Game Mods: Labor and Value

Steam Workshop Revolt

Last week, Valve made the shocking (though not altogether unanticipated) move toward allowing modders to sell mods through Steam Workshop.  This experiment lasted less than a week before it was abandoned in the face of widespread criticism and general discontent among Steam users.  I don’t feel the need to attempt a complete history of the turmoil, as a number of people have already done an excellent job of recording some of the key events that took place during those few days.  However, since a fair amount of my research surrounds the practice of videogame modding, I thought that I would share my perspectives on a few points that stood out to me – primarily concerning the themes of labor and value.

One of the earliest and most influential academic studies on the value of modding is Hector Postigo’s work with games like Battlefield 1942.  Just looking at large-scale, high-quality mods like the “Homefront” mod, Postigo estimates that were the original development studios to produce this same content themselves (say, as DLC), the cost could be as much as 50 percent of the original development costs1.  Considering that the development costs of some of the most popular games for modding stretch into the tens of millions of dollars, this is no trivial matter.

Hammer EditorEven if you disagree on some of the particulars of how Postigo calculates his figures, one thing is clear – mods have value (and probably a lot of value).  The question, then, is who benefits from the value that is being created through modding labor?  Developers clearly benefit, as mods extend the lifespan of a product, generate good will toward the company, and in some cases, can even drive sales when people are more interested in playing the mod than the vanilla game itself2. Mods also serve as a testing ground for ideas that could be incorporated into later commercial products.  The modding community can also serve as a source of feedback, beta-testers, or even potential employees.

Players also benefit substantially from modding.  While the addition of free content is a fairly obvious perk, it is significant not just for the fact that it is additional content, but that it is often a very different kind of content than developers can create.  One example is the “FinnWars” mod by Iceflake Studio.  While the Finn Wars are a point of great interest for Finnish people, such a small and specific audience makes it an unlikely subject for a large studio to address.  Modding allows for content to be created for groups that might be underserviced or marginalized by the mainstream industry.

The benefits that modders gain from their own work is a somewhat more complicated issue.  As I have discussed elsewhere, while modding can be means of entry into the videogame industry, the lack of wages and general uncertainty of future employment puts modding a step below even the most exploitative internship.  Additionally, while modders generally forfeit the rights to their work when they accept the modding EULA, they frequently come up against the intellectual property rights of others.  They are also subject to the whims of the game developers whose game they mod, and have little recourse if their game is rendered obsolete or unplayable by a patch or an expansion3.

There are certainly other motivations for modding.  Many modders simply see it as an enjoyable hobby, and in that sense, it does not disappoint.  Modding can be a lot of fun, and provides a new way for players to interact with the games they love on a deeper level.  That said, it’s not a fair comparison to look at modding as just another hobby.  Pressing flowers and building model ships can also be rewarding despite the effort involved, but if my pressed flowers started making millions of dollars, you can bet that I would expect some share of the profits.

In the current economic model of game modding, large amounts of modder labor creates a valuable product which disproportionately benefits others.  In this sense, modding is very exploitative, though aspects like the voluntary nature of the labor and complex relationship with employment in the videogame industry make it difficult to compare directly to other forms of economic exploitation.  Regardless, if mods have value, their creators deserve to benefit from it.

It was into this milieu that Valve brought its new system for paid mods.  It’s hard to overstate the significance of this change, as it was the first real system in which modders could directly receive monetary compensation for their work.  Acting as an intermediary, Valve was able to secure revenue sharing agreements with publishers and developers – something that would have been almost impossible for any group of modders on their own.

Steam Mod CommentsThere were, of course, a number of issues with Valve’s system.  The profits from paid mods were divided between Valve, the developers of the original game, and the creators of the mods.  In this arrangement, however, the modders only received 25 percent of the profits, which I believe once again undervalues their contributions to the final product.  Also, as Bethesda pointed out, their hefty 45 percent cut of mod sales is less than one percent of their revenue from Steam, hardly worth twisting the arms of their own modders who’d rather mod than work more hours at their day job.

