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Untitled Number 8 Gaming The Republic

Note: This is in progress and very very rough.

The Dialogue

I went down to Niagara-on-the-Lake with some colleagues to participate in an "unconference" on gaming and the humanities. I was curious to see how they would manage such a thing, since both gaming and unconferences are still new to academia. At the end of the first day, during a play session I was out trying Kevin Kee's augmented reality game "Niagara 1812" with one of the smartphones set up to test it. I heard my youthful interlocutor Ramsay calling me to wait up.

Ramsay: It looks as if you are heading into town!

Rockwell: Yes, it looks like that's where the game is taking me.

Ramsay: What do you think of the game? Are you learning anything?

Rockwell: At the moment I'm more worried about not getting hit by a car as I chase clues across streets with my head buried in this phone.

Ramsay: I can just see the news heading, "Professor hit by car as he plays serious game!" The media would have a field day.

Rockwell: And they would be right to bray. These games can be dangerous, especially the console games our students play.

Ramsay: Dangerous? Surely you exaggerate. They are just games.

Rockwell: There is nothing "just" about games especially violent ones. They are dangerous to civil society. I mean it.

Ramsay: Have you played any of these games you worry about?

Rockwell: No, that's why I came to this unconference; I hoped to get exposed to games instead I am just being exposed to game studies. This is the first event with a real game.

Ramsay: But don't you know, there is a LAN party starting soon. Everyone will be playing some kind of first-person shooter. All night long! So you see, you really must stop this game and come back with me.

Rockwell: I'm not sure I'll be playing all night, I'm too old, for one thing, and I doubt I'd enjoy playing games designed for fast and coordinated kids.

Ramsay: You don't have to play. Gaming is no longer a solitary sport. We can watch and discuss computer games while the graduate students play.

Rockwell: I see. Do you have a topic for playful discussion?

Ramsay: Of course! Your outrageous claim that gaming is unjust and dangerous.

So together we headed off to the house of one of the local hosts, also a game studies professor, whose basement was full of large screens and gaming consoles. Most of the people there had set up their laptops, stringing cables around to create a local area network (LAN) over which to play multi-player games. Others were setting out snacks and beer. Ramsay and I settled into a couple of large, comfortable chairs in a back corner to watch and talk.

Rockwell: I have to admit, Ramsay, the topic seems a little heavy for such a gathering as this.

Ramsay: Not at all, actually. Because here we can see whether gaming is dangerous to our graduate students and we can ask the experts.

Rockwell: Well then, is someone playing that recent hit I read about with a horrid killing scene in an airport . . . what's it called again?

Ramsay: Modern Warfare 2. And yes, Margery, one of your graduate students, is playing it over there. Describe for me what you see that is so dangerous.

Rockwell: Well, she is practicing killing innocent people. [Reference Book on this]

Ramsay: Why don't you walk me through the argument. I don't have your Socratic mind; explain how what she is doing is killing.

Rockwell: I didn't say killing, I said "practicing" killing. She has voluntarily agreed to spend time repeatedly practicing certain actions that simulate killing.

Ramsay: And what's so dangerous about that?

Rockwell: It's dangerous to her ethically to be spending vast amounts of time practicing the performance of unethical actions. She is training herself to act a certain way under certain circumstances.

Ramsay: But the circumstances are entirely fictional. She will never find herself in the Moscow airport forced to participate in a terrorist attack. Nor is she likely to end up in a Russian prison complex being shot at or in Washington during a Russian invasion. I don't see the danger to the fiction.

Rockwell: It isn't the particular situation that makes this dangerous. When you practice shooting hoops in your neighborhood playground you expect to improve your skills for any arena. Practicing killing in a game trains Margery to find that activity normal and even desirable in other situations.

Ramsay: That seems a psychological observation and one that I don't think has been proven. If anything, the reverse would seem to me to be true. Millions of people play these games without then shooting people in everyday life. There has been no measurable increase in violence ascribable to these games.

Rockwell: But there have been some cases of youth who have acted out killing in real life. [Reference Cases]

Ramsay: Anecdotal evidence that proves my point. There will always be a few deluded and violent kids. Statistically some of these will be gamers. That doesn't prove that it was playing games that trained them to violence. Before we used to play games people blamed violence on TV or violent comic books for corrupting our youth. Now we blame videogames. My point is that these are all fictions and most kids know the difference between fictions and reality.

Rockwell: You are right that I don't have the psychological evidence, though I understand there is some evidence emerging, but there is an ethical argument that doesn't depend on statistics. It is the ethical argument that we should be worried about as humanists. [Reference Psychological Lit]

Ramsay: And what is the ethical argument? That it is unethical to kill pixels on a screen?

Rockwell: The ethical argument returns to an earlier sense of ethics being about how you live your life. Let me ask you a question.

Ramsay: Yes Socrates.

Rockwell: You want to live an authentic and meaningful life, don't you?

Ramsay: This sounds like ethics for dummies.

Rockwell: Just answer the questions please. You will find the argument more convincing if you perform it.

Ramsay: OK, I'll play along. The answer is, yes, I want an authentic and meaningful life.

Rockwell: And in order to live such a good life you need to be just in your dealings with others.

Ramsay: There is a whole discussion we could have here about justice and the good life, but to cut things short, I agree. To live a good life you have to act justly.

Rockwell: Thank you, I know you to have a strong social conscience. ... Now, to act justly you have to have a disposition to act justly, do you not? [Reference Aristotle]

Ramsay: Yes, though you also have to be able to understand what justice is.

Rockwell: Agreed. But I am interested in disposition now - wouldn't you agree that disposition is not acquired intellectually, but something acquired when you are young.

Ramsay: Yessss .... but, it sounds like disposition for you is like politeness and not putting your elbows on the table and these are sounding like claims that should be tested psychologically.

