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Question Of The Week Responses: Moral Responsibilities of Game Creators
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Question Of The Week Responses: Moral Responsibilities of Game Creators

February 28, 2005 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

This week we explored the heady subject matter of ethics and morality in games when we asked you, our readers, "Do game creators have any moral responsibilities in teaching values to their audience?" The response was overwhelming ranging from yes and no answers with different degrees of vehemence to more philosophical delvings.


Those who replied, "Yes", cited a variety of reasons from the inherent duty of a human being to teach morals to others to the inherent responsibilities of creating an interactive medium targeted at a younger generation.

Absolutely. It is our job to teach civilized traits, education and ethics to the young and old at any time, through any means possible. The video game industry has at its disposal the ultimate education tool: stealth education - learning while playing is an evolution in teaching that cannot be ignored or misused.
- Liam McMahon, RedZone SCEA

Yes, but what those responsibilities are can vary greatly. Obviously, who the audience is will matter - a game marketed for pre-teens will bear a greater burden than one marketed to adults. (Assuming that games intended for an adult audience aren't being consumed by pre-teens ... whoops, there's a can of worms.) It also depends on how the values taught within the game world relate to reality. Sometimes shooting invading aliens to save the planet has nothing to do with teaching one to use violence to solve real-world problems.

The question is a bit double-sided. I don't think it's a big deal if games don't teach positive values, but I do think it's an issue if games teach poor values. After all, we wouldn't fault Tetris for not teaching us higher moral standards, or Pac-Man for failing to present a higher meaning to life.
- Josh Giesbrecht, Electronic Arts

Of course they do. Like most responsibilities, however, there's no external motivation to take it upon oneself to fulfill them. The only way we will begin to accept responsibilities like that as an industry is when we can grow up enough to accept that all games, including violent ones, affect people. They don't turn kids into stark raving serial killers, but it's not all safe exploration of fantasy either. I dare you to play Grand Theft Auto for four hours and get into your car and NOT think about side-swiping or stealing other cars on the roadway. The issue, as always, is more complex than the two extreme viewpoints would suggest.

Of course games affect people. We're betting our livelihood on it, aren't we? We can only be taken seriously when we take ourselves seriously.
- Borut Pfeifer, Radical Entertainment

Yes. Game entertainment should be viewed in the same light as other media such as television, and should adhere to a Code of Conduct to ensure that they do not compromise the moral values of their audience. This is even more important to the games industry, since the bulk of their audience are children between the ages of 6 and 18, and these are normally the same time in a child's life when they form opinions and build the foundations of their moral values.
- Henry van Eyk, Bytes Specialised Solutions

Absolutely, game creators do. I, personally, have obtained nearly all of my morals from video games, especially playing RPGs. Any form of media, from literature to television to video games, influences those who view it and shape who these people are. Although I cannot think of any specific games to point to this, many games present moral values to the player, either blatantly or subtly, and imprint themselves onto the player. Of course, how much the game influences the player depends greatly upon age and how permanent his/her current mindset is. Some players, like me, are still largely moldable and adaptable, but others might be less so. The best way to present good morals to the audience would be with a powerfully grasping storyline that shows the player, through the conflicts that the player character goes through, just how important and right certain morals are.
- Alex Marsh

"Legislating morality" is always a sticky wicket, but in the main, I think so. However, determining what is seen as being moral or immoral is a subjective task, in that not all people think alike. Thus my only suggestion for how to go about that is to let "common sense" be the guiding rule, rather than submitting that grosser or sexier is inevitably going to make a game more attractive to its target population. To what extent game developers own and have exercised common sense is still going to be questionable with respect to some titles that make it through production and into the marketplace. So, this is a VERY tough question to answer in a manner that will "make sense" to all. Some won't care in pursuing the attraction of sensationalism and will go beyond the bounds of taste and reason, anyway. Inevitably, if done to a large extent, then governmental rules will be emplaced and an attempt made to enforce them. Legislation by government(s) often goes beyond the pale of common sense, overreacting, so it is a better idea for an industry to develop and enforce its own "values" upon its participant members in some manner, This is basically a circular argument for getting back to the statement: "but in the main, I think so".
- Ken Wood, Wildfire Games

