Far from being a handbrake that’s applied to creative energy, Professor Catherine Flick tells Martin Cooper MBCS about how ethics has been shaping stories and games since the industry’s very earliest days.

Sometimes, there’s no hidden meaning or subtext — things just are what they are, plain and simple. Why is this important? Because, as she sat back to talk about how applied ethics has been used to make game worlds richer, deeper, and more compelling, Professor Catherine Flick was surrounded by a collection of power tools: a big electric drill and a yellow hammer. Before we discussed their place in the study of computer gaming, the conversation moved quickly to chickens.

‘We’re looking at chickens from an archaeological and game design perspective, and ethics — obviously’, she says. ‘My colleague Tyr Fothergill is a paleopathologist — she’s an archaeologist who looks specifically at bones.’

Both fans of gaming, Dungeons and Dragons and ethics, the two wondered how they could marry their seemingly disconnected spheres of academic work.

‘When you look at chickens in games, they’re mostly used as a laugh, they’re humorous, and they’re used as cannon fodder. And this,’ she says, ‘accurately mirrors the history of how humans have interacted with chickens too. Cock fighting and cock throwing are terrible things… But, chickens are very important to society as food. As a society, we’re divorced from thinking about the chicken as an actual animal. So, gaming lets us explore that important idea.’

Rewind to the retro days

Catherine’s fascination with gaming started in 1985 when her dad brought home one of the very first IBM-compatible PCs, and on it were some games.

‘We had Alpine Tram Ride, Space Invaders and Castle Adventure. I really loved this one. It was a pre-rogue-like game where you go through a castle, fight enemies and solve puzzles. It was the same every time you played. The game kept getting corrupted, so my dad had to fix it — that’s where my fascination started.’

The computer games led to an honours degree in science, with majors in Computer Science and History and Philosophy of Science, and then Catherine completed her PhD in Computer Ethics.

‘All along through all of this, I’m still playing games,’ she enthuses. ‘I loved games, and I still love games, but it was just a hobby with no serious academic side.’

When two worlds collide

In the early days of her lecturing career, Catherine approached her head of department for some budget to visit a gaming convention. Unconvinced but supportive, the senior academic acquiesced. One thing led to many others, and Catherine is now a Professor of Ethics and Games Technology at Staffordshire University.

‘What’s really important to understand is that a lot of cutting edge technology starts in games’, she says, summarising her career. ‘A lot of prototyping of things like AI had their first use cases in games. All the hardware that powers the visual side of things… graphics… All of this is driven by games. And now it’s a billion-dollar industry. So, there’s a lot here for somebody who is interested in the cutting edge of emerging technology.’

Defining ethics

From technology, we move to explore why ethics are important in gaming. And it becomes apparent quite quickly that, to Catherine, ethics isn’t so much a list of things that society doesn’t want but rather a creative force. And this is also the case within games.

‘I think about ethics from a practical sense,’ she says. ‘When we navigate the world, we have interactions with people and sometimes those interactions are good, sometimes bad. Sometimes we think “that wasn’t kind or it was unfair”. We can use ethics to unpick and understand those feelings because, underneath them is a set of values like justice, kindness and bravery. All of those values that we want to see in the world.’

Certainly, then, if a writer is looking to sculpt and mould a new hero into being, ethics provides source material to work with. ‘Most people want to be good. Humans are generally altruistic and sociable, and we want to be good people’, Catherine explains. ‘When we’re given opportunities to do good, we enjoy it. A game that allows you to be a hero is fun because you have those underlying capacities — you want to be a good person.’

It's not good to be bad

And, it transpires that players generally prefer being heroes over villains. ‘If you look at games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic — you’ve got a very obvious light side and dark side. But, what’s interesting is, dark side — evil side — playthroughs are generally never as well crafted as the good side. And there’s a good reason for that. Being a horrible person all the time just isn’t fun. It’s much harder to create evil storylines.’

Along with a hero, most games also need rules. Even Grand Theft Auto — a game often pointed to as one that glories in lawlessness and its certification 18 rating — has rules. There are edges to the world, rules about physics governing movement and there’s an economy. Along with laws, fantasy games might have a rich lore detailing traditions and even beliefs. Without rules, even Grand Theft Auto would quickly decay into chaos.

‘People enjoy trying out things they might not be able to do in the real world,’ Catherine says. ‘And I think games are a nice space to explore the implications of decision making. If you look back into classic gaming history, there are lots of frameworks that let you do that. Back in the days of Dungeons and Dragons, you had classic good, neutral, and evil. And you’ve chaos through to lawfulness. Characters can be chaotic, yet good. Lawful, but morally neutral. A lot of new games are based on these pen-and-paper systems from the seventies and eighties. They make natural sense, and they are also easy to program.’

