Rob Zacny

Three Moves Ahead 556: Ethics in Strategy Games

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Three Moves Ahead 556:

Three Moves Ahead 556


Ethics in Strategy Games
Rob and Rowan are joined this week by freelance writer Ruth Cassidy, whose article, "Ethically designing unethical worlds" (https://www.gamedeveloper.com/design/ethically-designing-unethical-worlds) inspired this week's topic. From eugenics in Crusader Kings to choosing between fundamentalism and fascism in Frostpunk, the games we play often put us in the position of someone who has to make some pretty horrifying decisions. How can designers best depict these elements in a way that lends them gravity, but doesn't seem to implicitly condone them? Is it even possible?

Frostpunk, Crusader Kings 3, Darkest Dungeon, Alpha Centauri, Civilization, Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator, a bunch of other ones

 

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I'm gonna do this by writing as I listen to the actual podcast (I also read the article and might make some comments directly linked to it)

 

- a lot of video games offer optimal paths/choices/strategies, that does not mean they are endorsed; endorsement of bad ethical moves would require the developer via the game to directly signal something as being what the game wants to tell people. I understand that people expect and see discourse embedded in all elements of a product but the trio should take into account that the main element of most modern video games is a sort of gameplay, especially in the strategy space, and that most developers do not have the resources to deeply investigate/explore/talk about sub-text;

 

- Kaiser is playing Crusader Kings in a weird way or has been reading the Reddit for it too much. The most efficient way of dealing with kids is to marry them well or find ways to give them tasks that remove them from the line of succession. Even when not role-playing it's a bad idea to kill everyone but the best heir. He should also brush up on his Ottoman history. CK also has no achievements that reward genocide or ethnic cleansing. It is efficient to sometime kill other people's children but adopting new cultures is one of the most beneficial things one can do at times. The Mongol story does not say anything about ethics but about the problems that knowledge of the past introduces in video games that focus on the past, hindsight is 20/20.

 

- The fact that the most efficient way to run a Civilization campaign is to always pick Communism or Fascism is not an ethical choice, it is a gameplay one. It might have some ethical value to the player but mostly people engage with choices from a direct consequences perspective. Would Civ be a better game in any way if it made democracy a much better choice in terms of effects than any other?

 

- the decision to not engage with parts of Frostpunk because they are horrifying is a valid one but the developers put work and though into that and it would be a very bad outcome for the studio if a majority of people made that kind of choice.

 

- Alpha Centauri makes it clear that nerve stapling is a very bad, last resort decision. Also there's no secret project that nerve staples an entire faction or something similar. Aiming for Talents is the better idea even when playing Miriam or Yang.

 

- Zacny does have a useful insight around the 68 minute mark. video games need to be as interesting as possible and as open about the topics they tackle as possible while guiding players to more extensive sources of information. That means focus on mechanics in the strategy space, communicate intentions, find ways to show the community where you draw inspiration from, describe your process.

 

- the discussion about bloodline optimization in CK II does make some good points and is the most interesting part of the podcast. The fact that traits are so visible and easy to select for is a weakness of the game. But bloodline optimization, even without knowledge of genetics, was something rulers did, even if the results were not positive. In US politics taller candidates do better even in our modern, enlightened civilization. I'm not saying Paradox should encourage players who want to create a world of white, blond, blue-eyed Norse. But Gigaknight should be something that can exist inside the grand strategy title. And most players, myself included, choose marriage based on alliances or prestige gain (is it more ethical to select for personal fame than for positive bloodline traits?)

 

- the guest, Ruth Cassidy, mostly repeats the points from the article and has almost nothing new to say about the games that the other two talk about. Zacny and Kaiser also go on long tangents that have little to do with the subject and don't allow Cassidy to add anything to them (like the movie critic stuff). Maybe the show needs more editing?

 

- regarding most direct video game mechanics talk, the trio needs to think more about scope. It's a bad idea to want Stellaris to become an entirely different game when that game or a version of it exists.

 

The only ethical choice to make in regards to video games is to never engage with them, either by playing or by developing them. Time and resources are better used to better ourselves and other human beings. But we do not live in a world that accommodates such absolutism.

 

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5 hours ago, Moromete said:

The only ethical choice to make in regards to video games is to never engage with them, either by playing or by developing them. Time and resources are better used to better ourselves and other human beings. But we do not live in a world that accommodates such absolutism.

 

 

The tone of your entire post made me chuckle as it takes the topic and this podcast far too seriously. 

 

I quoted this last bit because it's just laugh out loud hilarious.  And makes me question whether anything you're saying is meant to be taken seriously.

