Playing with Fire: Ethics and Game Design
December 1, 2010 Page 1 of 3
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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