Rockwell: No, for me disposition is ethical habit. What are you habituated to do without deliberating.

Ramsay: Fair enough.

Rockwell: And good habits are acquired by practicing at acting the way you should, are they not? If your are trying to develop a habit of exercise then you need to practice exercising, do you not?

Ramsay: I see where you are going with this. Like Socrates you want us only to practice noble actions, and you are going to equate playing a first-person shooter with practicing inauthentic and meaningless actions.

'Rockwell: Exactly. Our youth is short and what we play at when young is important to who we become. Shouldn't we spend the time playing roles that we want to emulate.

Ramsay: You mean like playing doctor and policeman and so on. I've got one word for such play ... booooring!

Rockwell: Such educational play need not be boring. That is the challenge we face - to provide alternative serious games that train the dispositions we value. Who knows, Kevin's "Niagara 1812" might be an example of such a transformative game.

Ramsay: Booooring!

Rockwell: What sort of argument is that? You didn't even play the game.

Ramsay: I'm sure his game is great, but your argument is as old as Plato. It's the argument Socrates makes about imitation which leads to expelling the poets. Your view leads to a state where we guard our children against any pernicious influence by banning everything not approved by committee.

Rockwell: No, that's not where I was going. I don't subscribe to the view that we want to ban games, we have plenty of other mechanisms in play. Parents already make all sorts of choices about what kids will see and play. There are ratings on games that can guide us. We don't need to ban games, just encourage youth to think about what they consume and who they are becoming.

Ramsay: So for you it really is an ethical matter - a question about choice and you want to encourage youth to choose well.

Rockwell: I would prefer to say that youth is about learning how to choose and acquiring the right habits of choice. They now have more choice then ever before which is why ethics is that much more important.

Ramsay: Well ... let me now ask you some questions and see if I can't convince you that the choice isn't so morally simple.

Rockwell: Sure, I guess its my turn to be played.


  • issue of play and escape from work -
  • Next Ramsay takes Rockwell through questions about understanding and understanding different perspectives - we get the cathartic
  • Then this leads to shifting the argument up to the level of state -
  • I need to return to ethics and how you choose your life


Ramsay: I mean, here we have a group of highly educated adults. They're all laughing, drinking beer, cracking jokes, and generally having a good time. Now describe for me what you see on the big screen over there.

Rockwell: Well, it looks look to me like Margery -- one your graduate students, if I'm not mistaken -- is making quick work of Thomas (alas, one of mine).

Ramsay: And when you say "quick work," you mean killing him.

Rockwell: Yes. With an assault rife.

Ramsay: I can see that this is going to be a short discussion.

Rockwell: Why short? What's you point?

Ramsay: My point is that the game encourages people like Margery to behave unethically. It's encouraging her to kill innocent Thomas.


Rockwell: I must admit that I've been struggling with the Airport Scene in Modern Warfare 2. Come over here and watch as Justin tackles that scene from the campaign.

Ramsay: The "campaign"? Is this a different game?

Rockwell: No, Modern Warfare 2 has three modes of playing, the campaign that you play against the computer. The cooperative mode called Special Ops where two players can play and cooperate in achieving goals and the multiplayer mode where you play against others. Margery was killing Thomas in the multiplayer mode. Justin, is however playing the campaign that has a more linear narrative.

Ramsay: Oh my God! Is Justin shooting civilians?

Ramsay: I can see that this is going to be a short discussion.

Rockwell: Why short? What's you point?

[Feel free to change that lead in. I'm obviously setting up Ramsay as the more conservative participant. He's not a gamer, and so tends to take things (like the airport scene in MW 2?) as representative of the whole experience. I think he'll generally inveigh against the idea that games are somehow harmless or just for entertainment (though I don't expect Rockwell to advance either of those ideas uncritically). Is this okay? Was can reverse the positions easily . . .]


  • Are computer games bad?
  • Work with the Republic

"I (or we) went down to Niagara-on-the-lake with Sean Gouglas, to participate in a workshop on gaming and history; and also because I wanted to see what manner of serious games Kee and others were developing to celebrate history, which is a new thing. At one of the unconference sessions I went out to try Kee's ARG called Niagara 1812. As I turned onto Front street after the first clue, Steve Ramsay caught up with me and said: "Slow down and tell me about this game."


  • Games let people practice killing
  • Why do people panic about computer games
  • Can games affect people? Can words?
  • The airport scene in Modern Warfare 2
  • How are games tamed or controlled? Why is no one worried about violence in Homer or the Bible?
  • Can games affect the culture?


  • Framing discussion
    • Serious games - Kevin Kee Niagara
    • Getting run over
    • Corruption of youth
    • Question of ethics of gaming in the individual
  • Ethics of gaming in the individual
    • Ethics of killing innocents - the representation of horrible things
    • Ethics of killing - practicing killing
  • Ethics of gaming at level of the state (what is right for the state?) Gaming the Republic
    • Moral panic and managing youth
    • Imitation and the state (what's right or wrong with Shakespeare)
    • Expelling the poets
    • Serious games
    • What is the ideal republic? Can we design a perfect state where games have their place?
  • Can training work for moral issues? We can train people for certain actions/activities and games can train, but does that work with morality?

Themes from Republic

  • Path and Way. Socrates is stopped on the way back to Athens. They have witnessed a procession. 328e "we have to learn of them as it were from wayfarers who have preceded us on a road on whcih we too, it may be, must sometime fare ..." Is there a link to Heidegger's Conversation on a Country Path?
  • The Republic as a virtual world that no one would want to live in but which models something. The Republic as inhospitable just as game worlds can be dystopic. Games where you are a rational despot.
  • Catharthis - Mc Luhan? and games as catharthis.



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