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The Ethical Avatar

When a game rises above a certain degree of abstraction, into the arena of realism, an Ethical Avatar will improve it. This article explains how to employ an EA, how it functions in the design, and the games where it works best. Co-Author: Mark L. Barrett

This is a translated re-working of an article I published a few weeks ago on my German blog Der Blindband. The re-working is due to discussions I had after publication, questions that were raised by colleagues and friends, and a general maturing of the concept behind it. Thanks to everyone who participated in the process, during which Mark L. Barrett became the co-author.    WW

The Ethical Avatar

Don’t panic! This article is not about making games that have a political agenda or a politically correct message. It is also not about feminism, racism, climate change, refugees, or any other political problem that might be addressed in a game. Instead, it is about using a set of design tools to greatly enhance the player’s participation in, and sense of participation in, the game world.  We call this set of tools the “Ethical Avatar” (EA), and this article explains in detail how to employ an EA in your own work, how it functions in the design, and the kind of games it works best with.  In order to do all that, however, we also need to cover some basics first, so please bear with us.

To generate the effects we want the player to experience, it is axiomatic that we must design for those effects.  That’s as true in interactive entertainment as it is in painting, film, theater or any other medium of expression.  In order to generate emotional involvement or just plain fun, we have to organize and execute designs which are aimed at generating those effects in the mind of the player.

In another article over at Wolfgang talked about the player-subject being the actual agent of interaction in the mind of the player.  (For more on the player-subject, see Miguel Sicart: Ethics of Computer Games.)  Relative to the player-subject, then, an Ethical Avatar is defined by two things:

  1. The ability of the player-subject to express its will in confronting the ethical and moral rules of the game world
  2. The ability of the game world to react to the player-subject’s expressions via:
    • narration
    • game mechanics
    • player challenges

In order to implement an Ethical Avatar, both points 1 and 2 must be fulfilled, and all three parts of point 2 must be fulfilled.  Even one missing component at the design level will render the player’s avatar non-ethical.  (Not unethical, but non-ethical – as in incapable of generating and sustaining an ethical context for play.)

So what are ethics in this context?  Well, we’re not talking about striving for Beauty, Good or Truth, as in Plato’s ideology.  Relative to game design, the ethics of a game world represent the states or behaviors that are currently considered reasonable or normal at a given in-game moment.  In that sense in-game ethics may have no connection to real-world ethics, hanging instead – as they should – on the socio-economic circumstances of the game world, within which there may be many different cultures, climates, territories and economies, all of them reflecting different ethical parameters of that world.

(In the linked article above Wolfgang wrote about the difference between morals on one hand and ethics as a reasoned and reflected moral system on the other.  It turns out that the ethics of a society – or of individuals in that society – can be at war with the morals of that same society or a sub-group of it, which is a great hook for intense narrative conflict. And if that doesn’t make sense, watch the news for five minutes.)

When a game rises into the areas of realism, an Ethical Avatar will improve it.

Consider the following affirmative claim, which we will examine in detail shortly:

When a game rises above a certain degree of abstraction, into the arena of realism, an Ethical Avatar will improve it.

The problem from the perspective of design is that an Ethical Avatar does not simply appear when a game rises into the arena of realism.  Like every other aspect of a game, an Ethical Avatar must be designed, and that means adjustments must also be made to the production process, the team architecture, and even the comprehension of the design team. In order to function, an Ethical Avatar must be integrated as a normative part of the game’s vision, and everyone on the development team must understand that an Ethical Avatar is part of the premise of the design.  Ethically resonant cutscenes or a few ethical choices here and there will not work.

To be clear, by ethics we do not mean that a game must allow the player to do anything they want. In fact, it is possible for ethical expression to be generated by very few gameplay features, yet still create a strong Ethical Avatar. Papers, please! is a perfect example.

So we are not necessarily talking about games with tons of features or a realistic simulation of complex societal behavior, although some simulation of societal behavior is critical for an Ethical Avatar.  Even if a game puts huge obstacles in the path of the player-subject’s free will – even if it completely blocks the player from doing what they want to do – that does not mean that an Ethical Avatar fails as an aspect of design. Again, Papers, please! shows how you can lead the player-subject into a cul-de-sac of bad options, and how that in itself can produce a strong feeling of ethical gameplay. Spec Ops – The Line is another example.

