Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Status Report: The Virtual Trolley Problem

I have a graphics problem. Actually, I have two graphics problems.

The first problem is inherent in the challenge of programming any video game: one of the largest hurdles is developing the graphical representation of the game.  Coding loops isn't terribly challenging, but making those loops mean something recognizable on the screen is far more daunting.  I've decided to use the Game Maker software popularized by YoYo Games. The website itself does a great job of pooling together already developed graphics, sound, and loop libraries from other users, allowing the community to do a great deal of the potential legwork for the beginning programmer. That said, I wasn't able to find much support for my particular graphics need (i.e. no trolleys), so this has left me at square one.

The second issue has been examined--at least tangentially--in much of the written research I've done. The overall goal of this project is to assess the video game medium as a way of portraying moral thought experiments, which hitherto has been a primarily textual undertaking. A responsible examination requires a careful consideration of rhetorical factors that affect other forms of thought experiment presentation, whether it be asked orally or read as a written question.  The research presented by Ditto, et. al. (2009) and Petrinovich, et. al. (1996) are two sample studies that consider how the thought experiment is conveyed and/or the context in which it is conveyed. When considered in tandem, the "framing" and "priming" effects described begin to point to some of the inherent challenges in analyzing normative decisions in response to scenarios and questions presented rhetorically.

With both these factors in mind, I think what I have on my hands here is a project that, in practice, is attempting to examine two things simultaneously: 1. Can you effectively convey moral dilemma-type thought experiments in a video game? And 2. What are the control factors involved in doing so?

Throughout the semester, there has been a thoughtful examination of how digital writing affects cultures, communities, identity, and academia, and a motif of the discussion has been an examination of the unintended consequences of the digital writing medium.  Although gender or racial inequality was not something that was intentionally designed into the internet 'apparatus', Nayer's writing and other writers we have examined  have argued that the way the written discourse on the net is structured that there is oftentimes analogous forms of discrimination present online. Because video games frequently try to mimic the physical conventions of the offline world, the encoding and graphical manifestations of many of the factors that play into real life "framing" and "priming" will only be more manifest in a video game environment.

In Ditto, et al's, study, the attempt was made to partially obscure the racial identities of those presented in the trolley problem and yet the expected social prejudices were still (as expected) manifest. Turning the same situation into a graphically represented one would likely only increase the likelihood of such manifestations of social "priming."

Even at the 16-bit level of graphical representation that I am working at, the same issues apply.  If I represent the in-game avatar as a white male--say, Mario--and I give him the choice of saving either Princess Toadstool  or Luigi, Toad, and Yoshi, have I not presented as situation where the player is already "primed" to decide to save the former?  The question of whether it is even possible to use popularly familiar avatars--the most readily available graphics libraries--has certainly provided me a key point of consideration.  Likewise, having characters that are non-human or non-familiar has the possibility of tweaking the 'buy-in' factor of moral considerations.

I have however, come to a few conclusions on game mechanics that I am generally convinced will enhance the virtual thought experiment's efficacy.  First, drawing on Sicart (2010), I believe that avatar selection or customization greatly enhances the simulation's ability to create the moral tie to the game player needed to exacerbate the level of player interest in the situation presented. Second, drawing on some of the considerations by Galloway (2006) about some of the features of gamer culture, I need to ensure that I break from some of the common conventions of contemporary video games, including the graphical depiction of the realization of the outcome of whatever decision is made. (The resulting violent act--resulting in a kill--is far too conventional of reward for standard video gameplay.)


Galloway, A. (2006). Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. USA: University of Minnesota Press

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Research Post: Motivated Moral Reasoning

Article Link:

In my last research post, I discussed an article that used the trolley problem to examine what moral philosophers called "framing."  A similar concept is something that Peter Ditto, David A. Pizarro, and David Tannenbaum call "priming."  In this paper, they describe a series of tests using a variation of the "trolley problem" and other moral thought experiments to test for the presence of social, political, and linguistic influences on the moral stances of various groups.  This includes both examining in-text and out-of-text factors, meaning that both how the moral dilemma is conveyed is as important of a consideration as where it is told and who it is told to.

