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Second Anniversary

Bdaycake2years Sunday is the second anniversary of Only a Game. It's fitting that we celebrate this with an unexpected flurry of posts and comments, a revisiting of the kind of games-and-narrative arguments that Corvus and I enjoyed back at the beginning, and a weighty post about metaphysics and ethics that wonderfully encapsulates where my philosophy is at the moment.

To all my players, thank you for being part of Only a Game - there could be no game without you!

Ethics of Metaphysics

Universal_pathsshoshanna What is ethical behaviour in respect of metaphysics – those untestable beliefs, both religious and scientific, that we must decide upon for ourselves? Does freedom of belief allow for aggressive evangelism? Or is it child abuse for parents to raise children in religious traditions? These questions fall into the realm of the ethics of metaphysics.

We must begin by asserting once again that freedom of belief is the bedrock upon which all other freedoms rest. Religious traditions grant this freedom on account of the necessity of free will (which is God-given in theistic traditions), while secular traditions provide it as a matter of common agreement – as embodied in article 18 and 19 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As a result, when we talk of ethics of metaphysics, we are considering the ethical consequences of metaphysical choices, but we are not denying people’s freedom to choose their own metaphysics.

Problems arise chiefly when one’s metaphysics result in a denial of this right to other people. This, I contend, is the primary issue in the ethics of metaphysics – and one that requires urgent attention.

Prioritising a Metaphysical Future

One particular problem in the ethics of metaphysics is easiest to observe in the Abrahamic traditions, particularly Christianity. This is the tendency to place excessive focus on a future state which is metaphysical in nature, and thus to overlook the importance of the world around us. We see this most commonly in certain strains of evangelical Christianity (most commonly found in the United States) which are so obsessed with “saving people from hell” that they appear to have lost all perspective on compassion, despite the vital importance of this to their religion.

This is a strange situation for Christians to find themselves in, as it seems a highly restricted interpretation of Jesus’ teachings. Jesus ministry was focussed on how to make the physical world “a kingdom of God”; his parables and teachings reflected how people should behave towards each other in this world. Conspicuously absent from this teaching were constant threats of the form “repent or die” which emerged considerably later in the Christian traditions.

Much of the modern evangelical Christian viewpoint rests upon matters recorded solely in the Gospel of John (the only gospel with a decisively cosmic, and hence metaphysical, flavour), which offers eternal life to those who believe in Jesus. Absent in the verses that espouse this view are the threats of eternal torment to the unbeliever which have become synonymous with certain strains of evangelical Christianity. In fact, Jesus does not talk much of hell. As Samuel Dawson has observed, the idea of hell in its modern form originates in later Catholic theology, and does not have a sincere basis in the source texts for the Bible at all.

Irrespective of these issues, the fact remains that there are people who have chosen to believe that the threat of eternal damnation is the key message of the Bible, and they are entitled to these beliefs. It becomes problematic when the behaviour of such people towards others becomes so abusive that their ethical behaviour in this world has become inconsistent with Jesus’ teaching of compassion. This includes tactics designed to terrify children not only into maintaining their own faith, but into urgently attempting to convert others. These behaviours cannot be considered ethical by Kant’s yardstick or by any ethical system except the Consequentialist (outcome-focussed) view that “the ends justify the means”, which it is a virtual certainty that Jesus would (or, depending upon your perspective, does) condemn.

The tragedy of modern Christianity is that its public face – the side of Christianity the media most often chooses to portray – are those Christians who seem the most confused about the metaphysics of their own religion, and in doing so frequently behave in an manner ethically inconsistent with their own religion’s teachings. By prioritising the importance of a metaphysical future state over the need to act for the good in the present world, such Christians commit ethical infractions (by the standards of their own values) on behalf of metaphysical justifications. This behaviour is not only unethical, it is distinctly unchristian.

Kierkegaard_2 Because our modern society does not prioritise philosophy, a great volume of valuable discussion on metaphysics and ethics is effectively lost to common culture. Evangelical Christians could gain a great deal from study of the great Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, for instance, who berated the “devilish wisdom” that would seek salvation in single-minded willing, irrespective of what is being willed. Exploring the idea of double-mindedness (developed from James 4:8, “purify your hearts, you double-minded”) he asserts that when one fails to take the moral action because of subordinating the good to extra-moral goals (i.e. the reward for doing so, or avoidance of punishment for not doing it) one is double-minded, precisely what James warns about. Kierkegaard insists we should will one thing, and that (for Christians, at least) what must be willed is the good, and it must be willed for its own sake – never for the fear or promise of a metaphysical future reward or punishment. 

It is worth remembering that Christianity is by no means the only belief system to produce problems in respect of a metaphysical future. For instance, the nonreligion (secular ideology) of Marxism has issues in regards to its belief in a metaphysical future – in this case, a communist utopia that is alleged to be the result of the abolition of social classes. It may be less immediately clear that this is metaphysical, but since it holds beliefs about future political consequences (issues which are untestable), it is clearly not an empirical matter. Regardless of the motivating belief system, the same kinds of problem can occur if an individual prioritises their metaphysical future vision over the freedom of the individual.

Behaviours which place a metaphysical future end (or goal) above mutual respect can never be ethical by Kant’s yardstick; we must respect what other people have chosen as their ends, and by asserting the dominance of our belief as to what the future holds we fail to do so. Such behaviour cannot be universalised, since it denies the autonomy of will which Kantian ethics consider foundational – in effect, we are foisting our own metaphysics onto other people, and this is not and cannot be ethical behaviour.

It follows from this that any aggressive form of proselytising is unacceptable behaviour in ethical terms, although peaceful expression and teaching of ones beliefs is acceptable. The desire to convert everyone to the same ideology (whether religion or nonreligion) can only be justified by an appeal to the principle that what is judged the correct end (a solely metaphysical decision) can be pursued by any means necessary.