There is also the issue of collaboration and sharing in the mod community.  While modders can work in structured teams, they also work in ad hoc collaborations, build upon the work of past modders, and make tools that benefit the whole community.  These kinds of complex systems of labor and production are certainly not incompatible with money (few things are), but introducing money into such systems is not a simple transition.  In fact, it only took a few hours before a paid mod was taken down due to incorporating elements from another free mod.  In retrospect, that particular problem could have been avoided were it not for Valve’s non-disclosure agreements preventing any kind of arrangement between the two modders (NDAs are part of a much bigger problem with the videogame industry), but Valve still lacks a policy to effectively deal with the larger issue of mod ownership.

Both of these issues are important and it’s crucial to address them properly, lest paid mods just become a slightly different way of exploiting modders.  Still, I think that the benefits of paid modding justify having these conversations.  Not being able to help people as much as you would like is a poor reason not to help them at all, and while some very valid criticism of the system has been made, the most vocal opposition were players who simply didn’t want to change the status quo.  For those interested in a more in-depth analysis of these arguments, Lars Doucet has posted an excellent analysis of the major points on his blog.

Skyrim Protest ModAlthough the disproportionate and abusive public backlash ultimately forced Valve to discontinue the program, there are a few things that we can take away from the fiasco.  While most of the protest occurred through the usual means – spam comments, forum posts, social media rants – the paid mod debate also saw the rise of protest mods like “Extra Apple” (a mod costing $35 to add a single apple to the game) and “Protest Sign,” which shot to the top of the Steam Workshop during that weekend.  Arguing that your fellow modders don’t deserve to be paid may not be the most altruistic of messages, but regardless, it set a precedent for the use of mods as political speech.

It is also significant that while Valve abandoned the mod store for the time being, many modders and other players still support the idea.  These voices are by far the minority (or are at least less outspoken), but show that there is a community for the kind of modding ecosystem that Valve envisioned.  As for those vocally opposed to paid mods, as Markus “Notch” Persson pointed out on Twitter, one of the reasons he sold Mojang was due to the outrage over not allowing paid mods in Minecraft.  No matter what Valve does, they can’t please everyone.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, even if Valve and Bethesda never manage to relaunch paid mods on Steam, their experiment has shown that it is possible.  Game developers and modders can come to an agreement over rights and profits, overcoming the once insurmountable legal and economic barriers that kept modders as second-class developers.  There are still plenty of details that must be worked out, but now there is a clear example of how to begin.  Even though Valve’s paid mods may have been a failure, we can never look at modding the same way again.



1. Of Mods and Modders. Hector Postigo.
2. Half-Life 2: Raising the Bar. Valve.
3. Between a Mod and a Hard Place. Peter Christiansen. Game Mods: Design, Theory, and Criticism.

Minecraft Geology: Science Communication and Videogames

Minecraft Geologist

If you’ve read any of my posts over at Play the Past, then you probably know that I’m quite interested in science communication and its relationship to videogames.  Science communication is a very broad field, dealing with any communication between scientists and non-scientists (and occasionally even scientists communicating with each other).  One of the most visible forms of science communication in relationship to mass media is the idea of “debunking” science myths.  This can range from rather lighthearted treatments like an episode of Mythbusters to a peer-reviewed article in a major academic journal like Nature1. While most people are media savvy enough not to take television and movies at face value, media depictions of science can influence us in subtle ways, such as the alleged “CSI effect,” in which jurors who watch crime dramas have unrealistic expectations of forensic evidence or unwarranted confidence in unproven (or even fictional) forensic procedures2.  As such, scientists are often quite passionate about debunking misleading depictions of science in the media…except maybe when it comes to videogames.

While television and movies are often subject to quite detailed scrutiny by scientists, I rarely see the same kind of fervor related to videogames.  In fact, I’m giving a presentation at FDG 2015 in a few weeks about this very subject.  Imagine, then, how excited I was to discover yesterday that Geoscience Australia had recently created an educational poster3 to teach kids about some of the inaccuracies in Minecraft geology.  Not surprisingly, most of the responses I’ve seen to the poster have ranged from sarcastic and dismissive to irritated and defensive.  Many are along the lines of “oh dear, we must stop the children from running outside and punching trees!”  There are, of course, many fantastic elements in Minecraft, none of which seem likely to have deleterious effects in the vein of the CSI effect.  Nevertheless, there are a lot of reasons that I think Geoscience Australia is making a very wise move in engaging with Minecraft, though there is certainly room for improvement.

