Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Ethics in gaming: Reflections on the WBC seminar

First of all, many thanks to DiceHateMe and Monkey238 for their mention of Man OverBoard and Trains Planes and Automobiles on their podcast "The State of Games."  It was great to meet them both and try out Viva Java, which I described in my "Third Day at WBC" post.  I'm very excited for their venture into game development, and I look forward to seeing what the future holds for them.

Last week at the World Boardgaming Championships, Joel Tamburo led a fascinating seminar on ethics in gaming.  I had no idea what to expect and was pleasantly surprised at the directions that the conversation took.  Right away, the group explored the question of whether it is ethically acceptable to lie in the course of a game.  The immediate example that came up is Diplomacy, a game only half-facetiously blamed for ruining good friendships.  A consensus emerged that there is an understanding that in a game like Diplomacy, lying is an expected part of negotiation.  Although success requires alliances, winning sooner or later requires betrayal.  So as long as it is understood among players that lying is - or can be - part of the game, then that becomes part of the game's acceptable code of ethics.

Ethical issues can emerge when games bleed over into real life, however.  If someone's feelings are genuinely hurt by a twist of the knife in a game, it raises the question of whether even perfectly legal game-play can cross a line if it damages personal relationships.  It happens that not all games are for all people; some people refuse to play Diplomacy because it is just too cutthroat for them.  That makes sense, too, because presumably the point of a game is to have fun; if playing under a code of behavior that permits back-stabbing ceases to be fun (for an individual), then the game (for that person) ceases to be worth playing.  I have had two episodes in which perfectly legitimate moves in games actually hurt people's feelings - people very close to me - and led me to adjust the way that I play to accommodate the relationships that I have with the other players.

Another interesting aspect of games that involve lying can bleed over into real life as well.  Sometimes we learn how to lie, or how to detect lying, by playing games in which good lying is rewarded.  Bluffing might be considered lying, so a person who develops skill at poker might also be honing social skills that can be used to take advantage of other people.  One member of the seminar raised the question whether it is morally proper to play a game that practices and develops the "skill of sinning," such as becoming more adept at lying.

I shared an experience I had as a junior office aboard a submarine in the Navy.  It was the custom of the wardroom to get together occasionally at the Officers Club for a game of Liar's Dice.  At one particular session, I was alarmed to learn that I was remarkably good at lying to the captain.  I could just imagine being in a situation at sea in which it would be easier to lie to the captain in the middle of the night than to tell him what was really going on, and I didn't like thinking that I could actually pull it off.  (For the record, I never did, of course.  The Naval Academy Honor Concept is quite clear on this principle.)

I was surprised to learn about games that encourage stealing - Cosmic Encounter, in particular.  I don't mean games like Clue: the Great Museum Caper, in which one player is an art thief who moves around the museum attempting to steal paintings.  I mean that the game motivates a player under certain circumstances to swipe game pieces - like money from the bank - and keep it if he or she can get away with it.  As the others in the seminar described the roles in this game, it struck me as odd and a little outside my comfort zone in terms of what a game should be - or at least, the kind of game I like to play.  And a few others in the group, who were familiar with Cosmic Encounter, said they don't play it for that reason.

The discussion also turned to the question of inappropriate game themes.  I know of parents who discourage or prohibit their children from playing wargames as impersonal recreations of killing on a large scale.  There is some merit to this position as a matter of conscience.  But everyone present at this seminar was quite comfortable with wargames.  One theme that did come up as questionable, however, was that of the murder of an individual.  Joel posed the question regarding the game Kill Doctor Lucky, in which players compete to kill the fictional Dr. Lucky without being detected in the murder.  The tone of the game is humorous, but some might find offensive the notion of trying to get away with murder as the object of a game.  The group did not settle on a firm consensus on this point, though no one singled out Kill Doctor Lucky as an objectionable game in its own right.

I brought up Guillotine as another game with a potentially questionable theme.  Players represent executioners during the French Revolution competing to execute the most prestigious nobles.  The game even includes a few true historical figures - King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and Robespierre.  But the rendering of the nobles and the action cards and the nature of the game rules are so comical that the game comes off as light-hearted, despite the rather morbid theme.

Subsequent to this discussion, I recently ran across a review of Letters from Whitechapel, in which one player attempts to carry out the role of Jack the Ripper while the other players try to apprehend him.  I find this game a little more disturbing than Kill Doctor Lucky and Guillotine for several reasons.  First, Jack the Ripper was a real serial killer, and his victims were real women.  The notion of playing this role by moving around the board attempting to kill prostitutes crosses a line, for me, because it represents a ruthless real-life murderer who was never caught.  Second, the game art sets a dark, somber tone, not at all a light-hearted deflection of the nature of the theme as in Kill Doctor Lucky or Guillotine.  Had I known about this game at the time of the seminar, it would have been an interesting addition to the conversation.

Surely there are few themes more objectionable to depict in a game than the Holocaust, and yet I'd read an article about a game called Train based on that very topic.  Actually, to be fair, Train wasn't so much a game as a work of art, or a psychological demonstration.  Still, it goes to show that there are some places in history that just aren't appropriate for re-visiting in the form of a game.

(c) Looney Labs
Used by permission
I think the overarching theme that developed from this seminar was that games have their own internal codes of ethics, but that as social exercises, they can also affect relationships.  On the one hand, if someone pulls off a brilliant betrayal in Diplomacy or manages to completely deceive all the villagers in Are You a Werewolf, then the rest of the players can only shake his hand and congratulate him on a game well played.  To some extent, though, trust relationships are formed or developed over games, and their social effects can bleed over into real life.  So we need to be mindful, when we play, that the people and the relationships linger after the box gets put away.