In fact, any ethical system which allows that “the ends justify the means” in this way falls prey of prioritising a metaphysical future – since this maxim assumes our ability to accurately predict the future consequences of our actions, and the ultimate beneficence of the end in question. This is not a plausible state of affairs. We may be able to estimate some of the consequences of our action, but we cannot see the future with perfect clarity, and to behave as if we can is therefore unethical. An outcome-based ethical system is not wholly untenable, and indeed may occasionally be a necessary resort when other ethical systems are indecisive (consider the Trolley Problem), but we must not use our commitment to a particular cause as justification to overrule the autonomy of others. To do so cannot be considered ethical behaviour.


Confusing Metaphysics and Science

A second problem in the ethics of metaphysics is treating matters of belief as matters of fact – that is, confusing metaphysics and science. The domain of science is the empirical – the testable – and this domain is separate from the domain of religion, which is not in any way empirical. Nonetheless, conflicts between these two types of tradition do occur, with the most famous examples being Creation Scientists, on the one hand, and certain Neo-Darwinist atheists on the other.

While it is certainly a scientific error for Creation Scientists to use theological beliefs as premises in their scientific literature, it is also trivially easy for anyone to recognise that the papers published by such people mistake metaphysics as matters of fact – in this regard, Creation Scientists do not represent a plausible threat to science as a tradition since the only people who will take their “research” seriously are those with the same metaphysical stance. Everyone else is more than capable of dismissing any such papers on the basis that they are not empirically grounded. Freedom of speech allows them to have their say, and arguably little harm would be done if that was where the matter ended. 

However, the Intelligent Design furore brings the issue into a political context. It is worth noting that Intelligent Design is not science, but metaphysics, but that this is not an argument for not teaching it in schools – why should we not teach philosophy in schools? If we did, political conflicts such as this one would likely become unnecessary! The issue at task is whether the political pressure to add Intelligent Design to school curricula represents movement by a minority to impose their metaphysics on a majority – if this is the case, then the movement is unethical in Kantian terms.

To understand why Intelligent Design has become such a sensitive issue it is necessary to look not only at the intrusion of metaphysics on science, but also at the intrusion of science into metaphysics. It is arguable that the reason for the Intelligent Design proposal in the first place is a tendency for certain prominent scientists to behave as if science could “disprove God” – another absurd metaphysical confusion. Science as a method can only be agnostic about metaphysical issues, as all that science can offer in this regard is the assertion that the truth values of such matters are either unknown or unknowable. 

Richard_dawkins Most attention has been focussed on Richard Dawkins in this context, since he established himself as a lightning rod for the issue by publishing his inflammatory book “The God Delusion”. In this book, Dawkins claims that God is a legitimate area for scientific investigation, and that the conclusion in this regard would be that “God almost certainly does not exist”. The logic behind this conclusion is quite flawed, however; Dawkins demonstrates that Intelligent Design is not science, and then attempts to use this as proof of the invalidity of all notions of God without actually exploring the relevant theology. As Alvin Plantinga shrewdly observes, Dawkins presumes materialism (the idea that only matter exists), and then deduces that God does not exist – circular logic, since the conclusion is inherent in the premise.

Dawkins position becomes unethical in Kantian terms when he denies the right of parents to raise their children in their own religious traditions, calling it a form of “mental abuse”, and thus denying mutual respect. What kind of society would it be if parents did not have the right to raise their children in their own cultural traditions? This suggests a world in which the State has the right to interfere in the freedom of belief. In fact, what Dawkins proposes seems to violate article 18 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of religion. While this agreement is by no means universally accepted (some Muslim countries refused to ratify it), it is troubling to find a secularist who denies certain human rights on the basis of his personal metaphysics. 

Stephen_jay_gould The great evolutionary essayist Stephen Jay Gould proposed a solution to these “territorial disputes” between science and religion, which he termed Non-Overlapping Magisteria, or NOMA. He contended that science’s proper subject was the empirical, while religion’s proper subject was the ethical, and that these “magisteria” did not overlap.

Dawkins disputes Gould’s suggestion, claiming it is an attempt to shield religion from criticism and scrutiny, and even going so far as to suggest that Gould did not believe in his own suggestion! That certain individuals, such as Creation Scientists and Dawkins, do not respect the distinctions between religion and science cannot be used as evidence against Gould’s proposal, however, as the proposal is not a matter of fact, but a suggested “peace treaty” to put an end to this kind of squabbling. 

Gould’s model of Non-Overlapping Magisteria is, however, fundamentally in error. While it is reasonable to say that the domain of the empirical is the proper object of science, and that the domain of the ethical is a proper object of religion, there is still one domain that both science and religion occupy, namely metaphysics. However, the metaphysics of science is not science, per se, but merely “thinking outside the box” in the hope to further science. (Evolutionary theory was, as Popper noted, a metaphysical research program before it became legitimate science). Conversely, metaphysics of religion is an intimate domain of religion. It is this conflict that requires resolving, but since metaphysics are untestable, the only reasonable course of action is to allow each individual to believe what they like in the domain of metaphysics. If we do not extend this freedom of belief to everyone, then there is no freedom of thought and all our other alleged freedoms are empty. 

This idea of separating metaphysics from science was proposed by myself as an extention of Popper’s philosophy, and contrasted to the alternative: Feyerbend’s suggestion that there are no lasting boundary conditions to science, and thus that policing science to eject “what is not science” is a fool’s errand. Either solution is acceptable, but one or the other must ultimately stand if this conflict is ever to be resolved.