This past January, I was on a panel about videogames at the Salt Lake ComicCon.  One of the last questions from the audience was about what game you would suggest for someone who had never played a videogame before.  I suggested Minecraft, but unfortunately had no time to elaborate on the reasoning behind my choice.  The reason I consider Minecraft to be a good game for someone with little experience is the fact that the game structure lends itself to learning.  As Colin Fanning and Rebecca Mir have noted, the kind of play that Minecraft enables is similar in many ways to the kinds of progressive play-based pedagogies advocated by 19th educators like Friedrich Fröbel and Maria Montessori.  Whereas their methods called for supervising adults to guide and direct children’s play to meet educational goals, Fanning and Mir argue that the structure and constraints of the game, as well as the abundance of wikis and other external materials, allow Minecraft to achieve similar goals both inside and outside the classroom4.

Minecraft CastleIn keeping with Fanning and Mir (and not coincidentally in the same book), I have argued that Minecraft is structured in such a way as to encourage players (including adult players) to engage more deeply with the game.  While any well-designed game is educational in the sense that it at least teaches new players how to play, deeper forms of engagement such as modding are usually far beyond the average player’s skill set.  Minecraft, on the other hand, offers different forms of engagement in a graduated series of steps.  The most basic task in the game, gathering resources like wood and food, is fairly straightforward and not dissimilar to mechanics found in other games.  The crafting system adds much more complexity to the game, often requiring the player to familiarize herself with crafting recipes through the use of wikis or forums.  Tools created through crafting can then be used to shape the game environment, allowing the player to construct vast structures and mechanisms.  The most complicated mechanisms require an understanding of redstone, which can be used to create incredibly intricate systems of virtual circuits, giving the player a huge amount of control over what happens in the game world.  From there, making the jump to actual modding is almost trivial (some redstone devices are far more complicated than the average mod).  Thus, Minecraft doesn’t just create a path to guide the player through to the last level, but to guide the player toward a deep technical understanding of the game itself5.

Minecraft RedstoneSince Minecraft is a game that naturally lends itself toward educational purposes, it makes a lot of sense for Geoscience Australia to focus their efforts there instead of on other games like Skyrim (although other people have looked at geology in Skyrim, and it’s fascinating).  From what I can tell, their poster is actually based on a physical Minecraft exhibit on display at their Education Centre in Canberra, complete with actual chunks of obsidian, diamond ore, and such.  While you can schedule field trips to tour their Education Centre in person, teachers are also able to download educational materials, including their Minecraft poster, which is a condensed version of their physical exhibit.  Those who read this poster carefully will notice an asterisk leading them to a very important line:  “For the purposes of this poster, some of the statements have been generalized.”

Judging by the placement of the asterisks, this statement is probably meant to refer to specific portions of the text that had to be shortened from the full exhibit descriptions, however, they inadvertently get at a much more significant issue.  The information on the poster had to be generalized to fit the medium – a poster has different constraints than a physical exhibit.  This doesn’t just mean less space, but also the transition from three-dimensional objects to two-dimensional images.  This leads to the rather ironic fact that while the poster emphasizes that obsidian is not purple, the photograph of obsidian that appears on the poster is actually a brighter shade of purple than the version from Minecraft.  A photograph taken with flat lighting might have been able to get rid of the purple highlights, but wouldn’t be able to communicate the glassy sheen that distinguishes obsidian from other black stones.  A picture can’t fully capture the experience of seeing an actual piece of obsidian, so we must settle for a representation.

Obsidian ComparisonLike all media, videogames have their own affordances and constraints.  In order to effectively critique a media artifact, you need to understand and adapt to them.  The lighting system used by Minecraft can’t generate the specular highlights that identify a glass-like material, so the texture and luster of obsidian is represented by jagged purple marks on the surface of the block that suggest sharp edges reflecting the surrounding light (not unlike the photo on the poster).  The block doesn’t look exactly like real obsidian, but a solid black cube wouldn’t really look like obsidian, either.  Arguing the point would be almost as pedantic as pointing out that rocks do not naturally form in perfect one meter cubes.

