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Playing with Fire: Ethics and Game Design
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Playing with Fire: Ethics and Game Design

December 1, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Judging by the emotionally-charged comments to Brandon Sheffield's write-up on game designers intentionally exploiting human weakness to succeed in free-to-play game models (monetizing them, in particular), it seems that there is room to continue the discussion about the ethical dilemmas facing game designers when it comes to building social games -- or games of any kind, for that matter.

Brandon recapped the ideas of Teut Weidemann, lead designer of Settlers Online for Ubisoft's Blue Byte studio, about how game designers can tap into our Capital Vices and then try to use these weak moments to monetize the game.

Yes, social games can be used to do that. They manipulate us. I think that Teut, Brandon, and I would all agree that social games are a volatile cocktail of sleek technology, dopamine-rich environments and brilliant game design. This is precisely why players get hooked. This is why these games are so popular. But this is not news.

We're talking now about something that has been well-understood and broadly applied ­in our industry (and many others) for many years. Our goals as game designers are to build engaging and fun games that people want to play. We use our tools -- the knowledge about evolutionary behavioral patterns for example -- to accomplish those goals.

This is our job, and our obligation to our craft. These ancient patterns are deeply-rooted in evolution and already present within us. So my point is that it seems to me the ethical dilemma isn't whether game designers should or shouldn't use their knowledge of unconscious human behavior to tailor their games to be more engaging.

Rather, my feeling is that the ethical questions to be asked are about why we're building our games, and whether we're being transparent about those motivations. My point of view is that, in general, technology is morally neutral. It is the application of that technology that carries with it moral and ethical implications.

Let's Recap the Research

I think at this point, it's beneficial to demonstrate what I think are two of the strongest biological processes at work during gameplay; things that can turn a chore into a hobby. The most scientific answer is dopamine release. According to Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at the Falk Center for Molecular Therapeutics at Northwestern University, dopamine has been found to play a crucial role in choice, learning, and belief formation.

You may recall B.F. Skinner's experiments with how the brain responds to rewards. If a behavior is rewarded, it is more likely to be repeated. If it is punished, it becomes suppressed. Rewards are at the heart of changing behavior thanks to how our brains respond to dopamine.

For Gamasutra readers, the concept of reward schedules should sound familiar. Most games are built around this system, because they allow for maximum player engagement and function as a motivation tool. The player is prompted to complete an action, and gets a reward if they do the task. The player always has a chance to recover from their mistakes, so the loop to stay engaged is reinforced.

Play and playtime is also important because it's an opportunity for the mind to learn about how to deal with risky situations, without actually taking the risk. This strong association of playtime with learning skills that could ensure survival has shaped our brains and how it recognizes and processes new knowledge and information.

Neuroplasticity is the changing of neurons in our brains and their functions by learning or participating in new experiences. This is how the brain integrates new knowledge and skills developed through play. Research indicates that our brain rewires itself in response to what we do with it. As a behavior becomes learned, practiced and refined, the brain appears to recognize this behaviour as important, having purpose and meaning. The “hardwiring” begins. Actions players take in gameplay “feel” more important, and more satisfying when done well.

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Sean Farrell
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If a game about killing doesn't make me a killer; does a game about health make me healthy?

I am really in favor of trying to change the world to a better place and there are many young people out there that want to help but don't know how. Using games as educational tools can be very powerful, but i doubt that they can change real world behavior. There is a certain retention between real world applications and games.

To demonstrate that with a real example, I once worked together with a math teacher who used a graphic tool to demonstrate geometry. Not really a game, but the children had fun. The next session the children where incapable to apply what they did on the computer to their problems on paper, even though it where the exact same problems. Once the connection was made, the children showed very well that the session on the computer wasn't useless.

I think, to achieve a real world difference, you need to extend your game out of the computer and integrate it into the actual work. This is difficult to accomplish with technology, but there are options. I am thinking, for example, about a diet "game" where you enter your weight, height and other biodata and regular basis and track other external factors, such as your diet and exercise. This coupled with a social website and awards for good progress might really work.

(Now there is an idea...)

Travis Ross
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Micheal, I think you are right in that technology is ethically neutral. However, it is difficult to overcome market forces without actual laws in place or education.

Think about this technology hooks into our evolved desires at a physiological level through the release of dopamine or some other neurotransmitter. We already see this with other technologies like fast food. These technologies are powerful and because large sums of money and power can be made/aggregated through their abuse. A plea for ethics can't solve this they will eventually be abused. This happens do to simple market forces, those early pioneers in the technology may not abuse it because they have morals, but eventually someone is going to come along who sees morals < the opportunity to for capital to be gained through the abuse of the technology. This will happen because of simple market forces and incentives.

