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June 2007
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What are the Issues? (2)

Two weeks ago, I asked Only a Game players to contribute their thoughts on the ethical issues that were worth addressing (in this post), which generated some spectacular sideline discussions and a healthy collection of points to explore. There are far too many issues for us to cover them in a single post, so here we’ll review the issues briefly and then follow each up in turn with a separate post over the coming weeks and months. During this time, if anyone has any additional issues, they should feel free to contribute!

The issues raised were as follows:

  1. Personal responsibility (Corvus) - if this isn't a key issue then I don't know what is, but sadly it does not necessarily lend itself to progress through debate as it is a theoretical rather than a practical issue.
  2. Modesty of Sexuality (Jack) c.f. oversexualisation of the media - this is a good issue to raise; it directly relates to tensions with Islamic cultures. Difficult to separate the ethics from the political, though.
  3. Justice Between Generations (zenBen) - a theoretical rather than a practical issue, but I guess I shouldn't be suprised, since this is a very theoretical blog. :) Well worth looking at.
  4. Freedom in the Face of Crises (zenBen) - although zenBen relates this to justice between generations, I see this as a seperate issue. The point being: if such-and-such a crisis must urgently be addressed, how do I justify doing a job that does not contribute to the resolution of that crisis?
  5. Environmental Preservation (Bezman) - finally, a practical issue! :)
  6. Hedonism versus Self-development (Bezman) - this is another great issue. We may have to defer it to the discussion of Utilitarianism, though - I'm not sure, though. (translucy also touches upon a related topic).
  7. Ethics of Science (translucy) - what are the ethical issues that face an individual scientist? Are there areas of research one can and should refuse on ethical grounds? Can there be an ethical imperative to research one area and not others - and if so, how would such an imperative arise? In general: what are the ethical dimensions of scientific practice?
  8. Freedom and Drugs (Foster) - aha, now this is a practical issue. And I shall be more than delighted to talk about it.
  9. Animal Rights (Foster) – another practical issue, and another one that was already on the cards for discussion. I think we should come to this later rather than sooner, though.
  10. Lying (Foster) – Kant’s favourite topic – is it permissible to lie? I’ll look forward to going through this one.
  11. Extreme Acts of Protest (Suyi) – I was already intending to discuss non-compliance as protest, but Suyi brings up extreme actions such as self-immolation (in itself related to suicide bombing - both are suicide as protest, the latter is also murder as protest). We can cover this, although it is not a comfortable subject.

(Remember, we will also look at Ethics of War and the issues surrounding Abortion - but not yet.)

We probably won’t look at these in order, but I’ll begin with personal responsibility as it’s a central point. Expect posts on all these topics to arrive about once a week from now on!

Get involved! Share your thoughts when you have a spare moment.

Clockwork Toys

Artificial Intelligence has become intimately associated with videogames, but what is it really adding to the players' experience? And is research into game AI helping make better experiences, or just keeping AI programmers busy?

I was recently asked to provide a keynote for the prestigious Artificial Intelligence and Interactive Entertainment conference, at Stanford. This was an honour for me, as my Masters degree was in Artificial Intelligence (I couldn't get funding for the Cognitive Science degree, and the curriculum for both were very similar), but I have done almost nothing in this field since graduating. I felt slightly nervous talking to the audience about my work in understanding the audience for games, but it was very well received.

One of the interesting questions I raised for myself was: which of Caillios' patterns of play relate most directly to AI challenges? The conclusion I had to reach was that there are two basic play patterns for which AI can assist.

Firstly there is strong AI, which in Caillois' terms would be AI of Agon . This is AI involved in controlling the degree of challenge that the player faces - it is thus AI focussed on providing the player with fiero, the emotion of overcoming great adversity. Strong AI serves to provide sufficient resistance to the player that when they eventually overcome it, the emotional reward of fiero can be achieved. This is a central issue in videogames, because the history of the games industry until about 2000 was the history of delivering fiero to challenge-seeking players.