While the Geoscience Australia poster makes some significant and interesting points, there is definitely a strong vein of debunking zeal that runs through it.  The words “no” and “not” are sprinkled liberally throughout the layout, written in bold just in case you didn’t notice them.  In general, it makes for a much less interesting and less engaging poster.  Of course it is true that “diamonds are not used for armor,” but merely stating that fact doesn’t really teach kids anything interesting or useful about diamonds.  A more useful approach than simply smacking the game a few times with the debunking hammer is to compare and contrast real-world geology with the virtual-world geology of Minecraft, as in this infographic from the Mining Examiner.  Once again, the whole point is that the portrayal of diamonds in Minecraft is different from the way diamonds work in the real world, but it demonstrates this by comparing information from both sources, creating a much better starting point for discussion than simply saying “no.”

Although there are a number of points that I would have done differently, I think Geoscience Australia made a smart move in looking at the portrayal of geology in Minecraft.  While most people won’t have the opportunity to take an actual geology class until high school or college, kids playing Minecraft are being exposed to concepts like metal ores, magma flows, and erosion, and they’re being exposed to them in an intriguing, interactive setting.  Although there is certainly a potential for misinformation, the potential for inspiring curiosity and excitement is far greater.



1. Wacky, weird and scientifically illiterate. John Durant. Nature.
2. The CSI Effect on Real Crime Labs. Sheila L. Stephens. The New England Law Review.
3. The Geology of Minecraft. L. I. Davis. Geoscience Australia.
4. Progressive Pedagogy. Colin Fanning and Rebecca Mir. Understanding Minecraft.
5. Players, Modders, and Hackers. Peter Christiansen. Understanding Minecraft.

Old Weird Games: Princess Maker 2

Princess Maker Street DuelLast week at GDC, Leigh Alexander announced the reboot of Offworld, the videogame offshoot of Boing Boing.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover that one of the site’s first articles was on Princess Maker 2, an obscure game most people (including most developers I know) have never heard of.  This hardly surprising, because while the series was quite successful in Japan, only the second game was ever translated into English and the localization project ultimately fell apart before the game was officially released.  Thus, the only thing that remains of the English version of Princess Maker 2 is a leaked version of the mostly completed game.

Princess Maker HouseworkFor most Americans encountering the game for the first time, the experience is likely to be bizarre.  It is set in a fantasy world modeled after a Medieval European city as imagined by Japanese developers for a Japanese audience.  There is a strange collision of cultural tropes and social mores that could be uncomfortable for some players.  The game juxtaposes Catholic nuns with Roman(ish) gods and Slavic house spirits.  While the level of violence in the game is fairly tame compared to North American games (Princess Maker 2 was released the same year as Doom), the fact that the game deals with sexuality at all was rather scandalous for the time.  Coincidentally, had the game actually been released in North America, it would have hit the shelves at roughly the same time that US Senators were calling Night Trap, a game where the sexual content consisted of a girl in a nightgown, “sick” and “disgusting.”

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the game is the fact that the player is put in the roll of the protagonist’s adoptive father.  You don’t actually play as the princess, but as the titular princess maker.  The player is not invited to identify with the girl on screen as much as think of her as a very complicated Pokémon or virtual pet.  As Kim Nguyen points out, this can get creepy really fast, depending on how you as the player-dad decide to shape your daughter.  By taking away direct player control of the aspiring princess and instead routing that control through an unseen male caretaker, it becomes very difficult to avoid a certain degree of voyeurism and objectification as you silently watch your daughter obediently perform any task you put on her monthly schedule.

While this dominant reading of Princess Maker 2 (if I may put on my Stuart Hall hat for a moment) reflects the patriarchal nature of the relations of production and knowledge frameworks involved in the creation of the game, it is certainly not the only possible reading.  Indeed, as Hall notes, one of the most significant political moments is when these dominant ways of understanding media messages begin to give way to oppositional readings that consciously push back against the dominant-hegemonic understanding.1

