Misuse Your Illusion

I honestly laughed when I read headlines last year that the new Call of Duty game would add “ethical decision-making” as an underlying mechanic. In another past CoD game, the surreal superficiality of being asked to hit the “F” key to honor a fallen comrade during a mostly scripted funeral scene became the basis of a famous meme. In contrast, the infamous “No Russian” mission in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is chillingly effective because it reinforces how utterly helpless the player is to halt a massacre of civilians. It is one of the few times the game actually acknowledges what it really is, because it makes the player – in effect – a spectator despite the player actually exercising control during the level.

Modern shooter games are glorified arcade rail shooters. You move through a level on a more or less predetermined path, guided sometimes quite literally by hints and commands highlighted for you on the game display. Much of what unfolds around you is scripted. The choices the player makes are trivial relative to what has already been decided a priori. Branching pathways vary in their quality of implementation but still ultimately reinforce the sense that the player is traversing a giant finite-state machine that switches from state to state based on predetermined input-output relationships. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is what makes the game fun. But it does make it hilarious when games try to engineer contrived “ethical choices.”

To be fair, this is also partly a consequence of the limitations of single-player. The behaviors of the game world are discovered in single-player rather than predicted based on new information. And in multiplayer the complexity of interacting with actual human teammates and opponents and the inability of one particular stratagem or tactic to dominate creates far more variability. People feel like their choices are meaningful despite the far more obvious constraints of multiplayer and comically simplistic outcomes (win/lose). They analyze these choices with impressive levels of sophistication. And maybe we can learn something useful from this.

What we can learn from multiplayer gaming – as well as the informal social community of ‘metagaming’ surrounding activities like modding or speedrunning – is a different way of thinking about ethics in simulation worlds and heavily computerized environments in general. Players negotiate far more complex ethical questions than commonly expected in a context – the fairness of particular tactics and techniques, the possibilities of the game vs the base material offered by the game – that is organic to the game rather than externally imposed. What is organic to the game is, of course, actually quite complicated and offers far more potentialities than it may seem from surface view.

Just as I laugh about Call of Duty’s faux-ethics, I often laugh too when reading sterile academic discussions of strategy games like Civilization as deterministic (the tech tree dictates all) and reproducing harmful ideas about social progress. Online, large crowds flood the venerable Civilization Battle Royale subreddit to watch entirely automated matches between computers. The allure of Civ Battle Royale is, paradoxically, the production of contingency. Strange and divergent outcomes are generated regularly, including scenarios that often mock typical understandings of progress and power. Amazingly enough, people that watch these computers duel have created an entire culture around them that has dynamics of both myth and folklore as well as passionate sports fandom.

But is this really that surprising? After all, the possibilities of artifice are the basis for any ethics of artifice. People resist taking this into account when they talk about ethical interventions in games, simulations, and online communities. Perhaps it is because they think ethics has to model a “real” world outside of the machine. Playing Call of Duty is supposed to in some way model the behavior of ethical combatants in modern wars. But the world is its own best model. Players respond to the world they experience, not the world that other people want them to experience. That world is an elaborate artifice, and any ethics possible within it must intrinsically be ethics of artificing.

A case in point is the Billy Mitchell affair. At the Twin Galaxies forum, players compete to rack up high scores at old arcade games. It is critical that players do so using arcade hardware rather than emulators. Emulators lack the “aura” of the original technical artifact in its original time and material context. Playing with emulators means different controls, timings, and mechanics. Mitchell, a champion at the arcade version of Donkey Kong, was accused of playing with an emulator. His accusers presented a level of forensic evidence – frame by frame analysis and exhaustive comparative testing – fit for a court case rather than a hobbyist board.

With the evidence against him overwhelming, Mitchell was promptly stripped of his titles and banned from the community. Mitchell’s fate is suggestive of how the ethics of simulations and computerized environments ideally function. Ethical choice arises from recognition of the artificiality of the context in which they occur. Players understand that the world they are situated within is a giant machine that can be exhaustively mapped through obsessive study and manipulated via purposeful action. Even the player is, in the view of speedrunners, merely just a collection of recorded inputs that can be replayed using a demo file. This does not trivialize things, rather it is critical to what gives them moral weight.

The machine can be mapped and manipulated in good or bad ways. As with Mitchell’s case the underlying goodness and badness of these interactions with the machine is relative to the social properties that emerge from the materiality of the machine’s infrastructure. A social community surrounding this infrastructure collectively deliberates about the ethics of something that is both unreal as artifice and nonetheless fraught with meaning. This does not negate mainstream understanding of these communities as pathologically dysfunctional and immature, but it shows how they ideally function on their own terms as collective ethical actors. It should be the starting point for discussions of ethics rather than an afterthought.

Until people choose to foreground the actual experience of what it is like to take artifice at its own terms, they will continue to churn out nonsense about the morals and ethics of simulations and computerized environments. They will prattle on about the need to impose constructs that do not fit the relevant environments, creating outcomes as unintentionally surreal as the “Press F” moment. Sadly this is not just a matter of what happens in the next big budget game title. It is also a matter of national and international political dynamics that are increasingly tied to the outcomes generated by large computational engines. Despite the gravity of the matter, the same conceptual mistakes persist regardless. Press F indeed.