Secondly, there is what might be considered immersive AI - a topic already brought up in this Round Table by Troy. In Caillois' terms this would be AI of Mimicry . Troy reaches the conclusion that AI of Mimicry is more important than AI of Agon. Or to put it another way - immersive AI is more valuable to a game experience than strong AI.

Now this seems like a reasonable position, certainly if one acknowledges that there are challenging-seeking players who need the strong AI, it doesn't seem problematic to demonstrate that people also want the immersive AI. In fact, Caroline's entry into the Round Table reinforces the same point.

At AIIDE, I got to see a lot of the work that was going on in the fringes of AI. Obviously, there were many people working on strong AI - but there were also many people working on immersive AI too. It seems, quite naturally, both these areas are being pursued. At least in academia.

And here we come to the problem. In the commercial world of game development, do we place enough importance on immersive AI? Are we too focussed on strong AI? Obviously a game like The Sims has no need for strong AI, but does an FPS (say) need to spend more resources developing immersive AI? Are we truly moving beyond the point that strong AI is the most important aspect of a game's artificial intelligence?

I don't have the answer to this question, so I put it to you to consider. Should the games industry begin to focus less on strong AI, and more upon immersive AI? Has this process already begun? Or is the strong AI we have still not up to scratch?

To put it another way: should we be making fewer clockwork soldiers, and more clockwork toys?

EA Admits to Being Boring

Last week, the new CEO of EA, John Riccitiello, announced in an interview: "We're boring people to death and making games that are harder and harder to play." Mike Sellers put up some commentary over on Terranova, including this satirical allusion to Cassablanca:

"I'm shocked, shocked to see all these derivative sequels!"
"Your Madden/Sims profits, sir."
"Oh, thank you very much."

Now I'm not going to criticise Riccitiello for making these comments, because it's great to see an industry notable admit that 40 and 60 hour games are a gross mismatch to the new mass market game audience. (My company noted this issue five years ago...) But seriously: you have to do more than just say that we're doing it wrong.

Firstly, you must invest in original products. EA is still the largest publisher by turnover; they are still, I believe, the smallest investor in original IP. They say they're changing - but we're still waiting for the original products.

Secondly, you must either train your staff to understand the new wider ("casual") audience, or hire new staff who are willing to learn about the new audience. I will run a workshop for you if you need help with this. We need to see an end to games alleged to target a casual audience, but made by cloning the hardcore classics the publisher's staff enjoyed. This practice is endemic in the videogames industry and it has to stop.

Thirdly, you should encourage your staff to spot innovation. I took Reluctant Hero around publishers recently; one came back afterwards commenting that it lacked original features. (I wish I could tell you which publisher, for maximum irony!) What does 'original' mean if innovative narrative structures do not count? It's not like I didn't provide a thick report to explain the market value of the original features of the design, either; they either didn't read it, or didn't understand it.

Lastly, you should be willing to take some risks. They don't even have to be big risks. But if your staff believe that "it can't be a good idea, because no-one else is doing it", your corporate culture has become venomous to innovation.

I applaud Riccitiello for his comments. Now I want to see EA take action that matches this self-criticism. If they lead, the others will follow.

Shifting Gears

My work is about to become quite busy, and as a result time is going to become harder to come by. I expect to be able to keep the blog ticking over, but there may be less extravagant content for a while. On the other hand, it would be nice to return to posts under 1,500 words a day for a while! The only trouble being, I seem to have lost this habit somewhere along the road.

  • Later this week I'll post a summary of the issues we've racked up for discussion in the next phase of the Ethics Campaign. There is much to talk about! I'm expecting this part to be less didactic and more dialectic.
  • I'm currently reading Nietzsche; he's the last of the big names on my ethics reading list. It is easy to understand why Nietzsche is so often misunderstood, although he himself bears a large part of the responsibility for this. I sympathise with him often, and he has much insight to offer, but his contempt for Christianity blinds him more often than it aids him.
  • Having essentially said that my ethics book list is clear, I'm still interested in reading some Philippa Foot, but for some reason her books are damnably expensive.
  • I now have the adaptor to connect my Xbox to my monitor; I still need to install some software before I can begin playing online with my friends in the UK, though.
  • Drafting of the Freedom of Belief manuscript proceeds in between other obligations; there are a few sections 'missing'. As I draft them, I'll probably post them to the blog, so there may be occasional metaphysical incursions...

