Yorke on Games #21 – Do Game Celebrities Have Greater Moral Responsibilities?

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In my previous article I developed “A Taxonomy of Bad Games,” which was meant to disambiguate the various ways in which games can be “bad”: poorly-designed, morally pernicious, or just played poorly. Each of these categories roughly correlates to the “MDA” framework laid out by Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek in their paper “MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research.” Today, instead of focusing on how games can ruin people (and their fun), I’m going to focus on how people—especially famous people—can ruin games, through their actions both inside and outside the game they are associated with.

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Specifically, the fundamental question I want to address is whether or not game celebrities have greater, equal, or lesser moral responsibility for their actions than non-celebrity players, and why.

In one sense, it looks absurd to claim that a murder committed by someone like football star O.J. Simpson (just a hypothetical example here: we all know he was found not guilty… on that charge, at least) would be morally worse than a murder committed by a relative unknown. After all, murder is murder. In another sense, it looks perfectly logical to claim that a murder by a Simpson-level gaming celebrity brings with it evils that do not accompany lower-profile felonies.

“Wasn’t me”
“Wasn’t me”

The safest way to proceed is to assess the plausibility of each of the possible viewpoints. Let’s discuss.

The Case for Lesser Moral Responsibility

This argument finds its expression in the folk belief that artists are justified in having unpleasant characters on the basis of the value of their cultural product. Often, the implicit assumption is that the vice generates, or is instrumentally connected to, the artistic value. Take, for instance, the following declaration: “Sure, David Bowie was a cokehead… but that boy could sing!”

Philosopher Bernard Williams’s discussion of painter Paul Gauguin brings this issue sharply into focus: would the world be a better place if Gauguin did the morally right thing and stayed with his family, or if he abandoned them (as he did) and produced a dazzling body of artistic output as a result?

I see what you did there, Paul
I see what you did there, Paul

The strength of this argument rests on whether the vice is inseparable from the good of the art. If we can establish that Bowie could sing just as well without the cocaine, or that Gauguin could have been just as prolific and talented a painter if he hadn’t been so callous to his family, then we have no justified reason to accept this kind of bad behavior from creative types, just as we don’t in the case of the average person. Counterfactually, we might ask ourselves: “What if breaking laws/customs/rules makes us a better at activity X? And does the objective value of activity X outweigh any relevant moral considerations?” But this type of speculation, although philosophically interesting, has little basis in fact, or bearing on practice.

In the world of gaming, the link is even more tenuous. It would be bizarre to claim that Tiger Woods was a better golfer directly because of his extramarital affairs, or that Mike Long should be permitted to verbally threaten his opponents because it makes him better at playing Magic. In short, we have no reason to apply a more flexible standard of morality to game celebrities. Even the special pleading case for stars suffering from the pressures of fame is thin and unconvincing; there is nothing that speaks for those being more onerous than the pressures of normalcy.

The Case for Equal Moral Responsibility

The position of equal moral responsibility can be roughly summed up by the maxim, “Lying is lying, no matter who’s doing it.” And that would be a good position to take, except that it’s not. It ignores the important differences that facts regarding personal identity imply for the moral weight and expected consequences of our actions. Its weakness becomes clear considering simple examples: when Barry Bonds lied about taking steroids, his actions were criminal; whereas if Joe at the gym lies about taking steroids, no one cares. Analogously, if I cheat at a friendly game of chess, it’s (merely) shameful, whereas if Bobby Fischer cheats at chess, it’s morally outrageous and possibly criminal because there are stakes with actual monetary value to be gained or lost at his level of professional play.

In 2011, Magic Hall of Famer Guillaume Wafo-Tapa was discovered to be using inside information—an unpublished card list from an upcoming expansion—to gain an unfair competitive edge. He faced an 18-month suspension from the game for doing so. However, if a player that no one had heard of got ahold of the same information and had no way to capitalize on it, would the DCI have handed down such a severe penalty to him or her? It seems likely that it would have been more in Wizards’ interest to cover up the information leak, and move on. It was at least in part because Wafo-Tapa was a prominent figure in the game, and well-situated to fully exploit that information, that an example needed to be made of him.
So it seems clear that there exists a double standard between what we consider acceptable behavior for game celebrities and what we consider acceptable behavior for the everyman, which makes the contention that both have the same moral responsibilities seem absurd. But why is it worse when celebrities do bad things than when non-celebrities do the same? I examine some possible explanations for this phenomenon below.

The Case for Greater Moral Responsibility

Success and celebrity come with a certain set of advantages: there is usually (at least some) financial consideration given to the star players of any game. There is social capital as well, in that people are more disposed to defend or assist people who are famous than people who are unknown. And, in the game itself, fame can also be used to intimidate lesser opponents to leverage even more wins.

