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

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