Coding Ethical Codes

As most sane people will tell you, videogames are quite different from real life.  Stepping into a virtual world means accepting that you are entering a space where the normal rules are temporarily suspended in favor of the game’s rules.  Huizinga calls this the “magic circle.”1 Thus, a moral person may do seemingly immoral things such as killing or stealing in the context of a game because exploring these issues is often the whole point of the game.  The way in which the rules of these virtual worlds are designed has a major impact on the overall experience of playing the game.

Often, the ethics of a virtual world are simply enforced upon the player by limiting certain kinds of interaction. In The Legend of Zelda, for example, the hero can (and often must) kill all variety of creatures with his sword and other weapons.  Other actions, such as killing a shopkeep or stealing his goods are not allowed.  The hero can swing his sword at him, but it simply passes right through him.  Killing innocent merchants is unheroic, therefore, the hero cannot do it, even if he tries.  Other games are less explicit with questions of ethics.  Villagers in Minecraft sell helpful items to the player, much like the merchants in Zelda.  They are also frequently in need of assistance to save their villages from the same monsters that the player has to deal with.  Although there is an implicit hero role for the player to fill, she needn’t actually help the villagers and is perfectly capable of killing them herself.  While playing the hero and having a flourishing village near her castle might be more advantageous, the player is just as free to take on the role of a murderous warlord, leaving a trail of lifeless ruins in her wake.

Still other games take a middle route, allowing the player to make a wide range of actions, but providing an in-game ethical code to guide and evaluate the player’s actions.  These can be simple good-versus-evil meters, such as karma in Fallout 3 and the light-versus-dark mechanics in various Star Wars games, or they can be more complex, such as the eight virtues in Ultima 4.  In either case, such a system requires game developers to assign a certain moral value to the potential actions that the player can perform in the game.  The way that developers choose to define ethical behavior within the game world has a significant impact on the overall experience of playing the game.

One of my favorite games to deal explicitly with these kinds of ethical mechanics is Introversion Software’s Uplink.  Although never reaching mainstream success, Uplink is one of the most iconic games ever created about computer hacking.  The game puts the player in the role of an elite hacker, specializing in corporate espionage.  By completing jobs, the player can earn money to upgrade her software and hardware in order to defeat increasingly complex security systems.  As one might suspect, essentially everything the player does in the game is framed as being illegal within the context of the game world.  The game, however, provides an alternate ethical system in the form of the player’s “Neuromancer rating.”  This rating, which changes over time as the player completes missions, purports to evaluate the player’s actions not on their legality or their conformity to broader societal ideals, but on how these actions conform to the ideals of the hacker community.

Scholars such as Steven Levy have noted that hackers do, in fact, tend to have strong commitments to ethical standards that differ somewhat from those of society at large.  This “hacker ethic” is based upon ideals that access to computers and information should be unrestricted and universal2.  This often brings them into conflict with other organizations over matters such as copyright, where freedom of information is restricted in favor of other societal values that are deemed more important.

Playing Uplink with an understanding of the hacker ethic, however, the player may find that the Neuromancer rating seems somewhat arbitrary and unpredictable.  While it seems appropriate that stealing research information from one company and sharing it with their competitors would improve your ethical standing, it would reason that the opposite, destroying information to prevent anyone from benefiting from it, would be bad.  Surprisingly, both of these acts improve your Neuromancer rating, whether you are making information more freely available or not.  With the ethical implications of individual missions being difficult to determine without considerable amounts of trial and error, the Neruomancer rating serves very poorly as a moral compass.

In actuality, Neuromancer ratings have little to do with your actions themselves, but instead focus on the target of those actions.  Any attack you perform on a corporation boosts the player’s Neuromancer rating.  Any attack that targets an individual or another hacker drops it.  This system is problematic for a number of reasons.  First, it implies a strict “us versus them” relationship between hackers and corporations, which is an overly simplistic (though not entirely uncommon) view of hacker culture.  While the two are often at odds, this conflict is a result of conflicting ethical systems, rather than a core tenet of hacker ethics.

Additionally, the Neuromancer system lacks internal consistency.  While helping to track down another hacker is considered unethical, so is helping another hacker by creating fake credentials.  Clearing a criminal record, on the other hand, seems to be considered good, even though it targets an individual in a similar manner to the “fake credentials” mission.  In the end, there is little way to determine the ethicality of an action by applying a general ethical framework.  The player can do little else but try each mission and attempt to divine its effect on her Neuromancer rating.

While I find the idea of the Neuromancer rating to be quite intriguing, its implementation in Uplink creates a problematic ethical system that is neither useful to the player, nor representative of the hacker community.  To the developers’ credit, I actually find that the player can find a more interesting and nuanced view of hacker ethics by ignoring the primary ethical mechanic in the game and simply paying more attention to the small bits of static narrative that are inserted throughout the length of the game.


1. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-element in Culture. Johan Huizinga.
2. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Steven Levy.

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