Up@dawn 2.0

Friday, April 29, 2016


Ian Law section 4


Link to part one: http://cophilosophy.blogspot.com/2016/04/part-one-exploring-work-of-john-rawls.html

In part one, I discussed the political philosophy of John Rawls, and the difficulty of applying his ideas in real life. In this part, I will introduce a recent game that has made news for incorporating aspects of Rawls’s “Veil of Ignorance.” Does it really aid in the conversation about Distributive Justice, or is it simply a gimmick?

In most games these days, people are given a raft of options and sliders in order to perfectly craft their ideal self. Players can endow their alter-egos with all the beauty, strength and talent that they desire and live out a power fantasy in a virtual environment. Most such commercially released games are truly about pure entertainment, providing gamers with a sense of empowerment and a means of wish-fulfilment. They play into the seductive “meritocratic norm” that informs much of capitalist philosophy. But lurking in the background, and spreading across distributors like steam is minor avalanche of games that try to bring new ideas to a stale industry. While they could be dismissed as pretentious, many of these titles exhibit what could be thought of as politically motivated design elements that challenge gamers to think. One recent example is the online multiplayer game Rust.

Made by the UK-based Facepunch Studios, the game is a clone of popular survival games. The player is dropped into a harsh environment and tasked with surviving the elements using only a small set of tools and their wits. Many games in the past have brought a similar conceit to the table. Where this one gets interesting is the way the player is made to appear in the virtual environment. Where most games would give the player agency to select their in-game appearance, Rust hard-codes the gamer’s avatar into a pre-set configuration that cannot be changed. Initially, this applied to the race of the player. People were shocked to discover that they were forced to wear a color that they didn’t intend, and had no option to switch. People eventually warmed to the idea, but then phase two began. Up until this point, there were only male characters. After introducing female character models into the game, the developers decided that gender, too, would be enjoined on the player, with no hope of alteration. This surprised many who didn’t wish to be encapsulated in a gender that they didn’t identify with.

Many pointed out that it was only fair, women and minorities who play video games have been forced to become the cliché bald space-marines for years. Now the shoe was on the other foot, and some had difficulty adjusting. While we could assume that the developers were making a political statement directly inspired by John Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance, it is indeed primarily a gameplay feature. This is an online game encompassing the making and breaking of alliances.  The reason for the permanent and unchanging avatar is that the player should not be allowed to alter their appearance in order to fool other players into believing that they are now someone else. There is no actual drawback to being any race or gender within the game world, it’s simply a cosmetic change. So, it’s all a part of the game, there only to make it more fun. But does it not still incorporate part of Rawls’s concept?

The question then remains, does this experiment in Rawlsian justice actually have any lasting impact on the worldview of the players? Ultimately, it was a vocal minority that protested the move, and most players have acclimated to the forced persona. The developers have actually received a lot of positive feedback about the unique character selection. But there’s no indication that anyone is thinking more politically due to playing this game. However, I would say that by making people think about how they can’t choose their body, and forcing them to endure any perceived imperfections in their selves, in just a small way, the Veil of Ignorance plays a part in this title. At this stage, it’s really just a normal game; perhaps that’s all we can expect from computerized entertainment. But we might see in it a precursor of more sophisticated technologies down the road that will truly challenge our received notions. 


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