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Yuna.Final Fantasy XOkay, you’re thinking, now I’ve surely gone too far in suggesting there are moral and behavioural effects to movie-like cut scenes in games. But precisely the nub of this serial, A Hundred Cyborgs, and the book The Virtuous Cyborg that inspired it, is that if we take seriously the cybernetic aspect of technology, everything is amenable to an analysis of its effects upon us, and that we are deceived when we dismiss this exploration out of hand as having nothing to tell us.

The CD-ROM opened the door to the cinematic, by massively expanding the available storage space. This in turn had at least two significant effects with moral implications. Firstly, it allowed games to develop stories that were closer in form to movies, thus reneging on the potential of the player as an active moral agent in game worlds. Movies and books work as centres of moral reflection precisely because the outcomes of their events cannot be changed. Yet the more a game uncritically echoes this form, the less an effective form of moral reflection it can be, because rather than witness the tragic mistakes of others play out in calamity we must be tricked or tram-lined into making them ourselves, or avoid moral reflection upon our mistakes entirely. Even attempts at branching narratives in games do not assuage this problem - they simply escalate the development costs while providing pre-proscribed choices to help conceal the problem. How often do we encounter a narrative choice in games where all outcomes are equally satisfying? Branching story writers all too frequently have to implement the weaker dramatic choices as well as the good ones.

Which brings us to the other cost of cinematics: that of implementation. Movie studios apparently manage to mostly avoid grotesquely abusing their staff, but game developers do not. Everything that raises the scope of game development tightens a noose around the employees of game developers who have to deal with the complexity of a medium that cannot simply be broken down into ‘shots’ and accurately costed. How many of the fans of The Last of Us, a game dependent upon vast linear sequences of cinematics interspersed with that amoral videogame chestnut ’necessary murder’, paused to reflect upon the working conditions of those who made that material possible...?

Ironically, games are more than capable of enhancing our moral reflection when they engage with player agency. But the presence of pre-scripted cinematics - the dependence upon the narrative language of action movies that also trade in ‘necessary murder’ - invariably contests player freedom and thus the opportunities for reflection upon our actions in the game world. But perhaps that's not the main issue with cinematics. The mythos of ‘technological progress’ is so very effective at concealing the concomitant moral regression that follows inexorably (if not inevitably) from escalating the resources required to bankroll that ‘progress’. The cinematic indexes this phenomena in the videogames industry. And we eat it up, because we desire the fruits of these vines even as they strangle us.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #79, part of a ten part mini-serial on Gamer Cyborgs.

Check out the new ebook edition of The Virtuous Cyborg!

All-comers April

The Virtuous Cyborg.2by1As we come to the end of the ten-part Gamer Cyborgs, there are just twenty instalments left in A Hundred CyborgsBefore we finish, I want to throw open the floor for the second time (the first being "All-request August", back in 2018, when we were just twenty cyborgs in). So it gives me great pleasure to announce All-comers April, our last special event of the serial, in which I'm inviting guest writers to reflect upon our relationship with technology. I've asked some good friends of either the book, The Virtuous Cyborg, or this serial, or both, if they'd like to submit pieces, but even if every one of them accepts my invitation there are still a few slots left.

Which brings us to you.

Would you like to write your own #100Cyborgs piece? The only restrictions are the one I've been working with - it has to be 500 words or fewer, and it has to be themed around a 'cyborg', meaning any combination of beings and things, and of course, it has to have a title different to those I've already used (full list of cyborgs here). The idea is to reflect upon the moral and behavioural effects of technology in our lives. It doesn't has to be in terms of cybervirtue and cyberdebility (the positive and negative influences technology has on our behaviour, discussed in the book), it just has to reflect upon our human condition as beings engulfed in technological relations. Other than that, the sky's the limit!

The new pieces will start running straight after Game Cyborgs finishes. Stay tuned!

If you'd like one of the remaining slots, please contact me via Twitter (@SpiralChris) or the contact link at

Remote Play

Remote PlayFor a while now, remote play has been a buzzword in investment circles around videogames. It is effectively the ‘Netflix of games’ that is held out as a carrot - it’s why Sony bought Gaikai in 2012 for building into the PS4... but this service, dubbed PlayStation Now, passed by almost unnoticed. To play games in a server-client arrangement, with all the heavy lifting on the server-side, requires enormous internet bandwidth. Except in a few cities, that infrastructure just isn’t there yet. But in the grand spirit of ‘Jam Tomorrow’, remote play remains steadfastly attached to the agenda. Why?