Realism is Unethical

All of the examples thus advanced have one thing in common. Whether we are dealing with evangelical Christians abusively enforcing their metaphysics, or bigoted atheists advocating religious intolerance on the basis of theirs, all of the belief systems that lead to a violation of the ethics express a particular form of philosophical realism. ‘Realism’, in this sense, means that reality is mind-independent; this is generally contrasted with anti-realism, with individuals taking more-or-less realist or anti-realist positions with respect of specific issues, such as aesthetics, science and ethics. 

This is, alas, a complex philosophical issue with troublesome overloaded terms and hopelessly convoluted debates. Let us therefore define a new term for clarity – arrogant realism – by which we shall mean behaving as if one’s own belief system is the only accurate portrayal of reality. 

The tendency towards arrogant realism is quite natural, and I will not argue that such a position is disallowed – freedom of belief allows people to hold whatever belief system they choose. But in treating metaphysical issues as objective truths, arrogant realists risk creating situations that breed intolerance and bigotry, which denies mutual respect and is therefore unethical in Kantian terms.

Religious realism, when it falls into arrogant realism, denies free will by not openly permitting the adoption of alternative theological or metaphysical models. When one approaches religious metaphysics with humility, one comes to accept that our religious metaphysics are, at best, our attempts to grasp in words immensely abstract issues that perhaps are inherently beyond our capacity as mere humans to fully comprehend. Our metaphysical models are therefore always imperfect, and there may well be (as the Sufi believe) inherent truths in all religions – the apparent incompatibility of different religions being a product of our human imperfections. To put this in theological terms is to claim that no-one understands the mind of God, and to behave as if we do is hubris. 

Scientific realism, when it falls into arrogant realism, confuses the explanatory and predictive value of scientific theories with descriptions of objective reality, and then proceeds to deny any metaphysical idea incompatible with the particular theories the individual upholds. Because scientific theories by definition describe empirical phenomena, non-empirical concepts are summarily rejected, or constrained to more palatable formulations. The confusion that results comes from mistaking science as something that produces a specific epistemological position (that happens to correspond with one’s own beliefs) and not as a method of investigation. This view has decreasing significance within philosophy of science (instrumentalism and confirmation holism being increasingly more relevant), but alas scientists are not taught philosophy of science, and are frequently ignorant of its implications. Matthew Cromer sums this issue up neatly: science is a method, not a position.

It is overstating the matter to suggest that “realism is unethical”, but arrogant realism logically leads to bigotry – since to be a bigot is to be intolerant of differing beliefs and cultures – and it is hard to see how someone whose own beliefs tend towards arrogant realism can behave reasonably towards others when they know with certainty their belief system is correct. 

The alternative need not be a collapse into relativism or solipsism, but rather the acknowledgement that humans are biologically incapable of ascertaining Truth perfectly, and that when it comes to metaphysical matters, a vast array of different approaches and opinions exist; we have no reason to presume that our choices in this regard are in any way superior to other people’s. If we must judge a person’s metaphysics, it should be by the behaviour of the individual – two Christians are no more likely to share the same beliefs and behave in the same way as two scientists, and when we assume otherwise we have succumbed to prejudice. 



Ethics of metaphysics must rest upon freedom of belief – not only must we extend the right for people to choose their own metaphysical beliefs, but if we wish to be ethical (in Kantian terms, at least) we must not abuse others by enforcing our beliefs upon them, nor fail to respect their ends by prioritising our vision of a metaphysical future above their own wishes. 

Confusing science and metaphysics seems to lead to further problems. It is unethical for a minority group to enforce their metaphysics on the majority in the teaching of science (if this is indeed the situation with Intelligent Design), and equally unethical to do so in the teaching of religion (as Dawkins seems to demand). As parents, we have the right to raise our children in our own cultural traditions; we do not have the right to enforce our cultural traditions on others against their will.

Arrogant realism – the belief that one’s own nervous system is better tuned to the universe than other people’s – leads to intolerance and bigotry, and it scarcely matters if this realism is of a religious or scientific flavour when the result is grossly unethical behaviour. If we wish to behave ethically in respect of metaphysics, it will be necessary to accept diversity of belief. Our best hope for the future manifests only when this freedom is honoured.

The opening image is Universal Paths, by Shoshanna Bauer, which I found here, and is used with permission. "Universal Paths" 2007 (c) coypyright Shoshanna Bauer All Rights Reserved.

I encourage other blog-authors interested in these issues to trackback this post so we can take the debate further afield and, as ever, I welcome thoughtful discussion in the comments.

The Dawkins Occlusion

I was not at all happy when I posted on "The God Delusion" before. I was angry at Dawkins irresponsible ignorance. I felt physically ill after posting my reaction. I had let myself down somehow.

I recently drafted a comprehensive rebuttal to the book based on the Wikipedia article on it, but when I gave it to my excellent colleague Ernest Adams (who studied philosophy as his degree) for review, he made absolutely clear to me what I had been in denial about. One can oppose  a particular ideology without reading its source texts, but if one wants to write a comprehensive rebuttal to a book, one has to read it first.

This, unfortunately, places this rebuttal somewhat in doubt, as Dawkins is just not important enough for me to subvert my current reading list. It's going to be hard to want to read a clumsy sophomoric work (Plantinga's professional assessment of it) over more Kant, Kierkegaard, Arendt, Feyerabend or Wittgenstein, and I certainly have no intention of putting any more money in Professor Dawkins already ample bank account in respect of a book which, to my sensibilities, is blatant bigotry. I would far sooner reread his middle work, which displays intelligence and erudition.

So, for the time being, I have constrained myself to a few paragraphs in the piece on Ethics of Metaphysics which follows. Perhaps this will suffice.

And I retract my claim that nothing good could come from Dawkins writing a book on religion. Clearly, this book has put religion back on the table as a subject for discussion. That alone may be worthwhile, as not talking about it was surely not working.

