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Workshop on Games, Ethics and War.

March 31, 2015

Late last year I had the opportunity to speak at the Workshop on Games, Ethics and War at Macquarie University. The event organised by Malcolm  Ryan featured  a fantastic range of speakers across game development, military ethics, fine art and academia. The program is available here.

Here is my own presentation concerning Transmedia Warfare: the Militarisation of Alternate Reality Games.

The presentation argues that where video games have been developed as training devices for combat operations, Alternate Reality Games are developed as instructional experiences for the military intelligence industry. Citing existing research and providing transmedia game examples, Hugh will explore how the playful and paranoiac aesthetic that is encouraged in ARGs is being weaponised for intelligence gathering, coercion, data analysis and pattern recognition within the real world of military intelligence.

Rethinking Gamification

November 29, 2014

rethinking gamification

Rethinking Gamification (2014) is a welcome antidote to the raucous nonsense of activity under the title of gamification as it flourished between 2009 -2013.

In this collection, editors Mathias Fuchs, Sonia Fizek, Paolo Ruffino and Niklas Schrape rummage over the recent history of the term, providing deep analysis, offering practical observations and proposing new ways ahead.

The book is freely available for download here

Treatment for Game Addiction In China

September 24, 2014

China is famously the first state to recognise and classify internet addiction as a clinical disorder. The 2013 American-Israeli documentary’Web Junkie’ explores internet addiction as it is recognised in China focusing on the treatment used in rehabilitation centres. The co-writter/director and producer team Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam secured impressive access as the documentary delves deep into a Beijing treatment centre. We witness the journey of three adolescents from the day they arrive at the centre through the three-month period of their treatment. Crucially, these three protagonists all admit to being avid gamers, indeed much of their professed online addiction revolves around the playing of games.

In the centre, youths from 13 and 18 years are required to undergo military training exercise and comply with monitored sleep and food standards. Overseen by the military guards and surrounded by gates and fences, the centres bear a more than passing resemblance to a prison.

However, it is under the scrutiny and care of sympathetic doctors and nurses that both parents and their children participate in the therapy sessions. These difficult but insightful scenes make for some of the films pivotal and painful moments. It portrays a profoundly distressing conundrum experienced by parents of teenagers worldwide: how to communicate. And even though these centre exist, Chinese parents, doctors and officials are revealed to have as little an idea how to cope with a younger generation that finds more value and meaning in World of Warcraft than their own lives as their counterparts in the west. 

The film provides a fascinating insight into one of the symptoms of the internet age.

Virtual World War Ideology

June 9, 2013

It’s both frightening and fascinating to see national ideologies being played out in contemporary video game entertainment. Visualizing these evolving geo-politics, Complex produced a map this March, revealing the West’s virtual enemies of the last decade.

The result is a blending of Bush’s “axis of evil” nations combined with countries associated with Islamic terrorism, drug cartels, and some failed states thrown in for good measure. But most note worthy is the regular appearance of looming BRIC economies as foes: Brazil, Russia, India, and China—whose exploding influence in world trade is clearly a threat to U.S and European dominance and therefore must be ideologically off-sided. Also interesting are the notable exceptions such as Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, Palestine, Syria and Iran, all of which are all absent. Are these countries dismissible or are such conflicts too close to the bone?

Meanwhile, the DigitalTrends have recently reported that The People’s Liberation Army of China teamed up with Wuxi Giant Interactive Group have created a new game which pits Chinese soldiers against their main opposition, the US military. The proudly named“Glorious Mission (also known as Mission of Honor) is being used a training tool for PLA recruits treads on some dangerous territory by piquing U.S. concerns of nationalism and anti-American sentiments.”

Using video games for military training is of course nothing new. In fact the Chinese have a lot of catching up to do. Aside from America’s Army, the freely downloadable, teen pitched entertainment/training package first released in 2002, in 2008 alone the U.S. Army invested $50 million developing games for combat preparation.

Whether these ideologies help today’s gamers to understand the flavor of the current cool-aid or if they only serve to further national, racial and cultural stereotypes is debatable, but that computer games are looming a battlefield for geopolitics is not.

Gender in Games

April 1, 2013

Offensive representations of gender in videogames have been a staple of the medium since the 1980’s. Some have argued that this political incorrectness is a feature of the fantasy realm of games, one that should be celebrated. The argument is often made that those who wish to avoid these stereotypes should steer clear of such games, however, such representations are not restricted to the game world themselves but are also present in the marketing of these games, in the real world.

Media critic and feminist Anita Sarkeesian who has been exploring representations of gender across cinema and television has recently turned her attention to games. Although finding many problems with gender representations and violence in games, Sarkeesian’s position is hardly radical. In highlighting the many issues, she announces her feminist reading and acknowledges that games function at multiple levels, not all of them “bad”. Her work operates a tertiary level gender studies and her revelations will come little surprise to anyone versed in contemporary humanities. Nonetheless, there has been and continues a strong backlash against her work. This is unfortunate as Sarkeesian provides a sober and intelligent perspective on games literacy, one that has been alarmingly absent for far too long.

