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Ethics in Game Design
by Jon Shafer on 07/17/13 01:19:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.



What are the ethical responsibilities of a game designer?

That is the question which has been rattling around in my mind ever since a recent discussion in a recent episode of TGDRT regarding the “ultra-violent” Hotline Miami. This article is my proposed answer to that very difficult inquiry.

But let’s first back up a bit – why are we even bothering to ask this question?


Environmental Products

Few of us even think about it, but most of what makes us “us” is the sum of our subconscious wiring. Much of which is, in turn, shaped by our past experiences.

Consider a phrase or mannerism you’ve picked up from a close friend. Or the time someone dragged you along to try out a new type of strange food you now love. Or how  a hobby you just didn’t “get” before has become one of your favorites after your significant other introduced you to it.

Everything we encounter reshapes us, even if only a tiny bit. Needless to say, games are no exception. 


Unintended Consequences

Nintendo’s stable of games presents us with a good example of the subtle influence entertainment can wield. We’d all laugh at someone who suggested we shield our children from Mario, but the series is steeped in a tradition of male hero saves helpless woman. One can argue that its severity or impact has been overblown, but it’s there. Just as “niceness” and “selfishness” aren’t binary qualities, neither are racism, sexism, ageism, etc.

Will playing a few Mario games lead to a generation of young men who think women helpless and young women who suffer from low self-esteem? In isolation, certainly not. But minute influences like this can add up to a much stronger message. The first time we hear a word in our “mother” tongue our infant brain curiously processes the data, then stashes it away in a dark, untraveled corner. If the word is heard again it might be recognized, but still lack meaning. However, after the millionth time we probably have a pretty good grasp of what the speaker is trying to convey.

Similarly, all commonly-held attitudes began as outliers and it took time and energy for them to gather momentum. Whether we realize it or not, each of us has a small role to play in either ushering them along, or stemming the tide.

I’m sure Miyamoto didn’t set out with the goal of brainwashing players into believing that men are capable and women aren’t, but this is a subtle, unintended theme in some of his games. That doesn’t make him a bad man or unethical designer. Still, it remains a valid criticism, and had someone with Miyamoto’s ear shared this back in the 1980s it’s possible he may have altered his approach.


Stepping Back

It is both noteworthy and commendable that Nintendo took a different direction in its Legend of Zelda franchise. Our titular princess made her introduction as just another woman that needed saving, but later evolved into a strong and independent character.

The lesson here isn’t that creators need to mark every box on the diversity checklist so that they can sleep soundly knowing no fragile minds were offended, nor young ones warped. In fact, much of history’s most significant and thought-provoking art was very much not something contemporaries would have been comfortable displaying in their living rooms.

And that is the takeaway. As public voices, developers owe it to society to at least consider the impact of their work. Not every title needs to be Bioshock, but it’s irresponsible and ignorant to suggest that any game is completely disposable and has zero impact.


Money VS Morality

The subconscious mind is a delicate, primitive thing. It is influenced in millions of ways we’re not aware of. We take it for granted that there are people who are paid a lot of money to channel the brain’s hidden forces for financial gain. The analogue in games are some of the more controversial business models, particularly ongoing subscription fees and free-to-play. So what are we to make of this? Are these people morally reprehensible? Are they, like the rest of us, just trying get by?

I’m a realist, and as the owner of a studio I recognize that if games don’t make money they stop getting made, people lose their jobs, and everyone is worse off. So where do we draw the line?

Games exist to entertain people, and that should be the driving force behind their creation. Find effective ways to provide players with experiences they value and you’ll make money.

It’s impossible to know in advance what impact your actions will have – but one thing you can control are your intentions. Some teams incorporate free-to-play because they seek to get their work into the hands of people who otherwise would never have tried it. Others do so because it offers the best chance of earning a huge profit. Pursuing sincere, altruistic goals won’t fix all problems, but it goes a long way towards making a difference.

Okay, we should all play nice, help each other out and we’ll live happily ever! Yay! It’s a great plot for a children’s fantasy story, but we live in the real world. Say I’m in charge of a company that’s nearly bankrupt, and if our next project fails everyone gets canned. Should I really value this nebulous dignity of my art over the lives of my friends and employees?

