Games often present moral topics, inviting the player to reflect upon the events and their own involvement. Ideally, players develop an “ethical identity” (Ryan, Staines, and Formosa 2016, 2) through which they mediate their decisions. For such decisions to be fully attributed to the player, the game should offer more than just one way of doing things. However, given that games also visualise the player’s actions and decision, chances are that the representation thereof may influence how agency is exerted. This essay posits that the visualisation of data in games can have a normalizing effect on the players behaviour.
The normalizing structures in games are akin to what Michel Foucault conceived of in Discipline and Punish ( 1995). By visualising the performance, the game introduces a “normalizing gaze, a surveillance that makes it possible to qualify, to classify and to punish.” (Foucault 1977, 184). Metal Gear Solid 4 for instance, displays a statistic of the players performance, such as deaths, kills, alert phases, and playtime. Kills and alert phases reduce the amount of points awarded after a chapter and, at the same time, visualises an abstract version of the player’s behaviour. As Metal Gear Solid 4 calls itself a ‘tactical espionage action, the game rewards one specific playstyle, namely a stealthy one. Clearly, the game classifies the player and even punishes them for deviant actions.
Similarly, Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, constantly shows the player how many Mudokons died and how many were saved on a big scoreboard. The game provides spaces for the player to contemplate their performance. Because death is such an integral part of the game, the quantification is a constant reminder of how well or bad the player has performed thus far. Unlike Metal Gear Solid 4, however, there is no direct punishment for killing too many Mudokons until the end of the game. Yet, both games demonstrate how the system of a game can be conducive of steering the player’s behaviour.
The way the system collects, employs, and displays data, evokes notions of panopticism. In a paper on Dark Souls and panopticism van Nuenen (2016) states that there is a “fear of being seen” (523) when playing online. Upon death, the player leaves a bloodspot that remains in place until the player picks up what they lost upon death. In the meantime, other player can interact with the bloodspot and observe a phantom of the player’s avatar, portraying the last few seconds of their life. Not only is the player permanently suffering from subjection to the game’s mechanics but also to the gaze of other players. At the same time, there is no way of telling who is observing the player.
In conclusion, what is interesting about these structures is that players readily subject themselves to the system. Outside of the game, structures of surveillance and normalization have been heavily criticised. In games, this appears not to be the case, or at least not to the same extent. As Juul points out, the boundaries of the space that play happens in, are negotiated by the players (2008, 62). Irrespectively, it appears that part of the cultural implications seep across the boundary. In allowing games to observe and normalise us, we willingly accept normalization itself, which may, in turn, have an impact on the structures in society.
Foucault, Michel.  1995. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 2nd ed. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.
FromSoftware. 2018. Dark Souls: Remastered. Bandai Namco.
Juul, Jesper. 2008. “The Magic Circle and the Puzzle Piece.” In Conference Proceedings of the Philosophy of Computer Games 2008, edited by Stephan Günzel, Michael Liebe and Dieter Mersch, 56-67. Potsdam: Potsdam University Press, https://publishup.uni- potsdam.de/opus4-ubp/frontdoor/deliver/index/docId/2550/file/digarec01.pdf
Kojima Productions. 2008. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Konami.
Oddworld Inhabitants. 1997. Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee. GT Interactive Software.
Ryan, Malcolm, Dan Staines, and Paul Formosa. 2016. “Four Lenses for Designing Morally Engaging Games.” In Proceedings of 1st International Joint Conference of DiGRA and FDG. Dundee, Scotland: Digital Games Research Association and Society for the Advancement of the Science of Digital Games, http://www.digra.org/digital-library/publications/four-lenses-for-designing-morally-engaging-games/
van Nuenen, Tom. 2015. “Playing the Panopticon: Procedural Surveillance in Dark Souls.” Games and Culture 11 (5): 510-527. https://doi.org/10.1177/1555412015570967