I believe that game creators have a moral responsibility to explore all aspects of the human condition, across the whole ethical spectrum. Human society, much like a human individual, functions best when that its thoughts and feelings are openly discussed, considered, and thoroughly understood rather than repressed, denied or left to fester in ignorance. The purpose of art is to explore these thoughts and feelings in honest and compelling ways - no matter how rational or irrational the thought, or constructive or destructive the feeling. So ideally, games as a whole would convey every value that anyone has ever thought of or acted upon. Of course, many of these values would be (quite correctly) deemed anti-social, evil or amoral - and although these sort of values are just as worthy of artistic expression as any other, only mature audiences capable of responsible contemplation should be exposed to the explorations of such values.
- Nathan Frost, Crystal Dynamics

Yes, they do. Gaming is a type of media, and I think that any type of media shall be responsible for its content.
- Alexandre Luiz Galvão Damasceno, CESAR

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that as creators of entertainment content, we have the responsibility to make the world we live in a better, safer, friendlier place. We should not make games that promote ideas like racism, misogyny or intolerance and we do have a moral responsibility to support our gamers' pursuit of positive behaviors like treating each other with respect, valuing each other's opinions and differences, and supporting the free exchange of ideas and beliefs.

That said, we also have a very real responsibility to our investors, development studios, and families to make games that will be commercially viable. Often, to make a game successful, a controversial feature must be added, which may negatively affect the values expressed by that game. The challenge comes when a game developer tries to satisfy both responsibilities. I am lucky enough to work at a company that satisfies both of those responsibilities, and I am very proud of the fact that we produce commercially viable games that do not impart questionable values upon our players. Then again, it's hard to impart questionable values with a bowling game!

To me, the most impressive games are those FPS, RTS and violent action games that manage to convey a positive moral message, while still delivering an intense, awesome gaming experience. To the creators of those games, I give my utmost respect and admiration.
- Coray Seifert, Large Animal Games

All human beings are morally responsible for their actions. As creators of popular entertainment, our actions in developing a game can have an affect on millions of people. We have a responsibility to ensure our games have a positive impact on the people who play them. Games that teach or reward negative values can have a negative impact on children, and we are morally responsible since it is a direct result from our actions. Several events have happened in recent years where it seems like video games have had a negative effect on young people. We can stop that in the future simply by teaching positive morals in our games, rather than glorifying negative ones. It's easy to say that the responsibility lies with the parents or the retailers to censor children from games that teach bad values, but since we can do something to prevent it (not create them), we share in the responsibility also. Or to put it in a more positive light, we are given an opportunity to teach children good values and positive behavior since games are influential to them. We have an opportunity to do something good, and it is our responsibility to take it.
- Matt Gilgenbach, Heavy Iron Studios

Yes, they sure do. A German psychologist, Jürgen Fritz, describes a mechanism called 'transfer' where information and values in games are transferred into the real world. The more the game tries to simulate reality, the easier the transfer will happen. Off course, this doesn't necessarily refer to shown blood or similar, but to the kind of view of the world. As games gain momentum in the society and become an ever growing influence in every day's life, game creators should also become aware of the values they are incorporating into their creations.
- Jan Graber, 20 Minuten


Many of our respondents that replied, "No," cited one of two related reasons: Games are an artistic medium and as such should not be bound by any moral shackles and that the primary purpose of games is not to teach but to entertain. Some of you also felt that teaching morals falls squarely on the shoulders of parents.

No - parents do. There's a rating system for a reason. Parents - know something about your kid's lives for a change. I can't count how many times an adult will mention their kid's playing video games and say something like, "I can't do those things... my kid can do them all." Yeah, you don't say. Those same parents can barely use a computer for anything more than an occasional email, or a favorite website. It actually excites me that when I have kids I'll at least be able to understand and participate in their computer/video game/technology-esque lifestyles, know what they're talking about, doing and have fun with them all while protecting them and doing my job as a parent.
- Bryan Erck, Shiny

No. Teaching morals and values aren't the realm of game design. They're the realm of parents, of clergy, of family. Certainly we have a responsibility to not include elements that teach poor values and morals in games that are marketed to very young children, but no media should bear the responsibility to act as a parent.
- Anonymous

No. I think game creators have a moral responsibility to entertain their audience. It's not a game developer's job to parent their audience.
- Jim Busike, Killergame

No, but they do have an obligation to make the general content of their creations known so that consumers have the ability to make informed decisions when making purchases.

