Ironyca asked a question I’ve been thinking on ever since I read it. This came to mind again recently in light of supposed suicide of Saldahna, the UK nurse who was prank called by Australian DJ’s. I got to thinking about the ethics of game design. I know, I can’t stop my brain some times.

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In Ironyca’s article, the subject was World of Warcraft and the fun factor of dailies. She raised questions about the role of dailies in having fun and this raised three issues for me: addiction quests, fun quests, and whether quests are made to be fun or just addicting. At the time of the reading, I was really struck by the issue or how it seemed like such a non-issue despite it’s implications. On it’s face this was just a short article about daily quests, but the questions stuck in my mind. I’ve spent some time trying to answer those questions and here’s what I’ve come up with:

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We’ve got a lot of unethical game design going on. It’s bad. It’s contributing to bad ideas and promoting unhealthy communities of gamers. It’s making otherwise immoral acts normative and therefore acceptable to gamers. I know, this is a really rough indictment, but I think I can show that it’s not an extreme view of things and in fact it’s the normal state of things. This is what makes the problem invisible to us. This is what will make many of you say “I don’t see the problem.”

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I think game designers want to make good games that players will love and appreciate. I don’t doubt that is their aim. But this problem of ethics has more to do with the unquestioning widespread of use of devices which are questionable. It would seem that game designers either aren’t questioning these things, blindly employing them to make games, or else they don’t see anything wrong with using them. But designers are also well-aware of what they can gain from designing their games a certain way. This is the fundamental source of the ethics problem. This then leads to questions of responsibility: does the designer feel responsible for impacts her/his creation has on players? Are they responsible? Can a person be responsible for someone else’s behavior? I think yes. I think when a parent is in public with a small child and the child throws a tantrum at the ice cream shop, the parent apologizes to the others for the bad behavior and works to correct it. But how about a grown-up analogy? Corporations routinely provide guidance on the behavior of their employees, violation of which can lead to said employee’s dismissal and which always prompts a legal team into action to correct the mishap. So we do accept that people can have responsibility over others.

Then we get down to discovering how we feel about psychological and behavioral manipulation. Recently on the gaming podcast Cat Context #16, Arolaide described a downloadable game she’s been playing (the name escapes me this moment). The game gives you 5 free attempts to win and thereafter you must pay to have additional attempts. Otherwise you must wait a few hours to have 1 more opportunity to win. Few of us would NOT call this manipulative, money-grabbing game design, fully malicious, brazenly Skinner. Yet most of us would defend the traditional use of daily quests which is precisely the same mechanic; it asks you to remain in the store to entice you to buy more. Why is one acceptable and the other not? Indulge me here; let’s see if we can’t deconstruct some of the problems with these devices.

I’ve intentionally chosen to focus on the less overt features of unethical games. While I acknowledge that violent games raise more obvious questions, the entire point I’m making here is that there are more subtle features we should be paying attention to which are just as problematic.

Also, lacking the ability to physically quote from textbooks (which can’t be freely linked to) which have helped inform my knowledge on the material that follows, I’ve done my best to collect links from reasonable sources which can help readers follow along.

On Ethics

First, say this with me: Ethics is hard. It’s damn hard. And the difficulty is primarily in it’s application. Say it again until this sentence burns in your mind, until you see it’s residual image as you read the rest of this article.

People tend to equate “easy” with “right/sensible thing to do.” It happens all the time, I do it without even thinking and I’ve seen others do much the same no matter where I am or who it is. To some extent, we necessarily make little assumptions like this because it could otherwise make us unproductive (paralysis by analysis). People often are confronted with moral dilemmas and if something seems too difficult, too incredulous, too unbelievable …they might just say that the solution is impractical, is impossible, and therefore the best we can do is what’s easiest: ignore it.  Ethics is hard in our world. The right thing to do is incredibly hard to know and standby, and often our system of things discourages it while rewarding bad behavior. Ethics is hard. If we chose the easiest thing, but not the right thing, we must accept that as an immoral action. It’s a choice we consciously make and yet when we chose wrongly (and know the problem) we tend to defend it even if given ordinary circumstances we might see it as wrong. This is why denial is such a predictable reaction to any bad news. It’s offensive to suggest we do immoral things or that our governments/countries are immoral institutions. This equally applies to our video games and what we think of design. The ethics of game design is a very quiet discussion due in part to a belief that their morality can be taken for granted and in part because no one wants to look at the elephant in the room. It’s ugly.

