Procedural Ethics

Expanding the Scope of Procedures in Games

Essay - Procedural Ethics

Alex is an Assistant Professor of Technical Communication at Metropolitan State University in Minnesota. She has published on feminist issues in game studies as well as co-hosted a blog and podcast for four years on the academic and feminist study of games, Not Your Mama’s Gamer.


In this article I put forward the idea of procedural ethics. Procedural ethics is a way of studying videogames, videogame culture, and the videogames industry that focuses on both the computational and ethical aspects of gaming. This theory is born from the desire to move beyond some of the limitations of current theories used to study games, making questions of ethics and people central to any study of games. Procedural ethics argues that procedures are not just the in-game algorithms, images, and text that force the player to make a decision or to agree to participate in a particular world. Rather, they are made up of everything that went into that procedure being programmed, including the developer’s history, the community, and the player’s experiences, as well as the socio-cultural context surrounding the game and the player. As T.L. Taylor puts it in “The Assemblage of Play,” there are a “range of actors (system, technologies, player, body, community, company, legal structures, etc.), concepts, practices, and relations that make up the play moment” (332).”

Procedural ethics analyzes code, images, and games as objects influenced by specific contexts. These specific and direct contexts can be anything from a single programmer’s experiences to an organization. In this way, it connects procedures in the game to the procedures that produced the game. This move is crucial in the field of game studies right now. The games community is fraught with problems of harassment, death-threats, sexism, racism, and homophobia following things like #gamergate, #1reasonwhy, and Tropes vs. Women. As scholars studying these rhetorical digital artifacts, we are in the unique position to change the community we study for the better. I believe having a theory which puts ethics at the center, rather than at the periphery, of how we study games will help us write better scholarship, gain a deeper understanding of games, and create positive change.

Some great work has been done on ethics in gaming, particularly by scholar Miguel Sicart. His work has focused on the ways games force players to make ethical decisions through play. In building on this, procedural ethics focuses on the ethical choices and contexts behind the procedures, which also allows for study of things happening in the gaming community, as they often influence programmers and game companies.

On Procedurality

Procedural ethics is wedded to procedural rhetoric and other theories that focus on procedurality. The concept of procedural rhetoric has been used repeatedly in game studies to attempt to articulate the complex relationship between players and a game’s rhetorical argumentation. Despite the limitations with procedural rhetoric pointed out by games theorists like Miguel Sicart, procedurality can remain a useful term for examining how games work and particularly how persuasion works in games. Sicart sums up what I think to be the most useful critique of procedural rhetoric to date. He writes,

The main argument of the critique against procedurality has to do with its lack of interest in the player and play. Many of the games produced and analyzed under the proceduralist domain are visually playful, thematic parodies of the mundane and absurd, from airport security to oil economics. But these games are seldom playful in a mechanical, procedural sense: these are single player, puzzle or resource management games, with only few “operations” available to players, and a very limited space of possibility in which players can express themselves. (13)

While I agree with Sicart’s sentiment that the way procedurality has been done can be reductive, I don’t think that’s a limit of procedurality. Rather, there have been limitations on how theories of procedurality have been implemented by focusing on only the most visible manifestations of procedurality. Most procedural analyses have been limited to things you see and experience in the game. But this is only one aspect of the importance and impact of procedures within a game world. The game does not begin and end with the code given. Procedural ethics forefronts these ethical and social complexities as a central tenet of what it means to study games.

Ethics Beyond Algorithms

Mary Flanagan and Helen Nissenbaum are after a similar theory in Values at Play. They write, “we can do more than simply demonstrate systematic relationships between technology and values; we can do something about it” (9). They talk about the fact that “artifacts may embody ethical and political values,” as well as hint that that while narrative, rules, and code have values, other things in games and play do as well. Each essential component of play is being influenced from multiple places all at once, like the media, fan communities, best practices, walkthroughs, previous experience, and on and on. The experience of a game does not begin or end with the code. In her forthcoming article, “End-Game Rhetoric,” Cynthia Haynes writes,

For with error, logic can establish absolutes, moral standards, definitions, and criteria, but also contradiction, inconsistency, and homogeneity… Without error, however, it is necessary to tolerate paradox, specifically the one in which the internet is both a vehicle of terrorism and democracy, or that videogames are equal part warcraft and theorycraft. (7)

Things happen to us in games that cannot be explained by a theory looking for easy answers.

