and ethics are old bed-fellows but adding video games into the mix
enables us to ask whether the threesome contorts into some interesting
new moral positions or is just something you should never try with
is, are there any moral questions that video game developers should ask
themselves when creating a game that contains or facilitates adult
content and themes? Oh and to be clear - by ‘adult' I mean sex - sex in
the form of narrative themes; nude or semi-nude images and forms (male,
female, animal, robot); cyber sex between individuals; sexual violence
quick answer is that not only are there ethical issues to consider but
there are good business reasons to consider them during game
development. Here I am referring mainly to matters of that we might
term practical ethics or ethical intuition – things that give us a
strong indication about the public mood in respect of a subject that
suggests that there might be legal, political or public relations
reason why one might want to consider an issue with some care.
of the popular debate about the goods and ills of video games center on
children, so let's jump into the deep end and consider issue of
children and sex. The position that seemed to be put to the panel at
the recent Sex in Video Games conference was that: just so long as we
keep kids out of adult games and keep government out of regulating
them, there are no real moral issues to consider.
This is wrong on all counts.
the idea that we should keep children and sex as completely separate
universes is itself a moral position, and in some respects a very
contentious one. Currently the chief practical issue with this position
is that it can lead to denying children access to sexual education –
something that some would argue is a human right especially in the
highly sexualized society we currently live in. But the idea that
control of information (or ‘ignorance' as some may put it) leads to
abstinence and thus good sexual and mental health which all wraps up
into a state of virtue is a particular moral stance and one that a
developer asked to create a game on safe sex, STDs or simple biology
may have to engage with. Moreover a developer may find themselves
challenged with the flip side of the argument – that information about
sex, especially online, where it is out of certain forms of control and
most of all in a game, which by it's nature can be seen to trivialize a
subject, leads to promiscuity and the consequences that may follow from
tandem with the above issue of children's access to information and
images aimed at them for the purposes of education, is the issue of
children accessing material that is intended for adults. Here I will
side step the highly controversial issue of children's access to adult
material e.g. pornography, and pre-suppose that children should be kept
out of games that involve sex and sexual images. The question that
faces a developer here is what moral and legal duty do they have to
ensure that children cannot access the material that they create.
Left to Right:
Deborah Levine (Joy of Cybersex), Lawrence G. Walters, Ren Reynolds, Tom Hymes
is one of several issues that I want to discuss. Chances are that if
you create something with sex in it, there is a high chance that at
least one child will see it – who has never seen a single piece of
pornography until they were over the requisite legal age in their
country of residence?
issue opens into a number of political debates that I do not have space
to go into here. But as a practical matter, developers need to be well
aware of the licensing and content regulation in different countries.
As has been made famous by games such as GTA III, Carmageddon
and others, regulations around the world differ. The EU tends to have
statutory licensing, the U.S. has a voluntary scheme and Australia does
not even have a category for adult games.
an ethical standpoint what licensing does is shift and formalize
responsibility onto others. A developer creates a game with certain
content in it, it is then up to some regulatory framework and the
authorities that enforce that framework, or the retailers that apply it
or the adults that are supposed to take note of it, to take ultimate
responsibility for ensuring that the content is only consumed by those
that it is intended for.
a moral standpoint, I'm not sure it's so simple. To illustrate, it's
worth considering the case of so-called alcopops. These are drinks that
are very like soft drinks / soda but have high alcohol content. Whether
they are deliberately targeted at children is a moot point, but the
fact that they appeal to them is not. The sweet taste and attractive
packaging are highly attractive to younger people. But, sales of
alcohol, in most countries, is controlled by law and there is some
legal drinking age – usually somewhere around the age of majority. So
are the makers entitled to say that they have no moral responsibly
whatsoever for the popularity of alcopops with under age drinkers? No.
In the same way, makers of adult video games need to be mindful of
their packaging and distribution methods and should take at least some
duty of care about who their product will appeal to.
this all gets even more problematic is when we go online. Here this
issue is simple – how far does a developer need to go to ensure that an
online adult game is only accessible to adults? To be frank, this is a
very difficult question indeed. Just about all a developer can do is
make sure that the person signing up for an account has some form
verifiable ID that means that they meet the minimum age requirement to
access the virtual space. After that – who knows who's logging on?
it's worse than that. Even in online games aimed at kids, especially
teens, there is one thing that is certain: a bunch of kids connected
online will have online sex and some of them will probably use the
system to meet and have physical sex, and for some of them, this is
going to turn out bad.
Is this the developers responsibility? Maybe.
Is this the developers' problem? Yes, and you need to do something about it.
I mean by this is that a developer of an online game can take one of
two broad positions. They can say that what goes on in their virtual
spaces is nothing to do with them at all. As the recent mySpace case
over sexual assault demonstrates – if your community is big enough,
someone will make it your problem. The alternative is to acknowledge
that some form of intimacy is going to occur and either take steps to
stop this from happening (such as ToonTown) or recognize it and provide
help and advice. The latter position though may result in unwanted
media and pressure group attention.
last point I want to touch on is obscenity. This is a serious issue
that is particular to developers of adult games. Content that can be
considered obscene tends to have special laws associated with it and as
a number of lawyers at the Sex in Video Games conference pointed out,
the rules on obscenity can be vague and can differ widely from country
to country. The moral question here is whether you want to offend, the
legal one is do you want to run the risk of ending up behind bars or
paying off a large fine. The simple advice is that if you feel that
people might be offended by the sexual content in your game,
remembering that being seen in the context of a ‘game' might alter
people's perceptions, then you really should start to consult a lawyer
that is a specialist in the area.
you should also consider what your staff thinks. If you have an openly
libertarian ‘pro-sex' environment then fine, but for any development
company that moves into the adult sphere, I suggested there is duty to
take into account the sensibilities of people that may end up working
on the project or just being involved in / being exposed to adult
material. Moreover one should not make assumptions about who the
material is going to offend, gender or other outward trappings may be a
very bad guide.
please have fun, be sexy but remember that there are some good
practical, legal and moral reasons to think deeply about some of the
content you might be creating.