My first premise is horribly subjective, but here goes: We do not live in a moral world. Food surpluses and starving populations could not occur simultaneously in a moral world where everyone knows that both exist. Therefore, moral behavior is exceptional. Therefore, much of what we do in this world is unethical.

Therefore, most of our video games are designed unethically.

Ethics is about morality. It’s not based on man-made statutes nor popular behavior. It is a way of relating to other human beings and of defining those relationships through mutually beneficial behaviors. When we talk about behaving ethically, we’re talking about the Golden Rule at a minimum. However, ethics is about more than doing the minimum required to reach Nirvana or whatever high moral status you strive to achieve. That would diminish the greatness of Nirvana were it to be thought of as doing the minimum; it entirely misses the point. The Golden Rule has profound implications on how we govern our daily lives; it is deceptively simple. It is hard to live by. In recent years (for serious health reasons) I’ve had to become a vegetarian and I’m heading towards vegan as well. The thing is, even though I know the misery created by eating chicken (this link is not for the faint of heart), it was amazingly difficult to stop buying those dead chickens. I knew my actions were wrong by the dread I felt in the checkout line. I  felt like a bad person. If this chicken had been kicked, choked, or tortured in front of me I would likely have tried to stop the person who was doing so. Yet, since the chicken is already dead, already seasoned with rosemary and baked to juicy perfection, it is hard not to eat it. I don’t shy away from being wrong for supporting the torture of chickens by eating them. It is what it is. But damn if it isn’t hard to do the right thing. Still, this one immoral act doesn’t make me an entirely immoral person. It means I’ve erred and I need to correct my errors.

To be ethical we should act authentically in our good behavior. Being good in order to avoid the fires of hell or whatever other punishments we might associate with it is not acting ethically. It’s merely self-preservation. And yes, self-preservation is a moral act but if one act could determine our morality we’d all be living saints. This is the reason social/political laws aren’t typically good guides for ethical behavior. They tend to strictly define what a society is willing to accept. Often the rule is constructed in the first place because we aren’t sure how else to solve a problem. Political laws are necessarily arbitrary.

However, morality requires accountability and responsibility foremost and that will be the aspect I focus on here. Without these, it’s impossible to talk about ethics and to apply them. Lacking these two things, it is impossible to act morally. This point will be key throughout the article in showing how institutions and processes can be immoral.

To make my case on the ethics of game design it will take some explaining of a few concepts, but I promise I will tie this all back to why it seems unlikely that most games have been ethically designed. If this is true, then we have a real problem on our hands. One we are often fearful to bring up because of what it says about us.

Having Fun & Play

One of the links in Ironyca’s article helped me to get my little research started. It was a link referring to a study by Roger Caillois, a French Sociologist who took up the study of the definition of fun and games. This quote from the Wikipedia article gives us a summary of what he came up with, emphasis mine:

Caillois disputes Huizinga’s emphasis on competition in play. He also notes the considerable difficulty in defining play, concluding that play is best described by six core characteristics: it is free, or not obligatory; it is separate (from the routine of life) occupying its own time and space; it is uncertain, so that the results of play cannot be pre-determined and so that the player’s initiative is involved; it is unproductive in that it creates no wealth and ends as it begins; it is governed by rules that suspend ordinary laws and behaviours and that must be followed by players; and it involves make-believe that confirms for players the existence of imagined realities that may be set against ‘real life’.

The context of the study is examining how society institutionalizes and corrupts the forms of play (competition, chance, mimicry, and vertrigo) with how we employ it’s principles to our daily lives. To quote some examples from the article: … [competition] is seen as a cultural form in sports, in an institutional form as economic competition and as a corruption in violence and trickery; [chance] is seen as a cultural form in lotteries and casinos, as an institutional form in the stock market and as a corruption in superstition and astrology … I like to think of it as a the gamification of our values. This is especially fitting material for exploring corruption of the ethics of our games.

Just think of all the games we love which turn out to not actually be games if we take this definition as it is. Sorry, Diablo 3 (it’s productive)! Sorry, World of Warcraft (dailies …oh, hell EVERY MMO)! Sorry Farmville! Pretty damning. Now I’m not implying there aren’t some gamey, fun & play aspects of these games despite their violation of some rules. I’m not sure they all need to be applied simultaneously, but maybe they do. I think the point is that if a game violates any one of these, it’s probably not a game about fun & play, but rather it’s something else. This is acceptable since it doesn’t diminish our personal preference for said games nor attack that preference.