In designing an Ethical Avatar it is also not necessary or even beneficial to guarantee a positive outcome, or to try to anticipate each individual player’s preferences. Quite often, difficulty in expressing the ethical preference of the player-subject within the context of a game can actually amplify the ethical context of the gameplay.  Instead of being perceived as winning or losing, oppression creates resistance in the mind of the player-subject relative to the game world.

To engineer that productive tension, however, opposition to the player-subject’s preferred ethical expression must be embodied in and communicated by the game world.  It is not enough to dictate terms and conditions via a written script, no matter how eloquent.  Instead, the context for an Ethical Avatar must be incorporated into the setting and the game mechanics – and, subsequently, into the challenges by which the game itself becomes the player’s antagonist. A loss of freedom becomes evocative when understood by the player-subject as a loss, instead of a design constraint. The way both Papers, please! and Spec Ops – The Line take away player freedom as a consequence of player actions makes the player feel that loss, and amplifies the desperation of ethical dilemmas in which there are no good options.

While such choices might be frustrating in the context of victory-oriented gameplay, in combination with a player’s willing suspension of disbelief the filter of the player-subject allows the player to experience such obstacles in context.  Because the player-subject exists in the mind of the player, but is not the player, that distinction allows the player to make choices and experience the results of those choices in the game – including choices they might never make in real life.  While that can certainly lead to game designs which seek to shock or horrify, as noted in 1) above, the capacity of the player to separate themselves from reality – via the player-subject, in much the same way that an audience adopts suspension of disbelief while watching a film or stage play – is the foundation of any game’s ability to exploit an Ethical Avatar. The consequent condition, as noted in 2), is the ability of the game design to accept the choices of the player-subject as an operative force in the game’s mechanics and challenges. In combination, those two design decisions elevate the in-game avatar from a deterministic robot to an entity which acts from moral reasoning – an Ethical Avatar.

Along with the capacity for suspension of disbelief, the desire to express free will exists in almost every player, so we do not need to generate that impulse.  If we do not allow the player to express free will in a game world, however, then the player is revealed to be nothing more than a foil for the narrative manipulations of the game’s authors.  Despite the player’s desire to make choices and have an effect, all attempts to change the game world will be in vain.

Again, it is one thing to prevent a player from winning, and quite another to prevent a player from achieving the ethical end they would prefer.  In the former case, frustration with the game is inevitable.  In the latter case, constraints within the game world may – indeed should – promote frustration within the game, even as the player-subject may remain resolved to resist those constraints.  Even when resistance is futile, the game world must still respond to the player’s resistance, else none of the player’s choices matter in an ethical context.

For example, a game world which does not react to the player’s decision to take a life, or to preserve a life, is, in most cases, a game without an Ethical Avatar.  In such a game – even if there is a narrative response to the player’s choices – the player remains little more than a deterministic robot.  In such games the only achievable objectives come from mastering the mechanics and overcoming in-game obstacles.  Such games can still be great fun, and nothing in this article should be construed as denouncing such games.  Instead, this article is about how to go beyond mere mechanics and embrace the player’s capacity for experiencing so much more.

The Ethical Avatar, once it has become design goal, becomes a design premise

All of the above should make clear that this article is not about a political demand for ethics in games or an Ethical Avatar per se.  Instead, designing for an EA is solely about advancing and deepening the potential of interactive entertainment as an art form.  The need for ethical gameplay that is often proclaimed by politicians, teachers and worried parents is in fact an attempt to constrain artistic freedom, when such constraints are either not imposed on other art forms or are already generally adopted as an expression of basic human decency.

To the contrary, an Ethical Avatar is an aesthetic goal designed to unlock areas of artistic expression and freedom which – even today – are hard for game designers to explore, whether because of lack of awareness of the possibilities, or fear of instilling a cultural backlash.  In that sense, embracing the Ethical Avatar as a design premise is less like a parental advisory sticker and more like embracing the advance from mono to stereo in audio recordings.  The very concept of an Ethical Avatar widens the designer’s options considerably, while at the same time it intensifies the interactive experience for the player.

