As time goes on and I write more posts for Problem Machine, I notice certain themes emerging, repeating themselves in slight variation. One of these is the idea that there are no good or bad elements of game design, only ineffective and effective combinations of these elements; that, indeed, the effectiveness of the design can only be gauged by its overall effect on the audience. If that sounds tautological, well, exactly: Just as art cannot be truthfully represented in terms more simple than itself, cannot be easily reduced, its effect on the audience cannot be defined outside the terms of that effect, and furthermore changes from individual to individual within that audience.

People are fairly comfortable with this approach when it comes to arts criticism, but less open to it when applied to weightier matters. This idea, that things can only be judged in terms of their effects, is one that I’m frequently surprised at how negatively people respond to. It would seem that others believe in the ideals of crimes and punishments, of elemental moralities beyond humanity, unregarding of our happiness. Beliefs like these are necessary to support our current financial and judicial institutions, so perhaps that’s why people dislike hearing them challenged. Indeed, so many people take the idea that something has to be good or bad as axiomatic, unquestioned, that they cannot understand logic framed in different terms, and will see apologism or vilification where there is merely the absence of judgment.

I cannot imagine another way to be. It makes everything so much clearer to me. Maybe it’s incompatible with most lifestyles: The lives of most people have a higher priority on fitting into groups and reaching a moral consensus, whereas I am mostly alone with my thoughts and find my ethical drive in sorting out the inherent benefits or detriments of my own behavior. So perhaps an empirical approach to morality merely suits my purposes, and others would find it untenable. I just always find myself wishing that we could more readily see the world in terms of desired results and actions that could achieve those results rather than in terms of good and evil, heroes and villains. I think we might be better off – but perhaps I am just another condescending preacher.

There are the old chestnuts people dust off against moral utilitarianism. What if a forsaken child were to be subjected to indescribable suffering to power our utopia? Well, currently lots of children are being subjected to indescribable suffering to power our dystopia, so forgive me if I don’t find arguments like these especially convincing. And no, I’m not saying the ends always justify the means; I’m just saying that whether they do or not depends an awful lot on the particular ends and means, and there’s actually a shitload of means available so, you know, maybe we should try some different ones if the balance seems to be unfavorable.

If this all seems either too crazy or too obvious, try it. Try to hold the idea that someone could either be telling the truth or lying comfortably in your head, without deciding which is which. Believe that abusers can be victimized and victims can be abusive without letting it detract even a tiny bit from your empathy for the abused. Believe that someone can be a great artist, can be a loving parent, can be a force for good in some ways, while being a monster, murderer, rapist, or whatever in others. Nothing is simple, nothing is good or bad, but is instead part of a vast system of hurt and love, fear and desire, loneliness and misunderstanding. The path to a better world cannot lie through finding the bad people and rooting them out, through creating heroic idols who will inevitably disappoint when they turn out to be merely human, of finding the punishments to fit the crimes we create. To navigate in this way is to navigate the sea by the clouds.

There are an infinite number of ways we can live in this world and structure our society. Let us create a system that treats us with love, and allows us to do the same for each other, rather than trying to flag each other as flawed, rejected, as less than the rest, hoping for our enemies to be one day discarded.


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