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Ethics Of Game Design

December 27, 2004 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next
 

When it comes to the ethical choices that game developers make when they decide what to put into their creations, they face the same moral issues that artists in any other communications medium face. They must struggle with balancing their rights to free expression with the tastes of consumers and be concerned about the effects their content has on their audience. While it's easy for games to enlighten and enliven the human experience, they are still a form of media and expression, and thus possessed of the ability to influence those that play them.

But because videogames are a newer medium, game designers are still struggling with what kind of ethics code they should adopt. Legally, games qualify as a form of expression that is protected under the First Amendment. In a recent court case in Washington, a judge tossed out a state law that restricted the sales of M-rated games to minors, particularly games that depicted violence against law-enforcement officers. The judge noted that games qualified as speech, but he also noted how ridiculous it would be to try to sort out whether violence against law enforcement occurs in games such as Age of Empires, in which Roman centurions might be interpreted as law enforcers.

Value judgments about which games are unethical depend on the eye of the beholder. And the gravity of the debate depends on what games really are. If they are just a form of entertainment, then they need not pay more attention to ethics than movies do. If they are works of art, then they should be held to higher standards. In other words, it is the design goals themselves that put ethical limits on game designers.

"Discussing ethics and morals is a tricky subject, as the terms are very vague and slippery," says Jason Della Rocca, program director of the International Game Developers Association. "Each person's definition of what is ethical changes."


In Fable, players choose for themselves what is right and what is wrong.

It's Just Commerce

Game designers can justify what they put into their games by falling back on the First Amendment or the idea that the only requirement for a game is fun. But that doesn't necessarily get designers off the hook.

"We as an industry do have a moral responsibility," says Peter Molyneux, CEO of Lionhead Studios and creator of hits from Black and White to Fable. "Anyone who does something for a mass market has a responsibility. You tread carefully on the lessons that you teach. That line that 'if a game is fun, it is okay'-that sounds trivial. If it is obvious this is an artificial world and you can't do these things in real life, then that is more acceptable. But if it parades itself as a real world, you have to be careful about that."

"If designers just create 'fun' games, but the buying trends are heading toward more realistic and violent games, then the designers that refuse to move along will likely be left behind," says Lorne Lanning, president of Oddworld Inhabitants in San Luis Obispo, Calif. "It's also true that it is easier to create viable game mechanics out of violence than from socially oriented ideas. Socially oriented ideas and cooperative play that doesn't end in violence are extremely challenging to achieve."

How well a game designer has abided by a code of ethics depends in part on what the game is trying to achieve. Is it just a fun game? Does it try to depict a historical event with accuracy? Does it purport to be a self-consistent fiction? Or does it try to reproduce reality of some kind?

"Some games are supposed to be fun," says John Whitmore, director of design at 2015 Studios in Tulsa, Okla., and co-creator of the Vietnam war game Men of Valor. "Some are trying to be more artistic. If you have the pretension of trying to be more artistic, you have to think about the ethical decisions that you make. It's hard to call a game like Grand Theft Auto high art. Some fantastic movies are racy. But porn doesn't quite make it to the Academy Awards."

Would-be censors have pilloried the game industry for many controversial games. Violence is always a flashpoint, and to a lesser extent sex and foul language are as well. From the original Mortal Kombat where you could rip out the spines of your hand-to-hand combat opponents, to this year's Def Jam Fight For New York, where 'F'-word spouting rappers can bloody each other with tire irons, it's easy to find controversial games. In Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, you can shoot cops and have sex with a prostitute and then kill her to get your money back.

Executives at Take-Two Interactive Software, publisher of GTA: Vice City, don't comment publicly on the ethics of the game. But privately they grouse that the content in the game is no worse than what you find in an R-rated movie or a rap music CD. It is the same kind of content you can find in an Emmy-winning episode of The Sopranos. They consider it hypocritical for politicians to single out the game industry for criticism. And they note that the game carries a "Mature" rating, meaning kids under 17 aren't supposed to play it and parents should police what their children play.

Antiviolence advocates say game designers should pay attention to the fact that their games, while rated M, often fall into the hands of kids and that studies show this exposure to violence has its effects (industry leaders dispute those studies). Doug Gentile, director of research for the National Center for Media and the Family and a psychology professor at Iowa State University, says game designers do have First Amendment rights to create what they want. But, he adds, "Designers often wash their hands of their responsibilities in seeing that the ratings are enforced. They leave it to publishers, who market the games to children." Gentile says games have a number of effects, some disputed, some clear, and developers should pay attention to them. He notes, for instance, that the research does not show that games have a cathartic effect on people, making them less inclined to violence.

