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When does effective free-to-play design become an ethical matter?

When does effective free-to-play design become an ethical matter?

October 12, 2012 | By Patrick Miller

"This whole concept of freemium play, in my opinion, is the most radical form of entertainment socialism since Obama got elected. You've got a whole bunch of one-percenters paying for a bunch of freeloaders."
- Scott Dodson, chief product officer of Bobber Interactive, playing the role of "soulless capitalist" in a panel on the ethics of modern game design at GDC Online with Nik Davidson ( and Scott Rigby (Immersyve).

Other choice quotes from the panel include:

Nik Davidson opening the conversation of ethics in game design:

"Our industry bears the characteristics of a gold rush, and in any gold rush, you have honest prospectors and you have claim jumpers."

Scott Rigby on "whales" and other business terminology:

"What do we call our best customers these days? I'm not sure I'd want to be called a whale by anybody. 'Sticky' is not, generally, a good quality. I think we have this subtle language of control for our customers, and when paired with our ability to collect data, it raises some interesting ethical questions."

Davidson on the target market for free-to-play games:

"We like to think that the ones spending vast sums on these games are sons of Dubai oligarchs, but we have the data to prove that they're not, and that they probably can't afford to spend what they're spending. We're saying our market is suckers -- we're going to cast a net that catches as many mentally ill people as we can!"

Scott Dodson on the industry's responsibilities:

"I don't think it's always our responsibility to baby-sit people. My kids are 9 and 12, and they've been playing World of Warcraft since my son was 5 and sitting on my lap. I've never had an unauthorized purchase."

Davidson on the dangers of making unethical games:

"The long-term danger [of employing psychologically manipulative design techniques in games] is that we are poisoning the well; we're watching a large-scale tragedy of the commons play out on our player bases. Our audience is becoming inured to viral trickery we employ to get people what we want to do. For example, good UX design says 'Find the button the user is most likely to press, and make it as large and central and green as possible.' So what social games designers do is put the button you want to press and make it small and gray and uninviting, and make the button that shares to your whole friend feed that you just passed level two of the tutorial. We've boiled the frog."

What do you think? Should we as an industry consider game design a matter of ethics? If we should, how should we try to design with ethics in mind?

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