The answer is that remote play is a subscription business model, and if there’s one thing that media corporations are into right now it’s building (and guarding) a big silo of content that makes money in convenient monthly installments. As I said before, everyone wants to be ‘the Netflix of games’... of course, with Disney getting dragon sickness over Netflix making so much money off of their Marvel content, it’s not clear that even Netflix is going to be the Netflix of video going forward. Because make no mistake: this is a battle for monopolies, and us little folks are not invited except as paying customers.

Such are my political qualms about remote play: it is deeply and systemically anti-equality. But then, what isn’t these days? If we ask instead about the moral and behavioural effects of remote play, it may seem rather neutral. After all, what’s the difference between playing a big corporate-funded game on your own console and streaming it to some other device?

Two aspects leap out at me as causes for concern. Firstly, that the move towards services in games that Steam spearheaded undermines ownership and thus all efforts to run historical archives. As someone who takes the history of games very seriously, the idea that whole periods of play could be impossible to archive troubles me, even though I have faith that workarounds might yet be found. Besides, the endless updating of software services (Fortnite is different almost every week, for instance) is a much bigger problem in this regard.

What is more troubling is that our unlimited willingness to embrace cloud-based arrangements, like remote play, for their apparent convenience is driving up the power usage and thus the environmental impact of play. It is hard to make direct comparisons between the different ways of supporting videogame play, and rather troubling that we are not in a position to make informed decisions in this regard. Just in terms of obfuscating environmental costs, remote play strikes me as morally suspect, and in pushing us further towards that bright future where Disney owns everything and we own nothing... well, the undertow is dragging us over the waterfall - decide for yourself whether our screams are those of excitement or of fear.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #78, part of a ten part mini-serial on Gamer Cyborgs.

Check out the new ebook edition of The Virtuous Cyborg!

Online Play

Online MultiplayerThe world of online play is the collision of more strangers than anywhere else today - even social media requires a tenuous chain of connectivity between the people the messages are shared between. In a contemporary online game, the only criteria for encountering another player is that they happened to want to play the same game at the same time as you.

If you judge the advent of online play in strictly utilitarian terms, it appears entirely beneficial, ‘useful’, as we say. But precisely the nature of the pieces in A Hundred Cyborgs is to doubt that utility is an adequate sole assessment of value. Once we start considering the moral and behavioural aspects of online play in detail the situation becomes hugely complex - and resistant to any simplification beyond the criticism remarked in #60 Multiplayer that online play serves to funnel more money to fewer participating organisations.

When I reflect upon my own experiences in online games, I have on one hand the endless accusation of being a “faggot” in Killing Floor because of the apparently shocking transgression of wanting to win by smart strategy instead of (as apparently was considered mandatory) wildly running in together to die. And yet playing Fortnite, I have encountered a tremendous willingness between players to help despite the underlying play activities being extremely similar to Killing Floor (move to the next point; shoot everything not on your side). I don’t know if the difference here is the ages of the players (Fortnite skews much younger), or the volume of players in the community - the more dedicated players of Killing Floor, perhaps, were more set in their ways, and not willing to allow for deviation from their expectations. But Fortnite, I’ll admit, surprised me and overturned my largely negative expectations.

The diversity and complexity of online play is such that it resists analysis except at the level of the bluntest critiques. So against this, I would like to share a single anecdote that may not be common or typical, but its very possibility speaks of a potential unlocked by online encounters. Someone I know had fallen into the dark well of depression, and had become effectively trapped inside his own home as a result. Yet he struck up an unlikely friendship with a fellow with learning disabilities who played online. By helping his new ally to play games online, my friend ameliorated the worst ravages of his own dark thoughts, while his fellow player received aid and companionship. This would not have happened without the neutral ground of online play to make it happen. A depressed person does not seek out ways to act for the benefit of anyone, least of all themselves. Yet through the mechanics of online encounter, something doubly worthwhile was brought about. That very possibility is, in itself, part of the positive moral potential of online play.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #77, part of a ten part mini-serial on Gamer Cyborgs.

Check out the new ebook edition of The Virtuous Cyborg!

Let's Play Videos

Let's PlayWhat does it mean to record yourself playing and share it with strangers? What can we say about the moral and behavioural effects of a Let’s Play video...?

If Game Wikis were a natural successor to game magazines in providing support for players seeking information about games they are playing, Let’s Play videos follow on the tradition of ‘over the shoulder’ spectators in the arcade. Arcade sought this phenomena desperately, for nothing drove coin drops quite as effectively as watching someone else play and desiring your turn. Indeed, the origin of the attract mode that plays between the title card and high score table was precisely to encourage someone to give the game a try; a demonstration of the game being played by someone who does not exist...