Princess Maker GraveyardAlthough my own reading of Princess Maker certainly contrasts with the dominant reading, I hesitate to call it oppositional, at least in the way Hall uses the term.  My counter-reading of the game came not from my critical perspective as an academic, but from my very uncritical perspective as a teenager.  I learned about Princess Maker from a metalhead friend of mine (who also introduced me to games such as Ultima) and was intrigued by the idea of a game that followed a female protagonist who went about doing traditionally feminine things.  Approaching it as I would any Western game, I made two broad assumptions about Princess Maker.  First, I assumed that any game with the word “princess” in the title was created with girls as the intended audience.  Second, I assumed that the character in the middle of the screen that I looked at most of the game was supposed to be my avatar.  While I read the opening narrative about being an injured warrior gifted with a daughter from the heavens, I incorrectly assumed that the father figure was meant as a diegetic way of delivering information or implementing certain game mechanics, much like Deckard Cain in Diablo or the Zerg Overmind in Starcraft (this role is actually performed by Cube, the family butler).  As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t playing as a retired war hero – I was a magical ten year old girl and I was going to grow up to be a princess!

On my first attempt at playing the game (not counting several times I mismanaged my funds and starved to death), I did my best to play the game as I believed it was meant to be played.  I spent a lot of time teaching my daughter (for the sake of consistency, I’ll try to avoid slipping into the first person) art and decorum while giving her lots of free time to keep her stress levels down.  When she turned fourteen, she developed a rivalry with a dancer in town and became determined to beat her at the harvest festival dance competition.  Although my daughter was an amazing artist, she wasn’t particularly good at dancing.  Rather than encouraging her to stick with her art skills, I decided to support her new dancing obsession.  She lost horribly to her rival the first year, so I was determined to help her win before her eighteenth birthday.

Princess Maker SalonFor the next few years, we focused on making her the perfect dancer.  A dancer needed artistic skill, constitution, and charisma.  She stopped working for the mason (which lowered her charisma) and started working at the salon instead.  All our spare cash went to buying her more dance lessons. As her final competition approached, I saved up some money to buy her a nice silk dress instead of the old cotton one she had worn for years.  Unfortunately, the dress didn’t fit.  I put her on a strict diet and just in time for the competition, she was able to finally able to fit into her new dress.  As I recall, she was able to finally beat her rival that year, but didn’t quite manage to take first place in the competition.

After she left the house, she became an assistant dance instructor.  Although she was incredibly skilled at dancing, all the dieting had made her kind of weak and frail, so she was never really able to make it as a professional dancer.  She was disappointed.  I was disappointed.  Even the gods were disappointed.  It sucked.

That was the last time I listened to what the game wanted me to do.

The next time I played, I gave my daughter a healthy, robust diet right from the start.  Although not the most lady-like jobs, she worked on the local farm and as a lumberjack.  Once again, she became rivals with the dancer, but I decided to enter her in the painting contest instead of the dance party.  Although she was initially upset, her disappointment faded when she took first place in the art competition.  I used the prize money to buy her a well-rounded education, while saving a little for us to go on the occasional vacation.  She learned to navigate the intrigue of the royal court and went adventuring beyond the city walls.  The game kept giving me subtle and not-so-subtle hints that my daughter was too chubby, but this time, I ignored them.

Princess Maker Dance PartyWhen her final harvest festival came around, I finally let her compete in the dance competition.  The only dress in the shop that would fit her was the slightly frumpy cotton dress, but she had a stronger constitution than any man in the kingdom (she had, after all, won the combat tournament the year before).  She may not have been the thinnest or the most feminine dancer in the competition, but she blew everyone else away with her technique.  She easily won the competition, more than tripling the score of the nearest competitor.

In the end, she didn’t stick with dance, but became a professional writer instead.  Not only did she have a successful career, she ended up marrying the prince!  Yes, my adventurous, husky, wood-chopping, poet daughter had become a princess.  I certainly don’t think this was exactly how the developers envisioned the game being played.  After all, who creates art assets for half a dozen dresses that no one can fit into?  Still, with the hundreds of different mechanics and statistics that the developers had woven together, this was one of the possibilities that they had enabled.

This is the reason I frequently bring up Princess Maker 2 in game design classes.  Although I run the risk of being that hipster guy who is always talking about unreleased Japanese games that you’ve probably never played, Princess Maker manages to interconnect its mechanics in ways that most games don’t, transcending the common dichotomies between masculine and feminine traits.  The sensitivity you learn working at a hair salon can help you sense magical creatures or hide from undead warriors.  The conversation skills you pick up waiting tables at a bar might help you talk your way out of a dangerous fight, while the physique you build chopping wood can make you a strong, athletic dancer.

