Sunday, February 14, 2010

The problem of morality in video games Part II : The computer model

In order to understand the difficulties inherent in adding morality to video games it is important to understand how the medium has evolved over the years. Those who grew up or think of video games in the vein of the original Nintendo and Super Mario Bros. have an '80s concept of video games. Both the technology and industry have evolved over the years, and with that evolution the games themselves from presentation to content have expanded and matured (a term used very loosely).

A computer (or console, which is essentially a gaming computer) for the sake of this discussion is basically a math machine with what is called Boolean logic. To those who know computers this is an oversimplification of sorts but for this discussion it will suffice. 1's and 0's. True or false. This is the nature of Boolean logic, and a computer's natural function knows very little beyond this. We refer to this as the "digital world" as opposed to our analog world, where things become more complicated than on-off. It is this machine that we attempt to "model" the world though software. Video games are no exception. But even this realization shows how the medium (the computer) renders it difficult to model complex real world ideas such as "morality."

Video games and computers have gone hand in hand since the existence of the computer. From text-based games to one of the first visual games "Pong," the games have grown with the technology. The first video games that are familiar to the older generation reflect the state of technology at the time. Often games such as "Donkey Kong" would push computers to their limit, and represented the full potential of the computer running the game. Even the original Nintendo gaming machine, while revolutionary at the time, were still very limited in their computation power. With games such as Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, and Frogger being the standard bearer for video games it is little wonder why most regarded video games as primitive and simple.

Of course computers have evolved since then, and with them the video games running on them. Gone are the restrictions of memory and processing power. The ability to render lush 3-D worlds and create complexity in video games is less limited by technology than in the past. Indeed most computers today have a specific part of the computer hardware devoted entirely to visual rendering, better known as a video card. This is not to say that technology is no longer a limiting factor, but more and more the true limits on video games comes from the imagination of the developers.

As the technology has evolved, so has the industry that creates video games. Once a small outfit on the verge of bankruptcy, Nintendo is now one of the giants in a multi-million dollar entertainment industry. With corporate giants Sony and Microsoft as direct competitors, the resources that are used to develop video games is staggering compared to only 20 years ago. For example, the development budget for the game Wing Commander 4 was 12 million dollars, a staggering number for 1995.

It is also worth noting that just as the video industry has expanded, so has the fan base. One the purview of technology enthusiasts, video games are becoming more mainstream every day. With the release of Nintendo's Wii console, using motion sensor input from a player moving the Wii remote to simulate motion such as swinging a tennis racket, the industry is pushing more and more into the mainstream market, and attempting to reach out to those who wouldn't normally buy a console. And not to be outdone, Microsoft and Sony are to release their own versions of motion sensor capturing peripherals.

As one can see the potential for video games today is staggering. With the technology to render entire virtual worlds, the resources of Hollywood, and an expanding market, the sky is the limit on what the future will bring. As the industry is still evolving and maturing, we can only wait to see if video games enter society on the level that movies do.

Now that we have the background for the discussion, in our next installment we will look at the problems of morality and the challenges of incorporating morality into video games. Afterward
we will look at how technology and morality intersect in the video game industry and the unique challenges that developers face when incorporating morality into video games.

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