  1. This is an interesting concept, actually, and I'd like to raise my own topic. I often am the game master of various RPGs, from D&D to Shadowrun to World of Darkness. I enjoy exploring themes of all types between these games, but I have a single hard and fast rule that I've never even attempted to bend on.

    In RPG games I run, I will not allow a 'lone wolf' or actively antagonistic character from one of the players. Most RPGs expect some level of camaraderie among the players, and trying to put a character who works against, or ignores, this element often proves unacceptable in game play. I also find that the people who enjoy playing these character types are often less than savory people to befriend away from the table.

    What are your thoughts?

  2. Tell them about the time you almost made our 8-yr-old cry.

  3. Patrick, I used to run D&D campaigns myself quite a bit (when I was much younger - when D&D was a three-volume boxed set of pamphlets). I have to say that I like having that kind of policy in place. I never had a real "chaotic rogue" who tried to undermine the group, I think because most of the people who played in my dungeon were intimidated and felt that there was safety in numbers.

    But I remember witnessing at least one game where a player got out of hand, and it took a while for the DM to regain control of the game and keep it enjoyable for the rest of the group. I agree with you that RPGs are, in a manner of speaking, "co-op" games, best played when each character plays to his or her strength to the common success of the group.

    Not everyone would agree, though. Some players I knew felt that "chaotic" meant "chaotic," and they would feel free to be disruptive and unpredictable. Seldom, though, would characters actively turn on one another. They might compete for a treasure or perhaps keep secrets from one another out of greed, but they wouldn't throw another character under the troll bridge, so to speak.

    Ultimately, I think what you're getting at is that a "lone wolf" can take the fun out of the game. As I mentioned, to me, a game is a social experience, and the intent is to have fun. So someone who takes the fun out of the game - or whose idea of fun is at the expense of everyone else's - defeats the purpose of playing. So I think that's a good policy and a great "internal ethical standard" for RPGs.

    Oh, and as for making our eight-year-old cry: I actually posted this story on boardgamegeek.com under the GeekList, "That's Just Wrong." (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/64232/item/1573310#item1573310) Here's what happened:

    My wife and I were teaching our kids to play Settlers of Catan. My eight-year-old son was eager to build a city, so on my turn I was trading him ore for this, ore for that, all the ore you want. He was so pleased ... until I played "Monopoly" and made him give all the ore back. The crushed look on his face was heart-wrenching. My wife really let me have it. "I can't believe you did that to your eight-year-old son!" So I had to promise him that I would never, ever do that to him again.

    For the record, I didn't promise that I wouldn't do it to anyone else ever again...

    This, by the way, was one of my "two episodes in which perfectly legitimate moves in games actually hurt people's feelings - people very close to me - and led me to adjust the way that I play to accommodate the relationships that I have with the other players."

  4. Hello,

    Speaking as the seminar presenter (I'm Joel), I enjoyed the ability to hold a discussion on a topic not often considered by boardgamers. And Paul made good contributions to the discussion as well.

    One thing I should add here is a touch more specificity regarding Cosmic Encounter. The "stealing" situation in the game is with regard to one of the aliens a player can portray in the game - the Filch. What I have observed is that players who find the Filch's "theft" power distasteful typically exclude that alien from use in their games.

    In any event, we've been have the Ethics seminar (more like a round table discussion) for four years now, and the supply of topics and aspects to discuss seems never to wane. We'll be holding it again next year, so feel free to drop in.

  5. Thanks, Joel! I can't wait 'til next year. Great topic.

  6. Paul - I'm late to the game on this blog post, but I thought I'd jump int. You mention how the Jack the Ripper game crossed a certain line due to Jack the Ripper being a real serial killer, and his victims being real women.

    How about war games, particularly miniatures? Many of them simulate real battles in which real men died horrible deaths. I myself had never though too much of recreating battles from Roman times, medieval Europe, ACW or even WWII. However, last year at Fall-In, I walked into a room where a miniatures game was being played that simulated U.S. forces fighting insurgents in Iraq (or maybe Afghanistan...I don't recall). What I do remember is that I had an immediate visceral reaction of "how can you be making a GAME of something that's happening right now, and real people are dying!" I didn't say that out loud...but I immediately left the room.

    So...I'm not sure what the correlation is here. Time? If it's "history" even though real people died, does that make it more palatable? Clearly not for you, with "WhiteChappel". Is it scale? Fighting large scale battles on the tabletop make it hard to individualize a specific soldier.

    I dunno...but an interesting topic.

  7. Keith, you make an interesting point. For wargames in general, I think the distinction is that the focus is on the strategy and tactics, rather than the killing per se. Also, the situation is usually one of killing soldiers who are trying to kill "you" or "your countrymen." In Letters from Whitechappel, Jack the Ripper seeks to kill innocent victims (who represent actual victims). So it's easy for me to distinguish an historical battlefield from an historical serial killing spree.

    The point about current-day combat, though, is very true. I actually have a rule in my house that my kids are not to play modern-day first-person-shooter video games for the same reason. I generally don't even have as much of an issue with the WW2 setting of Call of Duty (although I can't say I'm crazy about FPS games generally). Science fiction FPS games like Metroid or Star Wars Battlefront are even less objectionable. But as you say, when there are real people in Afghanistan fighting insurgents, it's just disrespectful to make a game of it.

    Now, for all of that, I do have a copy of the boardgame Boots on the Ground (designer Sean Cooke, publisher Worthington), which is a one-man/one-counter wargame of hypothetical scenarios pitting one or two squads of "allies" against randomly appearing insurgents in an unnamed city, complete with car bombs, IEDs, and insurgents disguised as civilians. BotG goes right to the scale question that you raise, too. Each counter represents a human being. That game might cross the line, although I find it so "abstracted" that I don't connect it as directly to what people are doing in Kabul.