Capricology Week 5: Fathers, Funerals, and the Ethics of Gaming

This week’s discussion centers on the efficacy of ritual, on the “magic circle” of game space, and on the conversion of a central character from lost soul to gun-toting avenger—who doesn’t know she’s already dead.

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Diane Winston___________________

There is another sky ” and this week in Caprica’s iconic closing shot, Tamara Adams walks beneath it. Gun in hand on a deserted New Cap City street, the chilling image of the good girl turned immortal avatar augurs one of several religious quests set in motion this week.

The pursuit of identity, purpose, and meaning has always been central to our favorite Capricans (I use the term capaciously to include Taurons, Gemenons, and others whom we’ve met on Caprica), but the stakes just got a lot higher for Joseph Adama, Daniel Graystone, and, of course, Tamara.

We all saw it coming, but was it possible not to pity Joseph who, seeking to do right by his son, acceded to funeral rites for his not-quite dead daughter? Broken by grief, Joseph tries to find meaning as a father to William, but the tenuousness of that identity cannot survive news from the virtual world. His stab at a new purposefulness ends with a mad dash after the young gamer who tells him that Tamara still exists.

Daniel’s path is no less fraught. After last week’s high-minded promise to forego holoband profits, he needs something big to throw at his restive board. What bigger than the Zoebot, whose floor-shaking footsteps herald the end of the world as he knows it. Daniel, too, needs new purpose as well as a new identity. He finds both as father of a race of robots whose sentient intelligence renders them perfect servants. Poor Zoe, the erotic undertone of his unbridled arrogance must be as discomfiting as the sight of her parents copulating in the laboratory. Poor Graystone board members, unaware that this sexy, shiny house slave will end up serving the destructo God in the sky.

Whereas Daniel and Joseph seem headed for their own private hells, Tamara looks to a very public showdown. Announcing, “I’m awake,” she, like Zoe, stands in contradistinction to an uncomprehending dad. Watching her transformation from little girl lost to a woman with unprecedented powers (I loved the way she became more comfortable in her “skin”), Tamara challenged Zoe for pride of place in the new world order.

Fathers and daughters! I can only imagine the conflicts that lie ahead. Jane Espenson, whose work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer proves she knows teenage girls, has taken a roiling stew of insecurity, anger, and bravado dosed with daddy-love, coltishness, and great clothes to come up with two heroines propelled by a sense of personal mission. I can’t wait for the next meet-up.

Some grace notes: Espenson explains Sam’s tats here. I watched the Tauron death rites three times. I thought they looked Jewish, but there was enough going on for almost any religion or ethnicity to lay claim. Anyone else see anything familiar?


Henry Jenkins___________________

I’ve said from the start that Tamara is the character whose story intrigues me the most so far in the series: the person who is dead and who doesn’t know it, the person who is caught in a purgatory between worlds and doesn’t know what she has to do to change her fate. So, naturally, I am pretty intrigued with an episode that centers so much on Tamara and her attempts to find herself, literally and figuratively. But, as interested as I am in Tamara’s “growth” or “corruption” here, remains to be seen which we are witnessing, I am also very interested in what this episode tells us about the nature of games and gamers.

In game theory, there is the concept of the magic circle. When we enter a game space, we remove some of the real world consequences of our actions. Often, this is as much a mental attitude as anything else. The same action can be performed outside the game and mean something very different than what it means inside the game. The classic example is a little girl sweeping the floor. She may embrace this activity in the context of “playing house” while rejecting it in the context of “doing chores,” even though, in fact, it is the same action. In theory, at least, this accounts for how players process some of the violent fantasies that are part of contemporary video games. Two players may be blasting each other away and trash talking within the context of the game, while they are in fact bonding through their play.

So, what happens if you exist only within the game, as Tamara does. She makes the point in this episode that she can not escape the consequences of what happens inside the game—because the game is her only reality. There is no magic circle for her, though oddly, the implication is that the absence of this distance allows her to become more effective at playing the game. She feels real pain, and her suffering introduces real consequences into the game.

I am reminded of Gonzolo Frasca, the game theorist who has written some interesting things about why video games cannot deal with real-world horrors (such as the concentration camps or terrorism) since we lose the sense of trauma and loss in a representational system where we can simply die and reboot. That’s why it is interesting that in the New Cap City game, you can only play once, and if you die, you can not reenter the game. This has long been a subject of speculation among game designers—though no commercial game company has the guts to design a game that you can’t play any more if you lose.

I am also struggling a little with her male companion’s comment that New Cap City is “lawless,” since after all, the nature of games is to be rule-driven. He may not fully understand the rules of the game he is playing and the rules may not allign with those in the real world, but if it is a game, especially one which can be won or lost, there are rules. In some ways, that’s the nature of the digital game more generally. The computer takes over management of the rule system of the game and consequently, the rules become implicit rather than explicit. We don’t read the rules before we play the game; we must figure them out as we go along. Yet, that does not mean that there are no rules—only that the rules get established in the context of the game and that some of the rules we follow outside the game no longer apply.