So laws or education will eventually be required. The question becomes, which of these two options is preferable. Those who believe the costs of education (and the suffering of the uneducated) outweigh the loss of personal freedom will side with education. Those who see the problem as too wide spread and uncontrollable via education will chose moral policing through laws. Personally I prefer education.

Your article reminds me of a book called the Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. It is a great book where Haidt claims that the key to happiness is being able to control your evolved behavior. He argues that there are means by which the conscious mind can develop to the point where it can recognize and control the automated evolutionary desires that we experience on a daily basis. This however is a very hard thing to do. Haidt compares controlling the process to driving an elephant. The driver may know what they want, but if the elephant is not trained then the driver, although conscious, has no control of the process. I think he ideas can help us understand just how difficult it really is to control our own behavior, and even how hard it will be to use education to change behavior.

Anyway thanks for the interesting article, I think I'll respond with a blog post of my own @

Nick Green
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It takes only a rudimentary grasp of psychology to understand that psychological research is commonly used to manipulate people in so many areas of life.

The only sure defence against this is education. It would be nigh impossible to legislate against producers, game or otherwise, from employing morally dubious tactics. This is especially true in the typical free market economy where like everything else, morality is for sale.

But most of this psychological trickery fails if the subject knows you're trying to manipulate them. Teach them the tricks and it's much harder to trick them.

I'd suggest that a layperson's guide to psychological trickery website would help. But individuals can be just as unscrupulous and manipulative as corporations and the ways they can employ these tricks can be very scary. Reach enough people and it would be ok - if everyone knows this stuff then it's mostly harmless. But if not, the site becomes a guide on how to be a really successful evil bastard.

Weidemann's speech, though, is fantastic for being so brutally honest.

"We do exploit them, but they should not feel like they're treated in a bad way," he added. If they do, then players will dislike the developer.

What a marvellous little quote.....

Alex Covic
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I studied Philosophy - ruined me for life. Saying 'technology is morally neutral' is an unproven statement. [Technology] 'applied for the right purpose' ... 'used for good' - these are all highly problematic, contextually loaded statements. What is the 'right' purpose?? Used only for 'good' - who decides what (morally or ethically - different things!) 'good' is?! I don't see how you explained or proved your axiom in your article.

Many distinguished moral philosophers would disagree with your assumptions. Some of them (Heidegger, GŁnther Anders, Foucault) you may dismiss, others, like Erwin Chargaff (the scientist, who was behind the idea of the double helix - read it up (details in history matter)) are hard to ignore.

Technology is build with intent - always. You cannot create the a-bomb or a torture-device and say "oh, it's just technology! It is per se 'neutral'! You shall use it responsibly..." Even accidents in science, that led to great discoveries, come from a combination of endless curiousity but also reckless thoughtlessness. To invoke 'ethics' and 'morality' in vague, confusing ways, only to add some links and say 'be good', 'act responsible' is not really a discussion on that subject.

As a game developer you can always go the easy route: consumers are responsible for themselves. You don't need to 'justify' your actions, ... unless you feel 'guilty' for some reason. But that is not necessarily an ethical question - rather something deeply rooted in religious concepts, messing up weaker minds?

Chris Daniel
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I Agree. The article has problematic parts.

Vin St John
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Ultimately technology is just an acknowledgment of physics. The telescope, as a manufactured work, is something that human beings create. But the technology is derived from nature and the laws of physics. The idea of the telescope is not man-made, and existed long before we discovered it.

I don't think his point was that "video games are morally neutral". I think what he meant was "the fact that video games are capable of motivating people to take actions as a result of their natural reactions to certain stimuli and repeated action is morally neutral." The article acknowledges it as an assumption because many would agree and this is often not the grounds on which the subject is debated. You may consider debating that particular point worthwhile but for many the morality of the existence of video games is not in question.

Ronildson Palermo
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I had a recent discussion in college about this exact topic. My teacher was very skeptical towards the fact designers are to blame for the addiction of their players, but I think they are. At least the hold the greatest percentage of guilt.

We are humans and we have minds which are prone to being twisted by outside stimuli, that's a fact backed up by a concept which we have unfortunately applied over and over again in human history.

Designers, psychologists and many other scholars from different areas of knowledge have developed and continue to push further the techniques used for generating interest, keep someone playing, make them feel comfortable and cause a sense of pleasure.