So for the sake of argument, let’s accept his definition of fun & games. Suppose his definition is fact, which seems a pretty good starting point anyway even if there exist exceptions or if it’s not all encompassing. Surely we can discuss the ethics of game design from this perspective. The definition is based on leisure.

The important characteristic seems to me that play must be free or non-obligatory, and therefore unproductive. Most of you reading this are gamers, so the implications are probably filling your heads and especially if you’re pairing up your conclusion with daily quests in mind. Daily quests are strictly obligatory and anti-fun & gamey by nature. Their ultimate impact is to remind players to play the game each day to get their reward for doing so. In fact, I haven’t known any gamer who blogs to deny that quests are designed based on Skinner techniques. What’s unsettling is how accepting we are of that, how we believe it’s sort of natural (I hate to use that word but the context seems fitting) that games use quests or features in this way. Whatever we may individually think of this, what’s true regardless is that Skinner techniques have become normative.  We accept this because of their ubiquity in games. If that’s true, then many games violate the rules of fun and play, and thus we don’t play them necessarily for fun and leisure. We find dailies to be non-problematic ethically because behavioral and psychological manipulation is institutionalized. We play them because we feel compelled, because it’s easy to be rewarded, because maybe we’re addicted.

What necessarily follows is that games which employ these techniques are, by definition, not fun and they’re potentially not games at all. They’re something else.

If a game is based on Skinner techniques in it’s core design, it’s not a game. It’s a software device developers have created to keep you playing, often because the model is profitable. It’s like tricking the rat in the box into thinking they are winning a game. In fact, they are being controlled in an environment they’re barely aware of.

Another shock is how accepting players are of that. Again, I reference the popular notion amongst game bloggers that many game mechanics are addicting. Few deny this . As a group we just accept this as the way of things. But by making this normative, we accept the implications which are often malicious. Why malicious? Because there are reasons a developer might prefer to make addicting games rather than fun ones, and among those reasons is the incentive to make money. In the age of online games and micro-transactions, of Facebook and Real Money Trading (RMT), companies need to increasingly get their hooks on as vast an audience as possible to cash in as much as possible. No one disputes this either.

That is the power of normalizing dangerous behavior.

So what’s bad about Skinner box techniques? You may have noticed I didn’t point this out, but fear not! Since you’re still reading so far, I won’t disappoint.

Skinner box techniques don’t have a monopoly on contributing to addiction. In fact, addiction is probably a strong word for what the technique attempts. It’s a way of conditioning behavior with rewards — conditioning. This means priming a subject to respond in certain ways by the promise of rewarding them for doing so. This is not addiction, but more akin to training the subject’s behavior. Now this will likely lead to addiction, but the difference is that the technique is devised to train, not addict. Think of potty training when you were a one year old. However, the technique can also be used to create the circumstances for addiction.

In game design, developers use this technique most often when designing what’s lovingly called the fun-loop. The idea is that the more random the reward output (variable ratio), the more steady player participation; whereas fixed reward output (fixed ratio) leads to greater player inactivity punctuated by bursts of high activity. In both cases, the loop serves to promote continuous action (game play) until the win condition (reward) is achieved. So-called “good” game design will use the random technique, because it keeps players playing longer and more consistently. That’s all well and good, so long as a moral dilemma doesn’t crop up. And before I explain that dilemma, let’s get a further grasp on addiction.


I don’t use the term lightly. There are many things to understand about addiction. It’s a very broad term encompassing a range of different kinds of psychological and physical behaviors, all with their own unique characteristics. Even just focusing on addictions common to gaming, there’s no way to harp on a singular manifestation. What I’ll do instead of attempting to write a thesis on addiction in the space of a paragraph is to explain it’s relevance to the topic of ethics. I’ll summarize the ways in which games, by their mechanics, can aim to promote and create addiction. I’ll also argue that developers consciously design mechanics not for the benefit of the player, but for the benefit of themselves. Note that addiction isn’t something that games are especially prone to producing or any other such nonsense.

Those suffering from gaming addiction suffer from Behavioral Addiction (sometimes called Process Addiction). This is when a person becomes addicted to an activity. My point here is only that game design can absolutely encourage addiction. It’s often designed into the fabric of the game with the intent to cash in on a persons compulsion to play the game. This is what can happen when we make gaming a kind of mandatory daily activity which all other things might be scheduled around.