Effficient and Good are not Synonyms

Corvus has exploded in ironic sarcasm in response to my intentionally provocative Round Table post, The Inefficiency of Games as a Narrative Medium. Here's a juicy extract:

Most days you think Square Enix has the right idea and that games just ought to be really long movies cut up into 20 minutes scenes with little tiny arenas in between where the players get to micromanage a bunch of seemingly irrelevant numbers and useless items and maybe punch some bad guys while they’re at it.

I replied to him in his comments, but felt I should include the comment here as part of the Round Table proper, as it seems fitting.

[Dear Corvus,]

I appreciate this is tongue in cheek, but even so I must take task with how you tried to run this…

“Inefficient” doesn’t mean ‘flawed’. All media are flawed in some way, especially when compared to one another (as you do here).

Efficiency is about economy of means. Novels are a supremely efficient narrative media. Nothing else comes close except perhaps oral storytelling. From there, there is something of a continuum of efficiency which goes, roughly and depending upon the specifics, TV/indie film, comics/graphics novels, theatre, blockbuster movies - and then there’s a quantum leap to videogames.

Now sure, there’s a continuum within games as well - a 2D game can be a lot more efficient than a 3D game, for instance, and a text adventure more efficient still! But as the audience for games expects more and more swish for their cash, the inefficiency of videogames as a mainstream narrative media gets worse and worse.

You must know I’m not advocating a continuation of the practice of splicing an animated movie into a game and calling that the best that game narrative can achieve - but that happens to be one of the more efficient forms of game narrative, which is why it persists, and to deny this is to deny one of the basic problems the games industry is facing.

Efficient narrative does not mean good narrative. But let’s not kid ourselves about the problems we’re facing in game narrative. Making videogames is expensive, and it’s expensive because it’s time consuming and laborious to implement. Making games that compete in the mass market is cripplingly expensive, it is absurdly time consuming. And sad as it may be, inventive narrative is not a commercial saving grace in the current market. You cite Psychonauts. It perfectly underlines the relevant point: everyone seems to loves its story content, but it’s still a commercial failure.

I’m not saying “abandon any hope of interesting game narratives!” Perish the thought! I am saying that trying to make creative game narratives is a struggle against the inefficiency of the medium, that this is difficult if not impossible to achieve in the mass market while remaining in synch with the standards of expectation curve, and that it is a sisyphean task to attempt to remain on top of this problem as mass market budgets continue to skyrocket.

Neither am I saying “the narratives coming through the mass market are as good as they could be”. They are not. Not even remotely. But many of them are about as efficient as they can be, and that happens to be monstrously inefficient.

Let the independent games create their creative, expressive, wonderful narratives when they can! I will praise them! But let’s not kid ourselves about the amount of work that goes into getting a narrative into a game, especially in the mass market.

The motivation behind this post was to provoke some debate. I felt we needed some. :) I hope in this regard it will prove a success.

With sincere best wishes,


Two years on, and Corvus and I are still arguing vehemently about games and stories! There's something strangely satisfying about that.

The Trolley Problem


The trolley problem is a moral dilemma originally proposed by the virtue ethicist, Philippa Foot. (A trolley, incidentally, is another name for a tram or streetcar). There isn't a right or wrong answer to this dilemma - it really is up to you to determine the moral dimensions in respect of your own ethics (much as in real life!)

The trolley problem goes something like this:

An out-of-control trolley is rushing down its track - and a mad philosopher has tied five people in its path. There is a switch which will lead the trolley down a different track - but there is a single person tied there. Should you flip the switch?

Please think about your answer to this dilemma before reading on.

Judith Jarvis Thomson proposed a variant on this theme:

As before, a trolley is hurtling towards five people. But this time you are on a bridge standing next to a fat man. The only way you can stop the trolley is to push the fat man in the path of the trolley, killing him to save the other five. Should you proceed?

Please share your views on these dilemmas in the comments!

Comments to this post are now closed. Please post any further comments on the follow-up post instead.

Recovering a Desktop Background

Can anyone help me recover the source image for a Windows XP desktop background? I selected an image I found online as my desktop background, but now I would like to have a copy as an actual image file. I can't find the original image online now (although it might still be out there), so if I could get the name of the image used from the registry, or even better save the image being used as a file in its own right, it would be helpful.

If anyone knows anything about this, please let me know!

The Inefficiency of Games as a Narrative Medium

Two_infinities_by_freydoon_rassouli Games and stories have become inexorably intertwined – but we should be cautious about stories in games, as videogames are an extremely inefficient narrative media. The question must be raised: when is it worth the cost of rendering a narrative in a game?

Much has been written about the relationship between games and narrative, here, there and everywhere else besides. In general, I think it can be agreed that while games do not need an explicit narrative (there will always be games such as Tetris which are entirely abstract, for instance), there is a class of games which depend upon their narrative element as a crucial part of the experience of play. These narrative games are quite unlike other narrative media.

But when you have a particular narrative, how do you judge if it is suited to games? And when you have a game, how do you judge what you can do with its narrative?

A problem which game writers, and others interested in game narrative, often choose to overlook is that it is tremendously inefficient to render a story in a game. For instance, suppose you have a short story to tell. You can write it in prose in a few hours. You can shoot and edit a short film of it within a day or so. But to make the same short story into a game takes hundreds of man hours.

Now it is true that by making a game of it you add something that you cannot get in other media – namely interactivity. But there is a flipside to this, which is that not all stories benefit from interactivity. If you want to tell the story of Job, for instance, there is very little point in making it interactive... In fact, by making it interactive you probably collapse the narrative, as it depends upon the protagonist reaching a state of despair from which they fall into inaction. This is essentially impossible to render in an interactive form, except as an absurd pastiche. Similar arguments can be made for Shakespeare’s Macbeth, say, or James Joyce’s Ulysses.

