Sun, Aug 19, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Real moral choices in virtual game worlds

By Alexander Gambotto-Burke  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Just over 10 years ago, the edge in emotive, immersive and cinematic game design was the FMV (full-motion video) game. Constructing its complicated gameplay sequences out of live-action footage, these movie/game hybrids had a distinct advantage over their pixellated peers: They looked fantastic because their visuals were sourced from the real world. Things have changed.

The obvious pitfall of this type of game -- completely static, restrictive, and linear gameplay thanks to expensive, prerecorded footage -- is now anathema. Gamers want to make their own choices about how to interact with their virtual worlds.


Ken Levine, president of Irrational Games, has been working to meet the needs of gamers since 1999, when it released System Shock 2 (SS2). This game is the prime example of what Levine calls "emergent gameplay" -- very little is pre-scripted, most parts of the game can play out in any order, and players are free to come up with their own strategies for dealing with enemies and obstacles.

It's an immensely satisfying format, because players feels as though their choices matter. Irrational is now hard at work on BioShock, SS2's "spiritual successor."

"The problem when you build emergent spaces," Levine said, "is that the amount of testing and rebuilding is much higher, because areas have to be applicable to a lot of different scenarios. If you look at a game like Half-Life 2 or Call of Duty, their developers can really custom build scripted areas with no fear that gameplay is going to trickle out of that area. Their AI [artificially intelligent] entities are tethered to specific areas and situations; in a game like BioShock, AIs will wander around and follow you around."

He sees emergence as worth the effort, though, because it increases the audience's involvement with his games.

"I think if you look at even the least participatory art forms there's the notion of vicariousness. When you see [the film] Goodfellas, you sort of walk out feeling like you're in that world. You watch a romance, and if it works, you feel that kind of giddiness you feel in a real romantic situation," he said.

"And videogames just take that further, because you have more participation," he said.

Indeed, one of videogaming's greatest strengths is its ability to construct "moral playgrounds" -- safe arenas in which people can explore different philosophies, principles and personalities. This has, however, also attracted most of the criticism and controversy surrounding the games industry in recent years.

In videogames such as the Grand Theft Auto series, players can pretty much do whatever they want -- they can play through the game's storyline as ethically as possible, or go on a mass killing spree.

The question is, though, how much is too much? Are games in which mass murder is possible and allowed harmful? By allowing for (and simulating) destructive behaviors in their games, are developers thus endorsing those behaviors? These questions are extremely important when considering something like Running With Scissors' ultra-crass and (let's be honest) ultra-juvenile Postal 2 (2003).

Featuring racist epithets, opportunities for "upskirt" glimpses with almost all female characters -- albeit accessible only once you've bludgeoned, shot or otherwise fatally disfigured them -- and spectacularly stupid violence, Postal 2 was designed, arguably, to excite the wrath of the moral majority. In Australia, it is illegal even to own a copy.

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