Vince Desi, CEO of Running With Scissors, the developer that created the controversial games Postal and Postal 2, says, "Games are games and they should be fun to play." He adds, "If a person plays a game and understands it's a game, then that's all it is. We absolutely don't seek anything more or higher than a good time. There's a lot of hypocrisy in our industry. We like to say, 'violence belongs in games and not in the streets.'" He adds that for those who see games as interactive movies with a deep story, that statement doesn't hold.

Desi says his company takes pains not to advertise its games to minors. But antiviolence advocates argue that games are still a kids' medium. Even though the average player is age 29 and 90 percent of games are sold to adults (according to Entertainment Software Association statistics), David Walsh, director for the National Institute on Media and the Family, notes that many mature games wind up in the hands of kids. He noted a survey of parents showed that less than five percent understood the content of GTA3. He finds such games all the more objectionable because they look more realistic than past games, allowing for more horrific depictions of violence. And he criticizes the game industry for advertising M-rated games in media that kids consume.

A Case Study: Men of Valor

Developers such as Whitmore acknowledge that it's likely M-rated games will wind up in the hands of minors. That, in turn, tied his development team's hands in how they designed Men of Valor. For his artistic goal, Whitmore set as his target the depiction of the emotional content of what it was like to be in battle during the Vietnam War. Looking at the historical record, the team concluded that profanity would make the battlefield come alive. It would help deliver a more intense and faithful re-enactment.

But the team also had to clear that decision with the publisher, which in turn, checked with the retailers. The decision passed muster. Whitmore said the team decided to censor itself from using racial slurs, saying they carried too much emotional weight for modern audiences. Instead of outright slurs, the team substituted profanity laden stereotypes and creative curses, which they considered to be less offensive than the hot-button words of racial prejudice.

Other issues came up. The depiction of drug use might have been justifiable as historically accurate but it wasn't central to recreating the sense of real combat, Whitmore said. The game has plenty of violence and blood. Players can bleed to death from wounds because that adds to the realism. If the battleground were littered with health packs, Whitmore said that would have been a "dishonor to the war." It would also have changed tactics, motivating players to charge head-on rather than seek other ways to win. On the other hand, if the game showed dismemberment, executions, and torture, then it would not have been "respectful of the audience" which includes veterans, he said.

The team had to consider that other games about Vietnam could change the climate for what audiences would tolerate. Looking at other Vietnam games, such as Eidos Interactive's Shellshock: Nam '67, the 2015 Studios team might have profited by putting prostitution into the game. Doing so would have put it on par with a movie like Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, which was critically acclaimed. But Whitmore said that the team had to think about what the audience would tolerate and whether it would have truly enhanced the vision of a realistic depiction of combat. The team decided against it.

"Knowing that it falls into kids' hands, we won't make games where you are rewarded for being a villain and doing something reprehensible," Whitmore said. "I'm not saying other people shouldn't make that type of game. I play GTA3 and it's a ball. I don't want to contribute to that. I think it coarsens culture."

Judging a Game by its Effects

But it isn't easy to judge the impact of a game on culture or audiences. Every game designer feels as if they have the right to make fun-oriented games where players can kill anything they want. But some designers worry that too many games are following the same formula as violence and sex-laden movies in Hollywood. If the collective weight of violent games begins to resemble Hollywood's content, then it becomes clearer to see the negative effects on culture.

Clearly, it's hard to predict what the effect of a game is on a player. Will Wright, creator of The Sims franchise at Electronic Arts' Maxis division, says he enjoys playing GTA: Vice City. He feels that violent games allow people to behave in ways that they wouldn't or couldn't behave in real life and explore that behavior. In that way, games are a therapeutic outlet that can clear negative emotions from a person. That's the whole thesis of Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes and Make-Believe Violence (Basic Books, 2002), a book by Gerald Jones about videogame violence and how it can affect players positively.

Game designers draw their own conclusions in the debate about whether games contribute to a culture of violence. "I have a dim view of the use of graphic violence to increase sales of videogames," says Daniel James, CEO of San Francisco-based Three Rings, which maintains Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates, an online puzzle game. "Although I am not naive enough to think that violent games lead to violence, I think that exposure to such material is corrosive to mental health, and quite frankly rather dull." Meanwhile, Jay Wilbur, vice president of marketing at Epic Games in Raleigh, N.C., says the level of violence in a game should fit the context that the world of the game calls for. Anything more violent or sexual than what the context calls for is gratuitous. In some ways, that suggests the creators of games with horrific plot lines have the most artistic license.

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