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Three Moves Ahead Episode 88: Ethics, Morality and Motivation

October 27th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 16 Comments · Podcast, Three Moves Ahead


Bruce Geryk returns to the show to give special guest Michael Abbot a hard time in a discussion that is intended to focus on the ethical and moral dimension of wargames and wargaming, but ranges all over the place, including a sidetrack into why people get into wargames to begin with. Rob Zacny tries to keep things on topic and Julian Murdoch explains why Defcon makes him cry and his daughter says the smartest thing in the hour.

Also, one final pitch for dollars and news on the next DC area FoS/TMA meetup date.

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16 Comments so far ↓

  • Dave

    Definitely an interesting topic. It was great to hear Bruce be ridiculous, as always. (I’m convinced that he’s one of the internet’s top griefers)

    I personally would like to see more effort put into strategy games getting the player to feel the consequences of sending his armies over the top, or burning villages down in a night of rapine and savagery. It’s almost never adequately communicated that these are human beings that you’re playing with and that their deaths should have some kind of weight and meaning.

  • Quinten

    I think that the main point here is that Wargaming and Strategy gaming is about abstraction, not simulation. Simulation implies that you are recreating the event or thing exactly. Tom once argued with Bruce about whether or not Hearts of Iron was a simulation. It isn’t, but thank god it isn’t. There are too many who want the unsavory/unethical elements of that conflict simulated. I don’t see a problem with Wargaming because it isn’t about moral decisions; they are intellectual exercises. Memoir ’44 is not about what cards a Wermacht commander could use, it is an abstraction of combat and the luck involved in war. And yes Bruce, it is a Wargame.
    I would feel uncomfortable if I felt “the consequences of sending (my) armies over the top, or burning villages down in a night of rape and savagery.” A game is an escape, and I am not interested in escaping to the minds of soldiers who feel forced to do something horrifying because they were “following orders.” I do not want to consider those things, and would prefer if most designers stuck to what a Wargame is: an abstraction of real life conflict.

    Troy, I am glad you got so much money from the pledge drive. Does this mean you can afford to pay Bruce’s appearance fees?

  • Dave

    I think feeling uncomfortable would be part of the point (and also the eventual state of no longer feeling uncomfortable). Art has been often described as “between likeness and unlikeness”, especially in the realm of painting, and to me that means abstraction. When only the hard facts are included, without any emotional components I feel that the experience is ultimately lacking.

    I think Michael, Julian, and Rob talked about that side of it well (especially when Michael was talking about his experiences in first-person shooters), and it is probably keeping a lot of strategy games from achieving their full potential. I can understand why die-hard wargamers don’t want emotions and feelings getting in the way of their chits and numbers, but certainly games like Dawn of Discovery, Grand Ages Rome, and other civ-focused RTSs would benefit from a fuller emotional spectrum, and it might even increasing their resonance amongst the more mainstream gaming audience.

  • frags

    I agree with Quinten on the point that wargames are intellectual exercises. Although there is perhaps an opportunity to try something new with adding ethical concerns in strategy games. Were generals really heartless soldiers that made decisions solely on the outcome of how the war is going? Did they care for the civilians? Did their care for their own soldiers well being?

    I’m not sure what adding such ethical quandaries could add to a game. Perhaps such a system could be worked where depending on your decisions, you could build reputation amongst your countrymen(reducing war weariness) and getting help from local insurgents(for helping out locals) for making ‘good’ decisions. I dunno…

  • Quinten

    I think that strategy games should address ethical issues, not all of them, but some should. A civ type game where you have ethical choices would be interesting, and possibly fun. A strategy game could be art, but I think trying to fit Wargames into art would largely miss the point.

  • Skyrider68

    While the headline of the podcast suggests a deep, introspective subject, at the end of the day a game is just a game, and for most normal people simply an escape from the stresses of reality. As is typical of human behavior, there will always be small percentages of people on opposite ends of the spectrum of behavior who will feel compelled to react strongly (e.g. the oversensitive types who believe wargames are horror and should be burned, and the overserious types who dress up in military garb and run around in forests “hunting the enemy.”)

    I agree with the perspective a game is what you make it. Personally, I like the mental challenge of certain strategy games, including wargames, but that does not make me a warmonger by association. War is an ugly reality of human history. A game is….a game. Most people can make the distinction.

    Great to hear Dr. Bruce “I would have to totally disagree” Geryk again.

  • MikeO

    So nice to have Bruce stand up for rationality. Not that anyone on this podcast was irrational, but the question under discussion is something that sort of annoys me. Absolutely agree with Bruce that most, or all, people who begin playing what I call ‘wargames’ do it to dig deeper into an historical subject of interest. There is nothing unethical about most wargames, or most wargamers.

    Of course, anytime you are modeling a historical subject, there are some people who are going to bring their personal feelings and baggage to the game. Hence, you have the small minority of creeps and ‘fetishists’ who identify, shall we say, a little too strongly with their SS units, or whatever.

    There is nothing ethically wrong with most of the games, or most of the people who like to play them.

  • Peter S (Mind Elemental)

    Interesting chat, guys. I’d have liked to have heard more discussion about general strategy games, particularly 4X — Julian’s Civilization example almost exactly matched to what immediately came to my mind when I saw the topic.

    Now I need to work up a more detailed response in a blog post…

    On the subject of playing the Nazis, have you guys noticed that Germany seems to be far and away the most popular nation in Hearts of Iron?