No. A game is a work of art like any epic poem, painting or film, and while the artist may choose to try to teach values to the audience through the work, it is entirely legitimate and responsible to create a game which makes no attempt to impart any lesson. Each new medium that human societies develop has works that are attacked as "immoral" by contemporary critics, and routinely, some of those condemned works are recognized by later generations as masterpieces of that medium. I can't cite any research here to support this, but I suspect it's true that works which self-consciously and overtly attempt to impart a specific lesson are more likely to be artistic failures than those which do not. This may be because the first job of any game (perhaps any artistic work?) is to entertain, and when the player/audience figures out that the game is ham-handedly trying to teach them something, that awareness interferes with their engagement with the work. There's a dissertation in there somewhere, but short answer, no.
- Doug Zartman, Wideload Games

A resounding NO. Do writers have that same responsibility? Actors? What other limitations would we put on them and our freedom of expression, in order to accomplish that lofty goal? Just ask Jerry Falwell, or the embittered ghost of Senator McCarthy for your answer... NO. Leave the morality lessons to the parents and the priests. They are quite good at their jobs.
- Anonymous

Moral Obligation is a philosopher's question. I suppose the real underlying question is "whose values do we teach?" To quote Kant, "Duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the law." In short if the yoke of morality is pressed upon the creators then it would be in a sense not morality at all, nor responsibility, merely duty. At the same time if it were an innate natural urge that all creators held than the question would be meaningless. So to answer the question bluntly: of course not.
- Joseph Carr, Transplace

I don't believe there is any real responsibility in making a game other than making it a good game. I believe exposing players to good values in a game is an option just like in movies, but learning good values is still up to the individual. As a parent I take it as my responsibility to teach good values to my child, I will choose to not let my son play games that expose him to situations in which making poor choices furthers his progress. As a game maker I think my responsibility is to make a game the player wants to play, and give the player value for his money.
- Kent Simon, Novalogic

Do movie creators have any moral responsibilities in teaching values to their audience? Do novel creators/writers have any moral responsibilities in teaching values to their audience? These, and this week's question, all have the same answer (in my opinion). No. The creator(s) have the power to do as they wish, or as they are permitted by publishing agencies etc. There are no restrictions to a creative imagination, and no where is it mandatory for a game, movie or novel to teach any moral values.
- Darren Schnare

No. Game developers do not have a moral responsibility in teaching values to their audience; no game I have ever played (aside from ones that were specifically intended to be educational) was meant to teach anything. Games are a means of expression for developers, just like any other form of art; they are meant to be explored, experienced, and ,occasionally, marveled at. And, as with any other form of art, part of the experience and expression in a game may involve topics and situations that are not commonly accepted as "moral". This does not mean that a developer will not impart some form of values to a player throughout the course of a game (whether conscious of doing so or not); again, as with any other form of art, part of the expression and experience imparted to the viewer is a reflection on the artist themselves, and part of this reflection may well be the views and values of the developer.

Put more simply, games are not meant to impart values, but, as with any other media, they sometimes do. It's possible that developers are less conscious of this than most artists (potentially because the "artist" in question is usually a fair-sized group of people) and that they should reflect more on the messages that their art conveys; however, as with any other artist, developers should be limited only by their creativity and their own sense of social responsibility, and in no way should developers feel a responsibility to teach their audience anything... except how to play the game.
- Matthew Thomas, University of Montana

No. Games tend to act as a recreational escape for players, so tying the creator's palette of ideas to some sort of "moral responsibility" is both limiting and unfair to both creator and player.
- Samuel Villanueva, Crystal Dynamics

No, of course not. If the game creators want to teach values through their games, then they may certainly do so. If they don't want to incorporate values into their games, then they don't have to. Of course I'm assuming that when you say "values", you are talking about positive (i.e. good, moral) values. But it's not their moral responsibility. It's a choice. It's a choice whether or not you intend to incorporate positive or negative (i.e. evil, immoral) values. It's a decision that every game creator should contemplate when designing games. If it so happened that they didn't have any values to teach in mind when designing the game, then that's where the real question lies.

If it so happened that they didn't have any values to teach in mind, who is responsible for the values taught that are eventually discovered by parents, the government, or the world, who may complain or praise the values depending on whether they are immoral or moral values? Are the game creators responsible for it even though they may have not meant it? Or is it just the society that's complaining and lying to its self?
- Taylor Eagy

No. Game creators have a responsibility to firstly entertain their intended audience, and secondly make money. It is the customer's responsibility to seek entertainment in line with their own moral views.
- Anonymous

Nope. Save it for your own children. Games can be moral, immoral, or amoral, just as can books, film, TV, etc.
- Brandon Van Every, Indie Game Design

Not any more responsibility than any other creative people, such as artists, musicians, and novelist. Let the audience decide what is worthy of their attention and time.
- TIffany Chu, SCEA

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