Of course not. There are no black and white absolutes in ethics. There’s a profound difference between trying to do right by people (be they employees or customers), turning a blind eye to possibly exploitive practices, and consciously aiming to increase your net worth by another 1% - at any cost.

It’s easy to lump people we disagree with into the Evil Disney Villain category, but if you dig deeper you’ll find that most folks are decent human beings motivated by the same forces as the rest of us. The problem isn’t that people are inherently selfish or cruel – it’s that sometimes we just don’t think about the impact of our actions.


Ethics in At the Gates

My current project, At the Gates, is a game about a bunch of hairy, trigger-happy dudes stealing stuff they want and burning everything else for fun. While most people will find the notion silly, I’m sure there are at least a couple individuals out there who will get up from a gaming session thinking that, if only to the slightest degree, the way to get your way is to submit others to your will. (Sadly, history itself is the most damning tutor in this regard.)

And that is indeed something that weighs on me. I don’t want all of my creations to be about men at war.

But AtG also provides something of value. Late antiquity is an under-explored period of history few have given much thought to. One of my goals is that this game gives people a new perspective on the difficult decisions people had to make in that era, what it means to be “civilized,” and how the popular perception of the Roman Empire as a heroic bastion in a world of evil may not be entirely accurate.

With future projects I plan on exploring an even wider range of topics which I hope will not only entertain players, but also challenge them to think. And as a developer, I believe strongly that thinking is also one of my responsibilities.


With Great Power

Developers, players and pundits alike, we all need to recognize that although we cannot measure the impact games have, that impact does exist.

Not every title needs to qualify as edutainment, but why not challenge people’s expectations and beliefs? Opening someone’s mind is one of greatest treasures art has to offer. The purpose of a game is to enrich the lives of those who play it, and that can include much more than just idle whimsy.

And hey, appreciative players often turn into lifelong supporters willing to purchase your future products on trust alone. Good luck achieving continued success if your customers don’t respect the experience you provide them.

Ethics is too murky a field to lay down a codified set of rules capable of handling every situation. However, there is one principle that will never steer us away from the right answer:

Before making a decision, be sure to consider all possible consequences.

- Jon


You can read more of Jon's thoughts on design and project management at his website. You can also find him on Twitter.

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Axel Cushing
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Interesting post, Jon. Two points kinda stick out for me. First, the last line. I might alter it slightly to "Before making a decision, be sure to consider the most probable consequences." The distinction is important. Technically, somebody could create a game and the possible consequences could range from a worldwide happy hippie movement of peace and love to a new Dark Age where life is cheap and roving bands of marauders prowl the highways on nihilistic journeys to maximize a perverted concept of "high score." Sure, both are extremely improbable, but both are theoretically possible. It'd be better to work out the five most likely consequences, and maybe try to dope out a "black swan" scenario, something that seems almost crazy, but still within the realm of probability.

Second, regarding "At The Gates," I'm finding myself interested. I don't know of anybody who thought the Roman Republic was a heroic bastion in a world of evil, though. It was highly militaristic during the days of the Republic, and moderation was rarely their SOP. We look at Cinncinnatus and find a good moral example of a man who recognized the danger of holding absolute power for too long, but the history books gloss over the fact that for those couple of weeks where he held power, he was completely ruthless in his military actions (and even in post-battle actions). The Punic Wars were all during the Republic era, with Carthage getting plowed under and salted more than a century and a half before the rise of Julius Caesar. I'm really hoping the game satisfies both casual players and history buffs.

Jon Shafer
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Thanks for your thoughts Axel!

You're correct that considering ALL possible consequences, at least in detail, is probably not helpful. However, it's better to err to that end of the spectrum than the opposite. It's improbable that your game leads to a return of the hippies, but the same is true of it motivating someone to go out and commit murder, or even make an hurtful joke at someone's expense.

Results that are PROBABLE are likely to be obvious to developers, and those aren't the consequences I'm asking people to step back and consider. Maybe a good compromise is simply removing "all" from my mandate!

As for AtG...