I feel like we've moved away from making games which are amazing for those who seek games, to making games which are supposed to hypnotize any human who comes in contact with them, developing techniques that almost uses a brute force approach to capture one's attention and, sometimes, even capture one's life.

There's no logical reason to design an MMO system which makes the player invest 12 hours a day just so he can keep up with his friends, no need to develop a social game which uses every dirty trick we can pull of on the human mind that makes people come back every 6 hours so they don't let their tomatoes rot.

I believe we can design games which are fun, immersive and that have a huge emotional bound with the player without enslaving them to it, and perhaps that even incites them to take some time off and even enjoy the world outside.

Vin St John
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There is at least one reason - those games are capable of making money. That is not, by all counts, an inherently immoral reason, either. People need to make money. There is certainly at least reason to consider this argument.

Most of the time when a game is considered ethically irresponsible it is for a combination of two reasons:

1) The game is designed in a way that encourages users to play repeatedly over long periods of time, or invest in the game in other ways (money, time, foregoing other responsibilities or social interaction, etc).

2) AND the designer benefits in some way from this continued use or personal investment.

Number two is key. The revenue model of these games relies on continued play and investment. This is a large contributor to why people perceive the design as somehow unethical. If World of Warcraft was designed exactly as it is today, but only cost one upfront fee and the developers didn't continue making money off of players in any way after that, then people wouldn't be so quick to judge the ethics of the design, giving more favor to the argument that users make their own choices about how often to play the game, etc.

I'm not necessarily saying that is right or wrong, just making some observations about the general population's reactions to this stuff.

William Holt
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While it is true that some designers do purposefully implement mechanics designed around some of B.F. Skinner's findings, there is more at play than simply whether the game was built to attract continued play or not.

Some people are simply more susceptible to being influenced than others, simple as that.

That's not to say, however, that these designers should have carte blanche to use whatever design tricks they wish - the industry needs some sort of conscience to guide it in its journey. Today's designers need to give games replayability without using skinnerian mechanics as a crutch. It's wrong, and it's boring.

I don't mean another ratings system, though. That would likely lead to the public oversimplifying the scale as the 'addictivity scale', which would lead to further demonization of games by the media.

Either way, it's important to balance freedom of expression with corporate responsibility. But, that's like saying that oranges are orange.

Ronildson Palermo
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I see what you two mean, but what Vin said is key: Yeah, there's one reason, making money. But seriously, in my humble opinion, that's a bad one.

When I think of game designers, I think of artists, people who want to touch people, make them think and perhaps even make them improve. And you may call me old fashioned, but I cannot fully associate the idea of an artist with the need for money.

Don't worry, I haven't hit my head very hard in a pointy edge. I know we live in a capitalist society and that money drives us, but really? Now we are going to mess with people's heads just to make a quick buck?

Call me a failure, but I haven't done that and I'm not going to consciously do that. If an idea I have is good, them I'll simply design it and try to make it as fun as possible. If a mechanic I'm crafting would benefit from some theory from Skinner, sure, why not use it. But my sole blog post here on Gamasutra is proof of what I believe for the game industry, build it and they'll come.

Wayne Wang
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nice article,thx!

Altug Isigan
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Hi Michael,

thanks for linking to my article. I just wanted to clarify something: I'm not sure whether my approach is representative of views that support heavy use of reward schedules. In my article I do refer to John Hopkins' article, which I believe to be the ultimate representative of the reward schedules approach. Actually, his article is based on the findings of B.F. Skinner, to whom you liken this approach, and he refers to Skinner's work several times.

The goal in my article was quite into the opposite direction: I wanted to show that narrative units (what I call core functions) and reward schedules must be seen as two seperate things, and that these can be combined in many ways, each time creating a different gameplay experience. In it I pointed out more than once that games can live without reward schedules.

I've been dealing with reward schedules and motivation issues in other articles too, and my emphasis is always on narrative-based game progression, and I perceive reward schedules as a "last resort" and not as "elementary" to gameplay. In an article on gamification, I do question the use of reward schedules and basically reject the notion as a whole. Reward schedules are a different but very popular game layer, one which can be added for many purposes, and oftentimes for purposes that are not in accord with what I consider to be "fair-play".

I appreciate your effort to point out the problematic relationship between this layer and game ethics (or what I'd like to call "responsible" design). But I wanted to clarify any misunderstandings in regard to my position.

Best of luck,