Games, by definition, have rules, while play spaces do not necessarily have rules. Games can be won, while play spaces have no clearly defined goals and outcomes. Play spaces respond to our impulses, while games force us to contain our impulses towards a higher end. You could argue that the virtual worlds we have seen up to now are play spaces and not games, much as Second Life is a play space and not a game. Much of what we’ve seen in the play space has been about transgression and identity play, but not about rule systems.

The idea that games are “lawless” is one often espoused by moral reform groups in our own time, but it seems to me misguided. I wrote the introduction to Ethics and Game Design, an recent anthology of essays by game designers and scholars which explore how computer games encourage various forms of self-reflection. Here’s part of what I had to say:

In Oliver!, through the song, “Reviewing the Situation,” we have a character digging deep into his own goals, values, and place in the world, and openly proclaiming that his experiences as a “villain” make him ill-suited to most of the trappings of a “normal life.” Fagin’s self-reflection leads him to construct and test a series of scenarios (marrying, joining respectable society, getting a job, living alone, freeing the young men in his employ, reaching old age), each embodying an alternative version of himself. Fagin plays out their consequences as a series of thought experiments, before pulling back and deciding to “think it out again.”…

Now consider a typical adolescent, seated in front of her computer screen, beginning to construct a character for a role playing game, and facing the same range of questions about her potential identities and goals. Should she join the dark horde, embrace a life as a villain, commit atrocities on other players, and in the process, begin to experiment with and potentially exorcise the darker side of her own personality? Or, should she become one of the good ones, going out to do heroic deeds, sharing the loot with others in her party, rescuing those in distress and helping newbies learn to play, and developing a sense of responsibility and accountability to others in her guild? Should she design an avatar that reflects the way she sees herself or should she embrace a fantasy radically different from her real world personality or situation and in so doing, see what it might be like to walk in a different set of moccasins?

Like Fagin, she can try on different personas, test different scenarios, and imagine alternative moral codes through which she might navigate the challenges of her day-to-day existence. She has the option of taking risks, dying, rebooting, and exploring another course of action: “I think I’d better think it out again.” While young people have often found it difficult to anticipate the future consequences of their current actions, the game offers her a powerful tool through which to accelerate life processes and thus play out in the course of an afternoon several different scenarios and their consequences. And through in-game cameras that allow players to record and replay their actions, she can literally review the situation, going back to key choice points and retrospectively evaluate where she went wrong and how bad decisions led to negative consequences. Seen in this way, the computer game constitutes an incredible resource for self-reflection and personal exploration, one with rich potentials for moral and ethical education. No other current art form allows such an intense focus on choices and their consequences; no other art form allows us this same degree of agency to make our own decisions and then live through their outcomes.

Of course, this argument rests on our ability to play out the same scenario multiple times and it rests on being able to step outside the game and reflect on the choices we have made. But in the case of the New Cap City game, these conditions are not met for the players. For Tamara, there can be no stepping outside the game and for her male companion, the game can only be played once.

I am just scratching the surface here, I’m afraid. There’s much more to be said about Tamara’s efforts to get her friend to leave the game and find something meaningful to do in the world beyond, about the connection being framed here between the virtual world and the underworld, and so forth. I am hoping the series gives us more opportunities to explore those issues.


Salman Hameed___________________

I liked this episode, and Tamara’s character and her circumstances have a lot to do with that. Henry has brought up some fascinating points about the nature of games and gamers. However, what caught my attention was that Tamara in the virtual world has no controller behind her. Within the game space, she is the only one with free will (though this may still be an illusion of free will, as the code for the game is likely to be quite deterministic). Since she is the only one in the game that suffers pain but no death, it will be interesting to see the evolution of her ethical code within the virtual world.

The transformation of Tamara from a helpless lost soul to a gun-toting avenger sets up the stage for her probable showdown with Zoe—a continuation of Adama-Graystone rivalry in other spheres. Zoe, or Zoebot (thanks for the term, Diane), herself is dealing with the issues of free will. We are aware that Cylons will have a mind of their own and that they are going to rebel against their creators. But, with Zoebot, we are witnessing the tension between her free mind and her not-so-free robotic exterior. It was moving to see her facial expressions when Daniel commanded Zoebot to ripoff its own arm. But how far will this obedience go? Is this setting up the stage for the grand old story of Abraham’s sacrifice—except, perhaps, the decision will now be in the hands of the offspring?