Now some players do dailies without becoming addicted. They just feel compelled to login each day, get their reward and go about their business. Fun & leisure isn’t the point, but satisfaction and reward. They won’t experience withdrawals if they don’t login for a few days or a week or any other signs of addiction. However, moral dilemma begins when addiction would be very beneficial to the company selling the game.

With that explained, I want to add some caveats. Addiction isn’t inevitable by participating in any activity. It’s also not cut and dry, and it can be influenced by other types of addiction. Some individuals are more prone to addiction than others. And so forth. Remember that all of that is irrelevant. The issue at hand is the intentional, deliberate design of games to specifically encourage Skinner behavior and/or addiction in order to make money. The issue is ethical game design. This goes far beyond mere training; it’s raw reprogramming with intent. Perhaps it’s not ironic that game programmers/designers understand how to rewire our brains; perhaps that makes perfect sense in ways we can’t currently wrap our heads around. Let’s also keep in mind the definition of fun and games so that we ask ourselves what video games have become: are they designed for leisurely fun or for compulsion for profit? It’s possible that the truth has become obscured. Somewhere along the line game design went from focusing on fun and play to instead on compelling players to play them more to maximize profit potential. This easily leads one to assume that a compelling activity is a fun activity or that an addicting activity is obviously fun. These are bad assumptions.

Now …can addiction be fun? Well, I don’t know that I’d want to make such a statement. Can a person enjoy themselves in a prison? I’m sure the hopelessness of indefinite captivity can be punctuated by moments of laughter and happiness, but let’s not confuse the indomitable nature of the human spirit with imprisonment being a fun and good thing. If one could agree that imprisonment is generally a very bad thing, then one must also conclude that addiction is also a very bad thing; that Skinner techniques serve to train an individual into a behavioral cycle difficult for them to break. Imprisonment.

“But, but,” you say “what makes you think these are necessarily bad things and why is trying to make money malicious and how do you conclude that just because it’s addicting it’s not fun?” All good and hard questions worthwhile to address. I conclude that a person should feel no obligation to play a game and have fun, and that compulsion is contrary to what it means to actually play and have fun. People should feel no compulsion while participating in leisure activities. “But there are professional poker players!” you say. Yes, but poker for professionals is not, in fact, a leisure activity. However much we might enjoy our work, we don’t do it for leisure. So that while it’s possible to have fun and play at work, to have work is not to necessarily have fun and play. The two are mutually exclusive. Furthermore, the example of Pro Poker proves Callois’s point: that we have institutionalized the values of fun and games in corrupt ways.

That brings me to the next part in exploring the ethics of game design: is the game designer responsible for the outcomes of playing their game? A very thorny issue which I don’t even pretend to have the answer to, but which I think I have some questions we can start with. I will say that it’s very problematic, but more parties than the designer are involved and thus the whole of responsibility might not lie with designers alone. I’d also say that if you’re designing your game with the express intent to compel players to play it through Skinner techniques, you’re absolutely responsible. But first, let’s define responsibility.

Having Accountability for Responsibility

Accountability is about answerability and assigning responsibility. Let’s again borrow some definitions from reliable sources:


In ethics and governance, accountability is answerability, blameworthiness, liability, and the expectation of account-giving. […] Accountability cannot exist without proper accounting practices; in other words, an absence of accounting means an absence of accountability.


  1. The state of being responsible, accountable, or answerable.
    Responsibility is a heavy burden.
  2. A duty, obligation or liability for which someone is held accountable.
    Why didn’t you clean the house? That was your responsibility!
    The responsibility of the great states is to serve and not to dominate the worldHarry S. Truman

Accountability produces responsibility. Responsibility is the state of being accountable. Individuals have responsibility, not processes, institutions, or objects though it is possible to imbue those things with responsibility. Still, as humans pride ourselves on being intellectually brilliant creatures with freewill and control, we can’t be content with blaming institutions or processes for their failings. Those are ultimately our failure.

Accountability is a process of ensuring an accounting is made. It’s true that sometimes these terms can be synonymous or interchangeable, but what I want to do here is to distinguish making an accounting of and being responsible for that account. If you’ve ever heard the phrases “Oh no one is responsible //  no one could have known // it’s no one’s fault” after, say … an economic meltdown caused by companies and banks making outrageous or risky bets using ethereal products …then you have witnessed the difference between lack of accountability and how it leads to a lack of responsibility. In these situations, it’s often unclear where the blame lies precisely because processes have been made so obscure or in many cases processes have been lacking at all to account for the risks and results.

