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A Game Worth Dying For?

image of "Game Over" screen displayed on monitor

There’s a game mechanic called permadeath. The idea behind it is simple. If your character – be that on a computer, board, tabletop, or any other medium – dies, they stay dead. So instead of the standard gaming affair of having extra lives or being revived at a save point, for those games with permadeath, you lose all your equipment, merch, coins, etc. and are considered entirely dead. Some of the most famous games that use this feature include The Long Dark, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and DayZ.

The purpose of permadeath is relatively simple. It drives up the tension by driving up the stakes.

If you know your character comes back to life when they’re killed, then there’s little risk. The time you invest in a game is safe because it won’t be lost when you get hit by a fireball or trip into a bottomless pit. You can simply dust yourself off and try again.

But, if you’re at risk of losing that progress, the time, effort, and emotions you’ve put into a game become far more precious. Knowing that one wrong move means all that progress gets thrown into the bin means that every step, every look around the corner, and every opening of a mysterious box has tension. Knowing that in-game death means starting over again after spending days reaching a game’s final stages means your investment skyrockets.

However, a game’s stakes are rarely anything more valuable than time. Sure, losing all your progress can be frustrating when a ghoul kills your character in the game’s final moments, but you’re still able to get up and walk away.

While your character may face oblivion, you, as the player, don’t. You may think you’ve wasted your time, but ultimately, that’s all that would have been wasted (and if you had fun, is it really wasted?).

But, in early November 2022, Palmer Luckey, the founder of the VR firm Oculus, claimed he designed a headset that transcends permadeath out of a game and into reality – he developed a headset that kills you if you die in-game.

The headset is fitted with three explosives. Luckey wired these to detect certain shades of red at a specific frequency. So, when your character dies in-game, and the VR headset displays that shade of red, the explosives detonate, and the player’s brain is destroyed. This system is still in its developmental stages, with the headset currently acting as a piece of office art. However, Luckey’s stated that he wants to explore its potential further, eventually ensuring that it’s tamperproof and cannot be removed by external parties. In effect, he wants to prevent someone from helping the player remove the headset if they change their mind after starting the game. Also, a game that would work with the headset needs to be created. Specifically, one that avoids using the triggering shade and frequency of red before the character, and consequentially the player, meets their end.

The prospect of someone using such a headset raises numerous questions. These include whether someone could genuinely consent to use the headset and whether Luckey would be a murderer if/when someone died while using it to play a game.

We may return to these in another article. For now, however, I want to focus on why Palmer Luckey created this maniacal contraption.

Luckey says he got the idea from the manga and anime series Sword Art Online. It features a VR headset called the NerveGear, allowing total immersion in a virtual world. The headset is released with the titular Sword Art Online game. Ten thousand beta players sign in when the game launches but soon discover they cannot sign out and are trapped within the game. The game’s designer then appears to the players and tells them they must beat all 100 floors of the game’s monster-infested mega-castle if they want to escape. At this point, he also reveals that death in the game results in death in real life. The idea of an immersive virtual world captured Luckey’s imagination, as he writes in his blog:

The idea of tying your real life to your virtual avatar has always fascinated me – you instantly raise the stakes to the maximum level and force people to fundamentally rethink how they interact with the virtual world and the players inside it. Pumped up graphics might make a game look more real, but only the threat of serious consequences can make a game feel real to you and every other person in the game. This is an area of videogame mechanics that has never been explored, despite the long history of real-world sports revolving around similar stakes.

At first, this prospect might strike many as patently absurd. It seems that few, if any, would sign up to play a game that could result in death. Games usually are a form of escapism from real-life’s woes, and a game that includes as a mechanic one of life’s (arguably) most significant downsides – mortality – seems to run entirely counter to this goal.

But, with some consideration, Luckey’s perspective on risk’s relationship with gaming seems to hold at least some value, specifically concerning gaming’s attempts at raising the stakes. Games have little material value in and of themselves – it’s what makes them games. This is one of the reasons gaming, in its various forms (including sports), is closely tied to gambling.

Gambling raises the stakes of what is happening in the game and gives it real-world value and impact. For example, you’re much more likely to care about who wins a round of Super Smash Bros if you have money riding on the outcome.

The in-game risk is given real-world form, and the greater the value bet, the greater one’s emotional and cognitive investment is; you care more when there’s more on the line. When it comes to putting things on the line, there’s nothing more valuable than your life.

Also, while it might seem madness to design a game that kills the player if they fail to perform, countless people already undertake recreational activities that involve the prospect of death if mistakes are made. Skydiving is an obvious one.

Plummeting out of a plane and reaching terminal velocity, with only a couple of layers of fabric preventing you from dying upon impact with the earth, is a risk most of us don’t have to take. But the prospect of death in this context doesn’t have people up in arms demanding that skydiving be stopped.

On the contrary, the activity’s value is, in some measure, derived from the inseparable risk of immeasurable harm. It’s arguably what makes diving out of a plane different from indoor skydiving; despite all the measures put in place, you’re aware that death is a potential outcome.

So, provided safeguards are put in place to prevent system errors, and the games offer players a beyond excellent chance of survival, is it such an obscene prospect?