As a practical matter, aesthetic ideas can of course be political as well.  In fact, an unpolitical aesthetic – if such a thing could possibly exist – would necessarily exclude itself from public discourse, and as such would not need to be seriously engaged.  Ironically, however, in looking back at the first few decades of game design we can also see that attempts at remaining apolitical invited confrontations with the political and cultural sphere, precisely because moralizing was expected if not insisted upon.  In a beautiful demonstration of the term dialectical movement, the attempt to embrace and define a non-political game aesthetic became riotously political, albeit inadvertently.

Whether in a cultural or political context, it is not possible to avoid the ethical consequence of any work, whether that consequence is deemed legitimate or opportunistic.  What is possible, however – indeed critical within the context of game design – is deliberately deciding whether an Ethical Avatar will be implemented in a given design.  Failing to consciously make that choice has nothing to do with ethics, but simply betrays failure at the design stage.  By the same token, however, consciously omitting an Ethical Avatar is no guarantee that a game will avoid political or cultural pushback – a problem the Division designers are now facing, for good reason.

Including an Ethical Avatar in a game also does not and need not necessarily reflect some commentary on the real world. Rather, an Ethical Avatar creates the potential for wrestling with ethical dilemmas within a game world. Internally, as an expression of a game’s design, including an Ethical Avatar takes a position toward the game in which its data representation operates as a political entity, as a set of cultural rules, and as a set of expectations, yet all of that may be unrelated to the real world.  (Again, an Ethical Avatar is a representation not of the player but of the player-subject, which in turn facilitates a deepening of the player experience.)

The whole point of interactive entertainment – what separates it from every other medium – is that the audience, the player, gets to participate by making (or not making) choices.  The ideal goal in any interactive work is for the choices that players make to determine the outcome in some way, as opposed to simply revealing a predesigned outcome.  Unfortunately, in terms of narratives a maddening truth has held since the inception of the interactive medium.  If you want to tell a story in an interactive work, you have to pre-design those elements and impose them on the player in order to generate an effect commensurate with passive mediums.

The whole point of including an Ethical Avatar, then, is not to impose ethics, but to avoid that perpetual frustration on the part of both the designer and the player.  That is accomplished by providing a context in which ethical choices – which are inherently narrative – do matter, not just to the player, but to the game.  Providing choices is one thing, providing choices which affect the game world is another, and providing choices which affect the game world in an ethical context is still another.

By its very conception, an Ethical Avatar generates and enhances feelings in the player that their choices have influence – agency – within the game world.  It’s not just about completing another mission and raking in rewards in the form of game resources.  It’s not just about arriving at the next cutscene, then watching a story play out that was prepared in advance.  Instead, the reaction of the game world generates emotions which become part of an organic narrative experience.  No more heavy-handed plot designs limiting the player’s experience, at a consequent savings in development time and money that might help keep an indie studio up and running for several years.

The Non-Ethical Avatar suppresses two of the three narrative feedback paths

Over the past few decades, even as designers and players alike have come to terms with intractable limits in the telling of truly interactive stories, the perception and expectation of game worlds has changed. It is no longer acceptable to excuse such limits by saying that a work is only a game, which means designers are now obligated to defend their design choices in the context of in-game ethics and narrative effect.  Today, any game world which is even partly realistic, but which does not reflect its own ethics in its design mechanics, is seen as cold or unsatisfying, and rightly so.  Even if a game is meant to be fun and nothing else, an ever-increasing segment of the market expects coherence between a game’s mechanics and ethics, if only to facilitate enjoyment, to say nothing of suspension of disbelief.