The paper's conclusions point to understanding all moral decisions as being affected by social priming, in all its different forms. The first part of the study dealt with whether or not names and professions that inferred a certain racial identification within the trolley problem would effect the moral analysis of participants. The second part of the study examined whether or not the nationality of potential victims in a military setting would affect the moral decision making of those presented with a trolley-type moral dilemma. The final part of the study analyzed whether or not the presentation of written material slanted towards certain moral conclusions prior to the presentation of the trolley problem would affect the decisions. Additionally, all participants in all parts of the study were examined by comparing self-identified political affiliations. All the empirical portions of the study showed that these forms of "framing" and "priming" did influence moral decision making in statistically significant ways.

In a video game environment, this means that the visual, textual, or audio representations of avatars, NPCs, etc, will have substantial effects on the moral reasoning of the player, even if these effects are unintended/unnoticed by the game's developers.  This paper suggests that the innumerable unintended consequences of game design, including all its rhetorical components, simply because of the complexity of the task of representing a narrative in such a multifaceted medium, make it impossible to create a virtual environment that does not affect the decision making of the player. This, however, does not undermine the exercise of attempting moral thought experiments inside virtual environments because, as the studies presented in the paper show, every presentation of a moral dilemma will be affected by "priming" of one sort or another.  Yet, the care one must take to separate the apparent empirical conclusions from the intended and unintended "priming" effects of the medium will be critical in creating quality moral studies.


Ditto, P.H., Pizarro, D.A., & Tannenbaum. (2009). Motivated moral reasoning. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 50, 307-338. doi:10.1016/S0079-7421(08)00410-6.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Research Post: Influence of wording and framing effects on moral intuitions

Article Link:

The primary focus of an upcoming project I am working on is comparing whether certain medium presentation mediums of a moral dilemma affect the moral decisions of those confronted with morally challenging scenarios.  The question is a primarily rhetorical one: does the method the story is told by effect the moral persuasiveness of the story. Within the field of rhetoric, similar considerations have been made by specifically changing word selection in certain aspects of a story.  A 1996 study by Lewis Petrinovich and Patricia O'Neill (Journal of Ethnology and Sociobiology), studied exactly this. By examining the differences in the decisions of groups posed with the trolley problem first posed by Phillipa Foot when the moral dilemma presented at conclusion of the problem was with either "saving" a number of workers or "killing" the reciprocal number of workers on the alternate track.

Moral philosophers call differences in wording "framing effects." This study was designed to specifically examine the efficacy of such effects. The study was conducted in two parts, the first of which dealt specifically with the trolley problem.  The presentation of the problem was presented eight different narrative presentations, or "dimensions," coded both for the varying presentation factors and the "kill-save" variation. The study found that people were far more likely to agree with statements worded with the "save" variation.

While this study is fairly limited in the range of difference in presentation--or at least compared to comparing a video game to a written description--but it demonstrates that the differences can be profound in how the moral problem is conceived by the participant.  My expectation is that similar differences would exist in any medium. For example, camera angles in a film presentation may affect the moral disposition of the viewer when presented with what may be the identical moral scene. This intra-medium analysis does not, in my opinion, make it impossible to examine inter-medium differences.  Ultimately, the most predominant factor of the moral dilemma presented is the dilemma itself. Although the "framing effects" may 'nudge' moral intuitions to one side or other, the essential aspects of the morally reasoning process, once reflected upon, remain the same. The is, however, an immense value in examining, as this study did, the nature of the 'nudge.'


Petrinovich, Lewis and O'Neill, Patricia. (1996). Influence of wording and framing effects on moral intuitions. Ethology and Sociobioiogy 17:145-171. New York, NY: Elsevier Science Inc.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Flickr and Twitter: Too Much Effort (And then some...)

The past few weeks I've been working with two forms of social media that I had thus far managed to avoid.  I feel compelled to write about my experiences with each both because this sort of reflection is required for a class I'm taking and because I spent a great deal of time pondering what about these sites make them unique enough to fulfill whatever cyber-voids that Facebook, blogging, commenting, texting, and emailing don't.


Of the two, Twitter is the most important.  This is both because its sudden ubiquity, but also because it has become our de facto agora in contemporary society.  I had a very hard time crossing into the realm of "Tweeters" (this is the right terms for someone on Twitter, right?), because I am aware that should any amount of fame or infamy ever find me, my Twitter posts will be the likely point of focus of any public speculation on my state of mind, interests, or opinions either relevant or irrelevant to whatever notoriety I may incur. Thus, picking a  user name on Twitter was a dizzying challenge of prediction and restraint.  Do I use my real name? Do I use an absurd name? Will all of humanity either find me pretentious or ridiculous for choosing or not choosing either one of those? (I eventually settled on the name "TysonMe"--decidedly not clever, but probably unoffensive as well.)