We did not make friends through over the shoulder spectating in the arcade, but we became more comfortable among the others in these spaces. More than that, some of us strived to be good enough at a game to gather a crowd, a kind of micro-fame that we did not think motivating yet valued when we got it. One of my fondest recollections of my time in the arcade was when a crowd formed as I was ‘clocking’ Nemesis (Gradius outside of Europe), because no-one had seen anyone get that far. It wasn’t why I played the game, but it certainly added to the savour of my victory!

Collecting Likes on a video is psychologically similar, yet is also stripped of the human context. One person watching you in the arcade felt satisfying; one Like, by comparison, feels pathetic. What the video is doing is not so much connecting people as manipulating our natural desire for recognition by quantifying something that, if the arcade experience can be trusted, was validating even at the scale of the individual. Amplified by the global breadth of the internet, the volume of possible connections is massively expanded even as the significance of those connections is hollowed out to a mere façade of human contact.

To be sure, as a substitute for attract modes, Let’s Plays are vastly superior, for both the game developers and the players. There is something positive going on here in terms of helping share new game experiences. Yet I cannot shake my suspicion that reducing the value of our participation to a number - much as with the reduction of our labour to wages - undermines the conditions for equality by stratifying our status. There is still a great deal of criticism levelled against class systems in the context of money economies. Perhaps we should be less enthusiastic about creating new classes based upon attention economies.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #76, part of a ten part mini-serial on Gamer Cyborgs.

Check out the new ebook edition of The Virtuous Cyborg!

Game Wikis

Steambirds wikiWhen people talk about ‘next generation’ games and game platforms, they frame the discussion in terms of hardware progression for visual rendering, hard disc storage, and so forth. But games are more than just their hardware substrate. They are a set of community practices, of the developers, and especially of the players. I can’t say the endless step up in graphics quality impresses me, since the main consequence of this isn’t ‘progress’ so much as escalating development costs and consequent regression of quality of life for game developers. What does impress me, however, is something others might not even think much about: community-led game wikis.

My criticism (and praise) of the Wikipedia is laid out in Wikipedia Knows Nothing (available as a free ebook - a quick read and worth a look for its novel concept of ‘knowledge’ alone). But precisely the limits of Wikipedia as an alleged alternative to an encyclopedia are the strengths in a game wiki. You can’t sanely want the geeks of the internet fighting over which corporate media trivia to index when you want access to reliable knowledge on arbitrary topics (under any conception of ‘knowledge’), but when it comes to pooling information about a videogame, nothing could be more perfectly suited to the task than an army of dedicated fans pitching in. Even the potential for pointless argument is effectively curtailed by the common focus and the precision of scope!

In the early days of videogames there was no internet and our source of supplemental information were game magazines. These did a fantastic job, frequently with direct support from developers (Nintendo counted on magazines to distribute secrets regarding 1986’s Metroid and The Legend of Zelda, for instance) but often they had to rely on the sheer tenacity of their writers to map and solve the games of the 1980s. In the late 90s, magazines gradually became mere wrapping paper for distributing demo discs, and then demos went digital, and print magazines all but died.

And then there’s game wikis, community-driven, with neither expectation of pay nor (as with Wikipedia) any obvious power to silence or covertly dominate ideological disputes. Players participate out of love of the game and a desire to help. Even the thought of credit here can’t undermine the claim to altruism since who can honestly name anyone who contributed to a game wiki they used...? It is love for (and pride in) a game that encourages a player to contribute their time to a wiki. Only the ceaseless gerrymandering of altruism in the futile attempt to render the term empty of meaning can prevent its application to the game wiki and other such sites of community co-operation. If only more of the internet was so blessedly free of rancour and naked self-interest!

A Hundred Cyborgs, #75, part of a ten part mini-serial on Gamer Cyborgs.

Check out the new ebook edition of The Virtuous Cyborg!

Motion Controls

Wiimote-in-HandsWhen Nintendo developed the Wii remote, it was with an eye to addressing the problem no other console platform had even been willing to admit: that the standard twin-stick, multi-button controller was utterly confusing and off-putting to players in the mass market who would play games if only they knew how. So there’s a certain irony that in giving Sony the impetus to develop the Move controller (in keeping with Sony’s long-running copycat policy with respect to Nintendo), Nintendo were making the first generation of a control mechanism destined for VR.