Having said that, if offered the chance to play an almost unlosable game on Luckey’s murderous headset, you can be sure I’d say no

It’s Just a Game: The Ethics of Tom Clancy’s Not-So-Elite Squad

image of man in military gear firing weapon

Video game company Ubisoft has recently received a fresh wave of backlash, this time for its latest mobile game app: Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad. The mechanics of the game are nothing revolutionary – tap here to make person X shoot person Y – and has received a number of poor reviews for its heavy-handed monetization and boring gameplay. The problem is not so much the style of game, as it is the backstory. Here is how the plot is described in the game’s introduction:

“The world is in an alarming state: wars, corruption and poverty have made it more unstable than ever. As the situation keeps worsening, anger is brewing. From between the cracks, a new threat has emerged to take advantage of escalating civil unrest. They are known as UMBRA: a faceless organization that wants to build a new world order. They claim to promote an egalitarian utopia to gain popular support, while behind the scenes, UMBRA organizes deadly terrorist attacks to generate even more chaos, and weaken governments, at the cost of many innocent lives. Simultaneously, they have been hacking social media to discredit world leaders and rally people to their cause. Under immense pressure, world leaders have come together to authorize a new international cross agency unit designed to combat UMBRA. It is clear, playing by the rules will not win this fight. The leader of this unconventional squad will need to recruit elite soldiers from every corner of the world, including the criminal underworld. As commander of this unprecedented squad, we need you to put an end to UMBRA’s campaign of chaos. Welcome to Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad.”

In addition to sounding like it was written by a middle-schooler who used a thesaurus for every word except “squad”, many critics have noted that the message of the game itself is a dangerous one, in that it appears to lend credence to right-wing conspiracy theories that protesters are somehow being controlled by evil members of the deep state. Additionally, it seems to advocate for violence against those protesters – after all, “playing by the rules will not win this fight” – who are villainized for, bizarrely, wanting to create an “egalitarian utopia”.

(You control the guys shooting the people waving the flag reading “freedom”)

It gets much worse: the symbol that Ubisoft chose to represent the antagonists bears a striking resemblance to that used by the Black Lives Matter movement. So close, in fact, that Ubisoft issued an apology, and promised to remove the symbol from the next update. Of course, the plot of protesters being secret terrorists remains central to the game.

Hanlon’s razor states to “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” That being said, there might not be enough stupidity available to adequately explain Ubisoft’s choice of plot and imagery. It seems clear that not only was an apology warranted, but that significant changes to the game ought to be made. Outrage online has been widespread, and deserved.

But wait: why make such a big deal out of this? It is, after all, nothing more than a dumb mobile game from a franchise whose best days are likely long behind it. And it’s not like we haven’t had Tom Clancy’s work glorifying the military for decades already, in the forms of books, movies, and TV shows – featuring protagonists with jaw-droppingly original names like “Jack Ryan”, “John Clark”, and “Jack Ryan Jr.” – not to mention dozens of video games. These are works of fiction, though, and people are able to differentiate such works from reality. So really, we shouldn’t be bothered by the latest in a long line of predictable Tom Clancy-branded properties.

There is, I think, something to be said about the “it’s just a game” response. For instance, while research on the effects of violent video games on their players is ongoing, there is a good amount of evidence that long-term exposure to such games has no effect on levels of aggression, pro-social behavior, impulsivity, or cognition in general. So the thought that a mobile game in which one shoots protesters is going to have a direct impact on the number of people who are going out and shooting protesters – something that has become a real problem as of late – is too quick.

The relevant worry, then, is not so much that the game will be a direct cause of future violence, but rather that the fact that a company would create such a game, with such a premise, at this particular moment in time, helps to normalize a false and dangerous narrative of events that is very much taken seriously by some people.

Here, then, is a difference between Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad and the kinds of video games that have historically received moral outrage and are the subject of studies that mentioned above: those falling into the latter category do not tend to promote any kind of narrative that actively promotes a particular political agenda. Consider, for example, a violent videogame like Mortal Kombat (which was one of the games that sparked early congressional hearings into depictions of violence in video games in the early 1990s) that involves graphic acts of decapitation and pixelated blood. These acts are obviously so far removed from what are generally considered good societal values that it is easy to see how one could separate the acts promoted in the video game from those promoted in the real world. On the other hand, when a game tells you that protestors who wave a flag remarkably similar to that used by the Black Lives Matter movement are driven by ulterior motives, are “hacking social media”, and ought to be dealt with in any way possible – a message that seems to be condoned by right-wing media outlets – the lines between fantasy and reality become much less distinct.

In one sense, Tom Clancy’s Elite Squad is just a game. In another sense, it is a symbol of an uninformed and intolerant worldview that has potentially real and damaging consequences. With any luck, Ubisoft’s decisions will turn out to be the result of an enormous amount of stupidity, and not an equivalent amount of malice.

