The Ethics Game - A Universal Language for Gaming?

Review Of

The Ethics Game - title screen

I'm always interested in videogames that claim to present complex, controversial, or spiritual ideas, so I was interested to read an article yesterday about a game sponsored by Thailand's Department of Religious Affairs that promotes Buddhism. The English title of the game is The Ethics Game and the article (which is basically a press release) explains that the game teaches good, ethical behavior as opposed to all the violence and killing one finds in most video games. I downloaded the game last night and played through it, and while the game itself (or "games" technically since it's actually a series of minigames) isn't that remarkable, it was an interesting experiment in game-based learning since 99% of the text and spoken language in the game is Thai. I don't speak or read Thai, so was the game navigable at all? How does this experience impact the argument that games aren't good at communicating information expositionally? On the one hand, teaching ethics through a video game is perfectly logical since a game can be used to model decisions and consequences, so how well can a game accomplish this when all language is essentially neutralized?

The game itself appears to have been programmed with Shockwave, and the art and animation is generally pretty good for such a small game. I ran into some errors installing it, but I was sort of surprised to see that the license agreement was basically the only part of the game in English. This seems strange for a game that is specifically for an audience that speaks Thai, so I don't know if the idea is that no one reads license agreements anyway, or if there is some prevailing precedent whereby international EULAs have to be in English.

The game starts up with a fairly long intro movie in which, I suppose, the main characters are introduced and the ethical principles behind the game are being explained. It's all in Thai, but its pretty easy to follow the general plot, especially since the art uses anime-like symbology for expressing emotion. The first scene is a monk speaking to a group of children, which seems to go on and on with very little action or even movement other than panning across a static image of the classroom. The children seem fairly unhappy, so I imagine that the message is getting through to them. If this were a Baptist Sunday School class, the scene would be suggesting that the kids are hearing for the first time that they will go to hell if they do bad thing. At least, that was my culturally-inappropriate impression.

The Ethics Game - Intro Animation Figure 1. The introduction animation seemed very long, but the interface makes sense. The "skip intro" (obviously) allows you to skip the movie. The numbers allow you to jump to different scenes in the movie, and the orange button (which is a constant presence) causes the game to shut down.

I'm not sure, but it's possible that the kids in the classroom were being told a parable, which turns out to be the content of the game. In any case, we then meet the three player characters who are all introduced by committing some act of deviance – skateboarding though a raked pile of leaves, screwing around with a guitar instead of doing chores (I'm not sure about that one), and shooting a chicken with a slingshot. Together, they find themselves with an elderly monk who undertakes to teach them all lessons by committing them to a series of ethically-oriented tasks.

The Ethics Game - Player Select Figure 2. Selecting your player. The one I have selected is clearly distinguishable by highlighting, the posture of the character, and what is probably his name printed in front of him.

At this point, I was presented with a character selection screen, so I chose the kid on the left because he has a skateboard. After playing the game through once, I'm guessing that most of the minigames are the same, but that at least one is player-specific. That is, since I selected the skateboard kid, there was a skateboarding game, whereas I wouldn't be surprised to see a musical game for the girl and a slingshot/targetting game for the other kid.

The Ethics Game - Multiple Choice Quiz Game Figure 3. The first mini-game, a quiz about something. The third option seemed to be correct more often.

I had to go through some more animation, and then, finally, I got to my first game which was, unfortunately, some kind of quiz. If I had to guess I'd say it was either quizzing me on my memory of what the monk had just explained, or it was presenting scenarios and asking me to select the correct behavior. I actually managed to get a passing score (600 points!) through trial and error. On to the next one. It's impossible for me to say with any certainty what the moral of this game was, but the interface and screen layout made it perfectly clear what I was supposed to do.

The Ethics Game - Log Jam Figure 4. Log jam mini-game. Not hard to figure out what to do, but some of these were pretty hard to solve.

This one was actually the hardest. It's a standard kind of sliding box puzzle, and the narrative context seems to be that we (the player kids) are helping a farmer transport his crops across a river that is crammed full of logs. A timer counts down from 60 seconds, and you get bonus time when you solve a particular puzzle, so you basically end up with about 10 seconds per puzzle. Which isn't that easy. The moral of this game has to do with helping people, but the task you're asked to perform is only connected to this moral by way of the narrative, which I'm only able to make guesses at based on the animation.

The Ethics Game - Skateboarding Game Figure 5. The skateboarding game. Collect the fruit and vegetables; avoid the holes and bunnies.

