So there I was browsing online dating profiles, as you do. Whilst looking I happened across a statement that computer games were “Childish”. That started me thinking.
Well, writing as someone who’s frequented virtual worlds of various guises before and is engaged exploring the Kerbin Solar System, I definitely disagree. What I would say is that some games have low quality and others high quality. Now, when I speak of quality I mean this vaguely in the sort of sense that Robert M. Pirsig meant. That ungraspable something, not the graphics or the sounds, something else. Some games have it, others most definitely do not. I (perhaps, controversially) group most, if not all, of the so-called “triple A” titles into the “have not” category.
The games I have in mind as “haves” are Minecraft, Second Life and Kerbal Space Program (KSP, hereafter). Why these? In each case there is a freedom that you don’t get with a scripted level design, and with each a chance at creativity. KSP is more creative when it come to crashes, I admit, though rocket design can be a slightly insane artform. The other part of the reason it’s listed here is the amount of awe and wonder. I’ve launched and flown a space capsule to orbit then sat and watched the sun rise from an orbital spacecraft, it’s a great moment and makes one wonder how much wonderful the real view must be. There’s a sense of adventure and wonder, which is also helped by the sense of achievement at actually getting the rocket to fly! It teaches you about orbit, aerodynamics and a number of other things and really does make you stand in admiration of the real world space programs and their achievements. I didn’t know the difference between Apoapsis and Periapsis till I started playing this game! I will leave a small trailer below, which I think captures the spirit of the game very well.
I’ve mentioned Minecraft before, and it will probably need no introduction. It’s a phenomenon which makes creativity very easy indeed and offers a huge amount of freedom to explore. Both KSP and Minecraft are modifiable, so the variety and potential can be increased in both games. Whilst KSP teaches physics, aerodynamics and other things. Minecraft can teach you to plan projects and organise your resources. It can teach teamwork, when working on joint projects on a server; I’ve used to to try to answer ethical questions I’ve had regarding the use of force. It has also been used to teach conservation and a number of other things; there’s a great deal of quality in such a simple seeming game.
Finally, Second Life and I must put on my flameproof suit for describing this as a “game”. For sheer creative scope, Second Life blows both of the previously mention titles out of the water. It has the motto “Your World, Your Imagination” and it lives up to it. This virtual world contains composers, musical performers, artists, authors and much more. I’ve seen meditation centres, lectures, memorials, art galleries and much more (including a great deal of adult content). Indeed, the building of entire landscapes has been raised to the level of an art form! I should also add that Second Life contains a full programming language with APIs for external access, the possibilities are huge. I’ll provide a link to a blog which gives a great overview of the kind of artistic beauty which can be found in this world.
Where am I going with all of this? I feel that computer gaming, done right, has a great deal to offer and not just to children and young adults. I also firmly believe that we’re seeing the ongoing development of an artistic medium that is unparalleled elsewhere; a medium for experimentation, learning and the sharing of experiences. To dismiss all of these possibilities as “childish” is, I firmly believe, to show a huge amount of ignorance and to deny ourselves a huge opportunity.
I posted last week about nonviolence in Minecraft. Specifically, I talked about why I find it useful to use Minecraft to explore nonviolence and explained what I mean by nonviolence. This week, I’d like to examine of the more problematic aspects of this, passive mobs. A mob is a mobile entity in Minecraft and they can be either passive or actively hostile. Examples of passive mobs are Cows, Chickens, Sheep and Pigs. Examples of hostile mobs are Zombies, Skeletons and Creepers.
So, why do these passive creatures provide such a problem? The issue is twofold. Firstly, the player has a hunger bar which is depleted by activity. The second part is that certain resources are gained by killing passive mobs. So, what do we do about diet? Well, it’s perfectly possible to be a Vegetarian in Minecraft, I’ve been doing it just fine. The Minecraft Wiki has a number of foods that don’t need an animal to die. Unfortunately in the early stages of the game, you may be forced into killing by a simple lack of available vegetarian food. You can speed things up early on by planting and coppicing Oak trees and waiting for Apple drops and using the banks of waterways to plant Wheat. When planting Wheat, place some torches near to it to keep the light level up on the squares at night. This will keep it growing at night. Advantages later in the game are that you can very easily produce large amounts of food by arable farming. Also Sugar Cane, Pumpkin and Melon have their uses elsewhere so an arable farm is a worthwhile investment. Cactii are also worth your time as they can provide another layer of defence and also green dye when cooked in an oven.