One way to make sense of the position that celebrities have greater moral responsibility is to claim that it is the cost that must be paid for the inherent advantages that fame brings with it. The star’s handicap, if one can call it that, is that he or she is always under the spotlight and must behave well as a consequence of this. But this is a strange way of looking at fame, and many celebrities certainly wouldn’t accept the offer of stardom if it meant that they always had to be on their best behavior.

However, there are multiple more convincing reasons for thinking that game celebrities have greater moral responsibilities than relative unknowns. I analyze a few of these below:

1. Ambassadors of the Game
2. Role Models
3. Just Deserts
4. Wider Scale of Influence
5. Rule-Following Profession

1. Ambassadors of the Game
This is the idea that the actions of a game’s players—especially the actions of its stars—reflect directly on the value of the game itself. We witness this dynamic in religion, politics, and economics as well as gaming: what the Pope does and says as a representative of the Catholic Church greatly impacts that institution, both positively and negatively. The emergence of Donald Trump as a serious contender in the upcoming presidential race is a troubling symptom of the state of American culture as a whole. The opinion of a well-regarded stockbroker can make or break companies. So, if game celebrities care about the institutions of their chosen games (and they ought to, given the depth of their individual investment in them), then they have good (self-preserving) motivation to behave as well as they possibly can. On the other hand, a non-celebrity may lack the power to affect the reputation of the game they play, and thus have a more circumscribed version of this moral duty, if any at all.

2. Role Models
When you are famous or successful, a certain number of people will copy you in the hopes of bringing fame or success into their own lives. Some will even imitate you in the spirit of genuine admiration, with no expectation of return on effort. The role model argument holds that the celebrity is partially morally responsible for the actions of their fans, or at least the subsection of them (usually children) who are susceptible to emulative behavior. A duty is posited here that the star should not engage in any activity that would be harmful if imitated (e.g. drug abuse or violent crime). Again, there is very little risk of emulation for merely average players, so this duty is again mitigated for them.

3. Just Deserts
Regardless of the specific grounding of one’s moral framework, it generally chafes to see evil rewarded and good punished. If a star behaves poorly, people will come to believe that their fame and success are undeserved and resent them for it. Therefore, a celebrity has a prima facie duty to behave well to satisfy the public’s expectation that good actions merit good outcomes and bad actions merit bad outcomes. To do otherwise is to tempt the caprices of fate. It’s much harder to positively or negatively associate one’s out-of-game character to one’s in-game performance when that performance is middling at best, as is generally the case for the everyman.

4. Wider Scale of Influence
Magic Hall of Famer Luis Scott-Vargas has slightly more than 53,400 Twitter followers at the time of this publication [@lsv]. By comparison, I consistently reach around 15 people with my tweets [@CCYorke]. Thus it is not unreasonable to assume that what LSV has to say about professional Magic play will be considered by a larger number of people, and taken more seriously, than anything I have to say about it (poignant though my insights may be). Similarly, if he were to be caught up in some sort of scandal, it would negatively impact a lot more players than if the same thing happened to me, just by the sheer force of numbers, economically as well as socially.

5. Rule-Following Profession
This final consideration takes into account the unique nature of the game celebrity’s vocation. A game celebrity, by definition, rises to prominence by following rules: the rules of the game, cultural norms, and also the laws of the country. Failure to follow any of these would have meant that their rise to fame would not have occurred. This is why it is logically as well as morally offensive when we see game stars get caught for cheating at their game, behaving unlawfully outside of it, or being generally offensive; they are acting counter to the essential ingredient of their success, making mistakes that not even a rookie could afford to make. Since you’re well aware by now of my love of taxonomies, here’s a breakdown of all the ways that players can polarize public opinion with nothing more than their own behavior:

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While the value of any of the five reasons offered above for game celebrities having greater moral responsibilities than their non-celebrity counterparts might be reasonably questioned when taken individually, I take it as evident that their strength as a whole easily outweighs their theoretical competitors.

Conclusion

A role of prominence is voluntary: it requires active collusion and cooperation at every step. So, too, is the implicit acceptance of the increased ethical responsibility which accompanies such a role. It is much like accepting a job, with all of the written and unwritten expectations your employer has for you. Failing an unwritten expectation can be as hazardous for your continued employment as failing a written one.

No one can force you to play a game; no one can force you to win; no one can force you to be a star. However, choosing to do all of these things makes your actions more notable, impactful, and socially relevant than if you refrained from doing so. And if you slip up at the highest levels of game celebrity, it should not be surprising that you can be forced to stop playing, and therefore to stop winning, and therefore to cease being a star.

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