Next up was the skateboarding game, which was pretty easy to figure out, though as usual it took some trial and error. I think the farmer we just helped out some how lost all of his vegetables, and I had to go pick them up. The HUD at the top left tracks your progress (green), remaining time (countdown), and HP (red). Your HP increases when you collect hearts, and decreases when you hit obstacles such as potholes, logs, and (I eventually learned) any animal. I wasn't surprised that I was penalized for hitting the menacing or cute-looking animals, but since I was supposed to be helping out a farmer, and farmers usually have chickens, I was surprised to learn that I couldn't "collect" chickens in the same way that I collected watermelons. Here, the moral of the game seems to be to not be cruel to animals, and in the context of the food collection, this game also promotes vegetarianism.

There were a couple more pretty average and predictable games, including one where I played as parrot collecting fruit that rained down from a tree, all while avoiding snakes and scorpions (which makes sense). But the final game actually gave me the most trouble even though it's actual gameplay was really easy. The hard part was just figuring out what I was supposed to do.

The Ethics Game - Vice Selection Game Figure 6. The final game, an array of vices.

At the outset of this mini-game, I encountered a screen containing several text chunks with accompanying cartoons. Since I couldn't read the text, I just hit "play" (I'd learned by now that green buttons mean "forward"). The game itself displayed a series of scenes like a city street and a dock, and the cartoons from the opening screen appeared and disappeared in succession. Sometimes clicking on a cartoon caused it to disappear and my score to go up, but other times, my score would go down. These cartoons were labeled with numbers, and eventually I noticed that the HUD widget in the upper left corner also had the same numbers. What I came to realize was that to successfully play this game, you have to first select a number in the widget, then click on the cartoon that is labeled with that same number. It was pretty easy, actually, but it took me 5 or 6 times through to figure it out. The moral of this game seems to be contained in the 5 caricatures, but it's not at all clear how selecting and clicking them teaches me something about these vices. In the screenshot above, you can see four of them: 1 is a girl spraying bugs ("don't kill?"), 2 is a guy stealing shoes ("don't steal shoes?"), 3 isn't on this screen, but it's a fat guy with a moustache and a lady on each arm ("don't be a pimp?"), 4 is a couple of girls talking about someone ("don't gossip"), and 5 is a drunk guy throwing up on a cat ("don't get drunk").

The Ethics Game - Depiction of Ethnic Chinese Family Figure 7. One of the player characters being yelled at by his father. This family is depicted as Sino-Thai.

There's one final element of this game that I want to mention, and I'm actually not sure how important this is or if I'm attempting to read too much into it. The fat kid is characterized by different means as being ethnically Chinese, so I'm not sure if the depiction of his vices (gluttony and cruelty) could be considered a kind of latent racialism. I'm not really aware of the ethnic tensions within Thailand, but I learned through some googling that there is a history of the Sino-Thai minority facing oppression. Of course, this is mostly speculation, but it's a troubling possibility within a game about ethical and religious behavior. If anyone speaks Thai or could shed some light on this example, I'd love to hear more about it.

For the most part I found my way through the game interface with relatively little trouble. Some buttons or objects were even labeled in English, so that made somethings easy. A great deal was communicated through color; generally, things that were green or blue seemed to mean "accept," "start," or "forward," and things that were orange or pink. Also, things which could be clicked on wiggled or became brighter when I hovered the pointer over them, so it was usually easy to figure out what my available actions were, except for that last mini-game. Also, clickable or interactive things tended to have some kind of localized depth. That is, they would cast a shadow or appear to have a beveled surface, but they appear to be localized in that the surface these buttons rise up from is not necessarily contiguous with other items of the same depth or within a complete spatial realm. Game moments are made clear through animations and sound effects, and successes and failures easily distinguish what one is supposed to do to successfully complete a mini-game.

The Ethics Game - Success! Figure 8. Success!

Many of my observations here are rather obvious, but I wanted to discuss them to speculate that the reason they're obvious may be that the language of gaming is something I'm fluent in through playing lots of games. This language may also be, to some extent, intuitive. Many Flash-based games on sites like Newgrounds.com contain little to no text, and most mini-games of the Warioware variety expect their players to figure out what to do without a textual explanation. I don't think that The Ethics Game, is particularly good at this, but my experience with it suggests that there is a potential for games like this to deliver their content completely without words. Not only might these games reach a wider audience, but if the language of gaming is actually universal because it is somehow intuitive, it strikes me that a well-done wordless game would have the ability to express more complex ideas more convincingly.

It's hard to think of many examples of wordless games that aren't minigames, other than the classic minimalist-by-necessity games like Breakout (of course, in those cases you generally have an arcade cabinet or instruction booklet telling you what to do: "Avoid missing ball for high score"). And even in the case of games that I suspect might be wordless (Neverhood?), it's hard to remember since I so easily take for granted that games can both explain things and expect you to figure things out without instructions. Can you think of any?

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