Conventional joystick controls don’t work with VR: players have been taught to move the camera with the right stick (another Nintendo invention, refined by Sony), but with a VR headset you look by moving your head. The clash between the two control mechanisms is a huge barrier for VR game developers, one that requires new control mechanisms, ones that almost inevitably bear into motion control (or motion tracking) territory. These companies are seeking a holy grail I confess I don’t quite believe in, but I admire their tenacity and willingness to experiment all the same.

It will sound strange to ask about the moral and behavioral dimensions of a control technology, but as I discussed previously with the joystick, there are excellences and virtues made possible or rendered into new forms by the relationships between games and their control mechanisms. The Wii remote, for instance, opened up social play dynamics - especially between the very young and the very old - that were either not available or at least more awkward to arrange previously. These social opportunities were new positive human possibilities that were opened up by motion controls. Yes, you could take your grandparents bowling, but Wii Sports made that possible in the home and the old folks home, without having to drive somewhere. That in itself was a valuable contribution to human life, for all that the barrier in this case - distance - was also created by the half-blind adoption of new technological means at the turn of the twentieth century (namely the automobile).

But what of the potential for motion controls in VR...? Here, it is far from clear what the moral or behavioural gain might be. As I already discussed, the typical criticism levelled against VR is the largely unjust assumption of its power to isolate. Improving motion controls seems to play into that trap, removing a barrier than currently holds it back from encouraging greater or longer engagement. And yet do we really know what we might do together in a less-flawed stereoscopic virtual environment? Perhaps we can afford to explore this path a little further before prematurely supposing it will increase the metaphorical distance between us. Motion controls have thus far been a boon. Let us hope they will continue to be so.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #74, part of a ten part mini-serial on Gamer Cyborgs.

Check out the new ebook edition of The Virtuous Cyborg!


Oculus Rift SIn his song, Total Entertainment Forever, singer-songwriter Father John Misty expresses a popular anxiety about so-called ‘virtual reality’ in the lyric: “Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift”... Clarifying his point in interview, he stressed that he can think of nothing more emblematically horrible regarding contemporary technology.


Specifically, why should our paranoia about VR focus upon its potential usage to turn celebrities into fodder for masturbation - especially given that this in no way depends upon VR. Celebrity masturbation, we have to assume, is as old as celebrity, which at least goes back to the Roman Empire, if not further. Our implicit moral accusation against VR is that the user or player is removing themselves from the so-called ‘real world’, going to inhabit instead a ‘virtual world’. Yet this complaint is entirely asinine, for we all remove ourselves from the ‘real world’ daily via television, cinema, theatre, and videogames, and in all cases artworks worthy of our esteem rub shoulders with pornography of various kinds, including gun porn, car porn, and of course celebrity porn, some of which even wins awards supposedly indicative of artistic merit.

My perspective upon VR is radically different from the popular view as it is in no way symbolic of ‘the future’ to me. Perhaps because I played videogames with second generation VR in the early 1990s (especially the BattleTech VR at the Trocadero in London), VR feels less new to me, and more like an iteration on familiar principles. Just like videogames in general, really. The third generation fixes the weight of the headset, which is notably less neck-crushing now, but the motion sickness issue isn't something that can be fixed, although it can certainly be mitigated. If we want an honest appraisal of the moral and behavioural impact of VR, it would either have to be entirely neutral (which does not absolve individual works from separate assessment) or we could make the positive point that players of VR games and experiences are less likely to engage for long periods because it is a less comfortable activity than its obvious alternatives. But these kind of limitations are completely absent from the popular concerns about VR.

Honestly, critics of VR buy into the stories circulated by advocates of VR as to it being “more immersive”. But immersion is not synonymous with greater sensory fidelity - and indeed, the greater the simulacrum of human senses, the deeper the uncanny valley and the more likely that small discrepancies rupture the imaginative experience. Thus the immersive benefits of stereoscopic vision are completely undercut by the vast limitations in control schemes. This is a theme to be picked up next time. The general warning remains the same for all media: never assume we are in danger of being swept away inescapably into a virtual world, because all our experiences - even of the real world - are ultimately imagined. Real and virtual are not opposites, but rather different names for the closely related ways we interpret experience.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #73, part of a ten part mini-serial on Gamer Cyborgs.

Check out the new ebook edition of The Virtuous Cyborg!

Loot Boxes

Star Wars Battlefront Loot CrateOne of the great problems of trusting the invisible hand of the market is that unseen fingers don’t know when to stop taking. Thus the loot box, or gacha, after the Japanese name for capsule machines, which began as a monetisation option in free to play games, and swiftly emerged as something far more sinister: a means of squeezing yet more money out of players who have already paid a substantial up front fee to play.