Now if you'll excuse me, there is work to be done!

Have Xbox, Will Play...?

To celebrate Microsoft's unexpected display of corporate responsibility, I went out to buy my "classic" Xbox. True, it doesn't make any money for Microsoft any more, but a gesture is a gesture. I still need a video to VGA adaptor to make it work with my monitor, though.

I have a copy of Jet Set Radio Future, which I'm very much looking forward to playing, and Counterstrike, so I can hopefully play with my friends back in the UK - but what else should I play? Do you have any suggestions? Let me put it this way:

If I was only going to play one Xbox game, what single game would you recommend?

Here are the restrictions.

  • No computer RPGs unless they are indescribably superior to every other cRPG you've played, and are less than 20 hours long - 30 at a pinch. I get sucked into these games, and since I work on making them from time to time, I have to be cautious about feeding this habit.
  • Nothing that ends with a punishingly difficult Boss battle. No exceptions.
  • No gratuitous hoop jumping, if possible.

If you have "Classic Xbox" game you'd strongly recommend, let me know!

Further Disruptions Likely

I'm off to Philadelphia this week on business, so there will be a severe reduction in service. I'll get at least one post up before I go, however, and it should be back to the normal rhythms next week.


My wife's grandparents are celebrating their Sixtieth Wedding Anniversary, and I'm off to Kentucky to join in the festivities. Congratulations to Jack and Norma! What an amazing life they've had together.

Back next week with more nonsense... Have fun everyone!

Mirrormask: The Discworld Noir Reunion

Watching Mirrormask last night was an odd experience for me, as the film features nearly the entire voice cast for Discworld Noir. Rob Brydon (the voice of the protagonist, Lewton, in Discworld Noir), Robert Llewellyn  (voice of several characters in Noir, including my personal favourite - the Butler ) and Kate Robbins (the inestimable voice of Carlotta, and the troll diva Sapphire, whose song was one of Terry Pratchett's highlights of the game). That's three quarters of the voice cast of Noir! I loved working with these people - it was a complete joy throughout.

It made me long for another opportunity to work with such a fine cast of voice actors on future projects, and also wish that Noir was available in some currently working form (it only runs on Windows 98). In Europe, this is considered one of the last great point-and-click adventures. In the US, it is almost completely unknown, since publisher GT Interactive went bankrupt shortly after its release.

As for Mirrormask, a delightful kids film with stunning art design by Dave McKean. If it falls short, it is only because the CGI is in places not as beautiful as McKean's ideas.

Fear & Trembling

Fear_trembling_3_2 The cover of this exquisite Penguin Books ‘Great Ideas’ edition of Søren Kierkegaard’s classic philosophical work Fear & Trembling contains a quote which instantly draws the reader into the world of Kierkegaard’s thought:

If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair? 

Kierkegaard is considered to be the father of the existentialist philosophical movement, although the term ‘existentialism’ was not in common usage for another century. This short but powerful book was published in 1843 under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio (“John the Silent”) and represents one of the major works of Christian existentialism. The book explores themes central to the Abrahamic traditions, and may be difficult for a non-Christian to appreciate. It is a work of profound religious anxiety; an exploration of the doubts with which sincere souls must wrestle.

At the centre of the ideas here expounded is the paradox of Abraham, and in particular the sacrifice of Isaac. The events are from Genesis 22, but a brief synopsis is as follows: Abraham has been promised by God that he would become “the father of many nations”, but then finds his wife, Sarah, is barren, and possibly too old to bear children. But miraculously, she does conceive by Abraham, and gives birth to a son, Isaac. God then tests Abraham by instructing him to sacrifice Isaac – a son whom he loves dearly, and who is the embodiment of all Abraham’s dreams of a family by Sarah, as well as the fulfilment of God’s promise to him to be a father of many nations by her. Yet Abraham is prepared to go through with this sacrifice, despite the terrible nature of what is being asked. At the last moment an angel stays his hand, and a ram is provided for sacrifice instead. 

