Developing Ethical Games
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Two years ago, I was a game critic and I was often pondering and analysing the moral message different video games left me with. Usually, these messages were grand ones told in sometimes-clumsy ways in monologues toward the end of the game by protagonists. But other times, it could be more subtle — analysed in the gameplay itself.
The obvious ones which were brought up in discussion or debate were often games like Bioshock (amongst other things, a critical look at Objectivism) which have a moral message clearly laid out in their design and story.
Then came designing my own game. With my brother and a small team, we just finished a crafting/city-building game for iPad called TownCraft. Despite our mutual interests in philosophy, science, ethics and politics, it never occurred to me that our game would ever really have much to say with regard to morality or ethics. Its point is to entertain, not be a platform for espousing views.
It’s set in a faux-medieval world, with deliberately anachronistic jokes heavily inspired by the likes of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Muppet Show. You start plopped into a forested valley, and have to build basic tools then begin chopping down trees to make your first log cabins, working up to having a full town.
Early on the process, before much else was working, someone seeing me demonstrate the alpha said, “I like the way the trees regrow after a while. Can you remove them?”
This gave me pause. They regrew for gameplay reasons. Chop a tree down? It becomes a tree stump. Some time later, as we didn’t want to do the Minecraft-thing of seeds being then used to plant fresh trees, it will magically become a full-grown tree again (unless you manually remove the stump).
“Is this a statement,” I was asked, “on sustainability?”
I was rather shocked. It could at a stretch, I guess, be viewed as a statement against sustainable ecology. I just hadn’t thought about it as anything but a mechanic.
By contrast to the tree thing, in our game you can strip-mine your mineral resources away in a heartbeat, unless you plan will and leave enough around to build sustainable mines — and even that could be argued as a statement in favour of mining!
This wasn’t the last time, either. We began to second-guess ourselves a great deal. Again for practical reasons, we have no animals in the initial release, beyond a canary which flies around above you from time to time. You certainly can’t hunt. In fact, early on, we realised that these medieval peasants were actually all vegan!
Especially given some of us on the dev team are vegetarian or vegan, it did seem like something people (especially those who knew us) would latch on to as something to read into. And yet, it was a purely unintentional thing. Later on, we added the ability to harvest eggs from bird nests (no longer vegan) and then later on fish (no longer even vegetarian)… but you still can’t hunt. Not yet, at least.
This made me realise just how impossible it is to create a game that is entirely devoid of political and moral statements. Since then I’ve read articles and posts talking about the politics of even the most abstract of games — likening Tetris to certain political ideologies, or discussing what the mechanics in some gangster game or other have to say about free market capitalism.
Some (most?) of these are stretches, but many aren’t.
I was doing some play-testing on our game recently and noticed a certain quest an NPC gave me. I read it twice, then paused to ask my brother, “Hey, is this a reference to same-sex marriage?”
“Yeah,” he replied.
I’m reminded of something which happened to a friend of mine. His daughter came home from school, confused as she’d just discovered that same-sex marriage was not actually legal in our country. This idea absolutely confused her. “But, my sims can get married because they’re in love!”
It recently came out that the inclusion of same-sex relationships at all in The Sims was half-accident, or at least not something anyone thought too much about it. And yet it has affected an enormous number of people who play it at a young enough age that these ideas hadn’t really been presented to them before.
By casually including social statements in the most important medium (in my opinion) for young children, we do affect their earliest exposure to morality, and this is not something I feel game designers should take lightly.
Fortunately, I don’t think many do. It’s hard not to receive emails and messages from people playing your game without being forced to confront the fact that people really are playing your game, and will be reading and absorbing in some cases hours worth of your work, and sometimes even learning behaviour in a subtle way from your games.
Still, it’s something I won’t be dismissing even a little bit on our second game.
Every game is political, and every game has something to say — it’s just a question of whether its message is intentional or not.