Tweeting hasn't been too much of a chore. It's as easy as sending a text message or updating my status of facebook. Which of course brings me to my biggest issue with Twitter: What distinguishes it from a facebook feed or text message?  I suppose the extreme public nature of Twitter posts is the essence of what makes it different than a facebook post (but only marginally so, unless your facebook privacy settings are cranked all the way up).  At the same time, though, this makes me hesitate at the point of tweeting anything: Who is going to read this and why?  There is an existential crisis built into the Tweeting process, something simultaneously akin to public nudity and voyeuristic urge, which although probably ignored by many prolific Twitter users (Yes you, Kanye), that creates the risk of the whimsical gaining ground on the profound on happenstance alone.

Answering the question: "What's happening?" has never been such a simultaneously banal and profound act.


My first thoughts while trying to register for Flickr: Yahoo has deserved to suffer a long and protracted death.

My current thoughts about using Flickr: Yahoo deserves to suffer and continuing long and protracted death, preferably involving bees and feral dogs.

I've posted hundreds of photos on Facebook, used Picasa any number of times, and uploaded photos to everything from newspaper websites to blogs.  The process of setting up my Flickr account was agonizing?  What do I get in return for setting up a YahooID?  Given the effort, time, and frustration of setting up a web-based account, then having to essentially repeat the process on my phone, I think I may have rather gone through the process of acquiring an STD--at least some portion of that acquisition might be enjoyable.

What did I get for my efforts? Well, not that much. Although I appreciate all the functionality in tagging, geo-tagging, cropping, rights-setting, etc, that Flickr provides, I haven't really found myself warming up to the whole process.  Granted, I'm not the photo-taking type, but the level of investment just to get pictures out and available to my friends and family using this site just doesn't provide the type of return that other sites I already use do.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Research: The Rhetoric of Video Games

Article Reviewed: The Rhetoric of Video Games by Ian Bogost

One of challenges of bringing the study of a video games into the realm of academic discourse is attempting to define the academic ontology that video games can be studied under.  Computer science is an obvious choice, as are fields that study human computer interactions (i.e. psychology, neurology, computer engineering), media studies, and the effects of video games on children.  Philosophers and rhetoricians also seem to have a stick in this fight, examining games as some sort of combination of narrative medium and rhetorical play. One of the more seminal arguments for game under this interpretation is presented by Ian Bogost in "The Rhetoric of Video Games."

Bogost argues that video games present a new form of rhetoric, "procedural rhetoric," that, in the case of video games, is a subset of digital rhetoric and visual rhetoric. Illustrating his point by citing games such as Rockstar Studios Bully,"...models the social environment of high school through an expressive system of rules, and makes a procedural argument for the necessity of confrontation;" and Will Wright's Spore, which "subtly arguing through its game play that the spread of life in the universe is most likely caused by sentient beings transporting other creatures from star to star."

I find that there are three profound implications to Bogost's essay, two that he names and one that he does not. First, as Bogost writes, "...playing video games is a kind of literacy... that helps us make or critique
the systems we live in." Second, "By teaching...arguments in procedural form—even simple ones like models of their everyday life—video games can become a carrot medium for both programming and expression." The final implication, that Bogost does not overtly mention, but can be derived from his work, is that video games merit the same forms of study and criticism as other forms of rhetoric. Video games are just as susceptible to critical inquiry as literature or film and gaming elements, like literary elements (i.e. syntax, metaphor) or visual elements (i.e. composition, color), are just as due for analysis and study. Conventions of genre and form in video games should and will become principle to cultural and social understanding of the medium.