So ethics in games. Where do we go with this information? Well, all combined, we get a scenario in which game developers have cut their teeth using Skinner box techniques and it’s all the “fun” they know how to make. In fact, these developers are highly, highly likely to defend their use and to say things like “Skinner is fun.” Who was responsible for teaching game designers these things? Themselves? Their schools? The industry for setting standard practices? It’s impossible to know given the situation. And there’s the rub. There’s no accountability and no one will therefore claim responsibility. Recall what I said in the introduction that it’s impossible to act morally without the presence of accountability and responsibility. All will defend their honor as moral persons who have their customers’ best interests in mind. Meanwhile the designers themselves are trapped in a Skinner system in which good behavior isn’t rewarded as often as bad ones; best to manipulate people into buying your games and be sure to grab $10 million than to do the right thing, risk going broke, and closing down your studio. These are very real risks and very real problems that are difficult to talk about, let alone solve. But Morality is hard. This does not justify doing wrong things because the risks are too great. The risks are compounded the longer “wrong” things continue to be done. In other words, the longer we operate under this rule-set, the harder it is to right the wrongs.

What we do know is that lacking accountability, people feel inclined to defend the current state of affairs because they reason that devs aren’t stupid, and no one would willfully continue a harmful system; no, they would change it if it was so bad. Therefore, it must not be so bad and the consequences are being exaggerated. In other words, arguments that things are not as they seem. That may be true, but it’s also irrelevant. Systems are perpetuated by its participants and one doesn’t have to carry ALL of the responsibility for the results. We all play our part and we all have a piece of responsibility to claim. The process isn’t corrupt despite the participation of moral developers; it’s corrupt because of their participation. In other words, to act morally, they must reject bad practices and cease supporting them.

The End Result

Ethics is hard. It’s damn hard. And the difficulty is primarily in it’s application. But why? Because ethics aren’t just lofty ideals; morality requires action and sometimes we just don’t know how we should act under the circumstances. This doesn’t absolve us a responsibility to act. Nor can we claim to be moral actors just because the circumstances too hard, the problem too large.

I think we know responsibility best in a practical sense as duty. As being accountable. It means something we must do because we are concerned about the outcomes or impacts of something. Do game designers have a responsibility to their players when it comes to addiction and behavior conditioning mechanics?

Suppose there’s an invisible oil slick on a stairwell. No one can see it but you.  You know that if you step on it, you’ll fall down the stair and break your neck. Do you have a duty to put a sign near the stair warning others of the invisible slick? Do you have a duty to clean it up? Cordon it off? If someone who walks there falls down the stair and breaks their neck, do you have some responsibility for the accident? After all you didn’t put the slick there and you didn’t volunteer to be the only person who could see it. All of us would likely agree that you should do something about the slick, even though you didn’t put it there.

Now take it a step further. Suppose $1 million dollars automatically fell down from heaven for every person that fell down the stair. You have the power to just remove it and prevent any accident from ever happening. If you instead leave it there but put a sign next to it to warn people of the oil slick, do you bear any responsibility if a person walks on it and falls to their death? All of you would likely agree that accidents happen, regardless of fore knowledge. Therefore, if you can prevent an accident by removing the obstacle, you should do so. It is immoral to do otherwise.

How about another scenario where I’m walking down the street past a swimming pool. In the pool I see a child drowning. Do I have a duty to save the child? I don’t know them and it’s not my fault they’re drowning. Suppose there are 35 children in the pool and only one is drowning. Do you have an obligation to save the sole drowning child? Or is it OK to say that the most children in the pool aren’t drowning and therefore there isn’t a problem? Most of us would conclude it’s wrong to let the child drown. This is meant to illustrate one point: We have a responsibility to act when we know something is going wrong. There’s no morally significant difference between killing and letting die; abusing and letting abuse; inflicting suffering and letting suffer. If a game you create is having detrimental effects on even a single person in your audience, you have a duty to reexamine the nature of your game and try to eradicate the cause of the bad effects.

But what about those who do see the problems and try to help? What’s the extent of their responsibility?

Let’s assume you’re sailing on your boat fishing and as you’re coasting along the beautiful blue shark infested seas you see a swimmer out in the water drowning. You throw them a life preserver, turn around, and continue to fish. The person catches the life saver, but as stated before the waters are infested with sharks. They get eaten by the sharks as they struggled to crawl into the boat. Are you responsible? You threw them some help, after all so that they could save themselves. What is the extent of your responsibility in this scenario?