Device Factories

February 12, 2012

After decades of operating in the dark, labor practices of game production are beginning to receive some attention.

Since 2009, reports have appeared about abysmal working conditions resulting in suicides at Foxconn factories. Employing about 1 million workers in China, Foxconn is the largest maker of computer devices and components.  In these factories, workers assemble products including ipads and iphones for Apple, computers for Dell and HP, Playstation 3,  X-boxes, Nokia phones аnԁ Amazon’s Kindle e-readers. Reports inform us that workers аrе paid less thаn $17 a day , οftеn working 12 hour shifts, six days a week. Staff are compulsorily housed on-site and are purportedly worked like farm animals.

The details of these revelations raise serious questions about the ethics of the games products we consume.

One notable case detailed bу thе Nеw York Times, involved a Foxconn foreman waking up 8,000 workers frοm thеіr dorms іn thе middle οf thе night tο accommodate a last-minute redesign fοr аn iPhone. Thе foreman gave each employee a biscuit аnԁ a cup οf tea before thеу wеrе forced tο work a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens іntο frames. The report also discusses child laborers in the factories.

As as result of terrible pay, hazardous conditions and inhuman hours, a spate of suicides occurred at  Foxconn between January and November, 2010. In all, eighteen Foxconn employees attempted suicide with fourteen deaths.

The suicides prompted 20 Chinese universities to compile a report on Foxconn, which they decried as a labour camp.

In response, Foxconn substantially increased wages for its Shenzhen factory workforce, installed suicide-prevention netting, and asked employees to sign no-suicide pledges. Workers were also forced to sign a legally binding document guaranteeing that they and their descendants would not sue the company as a result of unexpected death, self-injury, or suicide. Apple commended Foxconn on its swift life saving actions.

Companies wrangling with the dilemma of profit over humanity are letting consumers decide.  Apple is the biggest winner posting its largest profit ever. “Thе speed аnԁ flexibility іѕ breathtaking,” reported a former Apple executive. “There’s nο American plant thаt саn match thаt.” However, as news of the suicides began to weigh on consumers, large technology companies such as HP, Sony and Nokia were called to account for worker treatment, but the most probing questions were directed at Apple given their spectacular profits over the last 24 months. Apple has repeatedly acknowledged the problem, and claims that it is not turning a blind eye.

Yet the problems continue.

Earlier in 2012, 300 Foxconn Workers Threatened Mass Suicide. These workers had asked for a raise, but were flat out denied by Foxconn. Instead, they were given the option of keeping their jobs with no pay raise, or to quit and receive compensation. Most decided on the latter option, wanting out of the Foxconn environment but the compensation was cancelled, and those who quit saw no money at all. So on January 2, they all headed to the factory rooftop and threatened to jump. It wasn’t until 9pm the following day that they were talked into coming back down off the roof, reportedly coerced by the mayor of Wuhan himself.
In addition, a game app named Phone Story was developed to illustrate issues behind Foxconn and the hidden side of all technology.  All of the revenues raised by the app were to go directly to workers’ organisations and other non-profits that are working to stop the horrors represented in the game.
Phone Story’s official description:

“Phone Story is a game for smartphone devices that attempts to provoke a critical reflection on its own technological platform. Under the shiny surface of our electronic gadgets, behind its polished interface, hides the product of a troubling supply chain that stretches across the globe. Phone Story represents this process with four educational games that make the player symbolically complicit in coltan extraction in Congo, outsourced labor in China, e-waste in Pakistan and gadget consumerism in the West.”

Apple immediately pulled the app from the store, but it has since been hosted and can be viewed online.

Awareness of these production activities are now widely known, and the companies that utilise such practices can no longer be held solely responsible. It is the consumer who must decide if they choose to support the practices or not. If the petition run by is any indication, the choice so far is not on the side of the human rights of the factory workers.

The Ethics of Gamification

February 2, 2012

Following several years of giddy hype and several months of critical questioning about gamification (with some particularly compelling reading from Ian Bogost and his community of commentors), its encouraging to finally see some self reflection, critical thought and even retaliation from within the  Gamification community itself.

Gamification guru Gabe Zichermann came out a few months ago with this defense. And Jane McGonigal who has long held utopic notions of games as world saving devices appears to have adjusted her stance witnessed at the recent Chicago Digital Ethics Symposium. There s a review of the presentation here. Elsewhere, Meta gaming has proposed a code of conduct for gamification. Practical ethics has also weighed in on the subject here. For gamification to survive, it will need to seriously delouse its marketing and commercial infestation, but the questions then arises, will there be anything left?