Procedural ethics, I hope, can allow for more of this messiness because of its insistence on reading procedures and codes in a socio-political, ethical context. Mia Consalvo was one of the first game theorists to directly engage in the question of ethics. In her groundbreaking article, “Rule Sets, Cheating, and Magic Circles: Studying Games and Ethics” (2005), she discusses the importance of studying the ethics of games and of the players interacting with the games. She writes,

Clearly, we need a better understanding of how ethics might be expressed in gameplay situations, and how we can study the ethical frameworks that games offer to players. Research in this area is beginning (Reynolds, 2002), but many interesting questions remain to be asked. (8)

She uses active audience theory, which loosely argues that media are never closed and that authorial intent is never complete, in order to ask new questions about the nature of play and games.

Here Consalvo calls for scholarship that engages ethics, rather than ignores it or posits an absolute ethic: “We cannot say that there are ‘no ethics’ in games or that players bring no ethical frameworks to their gameplay—instead we leave the question unexamined, which is itself a choice” (10). Feminist research methodologists (Sullivan, Kirsch, Fonow and Cook) and feminist epistemologists (Haraway, Hekman, Bennet, Harding, Bordo, Butler) have been arguing in a similar vein since at least the 1980s. As Consalvo alludes to, we too often avoid putting the choices we make as videogame scholars during our research at the center of our inquiry. Perhaps this is because we place ourselves outside of the game world when doing research in order to have the illusion of objectivity. Consalvo goes on to say, “What we need to do instead is actively involve ourselves with the questions, seeking to determine how ethics fit, how we see them informing games and gameplay, and how we choose to integrate games into our lives (or not)” (10). Like feminist research methodology, procedural ethics puts the researcher and her choices, questions, and beliefs at the center of the research, and perhaps even more importantly, at the center of any results.

On the Rhetoric of Gaming

This focus on the researcher’s bias should be at the heart of any theory utilizing the principles of rhetoric. While it may be true that rhetoric’s primary function is persuasive, it’s not as simple as it is often presented. Yes, an advertisement may convince us to buy a certain product, or perhaps it is selling a lifestyle. Use our cologne and you will be irresistible to women. You will have a nice body. You will ride a horse down a beach. Or it may be subtler than that, encouraging viewers to associate positive things with their brand. But stopping there is a simplification of what rhetoric does. Yes, Aristotle said that rhetoric is the ability to see the available means of persuasion. It seems, however, some studies of games have put far too much emphasis on the “persuasion” part, rather than on the “seeing” part. Rhetoric, at its core, at its most complex and nuanced, is about how the world shows up for us. It’s about how we navigate and make sense of the world. This too is persuasive in a way, but it is much more difficult, though also that much more important, to account for this type of nuance within a procedural argument.

For game studies, this means that the rhetoric of gaming, where it is its most persuasive, goes far beyond the message it’s trying to send; rhetoric is often implicit and hidden. Take World of Warcraft (WoW), for example. This is a game that is displaced from time, from authorship, and even from audience.  The world of WoW is messy. It is not static, and it is so massive that no matter where we place ourselves on the landscape to study it, some things will be fore-fronted and some things will be obscured. If we were to look at WoW from a strictly procedural standpoint, it would be difficult to articulate any static argument because the game itself is not static. It’s local, it’s sprawling, it’s effervescent and it’s steeped with meaning. Any procedural argument we make about or through WoW cannot rely on one static algorithm, procedure, of visual element, but must be contextualized throughout the world of the game. Procedural theories, while they may be dynamic within the system, allow for very little influence from or analysis of the context that formed that system. Or at the very least, does not make the activity outside of the game a central component.

TL Taylor, and other theorists, has been doing this type of work: linking the gameworld with the world of the player. In “Multiple Pleasures: Women and Online Gaming,” Taylor centralizes the importance of the movement of which women playing WoW are a part of. She writes, “The growing phenomenon of MMORPGs presents a fascinating opportunity to look at the ways game space becomes interwoven with online community and role playing” (21). Taylor talks about identity, power, sexism, and the social, linking these with the procedural elements of the game. This work is what I consider to be an excellent example of how we can use procedurality to deal with the complexity of the player’s world without abandoning the importance of procedures within the game space.

