game (in front of every enemy, really), without much nuance (except when it comes to the main targets).
But as Goodwin says, when you see this choice from the perspective of the game, this does make sense: the path of killing or not killing is best viewed as a preferred playstyle, more than an actual ethical decision. And as a game, Dishonored is quite accomplished; but as an attempt to include ethics in its ludic system, it’s a failure. A failure, maybe, but a meaningful one, which is more than what most game can claim for. Just like philosophy tries to push against the boundaries of language, the inclusion of ethical choices in videogames seems like an attempt to push against the boundaries of videogames own language. This endeavor, although seemingly hopeless, is far from being worthless. After all, ethics are an essential aspect of what it means to be human; any attempt to introduce this human element in one the most questionable aspect of the videogame industry, its love affair with extreme violence, is more than welcome.