The Non-Ethical Avatar

Pic1: The Non-Ethical Avatar

The reason for dissatisfaction becomes immediately clear when looking at Pic 1, which depicts how many if not most games are currently designed.  The antagonist in the above diagram is not a narrative bad guy or player opponent, but the sum and sequence of all challenges a game has to offer, and ideally evolves over time in response to the players’ choices and accomplishments.  As you can see, however, in Pic1 there is no narrative feedback loop with the game as an antagonist, and without that narrative component no ethical questions can be raised. The same goes for the game mechanics, which simply serve to compel state changes which are then perceived through the antagonist.  Only the narrative reaction provides feedback about any ethical or narrative component, but as previously noted, in many games that feedback is often predesigned.  Even when branching pathways are created in order to respond to carefully constrained player choices, those orchestrated responses are not reflected in the game’s mechanics or in the game as the player’s antagonist.

If you are striving for a rich, believable game world using a design similar to Pic 1, not only will you face stiff competition in the marketplace, but you will also face the difficult aesthetic problem of generating a convincing narrative. As Doom clearly proves there is nothing wrong with keeping your game world simple and producing a work that aspires only to fun.  Because Doom doesn’t need the game world of The Witcher to be enjoyable, it can get by with a simplistic narrative that no Witcher player would ever accept.

Conversely, however, that’s also why complex narratives work much better in games designed around an Ethical Avatar, as opposed to a Non-Ethical Avatar (nEA).  With an nEA the narratives and mechanics are managed as separate entities, as in Pic 1 – meaning choices and consequences in one area are not reflected in the other.  For example, if you fail to protect a merchant’s daughter, that merchant will still sell you what you need at the same prices as before.  Even if a narrative thread is created in advance and responds to that failure in some way, that response will still never affect the game mechanics, or the game as your antagonist.

In the worst case, the mechanics, antagonist and game narratives all communicate different narrative states to the player-subject, thus creating the famous ludo-narrative dissonance.  Many designers are so concerned about that dissonance that they actually keep the narrative of the game world on a short leash – and justifiably so. In fact, if your design calls for an nEA that’s exactly the way to go, because the player will have no expectation of a connection between the game and the story – and thus between the mechanics and the game world.

As noted, however, the freedom of designers (and producers and publishers) to implement a Non-Ethical Avatar in games that should have an Ethical Avatar is gone.  And there is now really no excuse for doing so other than habit or laziness.  The factors which determine whether a game should or should not have an EA are no longer technological, genre-driven or even constrained by the topic of the game.  Instead, audience expectations dictate that the level of the game world’s abstraction is the main parameter in making that design decision.

The reason Candy Crush does not need an Ethical Avatar is not because it’s a simple game, but because the rules which define the game world are too abstract to create ethical ramifications. On an aesthetic level, Candy Crush does not include a socio-economic context that will prompt ethical questions even in the mind of the most ethically-inclined player. Again, this is not a limitation and does not make Candy Crush a bad game or even less of a game when compared to games which include an Ethical Avatar.  The same holds true for Doom, while limiting the design of This War of Mine in the same way would not have simply made that game bad, it would have made that game hateful.

The Ethical Avatar facilitates all three narrative feedback paths

Designing a game so it responds to player choices with a funny or snarky remark is better than nothing, and may help immersion if it’s done well, but it’s no longer enough if the game world itself is more realistic than that level of response.  If predesigned comments vanish in the Orcus of game mechanics without further consequence, the player will learn to ignore them other than for their entertainment value, and that in turn will defeat immersion and erode suspension of disbelief.  In such instances, what’s needed is a narrative reaction which is reflected in the game mechanics, which is also then communicated back to the player by the game-as-antagonist.  If the player-subject can instigate a chain reaction which cascades through the entire game design, leading to new and appropriate challenges, then immersion, suspension of disbelief and tension with the antagonist will all be reinforced.

The Ethical Avatar

Pic2: The Ethical Avatar

In Pic2, the game mechanics encompass a code unit which handles parameters coming from the narrative level of the game. In a game with an Ethical Avatar, the merchant whose daughter you could not protect will stop selling you stuff – or at least triple his prices, but only for you.  That decision will then also propagate throughout the design, such that after the merchant has stopped selling to you, other members of your tribe may stop buying goods from him.  If that embargo persists, the merchant may have to go out of business or move away to stay in business, which would leave you without someone to buy goods from – at least until a another merchant with a slightly different choice of goods opened up shop nearby, or perhaps even in the same building. (For a more complex implementation, study the subtle mechanics of This War of Mine.)