Moving beyond a more algorithmic-based analytical model, procedural ethics is concerned with how games can change the world of politics, advertising, and learning. The developer’s world influences the game world, but these influences move beyond ideological cultural influences. The actual material conditions, specific actions, and people making the games are secondary to how players interact with those procedures. Procedural ethics starts at that same point, however, and works backwards. The idea that I have to pick a gender when starting a game is significant, yes, because it makes an argument about the world. It represents how popular culture thinks about gender. However, the convergence of politics, policies, people, procedures, rules, context, and history that led to the developer programming that procedure is as significant (if not moreso) than the procedure itself and the player’s reaction to it. In other words, procedural ethics argues that procedures are not contained within the algorithm. Procedures in a game, significant because they force the player to move beyond passive reception of an idea to actually participating in it, are made up of everything in and around the game, the developers, the community, and the player.

We should not see procedures simply as systems of algorithms, but rather as systems of people, for then we can start saying more meaningful things about dynamic systems like online games. But further, we can focus on work that acknowledges the incredibly complex (and in many cases, unethical) worlds that exist behind every game. Instead of only talking about the way the Animal Crossing series asks us to participate in a conspicuous consumption addled capitalistic society, we can talk about the 12+ hours programmers are forced to work without compensation. In addition to talking about the way women are treated in Duke Nukem Forever, we can talk about the journalists who were forced to attend its release held at a strip club. Taken together, procedures and ethics have the potential for seeing things in and around game worlds that otherwise may remain obscured. And this, I believe, can enrich our scholarship as well as games themselves.


Discussant’s Reply

Gerald Voorhees is an assistant professor in the Drama and Speech Communications department at the University of Waterloo. His research focuses on games and new media as sites for the construction and contestation of identity and culture. Gerald is co-editor of Continuum’s Approaches to Game Studies book series, a member of the Executive Board of the Digital Games Research Association, and a former co-chair of the Game Studies area of the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Nation Conference. He is also the acting faculty advisor for First Person Scholar.

Alex Layne’s “Procedural Ethics” is a much needed intervention into how procedurality is taken up by game scholars and a pleasure to read.

As Alex notes, procedurality is a concept that has become integral to the study of games, one that not only merits the attention of other game scholars but that merits our efforts to critique, refine and recontextualize. And it would be a fatal blow to the field if scholarly inquiry around such key concepts—especially the type of speculative inquiry that First Person Scholar hosts—were ignored, dismissed or, even worse, intimidated into silence.

In this light, I appreciate Layne’s effort to persuade scholars who center procedurality, which regardless of Bogost’s intentions has primarily been applied to examine in-game content, to consider the procedural character of production and play. Without calling into question the effectivity of procedurality as an analytical tool, Layne asks fellow game scholars to expand the contexts in which the term is applied and consider the procedural character of professional practices and the patterns of activity that constitute gameplay. Her notion of “procedural ethics” might provide an alternative lens on the work of industry studies that folks like Adrienne Shaw, Robin Johnson, and Jen Whitson are undertaking. And it helps bring into focus the significance of the great work folks like TL Taylor, Celia Pearce and Bonnie Nardi are doing when they consider how player practices emerge in relation to the affordances and constraints of games.

On the other hand, while Layne’s notion of “procedural ethics” does good rhetorical work by offering a permutation of a concept many games scholars already know and use, I wonder if it is really a necessary starting point. After all, Layne argues, “We should not see procedures simply as systems of algorithms, but rather as systems of people.” And there are other proceduralisms more suited to the task of studying subjects rather than objects, or even better: how subjects (players) act in relation to objects (code). For instance, feminist communication theory has long considered the consequentiality of rhetorical procedure, (I’m thinking of the Campbell’s “Rhetoric of Women’s Liberation,” Foss and Griffin’s “Invitational Rhetoric” and Tonn’s “Co-Constructed Oratory”). Alternatively, deliberative democracy theorists also study how the discourses of communities are impacted by differential procedural structures, (here, I’m thinking of Habermas’ “On Procedural Democracy” though I’m more familiar with critiques like Bohman’s “Public Deliberation” and Rawls’ “Theory of Justice”). Perhaps Bogost’s procedurality is the line of articulation to bind “procedural ethics” to games studies, but it may not be the most productive point of departure.