Reality Skimming

Ethics in SF #1: Arinn Dembo (3 of 4)

Reality Skimming continues 4-installment interview with Arinn Dembo on the topic of "Ethics in SF".

Ethics in SF: A series of interviews, articles and debates on the Reality Skimming blog, hosted by Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel Saga.

Arinn Dembo Arinn Dembo has been a professional writer for over twenty years. She has published hundreds of essays, articles and reviews, and her short stories have appeared in F & SF, H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror, and a number of anthologies. At present she is the Lead Writer for Kerberos Productions, an independent video game development studio. Her first novel The Deacon’s Tale and Monsoon, a short story collection, are due to be published by Kthonia Press this fall. She holds a degree in Anthropology and a second in Mediterranean Archaeology. Her personal website is, and she can also be found on the forums for Kerberos Productions on a daily basis. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Q. Games seem amoral at first glance. The goal is simply to win. What’s your take on the role of ethics in gaming?

“Gaming” is a word which covers too many works of art to answer this question easily. You can play to win a game of Tetris or Bejeweled: that’s a very different subjective experience from “winning” an adventure role-playing game like Silent Hill. Or a multiplayer shooter like Battlefield 1943, or a team-based simulation like World of Tanks, or an immersive narrative drama like L.A. Noire. One thing I can say in defense of gaming as an ethical medium: it allows human beings to experiment with actions and their consequences without causing real harm. The player can adopt any role, exist in any environment, explore all available options, and witness the consequences of his or her own actions unfold, all without shedding a single drop of blood. I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out why a war game is more ethical than a real war, but games can be based on all sorts of other scenarios—running a business, collecting butterflies, solving a murder. In what other medium can we test every recipe without breaking a single egg? Aspire to be heroes or wallow in villainy without any real loss of life, or even significant risk?

Near Miss, a screenshot - Arinn Dembo
Near Miss, a screenshot - Arinn Dembo

The concept of “winning” can also be subverted pretty heavily depending on your design. The goal of a game is to “win”, yes, but victory can be defined by both player and designer in an incredible number of ways. Sometimes losing the game teaches us more and affects us more profoundly than winning. Games can wring very intense emotion out of an audience, inspire deep thought, create new interests, teach history and theory in a lot of disciplines…the medium has enormous potential.

Q. You’ve said you explore the big picture through your writing. Can you comment on the differences in scope or opportunity for exploring ethics in gaming vs. novel writing?

A novel is a much more confined and controlled space than a game is, artistically speaking. A novelist gets to plan what the protagonist does next, and the audience is a passive witness to the direction that a character chooses to take. To explore ethics, you pose problems and your protagonist makes the choices that you want him/her to make, in order to make your point. In a game, the player IS the protagonist, and the designer cannot directly control what he or she will do. Your job is to provide them with challenges, choices, and tools: then they play the game and achieve an outcome that they earn. The majority of work I have done in gaming has not been to write scripts or create mission paths, but to build worlds and universes. In Sword of the Stars, I explore ethics in the histories I create, the scenario problems I pose to the player, the conflicts that arise from cultures with opposing values. My personal values do not often come directly into the picture, but I do make a small point indirectly, at times.

As an example: when I was directing the art for the portraits of a future Human race, the gender ratio was 50/50, and the faces were not all white. A very simple thing, but representing real life human diversity in a game universe is not as common as it should be, and real equality and mutual respect in the depiction of human subjects is even more rare. Everyone you see in a Sol Force uniform is a participant in humanity’s heroic future, regardless of gender or skin color. This is not a game which presents all women as sexual objects or victims, and all non-whites as comedy relief or criminals.

Your Turn: Comment with your own reaction to the questions.

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