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O dear God, please keep the question of ethics out of your GAMING podcast. I'm speaking specifically to historic gaming. Let's keep the woke conversation to the CNN' s of the world, please! Why plant the seed that this is even a 'thing'? Can't gaming remain a place where you're just playing a game? With games that recreate history and/or fantasy games. Who's the genious that decides to impose our 21st century values onto the the realities of the past? Just stop it. There's enough of this nonsense in the real world. Leave gaming alone. Let designers design. A free market will take care of itself. Not to mention the question of who's morals? Yours? Mine? GAMING...sheesh..

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This episode finally helped me understand what concerns me about most city and civ sims. It's not that they hide ethical problems from users, or fail to measure them, it's that there's almost never a way to optimize around making the world better! If you make people you are simulating miserable it's a problem because it bugs you personally or because it messes up a different goal that is measured and valued in game. But you generally can't try to run your empire to make you and your neighbours happy because when happiness is measured it is nearly always in terms of "is your population happy enough" not to revolt or to stay adequately productive. I can't remember a game scenario that prompts you to try to make the happiest nation - you generally can't even track that kind of information comparatively like you could wealth or prestige. And what if you want to get more complex - maximize human flourishing (happiness * education?) Make as many people happy as you can while protecting anyone from being too miserable? Give people more equal life chances? In principle this kind of thing could be roughly modelled using the "pop" model in Victoria 3 and similar but there seems little interest in doing this. So far in the Victoria 3 developer diaries the slave trade and opium wars for example are things you might want to solve as a mission ("journal") or because of effects they have on other systems. But you can "succeed" in what the game measures without tacking either.

(I expressed some concerns about ethics in computer games when Victoria 3 was announced in a blog post last year at greater length).

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On 4/17/2022 at 9:17 AM, derbius said:

This episode finally helped me understand what concerns me about most city and civ sims. It's not that they hide ethical problems from users, or fail to measure them, it's that there's almost never a way to optimize around making the world better! If you make people you are simulating miserable it's a problem because it bugs you personally or because it messes up a different goal that is measured and valued in game. 

 

The thing about strategy game where there's "be the last man standing" victory condition - this elimination play becomes optimal, no way around it. The game might punish me with internal instability, other players hating me and so on - but there won't be anyone to hate me or to exploit my internal problem if everyone else is dead. An approach like Stellaris helps: there's an end-game crisis and diverse prospering galactic community might be better suited to to handle it but I don't think it quite works. 

 

Another issue I always see in historical games (and the episode touches on that) is presenting historical actions of the empire as beneficial to the player and the country even if the game acknowledges them as unethical. Usually it's stuff abstracted as stability or prestige. You have to fight dissent or your prestige and stability go down.

 

Crusader Kings or Old World model of showing you real people helps with both issues. You are never alone in the world and so internal threats might be existential. And various decisions donct just benefit the nation by raising numbers, they benefit specific people.

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One point of note, I think the idea of the Mandalorian being a grey character who always does good but still gets by is-  kinda off the mark.  (Warning, some spoilers) Maybe that's the intent of the show, but- I think it largely fails, mainly for one incident in the first season where Mando's ship was getting striped for parts by Jawas and Mando whipped out his rifle and proceeded to kill about a dozen of them.  And in the end, when the situation was reconciled, there was no harsh feelings.  Similarly- there's another episode from season 2 where a passenger is carrying precious cargo, and another character is basically destroying that cargo on the way, and the show makes it all out to be a joke- the passenger never gets mad, and in the end the cargo seems as plentiful as it was at the beginning.  Basically you can't take the shows seriously because at certain points it just blatantly disregards life and that disregard is not meant to judge the offending character whatsoever.  The characters do bad but there are no consequences. Instead it's supposed to be a big joke or a laugh.  It's very inconsistent and bizarre in that way.

 

 

As for ethics in video games.  Triggering topic it seems given some of the replies.  The whole point of a game, ANY game, is to give the player interesting choices.  Making those choices ethical is simply another way to infuse interest into the choice. It's valid and worthy of discussion.  And even if ethics are not factored into the choice at all, it should still factor into that game.  Why? Because if the intent of a given game is to create a believable and interesting world then real world concepts like ethics and morality should factor in the design.  If a designer wants their world to be believable, they can make the non-player agents in the game react along ethical lines where appropriate.  This has been around even in the very earliest 4X games. When you wipe out a civilization, everyone hates you.  Even when you conquer too much of the world or become too big, everyone starts to hate you, which factors into ethics like greed and so on.  There's also that herbalist from Ultima IV who is blind and you can cheat her by underpaying her, but if you do then later in the game when you ask her for help she'll tell you you're a thief and to get out- that's ethics in games as far back as 1985.

