This article is part of a VB special issue. Read the full series here: Power in AI.

Richard Bartle is one of the leading academics on video games and is a senior lecturer and honorary professor of computer game design at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom. He might seem an unusual choice to talk about the ethics of artificial intelligence, but video game developers have grappled with the ethics of creating virtual worlds with AI beings in them for a long time. Not only do they have to consider the ethics of what they create in their own worlds, the game designers also have to consider how much control to grant players over the AI characters who inhabit the worlds. If game developers are the gods, then players can be the demi-gods.

He recently spoke about this topic in a fascinating talk in August on the IEEE Conference on Games in London. I interviewed him about our own interests in the intersection of AI, games, and ethics. He is in the midst of writing a book about the ethics of AI in games. His aim is to point out the unusual moral and ethical questions that AI specialists of the future will face.

I asked if sentient AI was on the horizon. He corrected me, noting “sapient AI” is the right description, as it refers to AI that are conscious, self-aware, and able to think. Before we create sapient non-player characters in games, Bartle believes we need an ethical system in place. And he’s not so sure that we should create them in the first place. Bartle believes that game developers are like gods of the worlds they create. “Those who control the physics of a reality are the gods of that reality,” he said.

Below is an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: This may be Richard Bartle on Skype. Or maybe his virtual character.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: It seems like a fascinating topic, and a very timely one. It feels more relevant to today’s headlines than ever before, I would guess.

Bartle: A lot of the general AI, ethics of AI, we’ve thought about for years. I did my PhD on AI in the 1980s. Some of the things that people talk about with AI, we were talking about back then — only hypothetically, but nevertheless we were considering these things. But some of the things I talk about in the deck are to do with games and AI in a way that we weren’t looking at it in the past.

Normally, when you look at AI and games, it’s using AI as weapons, using AI as ways to control a population, or using AI to increase your own intelligence. What happens when AI gets sentience and they want to kill us all? This kind of thing. The Terminator. The clue’s in the name. [laughs] But what I was looking at was different.

Let’s suppose that we have these AIs, but they’re in a pocket environment and they can’t get out. They can’t do anything to us except through us. How should we treat them? What’s right and what’s wrong? It turns out that when you look into the philosophy of this, well, the philosophers haven’t. They haven’t really looked at what it means to be someone in control of an entire reality in which intelligent beings live.

Theologists have, sort of, but they’ve only looked at our reality. They haven’t looked at a sub-reality in which we are the gods. They’ve looked at our reality in which they are proposing there are zero to infinity gods above. It’s a different area. But the thing is that people who’ve made these games have actual practical experience of what it means to be in control of them.

Now, we don’t have sentient–well, sapient is the correct word. We don’t have sapient non-player characters at the moment. The question I was asking is, we don’t know when we’re going to get them. It could be in 10 years or 1,000 years or a million years. But eventually, we will get them. And when we do get them, how are we going to treat them? What’s right and what’s wrong? That’s what I was asking.

The developers are gods

Above: The Terminator

Image Credit: Orion Pictures

GamesBeat: It seems like a lot matters in terms of what we call them. I know it’s at the top of your slide deck. You can refer to players as gods, and then if we’ve decided to call ourselves gods, then everything we do is justifiable, right?

Bartle: Well, players aren’t gods. Designers and developers are gods. They control the reality, the physics of the world. The players can go in there and have — I suppose you could say they have godlike powers, but they can’t change the physics of the world. They have abilities beyond those of the non-player characters. For example, they can communicate with each other without NPCs being aware it’s happening.

GamesBeat: If we call ourselves that, we’ve already made a kind of ethical judgment, right?

Bartle: Going back to Dungeons and Dragons terminology — gods, demi-gods, and heroes — the demi-gods are probably the customer service people. They have powers beyond the regular mortals, what the NPCS have. But they don’t have physics-changing powers. The players would be the heroes. They’re going in there and they’re bigger, better, superior to the NPCs. But they’re not gods. They don’t have the full range of abilities that the customer service reps have. Customer service reps are probably the angels.

Westworld showed us the way?

Above: Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright in Westworld.

Image Credit: HBO

GamesBeat: What was some of the reference material, if the philosophers didn’t really tackle this? Does something like Westworld do a better job? [laughs]

Bartle: Oddly, when Westworld came out, I’d already thought about these things. The Westworld TV series thought in quite a lot more depth than the original movie, back in the ’70s. But the source materials — essentially it’s metaphysics. I read a whole bunch of things on metaphysics and meta-metaphysics. There’s even a book called Meta-Metaphysics, the metaphysics of metaphysics. I was looking for some of the problems that philosophers have about how the world is built and then saying, “Well, we don’t have that problem because we’ve had to do it.”

This isn’t strictly to do with AI and ethics — but for example, philosophers have this problem to do with whether an object can share the same space as another object. If I take a lump of clay and I give it a name — everybody knows this particular lump of clay. It’s a particular color. Everybody knows it. Then I mold that clay into a statue or something. Somebody comes along who didn’t know it as clay, but sees it as a statue. Now there’s two objects there. One of them is the clay and one of them is the statue. Is that just clay that’s been shaped into the statue, so the clay is the statue? Or is [it] two objects that are somehow superimposed?

As a game designer, you actually have to implement that. It’s one or the other. You make the decision, which one you’re going to go with. Similarly, the story of — was it Theseus’s ship? Someone’s ship. Or Lincoln’s axes. Was it Washington’s axes? Never mind. Basically, it’s the case where you have a ship, an old wooden ship, and it starts to get a bit worn out, so you take a few planks out and replace them. Then you notice the mast going a bit, so you take the mast out, replace the sails. Eventually you’ve replaced the whole ship. Is it the same ship?