This story seems utterly horrific to those who find no value in faith, and is defended too vociferously by those who place too much confidence in their own certainty and call that conviction ‘faith’. Kierkegaard excoriates those of the latter kind, and denies that this behaviour can legitimately be termed ‘faith’, using the story of Abraham as the central point in his thesis. The horror of this situation – when viewed as a purely ethical matter – is not denied, but emphasised:

If faith cannot make it into a holy deed to murder one’s own son, then let the judgement fall on Abraham as on anyone else. If one hasn’t the courage to think this thought through, to say that Abraham was a murderer, then surely it is better to acquire that courage than to waste time on undeserved speeches in his praise… For if you simply remove faith as a nix and nought there remains only the raw fact that Abraham was willing to murder Isaac, which is easy enough for anyone without faith to imitate; without the faith, that is, which makes it hard. 

Indeed, to Kierkegaard’s mind faith is a rare and precious thing – he does not consider himself sufficient to its great task, even though his commitment to God is unwavering:

I have seen horror face to face, I do not flee it in fear but know very well that, however bravely I face it, my courage is not that of faith and not at all to be compared with it. I cannot close my eyes and hurl myself trustingly into the absurd, for me it is impossible, but I do not praise myself on that account. I am convinced that God is love; this thought has for me a pristine lyrical validity. When it is present in me I am unspeakably happy, when it is absent I yearn for it more intensely than the lover for the beloved; but I do not have faith; this courage I lack. God’s love is for me, both in a direct and inverse sense, incommensurable with the whole of reality. I am not coward enough to whimper and moan on that account, but neither am I underhand enough to deny that faith is something far higher. 

Kierkegaard refers to those who possess the ‘infinite movement’ of faith as “knights of faith”, and specifically considers Abraham as a great example of such a person. It is his view that such people are capable of renouncing all things, to “drain in infinite resignation the deep sorrow of existence”, and then – astonishingly – take everything back “on the strength of the absurd”. He views this as something that only a knight of faith can do, and in turn considers this to be “the one and only marvel.”

Do not mistake the term “knight of faith” as expressing a gender bias, either: Kierkegaard is quite explicit that it is “that order of knighthood which proves its immortality by making no distinction between man or woman.” 

The book begins by presenting the story of Abraham and Isaac in four alternative retellings, in order to establish the nature of the event around which Kierkegaard will develop his thoughts on faith. Then, it turns to three “problemata”, namely:

Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical? (Which is to say, can Abraham’s intention to sacrifice Isaac be justified even though ethically human sacrifice is not permissible). 

Is there an absolute duty to God? (Which we shall shortly explore further).

Was it defensible for Abraham to conceal his intentions from his wife and son? 

All three problems are related, and Kierkegaard’s solution rests upon faith as being the paradoxical situation that the individual can be higher than the universal (that is, the ethical). He admits that this position is “inaccessible to thought” but exclaims: “And yet faith is this paradox. Or else… faith has never existed just because it has always existed. And Abraham is done for.”

Either Abraham embodies faith, and his title as “the Father of Faith” is justified, or else there is no such thing as faith for what it refers to is so trivial that it was always part of human experience, and Abraham’s story loses its meaning. He accuses those exponents of shallow religiosity of failing to rise to the challenge of understanding just what is entailed by faith, and instead redefining faith as something easier so they may claim to possess it: “True enough… that many people may have a natural aversion to the paradox, but that is no reason for making faith into something else so that they too can have it…” 

All this leads Kierkegaard quite naturally to the conclusion that there is an absolute duty to God, and that this obligation is and must be higher than ethical obligations (the universal). Kierkegaard was probably writing against the tenor of the Christians of his day who touted the ethical obligations as the absolute element to be obeyed blindly. (This ‘absolute duty to God' can also be expressed in an agnostic or atheist fashion, as we shall see).