Princess Maker GlacierThis overabundance of attributes also allows Princess Maker to subvert a number of problematic tropes that are common in RPGs.  In your standard Dungeons & Dragons inspired RPG, you take control of a heroic warrior who is still considered heroic despite the fact that he spends most of his time roaming the land, killing things and taking their stuff.  While there are often plenty of diegetic reasons to avoid combat, procedurally, murder and theft are unequivocally positive activities.  Princess Maker allows the player to do some adventuring and dungeon crawling, but killing monsters, even evil demons, gives your player sin, one of the most negative attributes you can have.  You can certainly still play your character D&D style, accumulating a small fortune by slaughtering the local fauna, but people will treat you like the bloodthirsty barbarian you are.  Although the sin mechanic is still bit of a heavy-handed way of addressing the problem, it is much less so than enforcing the player’s heroic ethic through the more common Zelda-style unkillable NPCs.  Instead, it makes stealth and diplomacy much more attractive strategies for adventuring and turns violence (of which there is still plenty) into the last resort that we would expect it to be for our heroic protagonist.  It also doesn’t disallow the option of playing as a ruthless bandit who attacks merchants on the road to fund her lavish lifestyle.

I think Princess Maker 2 is can be a valuable game for designers, but I also think it can be a valuable game for girls.  While there are plenty of significant issues with the design of the game, it’s important to remember that media texts like games are not closed ideological systems, but inherently polysemic constructions that reflect the contradictions of their production.2 Videogames, like other media artifacts, are sites of negotiation, interpretation, and resistance, and I think there are a lot of reasons that games like Princess Maker are worth fighting for.

Princess Maker StatsAlong with more well-known games from the 1990s like Doom and Quake, Princess Maker 2 was also a contemporary of Barbie Fashion Designer. The game, which was an unexpected success with young girls, spawned countless other “Pink Games” hoping to cash in on this new and mysterious non-male demographic. While there are certainly good things to be said for creating a game for an underserved and marginalized group, Barbie Fashion Designer was (not surprisingly) very problematic in its depiction of gender norms. Additionally, as Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins point out, it “restricts the potential for appropriative and resistant play, facilitating the creation of ‘miniskirts and wedding dresses’ but not of the work clothes needed to create ‘Barbie Auto Mechanic or Barbie Police Officer.'”3 Although a successful American localization of Princess Maker 2 might have provoked the same kind of moral panic created by Night Trap, Princess Maker succeeds in precisely the way that Barbie Fashion Designer fails.  Although the game defines a certain feminine ideal and reinforces this ideal through points systems and in-game messages, it gives the player a remarkable ability to reinterpret and resist that ideal.  Your daughter could marry the prince, or she could remain single.  She could grow up to be a dancer, the minister of state, a bandit, or a dominatrix.  I doubt that any Barbie game will ever give the player such latitude.

I think Alexander sums it up best in the last line of her article.  “There’s something very special about this genre in general, and how it lies at the intersection of many players’ desire to have control with their desire to give care.”  Princess Maker 2 is a game fraught with contradictions.  It can be both deeply satisfying and deeply unsettling.  I’m excited to look into Long Live the Queen, which follows in the traditions of child-raising sims like Princess Maker, but removes the problematic unseen father figure and lets the player play as the princess herself.  I hope, though, that this won’t be the extent of Princess Maker’s legacy.  With it’s rich system of interconnected mechanics and incorporation, however problematic, of many more feminine themes, Princess Maker is a worthwhile game for any designer to study.



1. Encoding/Decoding. Stuart Hall.
2. Feminist Media Studies. Liesbet van Zoonen
3. Chess for Girls? Feminism and Computer Games. Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins. From Barbie To Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games.

On Ptolemy Bashing

PtolemyIt’s hard to discuss science communication without mentioning Carl Sagan.  To this day, he remains the quintessential example of the public intellectual.  Few, if any, examples of science communication have ever been as successful at connecting scientists and the general public as Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.  It took complex scientific knowledge and presented it in a way that was both accessible to viewers, as well as compelling and enjoyable to watch.  Through Cosmos, Sagan influenced not only the way we think about our place in the universe, but the way that we understand science itself.

