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Playing with Fire: Ethics and Game Design
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Playing with Fire: Ethics and Game Design

December 1, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

The Filters of "Good Enough"

We spend 3 billion hours a week playing computer and video games. That's a lot of time. So, isn't it important, then, to make sure the technology is being applied for the right purpose? Shouldn't it benefit the player? Here are a set of questions I like to ask myself when building a game and a take away exercise you might find useful before conceptualizing your next project.

1. How clear is your game about rules?

Recently, the University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada) Problem Gambling Research department conducted a study where the effects of "unclear" rules were addressed in slot machine play.

As an example, Ontario approves multiple versions of the same game with payback percentages varying from 85 to 98 percent. The different versions look identical to the player. How does it influence gameplay when the player isn't aware of these rules?

2. Is your game beneficial to players?

As I discussed in a previous section, there are many good games that promote positive personal and even collectively beneficial behavior. Healthseeker hopes to modify the lifestyle of players, encouraging the habituation of healthier practices over time.

Some would argue that FarmVille, for example, while not the most fun or productive game to play, does encourage social interactions by looping the player into social gifting cycle. The player somehow feels good by giving gifts and vice versa. This also adds more social relevance to the game.

3. What are the consequences if the game turns into an addiction?

A CNET article looking at FarmVille used an example of a player who confessed that since beginning to play the game last August, she's reached an unusually high level 111 in the game -- 40 levels beyond where the game offers incentives in the form of newly unlocked features.

She spends most -- entire -- days playing the game. She's spent about $2,000 on in-game currency expenses -- roughly $100 a month. By definition of the word addiction -- the recurring compulsion of someone to partake in an activity -- this lady is addicted to the game.

But here it is a question of degree. Sure, she is spending a lot of time and a considerable amount of money to entertain herself. But the consequence of her addiction isn't as extreme, for example, as someone who might lose their home because he or she couldn't stop pulling the slot machine handle.

You may think that it's too much to pay under any circumstances; perhaps you believe it should be entirely up to our player to decide if she has the financial resources to spend this money without harm. In any case, as the game designer we need to be aware of the potential consequences of our work, and feel comfortable with what we've built.

Ethical and Personal Considerations

Game and play are a basic survival adaptation. Using game mechanics that tap into our deeply-rooted hunter-gatherer urges, game designers can trigger and manipulate powerful neurological processes, like dopamine release and neuroplasticity, which motivate players to action and perhaps even modify longer-term patterns of behavior. This is why the ethics of applying this technology have been at the centre of many debates.

I'd like to make the argument that the technology is morally neutral. However, it's the obligation of game designers to be transparent about our motivations and more intentional about the effects that our games have on end user behavior; to know what the games are promoting and to ensure the end user is aware of this process. In the end, the more we can ensure this powerful technology is used for good -- or at least for good, healthy fun -- the better for everyone, from designers to publishers to end users.

This article has focused on the responsibilities of game designers, as key players in this ecosystem, but I'd like to end with a final thought about our responsibility as end-users and citizens: As author A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz said, "Citizens must educate themselves in the use of sociable applications, such as Facebook, and learn how they can better use them to forward their best interests."

Ultimately, no matter the responsibilities of game designers, publishers and distributors, the person most responsible for the player's well being is the player. Nevertheless as a community of game developers, we need to hold each other accountable for our mistakes and transgressions, applaud where appropriate for our triumphs, and contribute positively to the discussion of what we believe to be acceptable, helpful, and worthwhile. What do you think?

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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