It is not that these stories could not be made into (or at least used to inspire) games – it is rather that what makes these narratives interesting is not necessarily compatible with an interactive form. Furthermore, it is such a tremendous investment of resources to render a narrative in game form that one had better be certain that the narrative is a good choice for a game before beginning.

Far too many people, especially students and amateurs, have an idea for a game, which is actually upon analysis an idea for a story. But they do not then try and write the story (as a novella, or screenplay), they set their sights on a game and have high hopes of bringing their story to life in game form. Most fail. Even those that succeed often do not produce a very satisfying narrative, as if one does not have the skills required to write a story as a novel or a screenplay, there is no reason to believe that one has the skills required to render the narrative in a game – a considerably more complicated task.

It cannot be overemphasised that it takes a tremendous volume of resources to make a game narrative, and the more interactive the narrative, the more laborious it becomes. Façade is an impressive piece of work, but it represents hundreds, perhaps thousands of man hours of work for only half an hour of play (ignoring replay). It was only worth doing because it was pioneering new techniques (which were absolutely worth exploring!), and even then, it is doubtful that any commercial game will follow in its footsteps.

Certain game stories are comparatively simple to implement. For example, if one is creating a linear, or fairly linear, shooting game, then one can render the story as a series of cut scenes between the action – this is in fact the de facto standard for game storytelling, whether for good or ill. In these cases, the story is simply a gloss upon the gameplay. These are cases where the game narrative serves its purpose; the game is already being made, and the narrative adds positively to the experience of the game.

But this is not the case for every narrative idea proposed in the context of games. Indeed, it is arguable that the game concept should precede the story concept, unless it happens that the story concept implies gameplay (which does happen – Ico is an example).

Thomas at Mile Zero asks as part of this month’s Round Table on games and narrative (albeit accidentally!) why there are no game stories with the richness and unique identity of art house movies such as Junebug, and why we are instead doomed to heroic (or anti-heroic) archetypes in videogames. I feel that the answer to this question is the inefficiency of rendering narrative in the medium of games.

The audience becomes used to the high production values they experience with upper market franchises such as Grand Theft Auto and Final Fantasy, and the budgets for such games require a sufficiently large audience to justify their creation. That audience is not generally courted by inventive narrative, alas – I wish that it were. Rather, the few interesting examples of game narrative occur despite resisting commercial factors.  And even if one makes an interesting narrative on a smaller budget, it is still grossly inefficient to do so, compared to how much it would cost to make a short film with the same story content.

There is no way to avoid the fact that games are an inefficient medium for delivering narrative. But there is also no way to avoid the fact that interactive narrative can only be attempted in a game, or something very much like one. What is lacking is the commercial impetus to justify the costs required in making creative interactive narratives, and while the market for videogames remains focussed on games of harsh challenge and fleeting entertainments, this commercial impetus remains absent. It is not even clear that we will ever find such a market. Creative interactive narrative might always be a by-product of the games industry, and never a commercial goal.

But it will not stop those of us enchanted by the potential of the medium trying to push its limits whenever we can. 

The opening image is Two Infinities by Freydoon Rassouli, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is implied, and I will take the image down if asked.

Attack on Pearl Harbor

Aoph_cover It gives me great pleasure to announce that Attack on Pearl Harbor is now on sale in some parts of the world (although players in the US may have to wait another month). This arcade-style aerial combat game  for PC allows players to choose between a US campaign and a Japanese campaign, and combines simple and easy to learn gameplay with frantic dogfights and epic fleet battles. This isn't an airplane simulation - it's just good old fashioned fun.

Aoph1This game was developed by our favourite Slovakian client, 3D People, and designed by my International Hobo team. The design actually draws upon an earlier title, Air Conflicts, which sadly sank without a trace. Fortunately, the design work was not in vain as we got to use it on this game - and some other forthcoming games I can't yet mention.

And it's going down like a storm! IGN reports the demo has already pulled in 175,000 downloads from CDV, Game Rankings gives the game a healthy 84%, while says:

Attack on Pearl Harbor is very enjoyable game that is not only fun and fast paced, but best of all it's one of those games you can pick up and play for 5-10 minutes or one you can play for hours going through all the various campaigns and mission types.

You can get the demo from here and elsewhere.

Aoph2 There are several things about the design of Air Conflicts and its brethren that I'm particularly happy with, chief of which is the fail-continue structure. This isn't a game that makes you plug at the same mission over and over again to progress - if you crash your plane, the war moves on. There are no second chances. This structure means that fiero-seeking players have an even more demanding challenge (they must complete each mission perfectly first time) while more casual players don't have to worry about getting stuck, as they will continue to progress even when they fail - as long as they don't run out of planes!

I'm also pleased with our handling of the Japanese campaign in this one - I don't know if anyone has made a tragic campaign mode for an air combat game before, so it might even be a first.

The game is dedicated to the real service men and women on all sides who fought bravely in the service of their countries.

Kant's Yardstick

Kantcolor How are we to understand what is means to be ethical, especially in a world of relative ethics, where different individuals have extremely divergent beliefs? We need some system by which to interpret how we think and act that moves beyond static laws – something that is as flexible as the very humans that struggle with these issues. The most comprehensive yardstick for ethical behaviour that has been proposed so far is Kant’s categorical imperative, and understanding its principles is crucial to modern moral philosophy.  


A Foundation for Ethics 

Immanuel Kant was an eighteenth century German philosopher from Eastern Prussia (modern Russia), widely considered one of the most influential thinkers of the modern world. Although he contributed significantly to the development of many fields, he is primarily associated with moral philosophy, and in particular for his conception of the categorical imperative.