I will agree also that the most interesting part of a 4X game in my experience is the conquest.  And more recent games, like civilization which focus on all other sorts of gameplay are less interesting to me as a result of it.  I don't want to sit around watching things get built, I want to explore and send expeditions.  I think also a failing of a game like Civilization is that it's not really about civilization, it's about regime. And when the regime falls, the civilization disappears- while in history we've seen many countries which were conquered and then reborn years or centuries later.  The spirit of the people in a given area survives.

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On 4/15/2022 at 4:38 AM, Moromete said:

I'm gonna do this by writing as I listen to the actual podcast (I also read the article and might make some comments directly linked to it)

 

  1. a lot of video games offer optimal paths/choices/strategies, that does not mean they are endorsed; endorsement of bad ethical moves would require the developer via the game to directly signal something as being what the game wants to tell people. I understand that people expect and see discourse embedded in all elements of a product but the trio should take into account that the main element of most modern video games is a sort of gameplay, especially in the strategy space, and that most developers do not have the resources to deeply investigate/explore/talk about sub-text;
  2. Kaiser is playing Crusader Kings in a weird way or has been reading the Reddit for it too much. The most efficient way of dealing with kids is to marry them well or find ways to give them tasks that remove them from the line of succession. Even when not role-playing it's a bad idea to kill everyone but the best heir. He should also brush up on his Ottoman history. CK also has no achievements that reward genocide or ethnic cleansing. It is efficient to sometime kill other people's children but adopting new cultures is one of the most beneficial things one can do at times. The Mongol story does not say anything about ethics but about the problems that knowledge of the past introduces in video games that focus on the past, hindsight is 20/20.
  3. The fact that the most efficient way to run a Civilization campaign is to always pick Communism or Fascism is not an ethical choice, it is a gameplay one. It might have some ethical value to the player but mostly people engage with choices from a direct consequences perspective. Would Civ be a better game in any way if it made democracy a much better choice in terms of effects than any other?
  4. the decision to not engage with parts of Frostpunk because they are horrifying is a valid one but the developers put work and though into that and it would be a very bad outcome for the studio if a majority of people made that kind of choice.
  5. Alpha Centauri makes it clear that nerve stapling is a very bad, last resort decision. Also there's no secret project that nerve staples an entire faction or something similar. Aiming for Talents is the better idea even when playing Miriam or Yang.
  6. Zacny does have a useful insight around the 68 minute mark. video games need to be as interesting as possible and as open about the topics they tackle as possible while guiding players to more extensive sources of information. That means focus on mechanics in the strategy space, communicate intentions, find ways to show the community where you draw inspiration from, describe your process.
  7. the discussion about bloodline optimization in CK II does make some good points and is the most interesting part of the podcast. The fact that traits are so visible and easy to select for is a weakness of the game. But bloodline optimization, even without knowledge of genetics, was something rulers did, even if the results were not positive. In US politics taller candidates do better even in our modern, enlightened civilization. I'm not saying Paradox should encourage players who want to create a world of white, blond, blue-eyed Norse. But Gigaknight should be something that can exist inside the grand strategy title. And most players, myself included, choose marriage based on alliances or prestige gain (is it more ethical to select for personal fame than for positive bloodline traits?)
  8. the guest, Ruth Cassidy, mostly repeats the points from the article and has almost nothing new to say about the games that the other two talk about. Zacny and Kaiser also go on long tangents that have little to do with the subject and don't allow Cassidy to add anything to them (like the movie critic stuff). Maybe the show needs more editing?
  9. regarding most direct video game mechanics talk, the trio needs to think more about scope. It's a bad idea to want Stellaris to become an entirely different game when that game or a version of it exists.
  10. The only ethical choice to make in regards to video games is to never engage with them, either by playing or by developing them. Time and resources are better used to better ourselves and other human beings. But we do not live in a world that accommodates such absolutism.

 

 

Sorry, I changed your quote to use numbers to discuss each one separately because it's simpler to read than using interleaved quotes

 

  1. There's a whole spectrum on this point - I don't think you can discount designers often simply not realizing or purposefully ignoring the unfortunate implications of aspects of their design. Listening to some of the interviews with game designers and the Designer Notes podcast, it's apparent that sometimes, mechanics are often added purely for gameplay reasons to improve pacing, provide challenge, etc. and a setting-appropriate justification draped on later (or never at all). I assume that's doubly true for systems-based games like 4x or grand strategy titles.