The fact that you even have a clue who Cincinnatus was means you're well above the median when it comes to knowledge about this time period! People such as yourself aren't going to have as many true REVELATIONS while playing AtG, but there's definitely still value because of how the game flips the perspective around.

Even those well-versed in Roman history have come to virtually all of their knowledge through sources biased in favor of Rome. Most professional histories at least give the barbarians a nod and say "well, they weren't trying to destroy the Empire, they simply needed a place to live" - but then quickly get back to discussing what the impact was on the Roman economy, describing the noteworthy campaigns Rome fought against them, biographing the barbarian leaders who became Roman generals, and so on.

By contrast, in AtG the barbarians are depicted as equals with Rome, and fleshed out just as much (if not more). Many of the leaders are obscure (simply because our sources are so fragmented), but had important roles to play in shaping the future of their tribes and all of Europe. And they're driven by motivations far more sophisticated than "see thing, kill thing."

The educated know that the empire wasn't as sexy as the popular myth, but even among this group the "barbarians" are never regarded as protagonists. THAT is really what makes AtG unique.

- Jon

David Serrano
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"Developers, players and pundits alike, we all need to recognize that although we cannot measure the impact games have, that impact does exist."

Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so. ~ Galileo

The games industry may not yet have the ability to measure the larger potential impact of products or services with a high degree of accuracy. But there are existing methodologies, systems and tools which could be used to predict the impact at different levels with a high degree of certainty. But this would require an industry wide effort and a large amount of collaboration. So perhaps the ESA should spend less money on lobbying and more on addressing these types of issues? But in the short term... more common sense, objectivity and thoughtfulness would actually go a long way.

Jon Shafer
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I agree, this is a noble goal. The two barriers are power and money (as is true of most things).

Any comprehensive study into the effects of games will naturally come hand-in-hand with concerns about how all the violence is warping young minds. And what happens next? Increased regulation. And of course, such an effort would also be fairly expensive. And from a pragmatic perspective, the only reward for taking on this cost is nothing but headaches.

It's kind of like the environment. If everyone is just looking out for their own interests, then slowly but surely every tree gets cut down and every lake filled with sludge. Then after it's too late we all look for someone to blame.

I'm not one to suggest increased government control over games, but realistically that's probably the only way you'll see sweeping change. As you point out, barring that, the best we can do is for each of us individually to try and be more considerate.

- Jon

David Serrano
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@Jon Shafer

But it wouldn't require funding new game studies per se, it would be more focused on compiling the existing research and data from multiple areas of study and creating new toolsets for utilizing that data. The industry has already begun this process with the work being done on player type models and predictive behavior systems. And this wouldn't only be about addressing ethical concerns, it would also provide designers, producers, marketing and business execs with new toolsets for more clearly defining audiences and more accurately predicting how products and services will perform.

Kyle McBain
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Maybe you would be so kind as to expand on what some of these methedologies, systems, and tools entail.

TC Weidner
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its an interesting topic. I have always found it oddly fascinating that violence is still the main ingredient in the "fun" quotient in game design in much of this industry, while at the same time violence in real life as an experience is about as repulsive and horrid an experience as one can have. The disconnect is fascinating and scary.

I guess if anything gaming shows us that we as a species and a society are not as nearly evolved as we think we are, and we may need to be careful because not far under the surface we are still capable of doing some horrendous things to one another.

Jon Shafer
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At their core, games are simply practice for the challenges we're likely to face in our daily lives. And what are those traditionally? Defeating rivals, accumulating resources, exploiting them, using tools to solve problems, and getting other people to help us in these pursuits. It's no coincidence that this mirrors the content of games almost one-to-one.

It's a bit depressing when you think about it, but the news isn't all bad. Our brains are still quite malleable, and that's why it's so important that we try to feed it content which will help shape us into the people we want to be.

- Jon

John Trauger
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I'd say it's because we are story-loving, conflict-loving, drama-loving creatures.

Violence always throws conflict in sharp relief and amps up the drama, and spices up a good story.

That's why it will always be with us as long as we are "us".

Adrian Hall
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I agree that video games have great sway in dealing with ethical and moral issues, but I think that the examples that you explore here are not unique to games. Gender politics, studio survival vs. artistic integrity...these things affect all art equally. Further, exploring ethics in games and making ethical business decisions are, while perhaps connected, really two very different topics.