It is important to appreciate that in expressing an absolute duty to God, Kierkegaard is in no way suggesting that one must listen for whispering voices in one’s head and do what they say. The absolute relationship between a person and God is not something expressed in language. Kierkegaard says: “For in the world God and I cannot talk together, we have no common language.” 

The absolute duty to God is the absolute duty to be an individual under God, which is to say one’s proper relationship with God must be as an individual facing the infinite. The infinite – which is God in Christian terms – cannot communicate in words to the individual, so the individual is left to wrestle with their faith – to take a leap of faith on the strength of the absurd which is, after all, what is being asked in faith by definition, for if there is no step to be made here, then what we are dealing with is not that which we call faith.

Kierkegaard notes that there is “a fear of letting people loose”, resulting from the idea that living as an individual is supposedly easy, and that people must be coerced towards behaving ethically. He counters this accusation by noting: “No person who has learned that to exist as the individual is the most terrifying thing of all will be afraid of saying it is the greatest.” Because to be an individual in Kierkegaard’s terms is to have an absolute relation to God – to the infinite – which one can only do on the strength of absurdity. To follow one’s desires and whims is not to be an individual, but a “slave to the passions” (to coin Hume’s phrase). 

This is a difficult pill for many devoted religious individuals to swallow, because endemic in organised religion is the idea of a particular path that everyone should be on. Kierkegaard says that if there is a particular path that everyone should be on, it must be up to the individual to find it – because only the individual has the relationship with God, and the claim that ethical strictures are more universal than this relationship is, if not blasphemy, then deeply sacrilegious. This is why ‘faith schools’ that merely parrot someone’s interpretation of sacred texts can be seen as a travesty:

The false knight… just doesn’t grasp the point that if another individual is to walk the same path he has to be just as much the individual and is therefore in no need of guidance, least of all from one anxious to press his services on others… The true knight of faith is a witness, never a teacher, and in this lies the deep humanity in him which is more worth than this foolish concern for others’ weal and woe which is honoured under the name of sympathy, but which is really nothing but vanity. 

The ‘vanity’ being the idea that one can impose oneself between some other person’s relationship with God. That relationship is absolute: no-one may come between any individual and God. Anyone who mistakes dogma for devotion to God is in desperate need of spiritual revelation, or at least a truly humble look in the mirror.

Where does this leave the agnostic or atheist with no God to have an absolute relationship with? From such a person’s perspective, their duty is still to the infinite, even if they do not call the infinite ‘God’ – they must discover what this means to them if they are truly to be individuals. From the (external) point of view of those of us who find the term ‘God’ both meaningful and useful, it may be hard to understand how an atheist might have a relationship with God, but it is not hard to hear the Dalai Lama speak and find God within his spirituality – yet the Dalai Lama has said, and not without cause, “we Buddhists are atheists” (although the term non-theist is perhaps more accurate). 

Thus we can equally see that the atheist or agnostic who is desperately trying to foist their beliefs on other people cannot be “an atheist knight of faith”; they are as vacuous as when the religiously minded attempt the same interference in our personal duty to individuality. Even if someone does not believe in God, if they truly possess an absolute relationship to the infinite, those who believe in God will find God in their behaviour. An atheist can have an absolute duty to the infinite and not call the infinite God, and yet still uphold what the theist would call the duty to God. Again, this is a paradox, but faith itself, as Kierkegaard amply demonstrates is just such a paradox.

Kierkegaard’s conviction that we must each establish our own nature – that to truly be individual is to observe an absolute duty to the infinite – transformed philosophy. Wittgenstein said of him: “Kierkegaard was by far the most profound thinker of the last century. Kierkegaard was a saint.” His influence on modern philosophy is inestimable. 

Fear & Trembling is a breathtakingly profound book, the most astonishing and engaging Bible study I have ever experienced, and one of the great works in the history of philosophy. That this is not required reading for all Christians would be tragic, were it not the case that to assert such a requirement would be to inevitably invalidate the very message that Kierkegaard was trying so passionately to convey.

The edition of Fear & Trembling reviewed is published by Penguin Books as part of their Great Ideas series, ISBN 0-14-303757-9.