What possible justification beyond blind greed could there be to weigh Star Wars: Battlefront 2 so heavily towards loot box payments when punters had already forked over $60 to buy the game? Bad publicity over the issue lost EA some $3 billion from their stock value, but the company still declared record annual revenues of $5 billion that fiscal year. Forecasted sales were 10-14 million for the release quarter, the actual sales were around 9 million units. The players largely let them get away with it.

If I were to say that loot boxes are inherently immoral, this claim would fail to impact owing to our lack of agreement as to where - or even if - moral foundations are to be found. But if I were to say the cybernetic qualities of loot box economies inherently distort our perceptions of value, inducing greed in those who operate such schemes, and lust for acquisition in those who encounter them, is this not a moral claim, and what is more, a true claim at that? The comparison with gambling is not the relevant point here, although that industry too is wont to engage in distortions of value... No, the trouble with loot boxes is simply that they work far too well at encouraging avarice, so much so that even those who unleash them are sucked into the resulting quagmire.

Yet if these ‘surprise mechanics’ (as EA would spin them) are ultimately akin to capsule machines and trading cards, are these too to be held in suspicion? Certainly the difference is primarily one of degree, but there is also a difference in kind to consider: digital items are entirely imaginary, and so it is possible to ‘give’ someone loot boxes and then ‘invite’ them to pay to open them. This wilful distortion of our sense of possession is almost as much of a marketers dream as getting people to pay their own money to buy a personal robot storefront, as Amazon recently achieved. It is one thing to offer a lucky dip, and quite another to ‘give’ a locked box as a ‘gift’ and then offer to sell the key.

If the redeeming feature of the free-to-play model in games is that it permits the wealthy to subsidise the games of the poor, loot boxes only share in this defence when the game itself is given away free. Expecting players to pay a substantial upfront fee and then squeezing them for more cash afterwards is akin to the business model of the loan shark.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #72, part of a ten part mini-serial on Gamer Cyborgs.

Check out the new ebook edition of The Virtuous Cyborg!

Free to Play

V-bucksThe free to play business model is the latest twist on variable pricing, a practice that goes back to the earliest commercial videogames - arcade games took your money one coin at a time. The original concept of digital microtransactions (as the name implies) was to provide a contemporary spin on coin drops, by taking a small amount of money at a time. Rather than pay per play, as coin ops did, free to play games offer their base gameplay for free and found ways to ask for payment for other things. This varies from the scurrilous monetisation of frustration, where the game intentionally impedes the player and offers to restore progression for money, to the more ambiguous sale of cosmetic items.

Many players are horrified by free to play monetisation - partly because much of what they used to get included in the price is now charged for, and partly in resistance to the feeling of being shaken down by their entertainment like a virtual beggar lurking in the machine. However, since the game is coming for free, direct comparisons with games as paid products swiftly break down. These are practically distinct forms of media, designed and played in different ways, for all that some players are in the markets for both. A great deal of offence, however, is caused by the encroachment of microtransactions into paid games - a topic warranting a separate discussion that I will pick up next time.

What is often overlooked about free to play is that the vast majority of players are indeed playing for free. Paid players are only a few percent of the audience of most these games. Many of these players, the so-called ‘whales’, drop several hundred (or even thousand) dollars into the games they pick up... the surprising truth of the matter is that wealthy individuals are subsidising the poor in the market for free to play games: what looks from the perspective of an individual player like the epitome of capitalism transpires to be the most socialist market economics yet realised.

Yet still, we are not happy. Some players are getting all the perks and privileges while others scrape along with nothing, albeit without having to pay anything for many hours of entertainment. The trouble is, the game has to make the whales want to pay, but they can only do so by pressuring every player to pay, either through borderline abusive designs or through the inevitable peer pressure that says you can’t be seen with someone in a ‘noob skin’. Our desires are being manipulated, our greed aroused. Yet this is the psychological profile of the contemporary marketplace everywhere we look. Does it not count for something that in free to play games - and only in such games - the wealthiest 1% of humanity are subsiding their inestimably poorer neighbours? If we are horrified by this, shouldn't our outrage be directed at the vast wealth disparity that has been made apparent by such games, rather than the games themselves...?

A Hundred Cyborgs, #71, part of a ten part mini-serial on Gamer Cyborgs.

Check out the new ebook edition of The Virtuous Cyborg!