During my most recent viewing of Cosmos, something stood out to me.  In the first episode, “The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean,” there is a scene where Sagan contemplates the Library of Alexandria and the scholars whose knowledge might have been contained therein.  He mentions the wonderful achievements of a number of great scientists before ending on a slightly odd note:

…and there was the astronomer Ptolemy, who compiled much of what today is the pseudoscience of astrology.  His earth-centered universe held sway for fifteen hundred years, showing that intellectual brilliance is no guarantee against being dead wrong.

This attitude toward Ptolemy is certainly not uncommon, but its mention in one of the most important pieces of public science communication deserves some mention.  While Ptolemy did write books on astrology (as well as geography, optics, and harmonics), these were far less comprehensive and influential than his treatise on astronomy (or his work on Geography, for that matter).  As such, it is most likely Ptolemy’s Almagest, which describes the geocentric “Ptolemaic” model of the solar system that earned him the place of the villain in Sagan’s list of ancient scholars.   Of course, Sagan’s rebuke makes Ptolemy sound less like a scholar than like a sorcerer, fervently penning lies in some dark tower.  How did an astronomer become so reviled almost two thousand years after his death?  After all, no one would refer to Newton as a failed alchemist who was unable to grasp general relativity.  Since we know relatively little about Ptolemy’s life, it’s probably more productive to look for the answer at the end, rather than the beginning, of his astronomical model’s millennium-spanning reign.

While the Ptolemaic system was the dominant scientific model for understanding the universe for hundreds of years, it is mostly known today as the unscientific model from the Galileo affair.  The standard version of the story, which I remember being drilled into me since elementary school, is simply that Galileo was persecuted by the Church for teaching science that contradicted its own dogmatic view of the universe.  On one side, we have Galileo, science, and Truth.  On the other, we have the Church, the Pope, and their dogmatic geocentric theory.  Ptolemy of course, had been dead for centuries, but is generally judged as guilty as the rest of the anti-science camp, as if he had been briefly brought back to life merely to stand with Galileo’s other accusers.

And really, how could he not be guilty?  The Galileo affair is a rhetorical hammer of the finest quality.  The Galileo affair, whether it is discussed amongst particle physicists or in my fourth grade science class, has transcended its status as a mere historical event and become a legend.  To oppose Galileo is to oppose reason itself.  Tradition, authority, vox populi – all of these things conspired against him, but in the end, he triumphed.  Those who stood against him, even metaphorically, were proved to be “dead wrong.”  It should be no surprise, then, that this hammer is wielded quite liberally by groups that are both extremist and unpopular.  Ironically, the groups that fall into this category are more often than not decidedly antiscience.

DialogusThe tension between science and antiscience is one that comes up frequently in the sociology of science.  Indeed, the mere suggestion by sociologists that science was influenced by cultural, political, or economic factors ignited the “Science Wars” of the 1990s, during which many of these sociologists were labeled as being antiscience or anti-intellectual.  While these debates could certainly get quite heated, they generally stayed within academic communities.  A more concerning development for most sociologists was when they saw their arguments being appropriated by “conspiracy groups” seeking to take areas of scientific consensus and disrupt them with manufactured debate.

The most famous response to the latter of these two issues is Bruno Latour’s essay “Why has Critique Run out of Steam?” in which he laments the use of what he sees as critical tools by groups such as climate change deniers and 9/11 conspiracy theorists.  He argues that much of the blame can be put upon critical theorists themselves for creating a false dichotomy between “facts” and “fairies.”  The things they disagree with are treated as “fairies,” imaginary social constructions to which people attribute a power they don’t possess, while the ideas they agree with are treated as “fact,” real things that have real consequences in the world:

This is why you can be at once and without even sensing any contradiction (1) an antifetishist for everything you don’t believe in—for the most part religion, popular culture, art, politics, and so on; (2) an unrepentant positivist for all the sciences you believe in—sociology, economics, conspiracy theory, genetics, evolutionary psychology, semiotics, just pick your preferred field of study; and (3) a perfectly healthy sturdy realist for what you really cherish—and of course it might be criticism itself, but also painting, bird-watching, Shakespeare, baboons, proteins, and so on.1

As most matters of real concern don’t generally fit nicely into either category, this opens up the possibility of groups trying to use whichever approach best serve their own interests.  At the same time, Latour sees this as one of the reasons that Science Studies is such an important field.  While many critics critique systems of oppression that they hate, those in the field of science studies are strong believers in their object of study, despite claims to the contrary.  As Latour notes, “the question was never to get away from facts, but closer to them.”

