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Ethics Of Game Design

December 27, 2004 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2

Room for Serious Games with Serious Ethics?

Some developers see the current state of game ethics as crying out for change. Educational games might be considered higher ground than games whose sole purpose is fun. Ben Sawyer, who moderates the Serious Games message group, says that the medium of games is powerful but under-exploited when it comes to exposing people to real-life training, simulation, and learning. "We need to grow the pie and create new forms of gaming that emphasize deeper ethical issues we can explore in interesting ways," Sawyer says.

The fact that most games are for-profit endeavors opens the door to accusers who say that games profit at the expense of others' misery. Kuma Reality Games has tried to use this medium to deliver news in a way that CNN or daily newspapers don't, says Keith Halper, CEO. The company has created an episodic, subscription-based game that uses current events as the basis for its first-person shooter combat. Since its modding tools allow it to come out with a new scenario within weeks, the company has begun adding current events such as the capture of Saddam Hussein and the resurgent story of John Kerry's Swift Boat mission. Players can put themselves in the roles of soldiers fighting the actual battles and see how the tactical situation unfolds in a way that reading a news bulletin cannot.

These events exploit the news, in the same way that CNN was said to exploit the 1991 bombing of Baghdad for its own financial benefit. But Halper says that games are a powerful and unique media in terms of their ability to help someone understand a tactical military situation.

"People can say we are taking advantage of a situation where Americans are in peril," says Halper. "That doesn't diminish the value of what we deliver, which is using the power of videogames to communicate important facts about the world. We deliver timely information in an informative and emotionally gripping way. The exploitation issue is best served by telling valuable stories."

For Halper, the sense of ethics kicks in when the designers must figure out how to balance the fun of the game with the accuracy of what happened. In the capture of Saddam scenario, they added a suicide charge of insurgents. While it didn't happen, Halper says the event illustrated one of the things that U.S. soldiers might have had to face as they closed in on Saddam. To make sure they get it right, Kuma War's designers have a military advisory board. And to deal with the criticism that they are only out for crass financial gain, they make donations to a veterans group.

Artistic Intent

Many critics want to know what a developer's intentions really are before they lambaste her or his ethics. Whether developers really put making money above other goals such as reproducing historical events accurately is rarely clear. But even when developers make their intentions obvious, they can still draw fire.

Is Kuma War's John Kerry Swift Boat mission exploitive or educational?

Consider the case of America's Army, the U.S. Army's first-person shooter game. The Army gives the game away for free so it can't be said to profit from misfortune. But its primary aim is recruiting young people into the military.

The developers deliberately restricted what players could do because they wanted to abide by the Army's values. You can't shoot civilians or your own troops without consequences. You don't get to play terrorists because that isn't the kind of person the Army wants to train. You learn that one bullet can kill you and that you aren't invulnerable.

However, those who believe that using a game to recruit soldiers for war is wrong argue that the game might mislead young people into giving up their lives. Lt. Col. Casey Wardynski believes that the game takes pains to be realistic. If you shoot your own side, you get to see the view from the federal prison in Leavenworth. In many missions, the goal is to complete a task, like escorting a convoy, with a minimum amount of casualties. While it doesn't show gore, it also doesn't glamorize or sanitize the Army life, he says. Rather, it shows what it is like so the Army doesn't have to spend time weeding out people who don't understand the Army. In that sense, he says, the game isn't a propaganda tool.

But Wardynski said the Army decided to stay away from staging current events in scenarios. The terrain of the games resembles Iraq and Afghanistan, but the game doesn't reproduce a real event the way Kuma War does. One of the concerns was: family members wouldn't necessarily want to see where their loved ones fell.

"There is a fine line and you don't want to step over it," Wardynski said. "We steer clear of glamorizing war or taking advantage of current events. People may have lost love ones recently. And there is the privacy of the people involved. Another concern is national security, if you put too much detail into it."

Putting Choices in Players' Hands

The ethics of game design has entered a new era in which the developers offer the players ethical choices of their own. In games such as Fable, where you can become a hero or a villain one choice at time, Molyneux puts the ethical choices in the hands of the player. You can slaughter an entire village, but the consequences come back to haunt you. Word will spread about your reputation and no one will trust you anymore. People will recoil in fear. Or, if you choose to be good, your good deeds can reap rewards from total strangers.

Molyneux likes this type of game because it teaches people how to make ethical choices and lets them learn something both about themselves and the consequences of their actions. But there are a raft of games in which playing the bad guy is given equal weight as being a hero. You can play the Dark Side in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. You can play bad characters in the upcoming City of Villains.

But Molyneux says this doesn't allow him to dodge ethical choices. He had to restrict the kind of activities the players could engage in because he knew that even with the M rating, the game would be played widely. Hence, he took children out of the game so that villains couldn't slaughter kids at school.

Jack Emmert, lead designer at Cryptic Studios on City of Heroes, agrees that limits have to be put into open-ended games to prevent the players from descending into Lord-of-the-Flies behavior.

"If you take people, remove them from society, in a world where there are no laws, things will go haywire," Emmert says. "That's what an online game is like. There are no punishments in the online world."

Emmert's next project, City of Villains, lets players be bad guys. But even in that game, he decided he had to limit behavior, such as serial killing, in order to make the game socially acceptable.

It's only a matter of time until a developer produces a serial killer game, a mass genocide game, or the next Postal-esque homicide simulator. But whoever actually makes these games cannot claim ignorance as a defense of their product. The ground work has been laid for the ethics of this industry, and thanks to countless violent and objectionable games that have already been brought to market, the boundaries of good taste and ethical responsibility are now known. While defining the ethics of an individual game can be difficult at the extremities, these decisions become clearer.

Consciously choosing how your game will confront these difficult issues, no matter which side of the fence you're on, is a sign of just how mature our business has become.


Article Start Previous Page 2 of 2

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