Because there is a mechanical reaction feeding into the game as antagonist, and there is a feedback loop between the narrative and mechanical reactions, the mechanical reaction can carry the narrative of the world reaction, leading to a much more diegetic narrative design, and a much more organic evolution of the game’s challenges.

Over time, those changes in the game world will require adaptations in our decisions as a player, yet the reason for all of those changes will still make sense in the context of the ethics of the game world.  As a result, the game’s narrative becomes more powerful because it is delivered procedurally from three directions: as a classical narrative happening in the game world – often at a significant reduction in development costs, as a mechanical reaction, and as a change in the game-world-as-antagonist.

As you can easily see from both diagrams, neither the Non-Ethical or Ethical Avatar defines what is often called a heroic character or journey.  Instead, the only intent of the diagrams is to show how player actions trigger feedback from the game’s design.  Even the common conception of a hero’s journey is a narrative conceit, not a design construct, meaning that ideal must be moved along a predesigned arc as opposed to organically generated from interactive choices.

The specific terms in the diagrams describe the relationship betweenthe player-subject/avatar on one hand, and the narrative reactions of the game world, game mechanics and antagonist on the other.  Because an Ethical Avatar generates and receives feedback from the design in three ways, it provides the increased depth of response that is necessary in games which are more realistic and less abstract.  As a model, Pic 2 does not dictate ethical behavior or choices, but describes a system in which the game’s ethics are procedural – and that is not some theoretical ideal.

One of the earliest implementations of such a system dates back to 2005, when Russian developer Icepick Lodge released Pathologic.  (We may be missing an earlier game, but it’s not about who did it first – it’s about what we do with that potential.) In the past there were serious hardware and software limitations which prevented implementation of an Ethical Avatar, but those limits no longer exist.  We can calculate and render everything we want, from the most delicate facial animations to complex simulations of society. As Pathologic showed, we can use phronesis as a design tool to integrate the narrative and mechanics in many games.

The Ethical Avatar creates a far-reaching paradigm shift in game design that even goes into questions of production workflow

If instead of an abstracted world, a game presents a rich and detailed world including societies, laws, religion and morals, the question of why a player might want to influence that world is trivial.  Because no society is ever perfect, a player with any empathy will see opportunities to make any game world better, if perhaps only in their own little town or neighborhood or social sphere.  Even on a local scale, however, chances are that initiating change will inherently involve conflict with the existing ethical or moral system of the game world, which in itself describes both a game mechanic and a concurrent narrative thread.  (A perfect society would actually be the worst possible setting for a good game.)

Today, rich, realistic game worlds – even if set in a fantasy universe – demand an Ethical Avatar, in the same way that audio recordings demanded stereo production after 1967. Once listeners could hear the fullness of the space created by separate audio channels, no one wanted to return to the mono sound of 1966.  In that same way, now that players have had a taste of the depth of gameplay and intensification of narrative that comes from procedural paradigms, scripted games seem unsatisfying and one-dimensional in comparison.

As noted earlier, however, an Ethical Avatar does not necessarily promise more instances of narrative conflict than a world with a Non-Ethical Avatar. The difference is not in the amount of conflict, but in how conflict is handled by the game system, and the effect the game system then has on the player-subject.  The Division promises a lot of potential conflict because it includes a detailed societal background, but because it was designed around a Non-Ethical Avatar that background is not woven into the mechanics or challenges. Instead, in The Division the game world as antagonist remains unaffected by the complexity of its design or its natural moments of conflict.

An Ethical Avatar, on the other hand, would translate those same narrative moments into conflicts inside the game mechanic (and vice versa) – and consequently create meaningful challenges which spring from situations the player-subject initiated.  Game mechanics (and their limitations) would thus spring from a narratized game world: from its laws, rules and rulers, and from the tensions defining that world. As the player-subject the player will submit to those rules, but will also comprehend that submission in the context of the game world, as opposed to being constrained by fiendish game mechanics that a game designer threw at them.  Again, phronesis intensifies immersion, and any urge the player has to change the world is echoed by procedural ethics which reinforce the world and its mechanics.