Are Loot Boxes “Quite Ethical”?

photograph of videogame mystery box

It’s not often that someone comes out and declares that something that has both received considerable scrutiny and is illegal in several countries is, in fact, “quite ethical.” But this is what recently happened during a UK House of Commons hearing concerning the existence of loot boxes in videogames. Kerry Hopkins, current vice president of legal and government affairs at videogame giant EA, declared that there were, in fact, no ethical issues with loot boxes, and that they should instead be thought of as “surprise mechanics”; she would go on to argue that the UK government should not make it illegal to sell videogames featuring loot boxes given that “people like surprises.” Those looking to enact legislature banning the sale of videogames with loot boxes tend to compare them to a form of gambling, one that is particularly egregious given that a considerable number of those playing said games are adolescents. 

The way many loot box mechanics work in videogames is as follows: one can purchase – either with real money or virtual currency specific to a particular game – a virtual mystery box containing items that appear by chance, with odds being weighted by how common or rare they are deemed to be. These items vary depending on the game being played. For example, loot boxes may contain virtual items used for cosmetic changes for a character – e.g. you can put a new kind of hat on them – while others may contain items that will give you an advantage while playing the game – e.g. maybe that hat is not just a hat, but some sort of power hat that makes you stronger.

The presence of loot boxes is taken to be most controversial when they both cost real-world money and contain items that offer distinct advantages to players. Cases that have received some of the most scrutiny recently have been titles published by EA, including Star Wars Battlefront II, and recent entries in the company’s popular FIFA franchise. In both of these games, players have incentive to buy loot boxes with the hope of acquiring items that could make them more powerful in the former, and to buy virtual packs of cards to acquire better players for their teams in the latter. In response to these two games in particular, several countries – including Belgium and The Netherlands – have categorized loot boxes as a form of illegal gambling, with several other countries – including the UK and various parts of the United States – considering whether or not to follow suit. 

The argument against the selling of loot boxes generally comes down to whether they should be considered a form of gambling – which, if so, would be similarly illegal in places in which gambling in general is illegal – specifically a kind of gambling that is directed at children and adolescents. “Gambling for children and adolescents” certainly sounds bad. On what basis, then, could someone make the claim that, despite appearances, loot boxes are actually “quite ethical”?

Hopkins’ argument is something like the following: there are numerous real-world toys that both cost real-world money and are aimed at children, and no one has raised any ethical concerns about selling them. For example, during the UK hearing Hopkins compared loot boxes to blind boxes – actual physical boxes that contain a random specific kind of toy inside, with some toys being more likely to be inside than others – and other real-world toys like Hatchimals and Kinder Eggs that similarly involve an element of surprise. If you don’t have a problem with those kinds of physical toys, the argument goes, then you shouldn’t have a problem with their virtual equivalent.

Other governments are in agreement with Hoskins: for example, in 2017 members of various government regulatory bodies in New Zealand decided that loot boxes do not constitute gambling. The main argument against classifying loot boxes as a form of gambling was that they are not purchased with the intention of winning money, “or something that can be converted into money.” That in-game loot boxes only provide benefits in the game, and not for real-world goods or money, is an argument that has also been used by EA CEO Andrew Wilson, who emphasized that EA does not “provide or authorize any way to cash out or sell items or virtual currency for real money.”

Determining whether loot boxes constitute gambling will, of course, depend on how one defines “gambling”. If we take gambling to be restricted to just those activities in which one pays money to play a game of chance for the purpose of potentially winning additional money, then it would seem that loot boxes do not, by this definition, constitute gambling. The definition of “gambling” is, of course, up for debate, and, as we have seen, varies from country to country.

However, even if we deny that loot boxes constitute gambling, there will still potentially be problems with allowing them in videogames. The first is that, despite not being able to win money directly within the game, there are many well-known third-party websites that buy and sell loot box items. Second, even if loot boxes are not technically considered a form of gambling, that does not mean that they are, in fact, “quite ethical”.

Consider the first worry first: well-aware of the existence of third-party resellers of loot box prizes, Wilson stated that EA “forbid[s] the transfer of items or in-game currency” outside of the games, with Hopkins attributing these problems to “bad guys”. We might ask, however, whether EA should take any responsibility for being part of a system in which people can pay for a chance to win something that does have real-world value, even if EA themselves doesn’t approve of it. We could interpret this situation in a couple of ways: on the one hand, we might think that, as an unwilling participant in the third-party reselling business, EA should not be held accountable for the actions of some bad actors; on the other hand, we might think that, given that EA is well aware of the existence of these third parties, that the loot box mechanics just sounds like gambling with a couple of extra steps.

Regardless of whether we think that loot boxes constitute gambling or “gambling with extra steps”, we can still ask whether they are “quite ethical”. For instance, we might still be concerned that the system is one that encourages, if not straight-up gambling, then at least activity that is closely related to gambling in adolescents. While there has not been a lot of study on the long-term effects of loot boxes, one recent study found that not only do the majority of people who play games with loot boxes consider them to be gambling, but that “Risky Loot Box use correlated moderately with gambling-related measures.” While this research appears to still be in its infancy, there is at least some empirical support for concerns about their effects. Despite EA’s insistence, then, there remains plenty of reason to be concerned that loot boxes are not as ethical as they would have consumers believe.