  • Arowx

    I think war games are the wrong area to focus on the moral and ethical aspects of warefare as they don’t focus on the reasons why the conflict is happening and what is being fought over.

    Or what about the game Train, a strategy game of sorts but with a twist http://game.blogdig.net/archives/articles/March2010/13/GDC_10__the_Holocaust_board_game.html

    What if a strategy game were to set you up as Nazi unit defending a concentration camp for instance.

    A more modern view would be conflicts that are probably primarily aimed at obtaining/securing access to fossil fuel reserves.

    I think it’s the reasons why the conflict was triggered the gaining of power, land, resources that gives the big picture and an arena where morals and ethics should be discussed.

  • Shaun

    Sent this e-mail to Troy but he asked me to post it here:

    I should probably start with the obligatory flattery – I love the podcast. Strategy games are the staple of my entertainment diet – be they tabletop or on the computer. Specifically Episode 88 was really interesting. It’s rare to hear that level of intellectual talk and decidedly refreshing.

    But of course I was confused with a few things and took issue with a few things. Everyone’s gotta have an opinion right?

    I write to you as a history buff. I graduated from the University of North Carolina with a Bachelor’s in History and a minor in Philosophy, and am currently working towards an MA in History. This isn’t hate mail, just an opinion. Take from it what you will, assuming you even have the time to read it.

    I am not a SS re-enactor or a “Nazi fetishist”. I am a French historian with a fanboy-like love for France and her history. However to understand France you must understand Franco-British and Franco-German relations. In my readings I’ve come across a great deal of history regarding the Third Reich and its actions across the world.

    To demonize and generalize Germans of WWII as being “the bad guys” can be just as dangerous as developing a fetish for them. The more inhuman and irrational the situation is depicted, the more one increases the prevalence of that oh-it-could-never-happen-here mentality – the more distanced it becomes. If you haven’t already read it, I would suggest Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning. It follows the actions of a Police Battalion on the Eastern Front and all the horrible things they did – but it does not simply present basic facts and condemning reports. It tells their story from a sort of “first-person” view. You can read some of their memoirs, testimonies, or “third-person” eyewitness accounts. You learn about the kind of people who did these things and see that they were not really predisposed to be monstrous, heartless killing machines – but that they were indeed ordinary men. Such a realization is important because it indicates that such a thing could indeed happen “here” or anywhere really. In that regard, a certain vigilance is necessary to avoid a repeat of those events, but to engage and understand them – in sometimes uncomfortable ways – is considered by many of the “revisionist” historians to be the best way to empower that vigilance.

    From my experience in school, subjectivity is the big lesson that history has to teach us. The truth is rarely held by a particular “side” of a conflict – its usually somewhere in between: a grey area of nuance and complexity. There were “good” and “bad” people spread out across the war – their morality was not dictated by the symbols on their uniforms, be them American flags or SS runes. Engaging in this complexity is what empowers us philosophically and morally. It helps us come to terms with the absurdity of trying to comprehend historical events that we did not observe, and in turn we can apply the mental skills we develop tackling these issues to everyday life – specifically civics, politics, etc.

    I think wargames should be approached with the same caution that one would use when reading historical fiction or watching one of those “based on a true story” movies. For a participant who is informed, they can play a game about the Battle of the Bulge and enjoy it for its gameplay or its storytelling or its art direction and overlook the lack of accuracy or context. But for someone who doesn’t even know who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, it can be a very dangerous source of misinformation. How you reconcile that when developing and publishing a historical game… I have no idea. Maybe the burden shouldn’t be on the developers but on the consumers to educate themselves? Misinformed opinions can be very dangerous.

    I’m not entirely sure why I’m writing this to you. I think perhaps I just want to examine my own thoughts on the subject so I can better structure my opinions. Either way, keep up the podcast and the fantastic work.

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  • Peter S (Mind Elemental)

    Okay, my post tackling this issue is up (see the “Conquest, Plunder and Tyranny” link immediately above this comment). The abstraction of bloodshed is one reason why we resort to brutality in strategy (esp. 4X) games, but there are other, equally important reasons: (2) These games tend to be zero-sum and we don’t care how much suffering we cause, so long as we win the game; and (3) The games’ economic models usually emphasise the amount of territory controlled -> economic potential -> national power, which gives players an incentive to bulldoze their neighbours in search of lebensraum.

  • Tony K

    I enjoyed the podcast. Great to hear Bruce again. Being a wargamer and a history buff, I am in total agreement with Bruce’s assessment of wargamers. Wargamers play wargames because they like the history subject and want to get closer to that subject. I don’t think anyone thinks of the “ethical” dilemmas of managing some battle. In my several decades of wargaming, I have to admit I’ve never come across an ethical dilemma in playing these games.

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  • Loffenx

    Great show, great episode.

    I think however that it would have benefited if you would have taken time to define what potential moral dilemmas you were talking about. People touched about it from time to time and it was of course hoovering in the background of the discussion, but I never really grasped your basic premise.

    A guy plays a game where he drops a nuke on Frankfurt, another guy blows the head of en enemy in an FPS game. So what? What’s the moral/ethical dilemma here? For whom? The player, creator, whom? My starting point would be that there is none. Real world violence has dilemmas, not imganiary or purely abstractional, becasue these latter two have no remifications for other human beings in a way that violate their rights.

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