    On the one hand, some games are strongly authored, even if not actively editorializing. Alpha Centauri, for example is indelibly imprinted by Brian Reynolds (or late 90's Brian Reynolds, at any rate). On the other hand, you have extremely sterile PR-massaged design-by-committee games or ones where the ideas never quite gel. I think I would put Beyond Earth squarely in this category - I seem to recall interviews with the co-design leads giving the impression that they loved Alpha Centauri but never quite managed to analyze and dissect what made the game click with them, leading to Beyond Earth's surface-level varnish over the Civ V bones. On the gripping hand, you also just have cases where designers either don't recognize some of the oddities of their own specific experiences/background that they bring to the table. The standout example to me is the Armed Police (https://democracygame.fandom.com/wiki/Armed_Police) policy tree in Democracy 3 which is jarring mostly because of how unusual the UK police situation is (https://www.statista.com/chart/10601/where-are-the-worlds-unarmed-police-officers/).
  2. Games that end up being meme engines often seem to develop their entire weird fanon among devoted (obsessed) fans, and that intensity of attachment leads to its own mythos and interpretation of lore that take on a life of their own, like the myth about Gandhi being nuke-happy in Civ 1 because of an integer rollover that continue to propagate despite being debunked by the actual developers who wrote the game and had/have access to source code (specifically called out by Sid Meier himself in his memoir)
  3. I'm not even sure which civ game is being discussed here, since not all civ games even give you the choice of government types. Civ 5 used the Civics system to determine national values, but I don't recall a government choice, although the expansions greatly altered the game systems. Fundamentalism in Civ 2 was infamously the best way to wage war due to modifiers and bonuses to units. It's an exceedingly gross generalization without even mentioning which Civilization game is being discussed (a series that's had a different lead designer for almost every incarnation and that stretches for three decades...)
  4. That's an interesting self-set challenge to be honest. Like playing with a single city in a Civ game. Personally, there are some games I've opted out of buying (or have purchased to support the developers, but never played) because I'm not interested in interacting with the subject matter. (Spec Ops: The Line, and This War of Mine) are also on my list of games that I purposely set aside. I've read enough first-person accounts of/from various war zones to know it's not material I have any interest in engaging with in an interactive format
  5. I think they've confused the Punishment Sphere base facility (eliminates drones and talents at the base, with fluff text that mentions nerve staplers) with the effect of the Hunter-Seeker Algorithm (makes a faction immune to probe teams in vanilla/1.0 and only vulnerable to probe teams with a special ability in the expansion) and the video of Self-Aware Colony (the video of the vandalism being erased and the vandals tasered/killed, but whose gameplay effects are much more prosaic - reduced energy consumption and provides the equivalent of a free police unit - if police units are allowed by the player's values selection) secret projects
  6. I think intentions are a big one. Designer notes were part of Alpha Centauri's manual, and explicitly stating intent is helpful. Intent might not be properly expressed, and can be interpreted differently by the player given different cultural contexts/experiences. "A period of anarchy" has different implications depending on if your point of reference is the 1999 WTO riots or The Cultural Revolution. Culture also shifts rapidly. Without the context of the attitudes of the place and time the designer's intent comes from, their intent can seem anachronistic or regressive simply because attitudes have changed so much in the intervening years. (An issue with all art mediums, to be sure)
  7. Unfortunate side effect of increased gamification of some mechanics, I suspect and seems quite likely one of those things that improves/increases player engagement by juicing that drive to optimize and min/max
  8. I'm not sure if more editing would be as useful as preparation/planning on talking points so that each member can get their arguments a bit more organized and examples ready, Off-the-cuff/improv conversation sometimes gets overly glib and quickly slides into hearsay/the vagaries of human memory because well, that's what happens in conversation (just like the Alpha Centauri anecdote)
  9. I think it could have used a lot more discussion about the process of making a video game (and the way that can differ radically depending on a studio or developer's size and internal dynamics). Sometimes good pitches fall flat when it gets to the gameplay stage and the team is left to try and salvage a playable game from the assets/code they've already created. Other times, it might get all the way to beta before a playtester backlash forces a rethink. I imagine that can be a real issue with cultural attitudes when a game crosses borders/demographics (CD Projekt Red anyone? Or if a Japanese studio tried to make any game set in Japan's militaristic period and the historical baggage that will bring in neighbouring markets...)
  10. Games are (or at least can be) a form of communication and thus a useful mechanism for bettering ourselves and other human beings. It's hardly a binary choice and a useful way to analyze or train decision making processes or practice analysis. The video part is ancillary.

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On 4/16/2022 at 12:22 PM, UtherFranco said:

Who's the genious 

 

It's safe to say it's not you.

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