Reality is a Game

Thoughts on the game world around us.

Does Morality In Video Games Matter?

There are games out there that claim to have the player make moral decisions – and that the decisions will change the game in dramatic ways. I’ve always been let down by these games because they promise so much and don’t fully deliver. It’s very rare to find a game that brings moral issues to the forefront of the player’s experience.

Walking Dead Game

It’s too easy to put the moral aspects of play in a cutscene and that does very little. This may have something to do with how some game makers learn about morals and ethics in games.

Take a look at this tutorial on karma and moral decision making. The way that moral decisions are discussed is to frame them in the context of what moral decision system to use (relating to interface and not ideology) instead of what makes for a good moral question.

Too often the moral decisions are made for the players by the virtue of the design of the game. It’s not about what’s morally “correct” but what’s best to “win”. I’ve done horrible things in video games because they get me to win, but these horrible things are actions I’ll never consider outside of game play.

By crafting moral decisions into our game a priori the played experience we are not giving the player a decision.

As designers, if we focus on crafting good questions we can get good moral exploration in games. It’s of the utmost importance that we embody this in the gameplay and not just in a single character or a cutscene.

The moral quandary must transcend the game!

How do we create this feeling that transcends the game? We can do so by invoking aspects of the player’s life or by incorporating an open question around meta-ethics. By looking at meta-ethics we can start thinking about really good questions that will get players thinking in new ways. Philosophy Now has a good podcast episode on meta-ethics.

A recent Guardian article on guilt in video games touched on getting the player to feel moral issues. In fact, the article is a good summary with issues around morals in games today.

Which is why guilt is so fascinating as a game component – it can exist both inside and outside of the mechanics, and it can permeate the whole experience. In the sci-fi strategy game XCOM, players can name the characters themselves, and many of us choose to use the names of friends and relatives. Almost by accident, this brings to the game an almost unconscious guilt mechanic – you feel bad about endangering the character named after your boyfriend, or pet dog, or mum; maybe you even protect that character, placing them at the back of the pack.

If you find all of this too heavy, take a break and listen to this interview on morality and humour with Noël Carroll.

Violence In Video Games – Not Bad For People

Time for some good news about violence in video games!


I bet you didn’t expect this, but here are three recent discoveries about the use of violence in games.

First, an international research team from the USA and Canada found that by playing a game together we can change attitudes of players towards others. They had people kill zombies with someone who the player thought was from the States (and in the USA they thought they were playing with a Canadian).

The research concluded that having people play with someone they thought was from another country increased player’s opinion of people from said country.

Participants were asked how they felt about a variety of different social groups both before and after playing the game. Those who were told they were playing with an American reported more positive feelings about people from that country after playing.

Paul Adachi, a PhD candidate at Brock and the study’s lead author, says video games are good tool to set up experiments and study real-world psychological phenomena.

That quote is from this article and you can read Brock University’s press release.

I’m not clear why the researchers picked a violent game though. I assume you would get similar results with any cooperative game regardless of violence.

trains vs zombie

The second neat thing about game violence is that despite the rise of violent games actual crime has decreased. Hopefully this recent study will put to bed the myth that violent games cause people to be more violent.

Focusing on video game violence, Ferguson used the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) to determine the violent content for the most popular video games between 1996 and 2011. Federal data on youth violence during the same time period was compared to ESRB-estimated violence content. Violent content in the most popular video games during these years was associated with a drop in youth violence. Ferguson stressed that this decline in youth violence was most likely by chance and not directly related to video game violence.

Finally, there is another new study suggests violent video games improve moral behaviour.

Led by Matthew Grizzard, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo, and co-authored by researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Texas, this new study suggests that being bad in video games can lead players to think more about their real-life actions.

“Rather than leading players to become less moral, this research suggests that violent video-game play may actually lead to increased moral sensitivity,” says Grizzard. “This may, as it does in real life, provoke players to engage in voluntary behavior that benefits others.”

One reason I think it’s inportant to tackle issues around violence and video games is that educators and parents are worried about gaming in education as a result. So this research is good for all of us.

It’s all good news considering games are the future of education.

On Making Good (or Bad) Board Games

BoardGameGeek is a great website and community dedicated to board gaming. It’s the place I visit when I’m looking into cool new games. The site also has a list of the best and worst games based on user rankings.

I still have yet to play all of the games in the top 10 – I feel like the universe is actively trying to stop me from playing Android Netrunner. The top ranked game is Twilight Struggle which is a game about the Cold War. It’s an epic game and you ought to play it if you haven’t.

twilight struggle card

Over at Five Thirty Eight, Oliver Roeder did an analysis of Twilight Struggle and what it means to design the best board game on the planet.

It’s a good read and touches on a lot of points about good game design. The article even goes into what makes a game “good”. Some of it has to do with design and some has to do with appeasing the way people play games.

