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Values at play in digital games
Flanagan M., Nissenbaum H., The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2014. 224 pp.  Type: Book (978-0-262027-66-3)
Date Reviewed: Nov 4 2014

Since the first stories were told around a campfire millennia ago, we have used storytelling to convey values. In the last century, films and TV began to compete with traditional literature in telling stories and conveying values. Now we have a new medium, video games, which compete with all three and provide yet another medium for conveying values. The relationship between values and the medium through which they are conveyed is somewhat nuanced. Children’s stories, for instance, tend to be rather heavy-handed in the values they convey. For example, one of the values conveyed in the children’s story Little Red Riding Hood is “don’t talk to strangers.” There is little ambiguity in this message. On the other extreme, greater works of literature may explore values and leave the conclusions up to the reader. Given that parallel, we would probably not accept a children’s story that told of a rogue high school student who gunned down his classmates. Yet we find violence like this in video games all the time. All this is to provide some context for the core issue in this book: video games embody and convey values, and we need to think about what we are doing.

The authors provide many examples of how values are conveyed in specific games. They then provide a systematic approach to discovering and evaluating the values in the game design. They identify a role called the conscientious designer, whose job it is to ferret out and reflect upon the messages that a game is broadcasting.

There is much to be said about the authors’ approach. Unlike many approaches to computer ethics that say “here is something to worry about” or “here is something to worry about and something draconian to do about it,” these authors take the approach “here is something to be aware of and something practical and reasonable to do to address it.” The authors even acknowledge that there are values conveyed in their writing of the book. They articulate their values in general terms and acknowledge that their values are not necessarily universal. So, there is much to like about this book.

However, I cannot shake a couple nagging reservations: one philosophical and one practical. First the philosophical concern: if we see video games as being on a par with children’s stories, then examining the values they convey is entirely appropriate. However, if we see video games as creative works of art, then examining their values is eerily reminiscence of similar activities in the past that banned books because somebody did not agree with the values or message conveyed. A couple of my favorites come immediately to mind. Mark Twain’s The adventures of Huckleberry Finn and John Steinbeck’s The grapes of wrath paid their dues on the banned list before being moved to approved high school reading lists. Will Grand Theft Auto someday be required playing for high school students? I am not the one to say, although I doubt it. But, I can see where World of Warcraft might be. So, we don’t want to get too carried away inspecting the values of creative works, although we can certainly do better than we are doing today.

The practical concern is how well this process would work in the hectic environment of commercial video game development. The authors openly acknowledge that the techniques have been tested extensively in classes and workshops. However, what works in the classroom and what works for the development team are two very different things. So there is still work to be done.

This book would be of interest to several different audiences. First, as more academic curricula emerge in the area of video game design, it will become more important for aspiring designers to have some exposure to ethics. This book would make an excellent text for such a course. Second, current video game designers could learn much from the book and raise their awareness along the way. Third, parents of children who play a lot of video games would benefit from the insights provided in the book. And finally, ordinary gamers who might like to look a little more deeply into the medium they are enjoying would do well to at least thumb through it.

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Reviewer:  J. M. Artz Review #: CR142890 (1502-0148)
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