For my own research, I found it interesting that Bogost on multiple occasions cited Plato and his use of allegory to make rhetorical arguments about behavior and perception.  To contrast and place video games next to classical forms of rhetorical discourse says a great deal about what video games may be capable of in terms of "education" in the most classical sense of the word. That said, of course, I find no closer real world analog to Plato's Cave Allegory than the contemporary living room, with its large screen TVs, XBOX's, Blue Ray players, and 24/7 cable programming feeds.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Bogost, Ian. (2008). The rhetoric of video games. In K. Salen (Ed.), The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning (117-140). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Social Software: Continuing the Story

In 2004, technologist Christopher Allen wrote a short article about the development of social software  since the 1940's. Back in 2004--pre-Facebook, pre-YouTube, pre-social networking--most of this software was geared towards collaborative business and/productivity tools(ex. Adobe Connect, Skype, and, in a very limited way, Second Life-like environments). At the time of writing, he made a few vague predictions about how such software would be characterized in 2010:

"Typically, a visionary originates a term, and a community around that visionary may (or may not) adopt it. The diaspora of the term from that point can be slow, with 10 or 15 years passing before a term is more generally adopted. Once a term is more broadly adopted, it faces the risk of becoming a marketing term, corrupted into differentiating products rather than explaining ideas.

Is 'social software', which just now gaining wide acceptance, destined for the same trash heap of uselessness as groupware? And, if so, what impact does the changing of this terminology have on the field of social software itself?"

The Re-Write:

Although the trend of social software through the opening years of the millennium had primarily been tools for academic and business collaborations, beginning with Friendster in 2002 the popular adoption of social software to facilitate social networking and online community building became the predominant form of social software. The three most important exemplars of this type of social software that emerged by the close of the decade were Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Facebook, which emerged from an initially crowded social networking market that included MySpace, Orkut, and Friendster, has become the de facto social network of mainstream culture, not just in the United States where it originated, but globally, with over 150 million users from over 60 different countries. Facebook evolved into not only a service for linking people and maintaining "weak" social relationships, but also a gaming, advertisement, and entertainment platform, with all the applications reinforcing the site's collaborative, socializing nature.

YouTube, a video sharing site, was started in 2005 and was by 2010 one of the most popular sites on the web. It regularly spurs collaborated creative efforts, often in the form of creative video responses (replies) to original media from other YouTube users.  Definitely falling within the realm of social software, the site is primarily viewed as an entertainment site.

Twitter, a streaming feed of short text posts ("tweets") created by individual users, is a cultural data feed that incorporates everyone from the average joe, politicians, entertainers, athletes, and fictional characters.  The overall effect of the site is universal inclusion of individual messages, organized temporally, but not connected by any specific theme, narrative, or prompt.

The Future: 2020

The popular social networking sites of 2010 had already revealed that traditional social norms, traditions, and mores often came into conflict with the types of views, attitudes, and customs that were revealed by users. Ultimately, these sites erode not only users notion of personal privacy, but also society's expectation of it. This will have a revolutionary effect on public-private social norms, morality, and social transparency.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Game of the Year that Wasn't: Medal of Honor

Afghanistan circa 1988

The Great Pashtun Hope
There was a lot of hype about EA's new Medal of Honor game.  It set series pre-sale records.  EA's stock price went up--before reviews of the game came out, at least. And there was the press-so-good-you-can't-buy-it controversy surround the ability to play as a Taliban "Opposing Force" player, modeled as accurately as possible on the current enemy of US Forces in Afghanistan. EA made much of its efforts to bring as much "reality" to the game as possible, widely publicizing its use of active duty special forces service members as consultants on the game. Early previews praised the games rendering of the Afghan theater and no-expense-spared sound effects and soundtrack.

Then the game was released.

To be fair, the reviews haven't been horrible. It has been holding steady at 75 on Metacritic, which is a fairly strong score.  Yet, every reviewer seems to lament the same foibles: short, unimpressive single player campaign, glitchy graphics and gameplay, simple AI, and definitely not as good in any way, shape, or form as its major First-Person-Shooter contemporaries such as Call of Duty 2: Modern Warfare or Halo: Reach.

In general, I agree with these criticisms.  The campaign levels are at times claustrophobic and woefully dull.  I usually felt like I was playing a video game cross of Disney's Splash Mountain and whack-a-mole, forced to follow down a narrow mountain path shooting at predictable, cover and shoot enemies in the same manner over and over again. There were occasional graphical glitches and slow frame rates--especially during the helicopter stages.  While I certainly appreciated the tactical chatter my AI-controlled squadmates provided and their attempts at utilizing actual tactical movements, they were frequently dumb enough to walk right in front of my machine gun as I was firing down some canyon or into a valley of bad guys. That was ok though, because the one new thing I did learn about special forces in Afghanistan is that they are both invincible and carrying unlimited ammunition at all times. A game designed to be 'accurate' can't be wrong, right?