In terms of production, all of the above means that design teams can no longer segment development into gameplay and narrative. Instead of throwing a story at a finished game in the last couple of weeks, hoping it will stick somehow, a fully-integrated Ethical Avatar reaches deep into questions of development workflow. Instead of alternating narrative and gameplay, design (or system design) becomes an iterative process in which each part feeds into and responds to the other.  At the design stage, developers must ask how game mechanics will react to changes in the world, and vice versa – and how that will affect the game as an antagonist.  How can interactions and effects be communicated so they don’t require a lot of non-diegetic interface elements, or expensive assets in order to be intuitively understood by the player? How does the game communicate changes in the game’s challenges?

All of these questions spring not from a story imposed on the game, but from the game as a functional machine.  In that sense, thematic questions are still valid, but the focus is not on a predesigned story.  Asking what a game (or game design) is about leads not to questions of narrative, but to game resources and the mechanics that support their manipulation.  From that spring inevitable questions about strategies and conflict, player choices and options, and even the game’s flow.  How is progress communicated?  When is the game won or finished?

The Ethical Avatar frees narrative designers from imposing a hero’s journey

For a long time game designers were taught (and Wolfgang is guilty of teaching this as well) that they should base a game’s narrative on the iconic hero’s journey famously described by Joseph Campbell, and replicated over millennia in cultures all over the world.  By deepening our understanding of how to implement an Ethical Avatar we free ourselves from this constraint for a very simple reason.  Instead of imposing a hero’s journey on the player-subject, we allow the player-subject to experience a hero’s journey organically, through their own interactive choices.

Almost any game world will present opportunities for interaction.  As realism increases, the game mechanics themselves create the call to adventure, and that includes mechanics which deny, refuse or frustrate the player as long as those impediments make sense in the game world.  Today, narrative designers must rely on and exploit game mechanics as much as they do a clever turn of phrase – and perhaps more so, because game mechanics and the power of real interactivity holds exponentially more narrative potential.

While an Ethical Avatar intensifies feelings of immersion and reinforces suspension of disbelief, it does so not by imposing a narrative on the game, but by deriving a narrative from the game.  Instead of being motivated to advance the story by triggering a cutscene or completing a specific quest, through interaction with the game world players aspire to personally meaningful goals.  This non-narrative motivation to play and achieve in itself becomes a narrative over time, and thus becomes the player-subject’s own heroic journey.

For narrative designers an Ethical Avatar also requires a paradigm shift.  Instead of dictating a hero’s journey to the player, narrative designers must -- like everyone else on the team -- work to ensure that a game’s mechanics make the effect of player choices resonant with the world in a way that is coherent and meaningful.  (In this it should be equally clear that narrative designers must be involved at the earliest stages of design and production.)

Any fully integrated implementation of an Ethical Avatar creates feedback loops between mechanics, narratives and challenges.  Because those feedback loops are driven by the player-subject’s representation in the game, however, an Ethical Avatar is more than just an ethical feedback system, it’s an ethical experience simulator.  (We could also create a simulation with no opportunity for external input, but that wouldn’t constitute an Ethical Avatar.)

While a predesigned narrative in any medium needs an audience, most predesigned narratives in interactive works are no more interactive than a book, where the reader must turn each page to get new information.  The page-turning in many games is much more complex, requiring the completion of quests or long-term objectives, but still only reveals information.  An Ethical Avatar requires player input in order to function and generate narrative moments in the overarching player journey, and to constantly recalibrate the game as a worthy antagonist.

The Ethical Avatar is a critical advance – as a set of design tools – toward the goal of telling interactive stories. With its numerous and consequential opportunities for meaningful player choice, an Ethical Avatar presents us with the ability to deliver an on-the-fly narratization of a game’s world, mechanics and challenges.  It is simply up to us to identify as many of these tools as possible, and learn how to best use them to advantage.

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