I think that what we really need to look at is areas where games are unique. To my mind, there is a bond of trust between game designers and players that doesn't exist in other mediums, simply because games require significantly more personal investment from the player. There are plenty of ways that designers can exploit that trust, for good and ill. Spec Ops: The Line is arguably an example of good exploitation because it exploits player trust to give them a deeper experience. Some F2P models are bad exploitations: they train the player to want something, then charge them money for it. This is an issue unique to games.

Regarding the exploration of ethical themes in games, I believe that games are THE BEST way to make people genuinely thoughtful. Let's say that we are watching a movie. Jill accidentally runs over her neighbor's son while speeding and hides the body instead of taking him to the hospital. As the film progresses, Jill becomes increasingly concerned that people will find out and her neighbor becomes more distraught over lack of closure. The effect of this on the audience is partially mitigated by the fact that more of them are thinking "I would have just taken the kid to hospital, this would never happen to me". A video game could actually provide the player with all of Jill's motivations and force the player to more thoroughly come to terms with their own minds and priorities.

SIDE NOTE: If you really want to explore ethical issues, I think it's important to make stuff in the world that players will care about that you can damage without ruining the rest of the game. That way you can explore a very wide range of outcomes without allowing the player to actually shoot themselves in the foot. This is not strictly relevant, I just thought it might be interesting.

Alexandra Willis
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Thank you for finally putting into words what it's so hard to convince people right now. People think that when women say we're misrepresented in video games, we think that all game developers are sexist. Not true. All we're asking is for people to consider the fact that women are often represented as damsels in distress, and nothing more, and that we have to consider games as a part of our culture and what we're teaching the people to play a lot of these games.

John Trauger
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I like your positive outlook: Expand into new space. Explore something new.

I wouldn't say there's automatically something wrong with "old school" game formulas, so much as point that they represent only a slice of what we can do with games.

Experiment, extend, do new stuff. Spice of Life. Includes changing up gender roles and appearances. We don't work crunches because they're fun but because we're putting out a product that interests us.

Jon Shafer
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I share your frustration, Alexandra. Sadly, many people today are insular and afraid of changing their mind with any subject, no matter how trivial.

I strongly believe our priority with schooling should be to instill a thirst to learn, ask questions and make mistakes. Sure, we need to make sure kids can read and do basic math, but how many of you remember what you learned in 12th grade math or science?

On the other hand, the drive to explore and challenge conventional wisdom is something that becomes a part of you, and will be an incredible asset right up to your last breath.

- Jon

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Wylie Garvin
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Can you give some examples of some black and white absolutes in ethics?

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Wylie Garvin
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Ok, I understand the example I guess. I don't think it invalidates anything in the author's blog post though. I don't personally believe in any absolutes of right or wrong (I guess I'm a moral relativist), which is why I asked for examples. Your reply reminds me that some belief systems are built on moral principles that could be considered "absolutes", and if your moral code says "God defines good" then deciding what is a good or bad action is an act of religious interpretation (apply what you know about your God's teaching to work out whether he's said "X is good" or "X is bad" before, and if not, then try to generalize from a similar situation where he did provide some guidance). And if your religion says "X is always always bad" then I guess its pretty black-and-white.

However, not everybody subscribes to a belief system like that. My belief system is non-religious and utilitarian. I believe in the hedonistic imperative, and there isn't any action or intention which I'm prepared to say is absolutely, inherently wrong under all possible circumstances [Edit: although I admit there are some for which I can't imagine any possible set of circumstances that would justify it.. maybe thats an "absolute" in practice if not in theory]. However, I do consider a lot of things to be "extremely wrong" just on utilitarian grounds (the harm caused). All of the serious crimes that every society outlaws (murder, assault/battery, uttering threats...) can be handled that way without any absolute values. Rather than have any "X is always wrong"-type rules, I prefer to judge actions based on outcomes and what the actor should have anticipated would happen using their common sense. Were people harmed, and how serious is the harm? Utilitarianism is about maximizing happiness and reducing suffering, so I consider actions that benefit myself and/or others to be "good", and actions that cause harm to myself and/or others to be "bad". But there's many situations where a given action benefits some actors but harms others, and that's where things get interesting. Is it okay to cause a "mild" harm to someone else in order to give a huge benefit (such as stealing someone's cell phone while they are using it, to call 911 to summon life-saving aid in an emergency)? What about causing a mild harm to someone in exchange for a big benefit to yourself? Ethics speaks to those kind of questions, and thats what makes it useful.