Colonel Trautman: I'm sorry I got you into this, Johnny.
Rambo: No you're not.
--Rambo III
This brings me to my biggest criticism of the game: It's not even remotely realistic enough.  In addition to all the US Forces in Afghanistan being super-soldiers, Afghanistan has no females, no children, no dogs--no civilians whatsoever. In the game, you and your squad-mates raid numerous villages, with the order to essentially shoot everything that moves.  Thanks to some mysterious force called "intel," you know there are "only bad guys" in these villages, and thus shooting everything that moves is the absolutely just thing to do. 

Likewise--and I'm mystified how the folks at EA could have included this in the wake of the infamous Wikileaks video--while operating as a helicopter gunner, you can essentially decimate entire villages with combinations of machine gun and rocket fire without so much as a mention of the potential for civilian casualties. Of course, this same "intel" is constantly being criticized by your squadmates for underestimating the number of opposing forces, the nationality of those forces, the location of those forces, and even the weather, but when it comes to identifying the civilian population of an entire province as being vacated, "intel" is spot on. 

By removing the moral challenges of the Afghan conflict from the narrative of the game, the folks at EA, Danger Close, et al, have abandoned the single most challenging aspect of the contemporary military conflict they wish to convey. I could handle the dumb AI, the campaign-on-rails level design, but given all the attention and promotion of the game's "realism" and tactical accuracy, far more effort should have been spent on creating a realistic Afghan operation. 

I think the game developers were at least tangentially aware of this as well. Somewhat lazily, they included a few moral conundrums in a few of the games cinematic scenes. In one scene an enlightened colonel is overruled by an aloof, far-away general (in civilian clothes?) over teleconference, leading to the massacre of an unknown number of Afghan allies. Likewise, in what is perhaps a nod to Lone Survivor, when your squad comes across a shepherd at the beginning of a level, they opt to knock him unconscious rather than shooting him.  Nice touches, perhaps, but they are completely removed from the gameplay itself, and the player has no opportunity to exercise their own decision making abilities at any point in the game, nor do the acts conveyed require any sort of moral reflection on why exactly this particular war is hell. 

Oddly enough, the game's insanely challenging and complex multi-player mode does a better job of conveying the challenges of modern war.  Other, human players allow for a more cunning, more' human' foe. All of a sudden, the Taliban "opposing force" players play with a degree of humanity that makes them understandable as human foes and the voice acting in this mode, alongside the explosions and gunfire, create an urgent, visceral experience far beyond what the single player campaign ever offers.

 "This film is dedicated to the gallant people of Afghanistan."
--Rambo III
Danger Close and EA close the single player campaign with a several paragraph dedication to the men of the US Special Forces community.  It's an earnest, for some tear jerking, attempt at memorializing the figures featured in the game. And yet, and yet... The efforts the game designers took to humanize the special forces characters--closely rendered faces, great voice acting, humanizing pre-combat rituals of rubbing rabbit feet and chewing tobacco--only highlights by contrasts their inability to humanize the conflict itself. While there were moments--just moments--where I felt a recognition that I was playing/fighting in a scenario alongside what were the in-game equivalents of contemporary, human warfighters, I never felt that the enemies represented anything more human than Halo's Covenant aliens--perhaps even less so. Likewise, with an Afghanistan populated only by targets and target shooters, the gameplay itself removed any pretension of human conflict. 

What is left is at best a spiritual sequel to the Rambo films of the 1980's. Stallone wrote those films to memorialize the forgotten military heroes of a generation that largely tried to forget the conflicts that they fought in. Likewise, this game makes an effort, albeit a meek one, to bring to the popular fore the conflict that so few contemporary Americans have any connection to.  Yet, it isn't Stallone's films that offer anything near an accurate portrait of war or those that fight in them (later films such as Blackhawk Down, We Were Soldiers, The Thin Red Line, Saving Private Ryan, Letter from Iwo Jima, etc all do a far better job), and because of this, much of the earnest sentiment is lost amongst the explosions and oiled set-pieces. All that one remembers is the visceral war porn that remains. 

I have higher hopes for a number of games that are coming out in the coming weeks, Fallout New Vegas and Fable III, to name a few. While these games do not purport to represent reality or contemporary conflict, I actually expect these games to feel more human, more provoking than Medal of Honor, a game that, by design, should have been so much more. 
Afghanistan circa 2005
(Apparently, all the women and children moved to Pakistan?)