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This comes up, especially in relation to questions about free speech. It comes up, in terms of working with compulsion loops some might term addictive. It comes, in terms of whether or not game designers worry about what they do.
The most common answer is “no,” likely because it’s an uncomfortable question people would rather not think about, or one that positions games as somehow an implicitly risky medium and vulnerable to censorship, or because of a disclaimer of responsibility embodied in the notion that we’re just providing entertainment and anything past that is the player’s problem. Sometimes there's an implicit idea that mere entertainment cannot have any effect.
So do designers worry?
Yes. I have, personally.
When working on Ultima Online, it was an active concern of mine. I had seen many players of MUDs get hooked on them to the exclusion of studies, or watched them damage their real life personal relationships while favoring the virtual ones.
When we reached the point of a much larger market with UO, I worried that the same things would happen, and further, that we were failing to model human society well enough to encourage good behavior towards one another. I worried that we were building virtual societies that taught people to take advantage of one another, to dehumanize one another, and to engage in antisocial practices.
Based on the research I did, I ended up concluding the following:
- The people who were getting hooked on online games were finding them meeting a need that they weren't meeting elsewhere. To pick the commonest example, people whose social needs for basic human contact weren't being met in meatspace, and who therefore sought friendships in MUD/MMO space. In this sense, the participation was basically therapeutic, and was often even vital to their happiness or survival. It is no accident that early MUDs and MUSHes were so often safe spaces for a variety of people whose real lives were difficult. There is an enormous body of literature of the use of alternate genders in virtual spaces, for example.
- That there was some proportion of people who got hooked because they were susceptible to getting hooked on things, period, and that there wasn't much that could be done about it.
- That mentally, the notion of "telepresence" and a variety of aspects of how our senses function means that players will take interactions in a virtual space as "real," including having involuntary emotional reactions to things like abuse, violence, affection, and really, any other human interaction. Some people are able to distance themselves from this, but many more will simply treat the game as mediating the experience, like any other channel of communication. In other words, just as people can hurt one another, or fall in love, over the phone or with the written word, they can hurt one another or fall in love via a game.
- That periods of "addiction" to virtual spaces, or at the least, intense involvement in them, often seemed to have a standard lifecycle: a couple of years, then naturally over as people "graduated" from the hobby altogether. This may be attributable to Dr. Richard Bartle's theory that virtual worlds are about learning about oneself, about self-actualization in a sense. Learn enough, and you move on.
- That games, like any other medium, are capable of teaching behavior, moral lessons, and patterns to emulate. In this, they are no different than anything else. If a game portrays violence as the proper solution to problems, it is providing the same sort of moral lessons as a book or film that argues that violence is the proper solution to a problem. We have used stories as a means of teaching lessons for millenia, and there's every indication that they work.
- Further, unlike most media, games do have an entraining component, whereby reflexes can be conditioned. These reflexes are not only physical, but are also mental reflexes, the building of intuition through accreted knowledge. This has been explored in books such as Sources of Power and Thinking Fast and Slow. This entraining component is powerful (it "rewires brains" just like other forms of learning do), is sometimes hard to see (because we do not think about the decisions it leads us to logically, that's the whole point), and in designing a game we are creating learning patterns in players whether we mean to or not.
So, my conclusion was that creators of games are correct to worry. But not in the sense that "games are bad for you." Instead, in the following ways:
- be aware, if creating an immersive virtual space, that some substantial proportion of your audience is using it as a theurapeutic tool when in difficult circumstances. Think about what sort of people these are, and how your design affects them. Think about the ways in which your design will be misused, and the ways in which it may impact a player emotionally.
- realize that you are creating and moderating a channel of communication and a venue of interaction, and that therefore you have an awesome and large-scale responsibility, not dissimilar to the burden carried in terms of liability of those who operate public venues, not dissmilar to the post office's ethical emphasis on privacy, not dissimilar to the role of a government who should work towards the welfare of its citizens.
- be aware that you are in part a storyteller, and stories have always had an aspect of shaping their viewers and readers. You encode morality into your stories, almost inevitably, and it is quite possible to do well or do poorly, and there's plenty to learn on the subject.
- know in your bones that game design is a powerful way of imprinting behaviors on people, and that it is entirely possible to imprint behaviors you didn't want. Just as you can train a firefighter's instincts through fire drills, just as you can train a people to grow up racist, you can train players to react in certain ways to certain situations. Games are always pretty abstracted from reality, so this training may not be happening in at all the ways you think it is. But it is always happening. Games teach, and you are teaching something.
In the end, sure, games might well ruin someone's life, but not much more so than a book might (depending on your philosophical bent, consider Ayn Rand, or the Bible, or Mein Kampf!), or an all-consuming hobby. But in the end, they can also hugely improve a life. So like any tool, like any cultural artifact, their virtue lies not in themselves but in what the medium is used for. That's an awesome responsibility --
-- but also an utterly quotidian one. The same one faced by any writer, any playwright, any musician, any theme park designer, any architect, any musician, any painter, any coursework designer, any...
Saying games can't affect people is to denigrate them. It is to call them lesser. They are not lesser. And that means it is proper to worry. And also to work in them anyway. There isn't anything worth doing that doesn't carry the risk of ruining someone's life in some way. It's called "making a difference."