Chungking Espresso

Ethics of Care & Alt Journalism Games

Posted in Columns, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on March 11, 2009

Originally written for Bogost’s Journalism & Games.

The ethics of care is a moral system devised by feminist philosophers who wanted an ethics based on a more “relational” mode of thought. Their basic criticism of typical ethical systems is that philosophers premise them on the idea of the light of reason – a fundamentally Western, male construct. Instead, they develop a system for ethical decision-making based on casuistry and storytelling (what Socrates would probably deride as a kind of “sophistry” because of its close relation to expressive rhetoric). First let me explain what is meant by casuistry and storytelling here; then, I’m going to suggest how this field might help develop a different kind of newsgame in the future.

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Casuistry is more legal practice than ethical philosophy. Instead of deriving right or wrong from moral absolutes, it takes into account every detail of a situation before making a final decision. Under an ethical system such as Kant’s categorical imperative (one acts morally if one wills that the maxim of her actions be enacted as universal law), one cannot kill another in self defense – doing so would require that you willed that all rational creatures took violent means to defend themselves. In legal proceedings, one admits to killing in self defense and then details the situation in an effort to convince the jury that the use of lethal force was warranted.

Philosophical systems are just that – regulatory processes that work in a top-down manner. Casuistry embraces the unit operational approach proposed by Bogost: right and wrong here are determined through the conscious selecting and synthesizing of individual laws, precedents, and situational details.

The storytelling espoused by the ethics of care is especially useful for women, because it helps one work through issues particular to femininity that often are not addressed by male philosophers. For instance, it is easy for a Kantian philosopher or Catholic priest to demonstrate how under their moral code abortion cannot be condoned. But the actual decision-making process of choosing to abort a pregnancy or not cannot usually be reduced to moral absolutes. This choice is tied to a woman’s relationship with her fetus – whether she has built a social connection to it on top of the biological one. Storytelling helps women to explain to others (and themselves) how and why they made their decisions.

Most existing newsgames have an editorial line; that is, they make implicit or explicit arguments through their mechanics and narratives. I’d like to suggest that some newsgames developers might ask whether argumentation is an even playing field; likewise, maybe one wants to contribute to the dialogue on a news issue by making a game but doesn’t find the argumentative nature of many of them appealing.

What first piqued this question for me was an informal article by Henry Jenkins about the journalistic experiences of one of his students, Huma Yusuf. In her coverage of a murder in Pakistan, she noted that she felt the un-journalistic need to mention the fact that one of the men she interviewed scratched his crotch suggestively while talking with her. Including details like this in formal reportage is considered anecdotal and unnecessary. Alternative journalism, such as the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson or the infotainment of the Daily Show, embrace such experiential data and personal viewpoints. I’ve been looking at a lot of newsgames to see if they incorporate a unique protagonist with motivations and personal characteristics through which their encounters with news events might be altered – not so much manipulating the facts but at least allowing players to view them subjectively and thus in a more multi-faceted manner.

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To explain the kind of thing I’m looking for, I’d like to take a look at a recent investigative game, even though it’s neither “serious” nor nonfictional. Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble is a 1920’s flapper girl mystery game. The protagonists are female, and they have a few characteristically post-feminist methods of inquiry with NPCs: fib, taunt, expose, and flirt. The game has minor roleplaying qualities – you choose your main character from about 10 girls, and you form a posse of four as your first task in the game world. Gameplay is composed of fairly simple word games influenced by the stats of the characters. Female and male NPCs are susceptible to different kinds of attacks (flirting obviously works well against most males, but sometimes doesn’t work on a loyal husband). The “point” of the game, besides having catty well-written fun – the game recently won an award for excellence in writing – is to uncover a sinister plot in the small town where the girls go to boarding school.

It is not my intention to assert that a professional female journalist should ever fib, taunt, or flirt their way to  “the facts,” but I think there are a few ways we can look at the inclusion of such post-feminist inquiry in investigative newsgames. If, as Huma Yusuf suggests, men react differently to female reporters, then newsgames seem like an obvious place for this kind of experiential data to be embraced and explored.

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We have more upcoming posts in the works on Global Conflicts: Palestine and South America, and players do get to choose either a female or male avatar in those games. From our discussions, it didn’t sound like the gender change actually influenced the gameplay (someone correct me if I’m wrong). A valid criticism against my idea here would be: “But how does showing how different figures react to a female avatar, or how women might be able to gather information differently from male reporters, help us present the news objectively?”

My only defense against this would be to say that many newsgames have an educative aspect as well as a rhetorical one (Global Conflicts: South America is designed for a younger age group and marketed as an educational tool). Taking Yusuf’s example again, one could learn a lot about other cultures if a game incorporated replay value in the form of avatars of different gender. Playing through the game twice and seeing how the experience changes based on gender, one would learn the subtleties of unfamiliar cultures. Games about Africa would be a particularly apt place for this, since so many Americans run up against a conceptual wall when trying to understand issues such as female circumcision.

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