One more note on Tamara’s virtual-only existence. Of course, many of us now have presence on the internet with Facebook accounts, Twitter, blogs, etc. I hope these pages don’t keep updating themselves after our deaths and mimic our personalities 🙂 But just in case, here is Deathswitch, to avoid floating virtual presence with leftover passwords everywhere. Here is the description:

Imagine that you die with computer passwords in your head, leaving coworkers without access to critical files. Imagine your loved ones cannot find your bank accounts, or that you die with a secret that you longed to reveal during your lifetime. A deathswitch is an automated system that prompts you for your password on a regular schedule to make sure you are still alive. When you do not enter your password for some period of time, the system prompts you again several times. With no reply, the computer deduces you are dead or critically disabled, and your pre-scripted messages are automatically emailed to those named by you.

A deathswitch is information insurance. Don’t die with secrets that need to be free. We are the only company to offer a deathswitch subscription service (patent pending). You create email messages, attach files, and specify your recipients, and the messages are automatically emailed after your switch is triggered. With the free account, you get 1 recipient and no attachments. With the premium account, you get 30 messages, up to 10 recipients each, and the ability to attach files such as videos, pictures, and documents. We keep the information secure until you stop responding, and then we send it. Our users have discovered many uses for deathswitches: All deathswitches have one theme in common: they insure that critical information will survive even if you die unexpectedly.

That would have killed the drama on Caprica.


Anthea Butler___________________

Ah! Now I have something to sink my teeth into. This past week perhaps made me happy in part because a religious ritual finally appears to sink our teeth into—maybe to help the viewer understand the role and function of identity and belief on Caprica. Even better, the virtual world is more than just Club V, but a series of places we can go to. I have to say what intrigued me this week was cubits, how money was used as a religious piece in the Tauron “funeral” ritual, as a way of passage, to the cubits that were currency in the virtual world, to the money for Greystone enterprises, the subtext of money this week pointed to both its uses and its perils.

While the Adamas mourn Tamara and her mother’s death at a family altar in the home (the Italian connections are endless) Tamara’s actions in New Cap City are a pleasant but foreboding maturation of her avatar. Perhaps I am stuck in the 1990s, but I couldn’t help but think that New Cap city was an homage to New Jack City, the drug-laden morality tale of Nino Brown and the Cash money crew.

By the end of the show Tamara has become a souped-up, invincible mercenary who has dispatched everyone and walks the streets of New Cap City as though she owns them. Her “turning” from a sweet, innocent girl into the “awakened” cynical killer who is going to hold her new hood down until she can get out of the virtual world into the real world is both intriguing and a warning of bad things to come. You just know that somehow, she looks like a cylon killing machine in a pretty dress. Tamara’s behavior could be credited to finding out she is really dead, and that this form is not her former self. The more intriguing question is: what does it mean to die, and still be sentient—feeling, acting and thinking in a space that has no moral arbiter? We know that the moral rules don’t apply in the virtual world, but will Tamara’s actions and behavior in the virtual world be translated into the “real” world? When and if Tamara gets out, will she be able to turn off her murderous impulses that she has acquired as a tool for survival? Can she be daddy’s girl once again? My guess is no.

Similarly, we have to ask if performance and execution of a ritual finishes anything? Perhaps this is a trite, but watching the ritual of passage to mark the death of Tamara and her mother by the Adama men made me think about how rituals, especially funeral rites, are for the benefit of the living, not the dead. Rituals are a marker, a rite that allows grief, and one level of closure. But we know that Joseph Adama will not have closure since his daughter is roaming the mean streets of New Cap City.

By choosing to make the Tauron ritual a male-dominated space, complete with a bare-chested tattooed Sam standing behind his brother and nephew, an interesting juxtaposition is beginning to form about male-dominated religious space versus the feminine space we see Sister Clarice occupying. Place that against the two daughters who seem tied to their fathers, despite the fact they are in a virtual space, and we have the potential that the stereotypical “Daddy’s girl” might turn into something else altogether. Right now, both Zoe and Tamara want to please their fathers; Tamara merely wants to go home, and Zoe is forced to tear off her Cylon “limb” in order to seal the deal for her father to retain control of the corporation. How long will the desire for Daddy last, then, when these young women begin to really come into their own, and, avatar or not, begin to become young women who “aren’t going to take it anymore.”

Finally, the fishing scene between Joseph Adama and young Willie was a foil for showing how much work Joseph Adama has to do in order to get his son back. I have to wonder whether their relationship was any better while his wife and daughter were still alive, but Willie looks like a pawn that will continue to be used between Sam—who represents the old ways and traditions of Tauron— and Joseph, who has assimilated in the Caprican World.

The funeral ritual may have served as a rite of passage, but for Joseph, who finds out that Tamara still exists, the ritual fades into nonexistence as he runs down the street, trying to catch up to the young man sent by Tamara. Joseph’s choice is not to close the door, but rather, to chase after the possibility of seeing an “abomination.” Tamara’s avatar is perhaps a foreshadowing of Joseph’s complete loss of faith in the old ways of Tauron, in order to hold on to his daughter.

Time will tell, however, if the Tamara of the virtual world will be enough for Joseph, or anyone else for that matter, in the real world. There may be another sky, but I’d bet it will not be a blue one, for sure.