This does bring us to the more difficult problem of the other resources these creatures provide. For example, arrows can only be made with a feather. You get a feather by killing a chicken. Books and leather armour need leather, this is obtained from cows. This is quite a bit more serious as anything that uses books will require premeditated killing. But, there are workarounds. Arrows, leather armour and books can be obtained by trading with villagers and other players.
This begins to allow us to form a more concrete position with regards to nonviolence. The first is that all other avenues should be explored before resorting to killing passive mobs. The second is that a longer term view may be beneficial with regards to getting these resources via trade and that it may be the case that tactics would have to be changed if things like leather armour and arrows were unavailable.
What does this allow us to bring out of Minecraft to the real world? At this point I think we can say that “instant gratification” can lead to ethical issues fairly quickly. It also looks as if it can be simpler to follow ethical and nonviolent positions if you can be flexible on how you do things and take the longer term view.
The idea of nonviolence in games is a subject I’ve found interesting before. After the awful events at Sandy Hook, I posted about my belief that the problem lies deeper than just violent media. They are a symptom, not the problem. I do, however, think that media and video games can be very much part of the therapy.
The average video game, not so much, as they are designed to require the use of violence. But free-form Virtual Worlds like Minecraft or Second Life have more potential. The need here is not that the game prohibits the player from the use of violence. The game should give us that option, but also the option of nonviolence, it’s important to give the player the choice. This allows the player to properly explore the use of nonviolence in a setting where violence is possible. I propose that Minecraft is the perfect place to do just this.
Let me start by giving a very brief overview of the game. Minecraft is a virtual world that is a huge and randomly generated. You (the player) starts in the wilderness with either nothing, or a supply chest with random contents. Your task is to build a shelter, thrive, explore, build and so on. The world is truly huge and has a very good crafting system, so you can build all sorts of things from buildings to technology. This is fine, but what makes it perfect for our purposes is the fact that the world is populated by various creatures, both passive and hostile. The hostile mobs will attack, but they can very often be avoided. The passive mobs mostly won’t attack, though some can be provoked. They also provide resources that the player needs, this can cause a useful dilemma. In my opinion, these qualities makes Minecraft perfect for the purpose of exploring nonviolence.
So with all of this said, am I completely pacifist or nonviolent in Minecraft? The difference as I understand it is that a pacifist is completely opposed on political/moral grounds to any use of violence. Someone who is nonviolent can espouse these views in one context, but agree that some violence may unfortunately be necessary in other areas.
I take the view that self-defence is permitted. The question is one of intent, I bear no ill intent to the mobs and will happily avoid them. If I am attacked, I will defend myself but this raises the point that such fights in Minecraft are often to the death. There are mobs that can sprint to chase the player and have ranged attacks, they can be very difficult (often impossible) to escape from. The best approach here, I think, is to do what we can to minimise such occurrences. We do need to be realistic though, these things will happen inworld sooner or later. We will need to use violence in defence, but only as a very last resort. With this, I find the Taoist attitude to offer illumination. In the Taoist view, violence is very inauspicious and should be avoided. But, Lao Tzu was a realist, he knew that sometimes a nation, a group or an individual would have to resort to such means. His view was that these things should be approached as a funeral, not glorified or relished.
To illuminate what I mean, I’ll include chapter 31 of the Tao Te Ching here. This is from Derek Lin’s translation which I can’t recommend highly enough. It can be found here, click on “Tao Te Ching” on the left hand side.
A strong military, a tool of misfortune
All things detest it
Therefore, those who possess the Tao avoid it
Honorable gentlemen, while at home, value the left
When deploying the military, value the right
The military is a tool of misfortune
Not the tool of honorable gentlemen
When using it out of necessity
Calm detachment should be above all
Victorious but without glory
Those who glorify
Are delighting in the killing
Those who delight in killing
Cannot achieve their ambitions upon the world
Auspicious events favor the left
Inauspicious events favor the right
The lieutenant general is positioned to the left
The major general is positioned to the right
We say that they are treated as if in a funeral
Those who have been killed
Should be mourned with sadness
Victory in war should be treated as a funeral
I’m going to go into a little more detail about my approach in Minecraft and my findings and experiences in future posts. I hope it’ll make a useful bit of reading!