Kant’s categorical imperative is first described in Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, published in 1785). In this piece, the first of three major works on ethics, Kant begins by considering how we think about ethical behaviour in common sense terms, and then develops this into a conception in terms of popular philosophy. From here, he develops his ideas of the metaphysics of morals into a critique of what he calls “pure practical reason”. These would later be expanded into his books Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and Metaphysics of Morals (1797).

In understanding Kant’s work today, we face a choice in how to review his formulation of the categorical imperative. Do we start at the same place as Kant, working from common sense ideas? Or do we skip ahead to the end and see what he is talking about before looking at how he gets there? It is helpful to peek ahead and note that Kantianism (moral philosophy in the tradition founded by Kant) is based on the idea that morality begins with freedom – morality as autonomy. It is perhaps this idea which makes Kant’s moral philosophy so valuable, even today. 

Freedom requires an absence of external influences – if a person acts out of desire for something, or for recognition, or for vengeance, then they are not free in Kant’s terms – they are “beholden” (that is, enslaved) by their influence. And crucially, in Kant’s view influence can occur within a person, but still be external to that person’s will: our greed may drive us to steal, for instance, but that greed is a force outside of our will. As a result, Kant’s freedom is not “the freedom to do what you want”, but something subtly different: the freedom to do as you would will. This distinction effectively separates desires from what can be willed – and it is by this means that Kant attaches rationality to morality.

Kant says in the Groundwork:

Autonomy of the will is the property that the will has of being a law to itself (independently of any property of the objects of volition). 

Or to put it another way – if we wish to be autonomous, we must avoid being compelled into action by external influences and instead be certain that those actions we take are those we can rationally will.

Kant’s position is that when we interpret autonomy in this manner, as acting on our rational will, we create a perspective on morality which applies to all rational beings – a categorical imperative (in Kant’s opinion the categorical imperative). In the Groundwork, he composes three principal approaches to this, written in five unique ways, but in his mind, Kant views all such formulations as expressions of the same principle – the categorical imperative. 


The First Formula: The Ethical as the Universal

Beginning by how we look at ethics from a common sense perspective, Kant begins his exposition of his categorical imperative by leading to what is conventionally referred to as the Formula of Universal Law (FUL): 

Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law. 

There is also a variant on this theme, the Formula of the Law of Nature (FLN):

So act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature. 

This talk of ‘maxims’ is one of many distracting terminological issues in the way Kant writes (and is translated); by ‘maxim’, Kant refers to the specific justification for a particular action.

Suppose that you wish to steal a book from a library, because you want the book and you can’t afford it. The maxim of your action in this instance is “I will steal a book, because I want it and cannot afford it.” 

Now this first formula says, in essence, that one is behaving ethically only if the maxims one acts upon could be willingly considered to be universal laws. The argument goes, therefore, that stealing books from the library (or indeed from any place) is unethical because one cannot rationally will this to be a universal law. Indeed, to do so in this case creates an obvious contradiction: if you want the book, but to take it you need a universal law that allows theft of books, then you will not achieve your goal of possessing the book – the universal law that allowed you to steal it allows someone else to steal it from you. Thus, there is a logical contradiction and this maxim cannot be considered ethical.

Conversely, consider a destitute person who wishes to steal a loaf of bread in order to eat. The maxim of action in this case is: “I will steal bread, because I must eat and cannot afford to buy bread.” Here, it is not so clear whether one can will this as a universal law, and a matter of choice perhaps enters the question. I believe I could will this as a universal law, but a baker may be less willing to agree! This demonstrates that Kant’s first formula of the categorical imperative cannot produce absolute answers to ethical questions – but it provides a framework for evaluating the ethics of a particular action, based upon the premise upon which one acts. 

This first formula express the Kantian concept of universalisation; the idea that for behaviour to be ethical, it must be possible to universalise it. John Rawls does much to clarify Kant’s position in this respect by considering that this process of universalisation must remove all specific referents if it is to be valid – Rawls imagines a situation in which our laws are agreed to from what he calls the Original Position, where the individuals are rational but lack knowledge of the specifics of their own life circumstances. So in the previous example, the baker could not object, because in the Original Position the person does not know that they are a baker. This idea did much to revitalise interest in Kantian ethics in the twentieth century.

From a common sense perspective, then, Kant asserts that the ethical and the universal are equivalent. Whatever we can accept as a universal standard of behaviour can be considered ethical. This is a simple an intuitive idea which has merit, but it is only the beginning of Kant’s exploration of the matter at hand. 


The Second Formula: Mutual Respect

Working towards a metaphysics of morals, Kant’s second formulation of his categorical imperative is what is referred to as the Formula of Humanity as End in Itself (FH): 

Act so that you use humanity, as much in your own person as in the person of every other, always at the same time as end and never merely as means. 

Here we can see the idea of the universal developed towards a specific rational conclusion in the context of other people. If we are to see ethics as universalisable principles, we cannot allow for people to be used solely as a means to an end without taking into account what they want (their ends). Such behaviour could not be considered universal, for we cannot will that we shall be used to achieve a goal that we do not share.

A modern example would be employers which take advantage of their employees by paying low wages, providing no benefits, and insisting on long hours. This is unethical by Kant’s second formula. Such a company is pursuing its end – of making as much money as possible – without taking into account the ends of the employees. The goals of the company are not the goals of the employee, and it is unethical to use people in this way (at least in Kant’s view). 

It may be objected that if all the employee wants is money, there is a confluence of ends, but even here one must consider the discrepancy between what the company makes, and what the employee is paid. Paying minimum wage may be acceptable in a job with low turnover, but in a highly profitable company (such as Wal-Mart) which pays generous wages and bonuses to its management and executives, low employee wages is a clear case of using the workers solely as means, and not respecting their ends.