Simplification, to Gupta and Matthews, was the name of their design philosophy. Rather than overwhelm players with a fat rulebook at the start, the designers spread the information required throughout the gameplay, on cards. A typical Twilight Struggle card reads, “Truman Doctrine: Remove all USSR Influence from a single uncontrolled country in Europe.” The Twilight Struggle rulebook is a relatively slender 24 pages.

“You have to feel like something meaningful has been done in the game. You have to feel like the game had a beginning and had a middle and had an end, and that you were engaged,” Gupta said. You don’t, however, want to get burned out.

Twilight Struggle is also an educational game and I found knowing a bit more about the Cold War than other player’s put me at a slight advantage. You don’t need to know anything about history in order to play it though.

Over in Germany they are using another one of my favourite games, Battlestar Galactica, to teach aspiring diplomats ethics.

It’s an exercise named Project Exodus.

The fictional scenario is set aboard the Hesperios — a refugee ship seeking a new home after its worlds had been destroyed in a brutal war with machines disguised as humans.

The ship picks up an escape pod: It’s an event which brings the intergalactic war on board.

Nobody knows who is really on their side.

That’s it. From there the crew have to figure out for themselves how to expose and eradicate the evil among them.

In a follow up piece at Five Thirty Eight Roeder looks at the worst games ever made. It’s no shock to see Monopoly and The Game of Life where they are.


What I like seeing is that Roeder connects the badness of these games to their overuse of luck. Damn that spinning wheel in Life and the monotony of rolling-and-moving in all those other games.

The worst games, for the most part, have one thing in common: luck. They’re driven by it, often exclusively. Candy Land, Snakes and Ladders (also called Chutes and Ladders) and War are driven purely by chance. The Game of Life is close. It’s heavily chance-based, but one can make some decisions.4 Overreliance on luck makes a game boring or frustrating or both. Good games are driven by skill, or, like Twilight Struggle, a healthy mix of skill and luck.

You should try your hand at making a board game at next year’s Board Game Jam!

Thanks to a ghost for the BSG Germany connection.

On Creating A Conceptual Framework For City Management Games

Bedford and Lowther

One of the projects I’m working on right now is centred around city management (amongst other things) and I’ve come across some neat research as a result.

There’s essentially two ways to model a city that people have looked at. One way is to use cellular automaton to compute the city and the other is cell-space model.

Cellular automation is what the Game of Life uses. Basically each ‘cell’ acts based on the information directly around it. Based off of a rule set the cell will then behave in a certain way.

In a cell-space model the operation is slightly different. The cell is not only aware of it’s immediate surrounding but what’s also around it at a greater distance. This means it’s concerned with more connections and variables than cellular automation.

Markham and Lawrence

Using this cellular approach to understand urban environments isn’t just used in video games it’s used in the real world as well. A paper published in September 2014 used this approach: Spatially-explicit simulation of urban growth through self-adaptive genetic algorithm and cellular automata modelling.

These two cell-based approaches can also be found in a great analysis of city simulation games titled Video games and urban simulation: new tools or new tricks?

Here’s a choice quote from their really good analysis:

Complex urban models will always contain more assumptions about reality than are testable and involve contextual assumptions that remain implicit. These increasing difficulties in testing and validating models, and the fact that some arbitrary mechanisms have to be imposed so that realistic outcomes emerge, have raised serious concerns about the ability of models to predict or even reflect the “real world”. It has been argued that models are still useful, because every kind of model can be used for every purpose. It may depend on users, not on the models; urban models still largely remain didactical vehicles that are valuable to engender discussion and debate (Batty & Torrens 2001). These concerns are not specific to modelling. Trevor Barnes and James Duncan underline that “writing about worlds reveals as much about ourselves as it does about the worlds represented” (1992: 3). Writing (or modelling) reflects more our representations than the world itself. In short, urban modelling can be seen as “story telling” (Guhathakurta 2001), like video games (Frasca 1999). However, in both contexts, the extent to which the story told is believable is always at stake.

Jane and Firth

Beyond the cell approach there are other options. Conceptually, they seem to just deal with cells in a different format – less literal and more as conceptual cells. That approach is to break down each function of the city into regions. (How is a region not just an oddly shaped cell?) The paper Interactive Geometric Simulation of 4D Cities explores how this form of simulation is possible. Here’s the abstract:

We present a simulation system that can simulate a three-dimensional urban model over time. The main novelty of our approach is that we do not rely on land-use simulation on a regular grid, but instead build a complete and in- herently geometric simulation that includes exact parcel boundaries, streets of arbitrary orientation, street widths, 3D street geometry, building footprints, and 3D building envelopes. The second novelty is the fast simulation time and user interaction at interactive speed of about 1 second per time step.

No matter which way you choose to simulate a city you still need to find ways to figure out what needs to be modelled and simulate. For that you can turn to your own interpretation or look elsewhere. There is a ton of research on what aspects of a city matter the most given whatever lens you want to look through.

If you want to examine a city through a lens of economic strength you would model different things than if you looked at through a level-of-happiness lens.

For our game, the city-space is set a few years into the future and as a result we’re using a modified SWOT and STEEPV approach for prediction.

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