Furthermore, what if someone collects all the pieces you threw away and sticks them all together to make the original ship out of the same pieces? Is that the same ship? Or a different ship? If it was a magic ship, to which ship would the magic be attached? The one that’s been gradually replaced or the one that’s been built? These are questions which philosophers can discuss forever, and indeed have, and probably still will. But when it comes to game development, you have to implement it. Which of these are we going with?

Game developers have an insight into what it means to be someone who controls the physics of a reality, if you call that a god. Because they have an insight, that means they can say things which may be of interest to philosophers and theologians.

The reality of The Sims

Above: The Sims 4

Image Credit: EA

GamesBeat: We have god games like the Sims. In that sense, the player in a god game is almost like a game developer creating a game, where they create the entities in the world. Is there a difference?

Bartle: There is a difference, yes. The difference, in a god game, yes, you have the powers of a god, except for the powers of creating the reality. A bona fide, fully powered god can change the world. If you’re in, I don’t know, the Sims or something like that, a game where you’re able to influence characters by changing the world about them, you’re only changing the world within the constraints of the program. It doesn’t matter what you’ve got in the Sims. You’re not able to change the code that underlies it. But the developers can.

GamesBeat: I guess there’s an interesting hierarchy here, where you have the player in the Sims, the designer of the game, and then Andrew Wilson, the CEO of Electronic Arts, who’s the god over the game developers telling them what they can and can’t do.

Bartle: [laughs] Well, he’s not a god. He can instruct them. But he operates within the same physics as the game developers, the physics of reality. If the game developers say, “We’re just going to sit here and create the game we want,” he can sack them, but if all the developers get together and say, “No, we’re going to stay here and barricade ourselves in the office and finish the game,” then he has to go call the police. Then you have people who say, “No, we want this game finished,” and they’re all rooting for the developers. They go out and disarm the police and eventually you call in the army and there’s riots. But ultimately they all operate within the same physics of reality. They’re attempting to use the physics of reality to control the behavior of people in reality.

Now, the other thing developers could do is go over their heads. “Okay, I think there’s a higher power in a higher reality and I shall appeal to that. I’m going to pray you don’t do this.”

Who is responsible?

Above: A Richard Bartle slide.

Image Credit: Richard Bartle

GamesBeat: I guess what we’re getting at is, who’s responsible? The player has certain responsibilities and certain ethics. But so does the game developer, if they allow the player to do certain things, or give less freedom to the player. They’re marshaling their responsibility and their own sense of ethics.

Bartle: Game developers are an interesting situation. There’s a paradox about game design, which is that you impose constraints on what the players can do in order to free them up to do things that they couldn’t do if you hadn’t put the constraints on them. When you’re playing a game, you can behave differently to what you do in reality, because the game gives you that protection. It’s a frame, they call it.

When you’re playing a game, your behavior doesn’t have the same impact as it does in reality. It’s the same as if you’re an actor on a stage. If you’re an actor on a stage and you start using racist language, well, if that’s part of the play, you’re protected. If you suddenly start shouting, “There’s a fire!” and that’s not part of the play, and there isn’t a fire, then suddenly you’re liable. But if it’s part of the play and you start shouting about a fire, well, you’re fine, even if people get trampled to death trying to get out from the imaginary fire.

In game design, we impose these constraints, but the constraints allow you to operate in ways that you couldn’t normally. In MMOs, which is my field, they enable you to act in ways that, in real life, you couldn’t. But in so acting, you gain a better understanding of yourself, and so that affects what you might do in real life in a good way. That’s the theory anyway.

Obviously there’s responsibility. Because you could weaponize games, if you really wanted to. You could do an awful lot of things with them. I was in a group at Project Horseshoe where we considered ways to use games badly. It’s actually very easy to use games badly. If I wanted to create a game that would, I don’t know, give people carpal tunnel syndrome, I could. I could gaslight them. I could ruin their lives.

Fear of the future

Above: A character in Until Dawn. Video game characters are looking amazingly realistic.

Image Credit: Sony

GamesBeat: It sounds like a Black Mirror episode.

Bartle: Yeah, yeah. We didn’t publish the paper, because if we did someone might act on it. We didn’t really want that. Game developers and designers, as it turns out, are on the whole quite ethical.

GamesBeat: You just got us into a loop there.

Bartle: My main aim, eventually, in the whole system, was to provoke people into think[ing] how they would behave if they were a god of NPCs. What are the right things to do and the wrong things to do? And then for them to say, “I’m not a god of the NPCs, but in reality I’m an NPC. How do I believe any god or gods who may or may not exist in our reality — how do I think they’re behaving? Is their behavior ethical by what I’ve just figured out using this thought experiment where I’m a god?” That was the point.

Are sapient game characters property?

Westworld's hosts are disposable.

Above: Westworld’s hosts are disposable.

Image Credit: Warner Bros.

GamesBeat: If I assert that the game characters are my property — I bought them with my $60 for the game — can I just do anything I want with my property? That’s one question. I guess we’re getting to this day where, with sapient AI, the AI is so good that we’re no longer faking it. Then it seems to cross that line from property into something else.

Bartle: Yes. If you say, “I own this game and I can do what I like with it, because I own it,” well, actually, no. There are some things you might think you own, but you can’t do anything you like to. Children would be something that springs to mind. They’re my children, using the possessive, but I can’t just — yes, these children wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t gotten drunk that night. That doesn’t mean I have a full right to them.

If I create a game as a designer and the game’s got intelligent NPCs, then I sell that game to somebody else.

I’m not selling the NPCs. I’m just selling the world in which the NPCs live. But what happens when you lose interest and stop playing? All those characters are going to disappear and die? Did you just kill all those characters? That’s something we don’t really have an answer for at the moment.