This second formula expresses the idea of mutual respect; that the goals of all individuals must be taken into consideration, and that using people solely as a means to an end is unethical. Although often overlooked in the history of human rights, Kant’s moral philosophy is acknowledged by most philosophers as utterly crucial to this field. If Kant had not created an ethical system which stressed the dignity of humanity on the basis of its rational nature, it would not have been possible to formulate human rights in the manner we currently understand them. 


The Third Formula: Communal Autonomy

Finally, Kant draws together the themes of the first two formulae into his final statement of his categorical imperative: the Formula of Autonomy (FA): 

the idea of the will of every rational being as a will giving universal law 


Not to choose otherwise than so that the maxims of one’s choice are at the same time comprehended with it in the same volition as universal law. 

In this formulation we see Kant drawing together the earlier themes of universalisation and mutual respect. What results is an ethical perspective whereby a person’s capacity for self-determination – their autonomy – is seen as central to morality. If there is no freedom to choose, there can be no morality, for ethical deliberations require the possibility of meaningful decisions. In Kant’s view, if there is no freedom of the will – no autonomy – there can be no morality.

This was a remarkable step forward in moral philosophy, and all the more so because it did not require God as its justification for moral behaviour. Kant was a Lutheran, but he found much of the empty rhetoric of the Christian church in his day to be vacuous, and saw its self-serving corruption as the mark of “radical evil”. In his view, the moral law was not dictated by God, it was inherent in man’s God-given rational nature.

Kant’s God is the ideal of reason, which he acknowledges cannot be objectively (measurably) real, and so (in Critique of Pure Reason) he holds that “God does not exist”, in the sense that God does not belong in the sphere of ontology (being) at all. Kant thus rejects the notion of the “existence of God” as misleading (now a common theme in modern Christian theology), but still emphatically asserts that the idea of God is meaningful. He claims that morality cannot exist without God, because God to Kant is the ideal of reason, and Kantian ethics derive their force from rationality. But those who do not make this connection can still usefully employ Kantian ethics, as their formulation is entirely independent of Kant’s theology (something most earlier ethicists cannot claim). 

As a variant of the Formula of Autonomy, Kant presents what is known as the Formula of the Realm of Ends (FRE):

Act in accordance with maxims of a universally legislative member for a merely possible realm of ends. 

The term ‘realm of ends’ is another confusing piece of Kantian jargon, but it is easy to understand what it means when it is seen as the extension of the notion of autonomy to society as a whole. The ‘realm of ends’ is the confluence of the goals of all people, where everyone is systematically united and offering mutual support towards their various ends. Kant does not believe that this is wholly achievable – he says it is “merely possible” – but he asserts strongly the value of this ideal as a guiding principle in ethics.

The third formula therefore expresses the idea of communal autonomy; that we must as rational beings with free will co-operate towards our mutual goals, and that this is the ultimate statement of the ethical. Kant’s ‘realm of ends’ is a near-impossible ideal of all humanity co-operating towards a united community. This final formula best expresses what Kant means by the categorical imperative, and thus what Kant understands as ethical. 


Criticisms of the Categorical Imperative

There are many ways in which one can wriggle out of Kant’s strict position, but it is worth noting that for the most part Kantianism remains a dominant force in ethics. One of the strengths of Kant’s position was its flexibility – it does not state comprehensibly what moral behaviour entails, it merely provides tools to explore morality and to consider what should be considered unethical behaviour. 

A great many modern ethicists incorporate Kant to some degree in their moral philosophy, although the range of approaches is vast – which is in itself a testament to the versatility of the Kantian position. Shelley Kagan even manages to take Kant’s strictly deontological (rules or rights-focussed) ethics and apply them to consequentialism (outcome-focussed ethics)! This highlights my point that one system of ethics can be transformed into another by changing which part of the “ethical sentence” we wish to pay attention to.

Minor criticism of Kant is so voluminous as to defy any attempt to summarise, but much of it is based upon analysing the first formula (universalisation), and attempting to show how it fails to express the ethical. Allen W. Wood soundly dismisses attempts to refute Kant’s position on this basis by noting that this is merely the stepping point for the underlying concept, and that Kant himself clearly believed the final formula (communal autonomy) was key, as this was the only formulation he refers to in his later works. Allen is thus scathing of those who attempt to use Kant’s first formula as “an ethical sausage machine”, used mechanically to crank out rules of action, and calls for a deeper understanding of Kant’s underlying principles.

A common way to dispute Kant is to take task on the issue of free will, and claim that free will is incompatible with a world of cause and effect. However, as already noted in discussion of the concept of fate, this issue is a metaphysical distraction. Onora O’Neil provides the closest to a coherent attempt on this ground, but her criticism relates to Kant’s metaphysics – his separation of our existence as phenomenal (natural and casually determined) beings and as noumenal (non-natural and self-determined) beings. This distinction is tangential to Kant’s case; all that is required is for free will to have meaning – which is comparatively easy to defend – how one then incorporates this into a grander scheme is tangential, and the alleged incoherence of Kant’s dual version of humanity is thus a largely irrelevant metaphysical tangent. 

Arthur Schopenhauer, writing in 1840, provides the most comprehensive (and pedantic!) criticism of Kant’s Groundwork, concluding that the true basis of morality is compassion or sympathy. Although this tied morality closer to the Golden Rule, his influence was not Christian, but in fact the Upanishads of Hinduism, and the teachings of Buddhism. Schopenhauer affords to Kant the distinction of having identified the criterion of morality – but considers it to be contained solely in the second formulation of the categorical imperative, that is, in treating other people as ends and not merely as means. I am sympathetic to Schopenhauer’s position, but believe it overlooks the value of communal autonomy implied by Kant’s final formulation. 