I also think ethics is more useful when applied to things we don't have a strong social stigma associated with; things that are not "big huge wrongs" according to everyone's moral code whatever it happens to be (such as murder). If your society says "murder is super very wrong" then you can skip the ethical analysis and just follow the rule. We socialize our children to believe certain things are very bad, don't ever do X, and that socialization can be helpful even if they later abandon the moral framework that it originated from. I guess I think ethics is much more useful when we apply it to the small stuff like "my neighbor forgot a copy of some document on his desk, and the contents appear to be personal and somewhat embarassing. Should I leave it alone, because its not my desk and I shouldn't be touching someone else's things? Or should I put it into the drawer of his desk and tell him? Or should I slide it under the keyboard and then pretend to know nothing about it?" For each of the possible actions you could take in that situation, there are several possible motivations. I think the purpose of ethics is to help us make decisions like that--to give us a framework, a set of rules or values that we can apply, to weigh the various likely consequences of our actions (especially in situations where our moral rules give us only vague or conflicting guidance). Impartially assessing how much benefit or harm a person actually experienced can be difficult/impossible when the person isn't yourself, so you have to be careful to be biased in favor of everyone else, not yourself (i.e. don't rationalize bad acts). But regardless of what their moral beliefs are, I think a person who tries to act ethically will usually want to avoid doing harm to themselves or to others. But in some situations that might involve a delicate balancing act where they have to try and decide what the "least bad" outcome is, to minimize the likely total harm of various different kinds to various different people. Or maybe they'll make a selfish decision (the choice least likely to cause them grief later, such as to ignore the embarassing document and pretending they didn't see it).

I think most of us know it when we are behaving badly. Most humans are capable of making purely selfish decisions that allow harm to come to others, and sometimes people make a bad decision without thinking about it and only realize later that they caused harm to someone. But generally people are at least subconsciously aware of it. I think only unethical people (in the extreme example, sociopaths) can act like that without feeling any shame or remorse.

Wylie Garvin
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To bring this back to ethics in game design... From my utilitarian point of view:

* If players have fun playing the game, that's a benefit.
* But if they get addicted to it due to skinner-box mechanics, that's a harm.

* If the game teaches them something useful (e.g. think before you act), that's a benefit.
* If it teaches them the wrong things (e.g. reinforcing racist stereotypes) that's a harm, perhaps a very insidious and damaging one.

* If a game lets people see complex situations from other points of view (and thus empathize with an alternate viewpoint, or at least understand where people with that viewpoint are coming from), then that's a benefit.
* But if a game pushes particular opinions or moral conclusions on the player, that might be a harm (usually a mild one, I guess).

... And if game designers are making games that cause considerable harm to their players, and don't feel any shame or remorse: then they are probably sociopaths.

Anyway, weighing game design in terms of the benefit vs. harm to the players definitely feels like the right thing to me. However, I weigh _everything_ that way so maybe I'm biased. ;)

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Jay Bedeau
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Guys research the art-sociologist/historian Arnold Hauser. He is gives strong direction on this topic.

Kyle McBain
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I have to be honest. By saying, "The lesson here isn’t that creators need to mark every box on the diversity checklist so that they can sleep soundly knowing no fragile minds were offended..." you are basically speaking for the designer. I'm not sure that was their goal or not, but my humble opinion is they don't owe anyone anything. Sure something such as Zelda that has renown has standards, but what I am getting down to is nothing should be off limits when it's design. There shouldn't be a checklist regarding ethics. And there is nothing wrong with a man saving a woman who can't help herself. I love Super Mario! Fragile minds are closed minds.

"Games exist to entertain people, and that should be the driving force behind their creation." Glad you mentioned this though.

Andrew Shaftling
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Very well written. Some food for thought there.