While Latour’s concern was people placing important ideas like global warming in the fairy category, Ptolemy bashing can be seen as an example of the opposite – taking the complicated and nuanced Galileo affair and rendering it an unquestionable historical fact.  In either case, essentializing seems to do little to help the cause of science or quell the conspiracy theorists.  Instead, what if we try to get closer to the facts through critique, as Latour suggests?

The most conspicuously opaque part of this puzzle is, of course, the legendary story of Galileo’s battle with the church.  Immediately, certain inconsistencies become apparent when we look closer.  For one, some of Galileo’s fiercest opponents were not clergy, but astronomers and other scientists, such as Magini and Ludovico delle Colombe.  Likewise, Galileo consulted a number of cardinals and other Church officials in his attempts to promote Copernican astronomy.  Indeed, some scholars have argued that the Galileo affair had less to do with astronomy than with the politics of the Catholic Church.2

And what of Ptolemy?  Was his astronomical model just a millennium-long dalliance into the realm of pseudoscience?  While this is not an uncommon explanation, it assumes a very linear and cumulative model of science.  Science historian Thomas Kuhn has argued that science is not cumulative, but rather operates under paradigms or specific schools of thought.  When new empirical data throws a paradigm into crisis, scientists must shift to a new paradigm that can adequately explain this data.  As Kuhn notes, the first person to suggest a heliocentric model of the solar system was not Copernicus, but Aristarchus of Samos, who lived three centuries before Ptolemy.  Although his model was ultimately shown to be more accurate, there was no reason to abandon the simpler geocentric paradigm at the time, because while heliocentrism was plausible, it didn’t explain current scientific data any more accurately than geocentrism.  By the time of Copernicus, however, the Ptolemaic system was already in crisis, and the stage was set for a scientific revolution.3

Tychonic SystemWhile the Ptolemaic system was certainly incorrect, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t useful, nor was the Copernican system entirely correct by current standards.  While Copernicus placed the sun at the center of the solar system, he still thought of the planets not as bodies hurling through space but as parts of great celestial spheres, rotating in place.  It was not until Tycho Brahe, a geocentrist, that the idea of immutable celestial orbs was challenged and not until Johannes Kepler that planets were seen as having orbits, rather than being part of an orb.4 Indeed, geocentric models like Brahe’s Tychonic System would not be completely abandoned by scientists for several hundred years after Galileo.  Forming the basis of hundreds of years of productive scientific work isn’t exactly what I’d call “dead wrong.”

So how does this analysis of astrophysical debates shed light on the antiscience debates of today? Of course, these debates can still be compared to the Galileo affair, but if we understand the affair as a deeply political situation that occurred in the context of a crumbling scientific paradigm, we get a different reading of our current plight. Debates about global warming, for instance, are certainly political, but they’re not happening in the midst of a scientific crisis. The current paradigm of human-influenced climate change does a pretty good job of explaining what’s happening. If anything, the comparison paints detractors not as modern Galileos, but modern Ludovicos, trying desperately to resist a momentous discovery that threatens their power.

Likewise, understanding that science has a historical, cultural, and political context doesn’t weaken scientific thought.  It does, however, make artificial debate about scientific theories being “not settled” seem rather silly.  A handful of scientists opposing a stable paradigm isn’t a scientific crisis and it certainly isn’t unusual.  Refusing to act on scientific knowledge until it stands unchallenged makes about as much sense as waiting to move out of oncoming traffic until you can feel the cars.

If our aim is to further the cause of science and quell its detractors, dividing scientists into immaculate heroes and devious villains is probably not the most productive way to go about it.  I would rather we understand science in all its gritty details so that we can better understand how to get through the gritty details that stand in our way today.



1. Why has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.  Bruno Latour.
2. Galileo and the Council of Trent:  The Galileo Affair Revisited.  Olaf Pedersen.
3. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Thomas Kuhn.
4. Kepler’s Move from Orbs to Orbits: Documenting a Revolutionary Scientific Concept. Bernard Goldstein and Giora Hon.

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.