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Modern games can, however, be much more sophisticated in their use of good and bad. Rather than presenting a just hero or a villain, modern games – thanks to much more powerful computers – allow storytellers the space to build consequences into tales. If you behave badly in one scene or interaction, a completely different story arc might be invoked.

‘In some games, these consequences are very obvious. Telltale games, for example, say, “This character will remember the decision you’ve just made”. But, in games like the Witcher series, there’s no notification. It’s just that, at some time in the future, a character might be in a room or, depending on your reaction, they might be absent. The actions you take at the beginning of the game have consequences later.’

Dragon Age II, a role-playing game from BioWare, is a prime example of a behaviour begets narrative, Catherine explains. ‘There are three ages within the game, and you can see very clearly how the decision you make in the first act changes the second and third. In other games, it’s much less obvious. You’d have to navigate many different narrative paths to work out the potential changes. Or you can look them up on the internet. That’s what most people do!’

Continuing, she says: ‘And this is one of the reasons why Balder’s Gate III has been so well received, because these programmatic, branching storylines were so complex. It feels like whatever decision you make, there’ll be some acknowledgement at some point. It almost mimics real life. Certainly, back in the old days, there wasn’t the space in computers to juggle all those narrative threads. It’s a real slog to keep all the narrative plates spinning… I can only imagine what the writers’ spreadsheets look like.’

Where does AI fit in?

Writing is, then, hard and complex, and this observation leads to another question: how might game makers use AI in the future? In the first instance, Catherine is quick to point out that games and gaming have been using AI for many years. No Man’s Sky is a prime example.

Released by Hello Games in 2016, No Man’s Sky is a huge space exploration game where players are placed in a procedurally generated galaxy. Everything from stars to planets, plants and sentient aliens are all created algorithmically. It’s believed that there are over 18 quintillion planets in the game.

‘Look at Mass Effect,’ says Catherine. ‘You only had something like eight worlds to explore. Space is big, our Galaxy is big… Our solar system is big. It’s nice to be able to explore that more naturally.’

AI might also make itself felt at a much smaller scale in games. Often, as we explore worlds, we encounter non-player characters (NPCs) — programmatic bit-part characters who exist to move the narrative along by doing a specific action or saying a particular line. Set in a richly detailed world of ray-traced graphics and surround sounds, a wooden NPC can ruin the illusion.

‘I’ve got a master’s student working on NPCs at the moment,’ Catherine explains. ‘He’s using Lamda to develop complex backgrounds and stories for the NPCs he’s got running around. If you’re going to make a massive and immersive game — like Balder’s Gate or Witcher — a really big world, even then you might write a simple list of NPCs’ responses. They might have two lines of dialogue. But, bringing in a large language model and scoping it correctly could bring the world to life even more.’

Writing dialogue in games could then become a partnership between artists and AIs, Catherine suggests. ‘I don’t want to upset writers, but I imagine they like writing the bigger, fleshier storylines and the important dialogue. I don’t imagine they’re too excited about writing lots of dialogue that says: ‘Come back, chicken!’ The flavour text… Stuff that’s necessary but tedious to write. Let’s get the AI to do the tedious stuff, and let writers focus on the rewarding text.’

A game a day keeps the doctor away

Along with viewing gaming as a great place for new technologies to be tested and explored, Catherine is also very keen to point out that gaming is good for us. Pokémon Go, for example, is an augmented reality game where players equipped with mobile phones explore the real world, which has been seeded with fantastical creatures. You’re also moving through a virtual world as you walk real streets.

Catherine says the game has physical and mental health benefits on many levels. For example, while gamers are often stereotyped as couch potatoes, the game gets people up and walking.

‘Gaming is also a social activity,’ she says. ‘It’s something that people do — for fun — with others. I did a study with Jessica Urwin on Pokémon Go back in the autumn after it came out. She was interested in how the game affected mental wellbeing. Some people were walking 10 kilometres a day. AR and VR games can have these physical and mental benefits. People also play games together. I have a four year old, and we play Super Mario Wonder, and we play together. It’s a social activity rather than something you do by yourself.’

So, in conclusion, when you sit down next to your PlayStation, Xbox, Switch, or PC, give thanks to ethics. It may well be the thing that’s making the game compelling, rich and enjoyable. And finally, remember that gaming is good for you.

And those power tools? They had nothing to do with gaming, first-person shooters, or academic hypothesis testing. They were simply for hanging game art on the walls.