Kierkegaard also took task with Kant’s position, believing that autonomy was insufficient for morality, as individuals were not up to the challenge being asked of them. This is perhaps the most biting criticism, as it asks whether we are able to fulfil the high ethical ideals Kant proposed. However, it does not dispute the basis of Kant’s argument – and indeed, Kierkegaard consistently assumes that the ethical and the universal are equivalent terms. It merely questions the practical force of the categorical imperative in a world of self-determination on account of the general inability of individuals to assert their will over their desires.



In formulating his categorical imperative, Kant created a yardstick that was robust enough to provide a perspective for analysing ethical behaviour, yet flexible enough to be applicable to any society – provided it was based on free will. His three key ideas of the ethical as universal, mutual respect, and communal autonomy were major influences in the development of human rights, and provide a cornerstone to modern moral philosophy that is independent to (but compatible with) the idea of God.

Kant’s conception that we must co-operate towards our mutual goals, and in doing so form an ethical community based on individual freedom, is a powerful ideal that can inspire and enrich our modern societies. That it is difficult to overcome the differences in our belief systems such that we can find ways for the ends that we will to harmonise does not reduce the inspirational value of this utopian vision, nor detract from the categorical imperative’s power to provide a viable foundation to the idea of the ethical.

360 vs Wii vs PS3

Console_sales_2 Picking up from Corvus' comments on the sale of consoles in My Nintendo Confusion, I dug up some sales figures to see what was going on (thanks to roughlydrafted). This chart speaks greatly of the current situation, assuming the estimates and predictions hold.

As you can see, the Xbox 360 has the advantage in terms of strict numbers, thanks to its one-year head start. But the other guys are catching up! Microsoft seem to be growing their market by about 800,000 units quarter, while Sony's PS3 is gaining 2 million a quarter. If they can keep up this pace, the point of intersection would be a year away, although shifts in the market will doubtless make this prediction irrelevant.

And we have isolated reports that interest in the PS3 is dropping off - Kotaku claims that PS3 figures fell from 165,000 units per week (in the UK), to 34,000 units next week, and 17,000 the week after. I don't think this tail off is the result of a lack of supply, either.

Meanwhile, Nintendo are on the best form they have been since before Sony entered the market, with the Wii selling through as soon as it can be stocked, and DS sales being equally brisk. The Wii installed base will almost certainly surpass the Xbox 360 installed base before the year is out, and there is no sign of a slow down.

Some gamers and developers are insistent that the Wii isn't up to the task, because of its lack of technical power and the "novelty" of its controller. What is being overlooked here is that the audience for games consoles is no longer just the Hardcore player, and has not been for some time. There are perhaps 20 million Hardcore gamers worldwide (it depends on how one sets the criterion, of course), but the PS2 sold 120 million units. The larger market are the casual players and families, and their play needs are not the same as the Hardcore gamer at all - I doubt most such people can easily tell the graphical difference between the old Xbox and the new 360 (unthinkable in the eyes of the Hardcore players!)

Will the Wii exhaust it's appeal? Quite possibly, and almost certainly with the Hardcore gamers who really need the power consoles to meet their play needs. But unlike the Hardcore gamers, the wider market does not usually buy multiple consoles. If they've bought a Wii, they won't be buying another console for several years. And if Nintendo are able to keep their interest - which is quite plausible, although by no means certain - many consumers won't need another console this cycle at all, which spells disaster for Sony.

Sony and Microsoft are banking on being able to sell, say, 50 to 100 million units of their machines to justify the extreme costs they have already shouldered, and continue to shoulder.

Microsoft can afford to lose out in the long run, because they have deep enough pockets to hang on in for several more console 'failures' if necessary (not that the 360 is a failure, except in the isolated sense of the 'ring of death') in pursuit of their long term goal of cornering an even bigger slice of the home entertainment market - and perhaps the holy grail of entertainment hardware, the multi-purpose "entertainment box" in every home.

Sony on the other hand is on shaky ground - even if their overpowered machine can beat it's overpowered rival, if the maximum size of the market for their console is truncated by the success of the Wii, they could wind up in the embarrassing position of having frittered away what was once an utterly overpowering market advantage. The loss of confidence in Sony could be devastating.

But... let's not jump to conclusions just yet. The game which will change the playing field is just around the corner. Grand Theft Auto IV . "IV" as they arrogantly dub it (although not unjustifiably). The last GTA game sold some 14 million units, and although the new game will probably not sell as well (San Andreas benefited from a mature market with a giant installed base - remember that 14 million is just over 10% of the PS2's installed base), it will undoubtedly sell consoles.

And yet, here is added jeopardy for Sony - because in choosing which console to buy in order to play the new GTA, Microsoft has not only the advantage of a cheaper console with a more established second hand market, but also added episodic content (secured at a reputed cost of $50 million) as the ultimate tie breaker. Even with the bad reputation for unreliability (which will not be fixed in time for the GTA launch), Microsoft looks set to pick up more unit sales than their rival when this cash cow hits the stores.

Sony needs to be providing reasons why people should want a PS3, and that is not an easy task at the moment, although future titles will doubtless shake the tree somewhat.

In the meantime, Nintendo are selling Wiis as fast as they can make them, the DS has trampled the PSP underfoot, and when I talk to publishers the first thing they want to know is if we have any Wii titles available. Nintendo are back, and no amount of disgruntled backlash can take that away from them. As for how long they can hold their position, I wouldn't like to predict. I still have a suspicion that Sony can sell more units in the long term simply because their market strategy is set at 10 years, and their machine is robust enough to deliver. But if they keep losing the edge on key titles like GTA IV to Microsoft, there is a genuine risk of coming out in third place - just as the PS2 ads prophesied.