What are the ethical responsibilities of a game designer?
That is the question which has been rattling around in my mind ever since a recent discussionÂ inÂ a recent episode of TGDRTÂ regarding the â€śultra-violentâ€ťÂ Hotline Miami.Â This article is my proposed answer to that very difficult inquiry.
But letâ€™s first back up a bit â€“ why are we even bothering to ask this question?
Few of us even think about it, but most of what makes us â€śusâ€ť is the sum of ourÂ subconscious wiring. Much of whichÂ is, in turn, shaped by our past experiences.
Consider a phrase or mannerism youâ€™ve picked up from a close friend. Or the time someone dragged you along to try out a new type of strange food you now love. Or how Â a hobby you just didnâ€™t â€śgetâ€ť before has become one of your favorites after your significant other introduced you to it.
EverythingÂ we encounterÂ reshapes us, even if only a tiny bit.Â Needless to say, games are no exception.Â
Nintendoâ€™s stable of games presents us with aÂ good example of the subtle influence entertainment can wield. Weâ€™d all laugh at someone who suggested we shield our children fromÂ Mario, but the series is steeped in a tradition ofÂ male hero saves helpless woman. One can argue that its severity or impact has been overblown, but itâ€™s there. Just as â€śnicenessâ€ť and â€śselfishnessâ€ť arenâ€™t binary qualities, neither are racism, sexism, ageism, etc.
Will playing a fewÂ MarioÂ games lead to a generation of young men who think women helpless and young women who suffer from low self-esteem? In isolation, certainly not. But minute influences like this can add up to a much stronger message. The first time we hear a word in our â€śmotherâ€ť tongue our infant brain curiously processes the data, then stashes it away in a dark, untraveled corner. If the word is heard again it might be recognized, but still lack meaning. However, after theÂ millionthÂ time we probably have a pretty good grasp of what the speaker is trying to convey.
Similarly, all commonly-held attitudes began as outliers and it took time and energy for them to gather momentum. Whether we realize it or not, each of us has a small role to play in either ushering them along, or stemming the tide.
Iâ€™m sure Miyamoto didnâ€™t set out with the goal of brainwashing players into believing that men are capable and women arenâ€™t, but this is a subtle, unintended theme in some of his games.Â That doesnâ€™t make him aÂ badÂ manÂ orÂ unethicalÂ designer.Â Still, it remains a valid criticism, and hadÂ someone with Miyamotoâ€™s ear shared this back in the 1980s itâ€™s possible he may have altered his approach.
It is both noteworthy and commendable that Nintendo took a different direction in itsÂ Legend of ZeldaÂ franchise. Our titular princess made her introduction as just another woman that needed saving, but later evolved into a strong and independent character.
The lesson here isnâ€™t that creators need to mark every box on theÂ diversity checklistÂ so that they can sleep soundly knowing no fragile minds were offended, nor young ones warped. In fact, much of historyâ€™s most significant and thought-provoking art was very muchÂ notÂ something contemporaries would have been comfortable displaying in their living rooms.
AndÂ thatÂ is the takeaway. As public voices, developers owe it to society to at leastÂ considerÂ the impact of their work. Not every title needs to beÂ Bioshock, but itâ€™s irresponsible and ignorant to suggest that any gameÂ isÂ completelyÂ disposable andÂ hasÂ zeroÂ impact.
Money VS Morality
The subconscious mind is a delicate, primitive thing. It is influenced in millions of ways weâ€™re not aware of. We take it for granted that there are people who are paid a lot of money toÂ channel the brainâ€™s hidden forces for financial gain. The analogue in games are some of the more controversial business models, particularly ongoing subscription fees and free-to-play.Â So what are we to make of this? Are these people morally reprehensible? Are they, like the rest of us, just trying get by?
Iâ€™m a realist, and as the owner of a studio I recognize that if games donâ€™t make money they stop getting made, people lose their jobs, and everyone is worse off. So where do we draw the line?
Games exist to entertain people, and that should be the driving force behind their creation. FindÂ effectiveÂ ways to provide players with experiences they value and youâ€™ll make money.
Itâ€™s impossible to know in advance what impactÂ your actions will have â€“ but one thing youÂ canÂ control are yourÂ intentions.Â Some teams incorporate free-to-play because they seek to get their work into the hands of people who otherwise would never have tried it. Others do so because it offers the best chance of earning a huge profit. Pursuing sincere, altruistic goals wonâ€™t fix all problems, but it goes a long way towards making a difference.
Okay, we should all play nice, help each other out and weâ€™ll live happily ever! Yay! Itâ€™s a great plot for a childrenâ€™s fantasy story, but we live in the real world. Say Iâ€™m in charge of a company thatâ€™s nearly bankrupt, and if our next project fails everyone gets canned. Should I really value this nebulousÂ dignity of my artÂ over the lives of my friends and employees?
Of course not. There are no black and white absolutes in ethics. Thereâ€™s a profound difference between trying to do right by people (be they employees or customers), turning a blind eye to possibly exploitive practices, and consciously aiming to increase your net worth by another 1% -Â at any cost.
Itâ€™s easy to lump people we disagree with into theÂ EvilÂ Disney VillainÂ category, but if you dig deeper youâ€™ll find that most folks are decent human beings motivated by the same forces as the rest of us.Â The problem isnâ€™t that people are inherently selfish or cruel â€“ itâ€™s that sometimes we just donâ€™tÂ think aboutÂ the impact of our actions.
Ethics inÂ At the Gates
My current project,Â At the Gates,Â is a game about a bunch of hairy, trigger-happy dudes stealing stuff they want and burning everything else for fun. While most people will find the notion silly, Iâ€™m sure there are at least a couple individuals out there who will get up from a gaming session thinking that, if only to the slightest degree, the way to get your way is to submit others to your will. (Sadly, history itself is the most damning tutor in this regard.)
And that is indeed something that weighs on me. I donâ€™t want all of my creations to be about men at war.
ButÂ AtGÂ also provides something of value. Late antiquity is an under-explored period of history few have given much thought to. One of my goals is that this game gives people a new perspective on the difficult decisions people had to make in that era, what it means to be â€ścivilized,â€ť and how the popular perception of the Roman Empire as a heroic bastion in a world of evil may not beÂ entirelyÂ accurate.
With future projects I plan on exploring an even wider range of topics which I hope will not only entertain players, but also challenge them toÂ think. And as a developer, I believe strongly that thinking is alsoÂ one ofÂ myÂ responsibilities.
With Great Power
Developers, players and pundits alike, we all need to recognize that although we cannot measure the impact games have, that impactÂ doesÂ exist.
Not every title needs to qualify as edutainment, butÂ why notÂ challenge peopleâ€™s expectations and beliefs? Opening someoneâ€™s mind is one of greatest treasures art has to offer.Â The purpose of a game is to enrich the lives of those who play it, and that can include much more than just idle whimsy.
And hey, appreciative players often turn into lifelong supporters willing to purchase your future products on trust alone. Good luck achieving continued success if your customers donâ€™t respect the experience you provide them.
Ethics is too murky a field to lay down a codified set of rules capable of handling every situation. However, there is one principle that will never steer us away from the right answer:
Before making a decision, be sure toÂ considerÂ all possible consequences.