Or more to the point. Suppose you design a bridge to allow children to cross an alligator filled bay. You get $1 for every child that crosses. In building it you can choose between two kinds of materials: one which is readily available, easy to assemble, but which has a 90% chance to break; or you can choose a much more difficult to acquire, difficult to assemble material, but which has a 89% chance to break. If the bridge fails, children trying to get to the other side will fall into the bay and get eaten by alligators. You must chose between only these 2 materials. Which one of these materials is the ethical choice? Is that 1% morally significant? Should we strive for the best possible conditions despite the difficulty or disregard progress in order to have it easy?

We can be responsible for things even when we didn’t cause them or create the circumstance. When we know something is wrong we have a duty to act to fix it. It’s entirely possible to bear some responsibility for bad outcomes, even if they are not of your making, even if you didn’t intend them, and even if responsibility is shared.

As for the decisions we make as gamers, many of us know when a game has crossed the line into addiction. Or when it’s feeding our bad habits. We know it to ourselves even if we don’t talk about it publicly. Is it wrong to enjoy a game for the sole reason that it feels rewarding to play? Is it OK to play games NOT for fun, but to get your daily reward in life? Suppose we live harsh lives, have mind-numbing, unrewarding jobs; are usually never recognized for who we are or for our contributions int his life. Is it wrong to get those things from a game? Arguably that’s exactly what we do. And that’s exactly why many gamers demand Skinner, are willing to look for the bright side of addiction or to defend designers who do so. We need to feel rewarded at some point in our day. We need to recognized for some kind of achievement. Usually the world just isn’t so. For the ordinary person like me, we have our triumphs but work can be unrewarding. “Work” in games is usually eager to reward us. Today’s mobile and downloadable games market feeds upon that need. It’s why Zynga is more hailed and loved by Wall Street than it is by gamers themselves.

I’ll grant that because we live in an immoral world, it’s more difficult than ever to discern when we’re perpetrating bad acts. It’s true that we often don’t understand the consequences of our actions. The environment makes it difficult to calibrate our moral compass. Often the best we can do is once we have learned what’s wrong, to accept the duty to act accordingly. Denying responsibility does not make it so. It’s self-deception in the hopes of convincing others of the same so that we can feel better ourselves, validate our belief that we’re moral persons.

Most importantly, just because you perform an immoral act doesn’t make you an immoral person. It’s continually repeating that act despite the consequences that is definitely immoral. We are allowed to err. We’re allowed to make mistakes and learn. But we shouldn’t deny our errors, or we risk not learning and therefore risk repeating the offending acts. This is how games come to be unethical; the unquestioning or the ignoring or the defending of devices which don’t deserve a defense. It’s the defense when we err. It’s the denial when faced with the prospect that something we created out of love and hope has harmed someone.

I conclude that if video games are designed as leisure activities which promote fun & play, then there’s a lot of non-games currently on market; lots of software designed to extract wealth. I conclude that there’s a serious moral dilemma, a conflict of interest between developers making money and the risks they will take to the detriment of gamers. I think we have to conclude that whenever a developer is deciding whether or not to take responsibility for design or else go bankrupt and be reduced to poverty, we have a very serious ethical problem.

Daily quests aren’t the pinnacle of awesome game design fun nor is it the sulfur that fuels the fires in hell. While players may benefit from game play features such as dailies, that feature isn’t likely designed on the basis of player enjoyment, but rather on a financial need of the developer. It’s not OK to profit by manipulating other people into any behaviors.

Psychological manipulation is not a necessary ingredient for making good, profitable games. Deliberate use of techniques by game designers to psychologically condition players into playing the game are questionable at best, downright evil at worst. For now, it seems that it’s inevitable that many of our games are unethical; that they are designed for some other purpose than fun & play, of leisure entertainment, or hobby …ism (?). The end product should be delivering something to the player, not taking something away or even damaging their lives. It’s true that gamers have a responsibility here too, to themselves and to others. This isn’t about dropping the burden solely at the feet of game makers, but rather about pointing out the serious ethical issues plaguing our games, our game designers, and our industry.

How hard could it be to not deliberately manipulate your players in questionable ways?

It would be nice if the Golden Rule were as easy to do in practice as it sounds on paper. Ethics is hard and its application is the hardest of all.

  • Balkoth Warcraft

    “Recently on the gaming podcast Cat Context #16,
    Arolaide described a downloadable game she’s been playing (the name
    escapes me this moment). The game gives you 5 free attempts to win and
    thereafter you must pay to have additional attempts. Otherwise you must
    wait a few hours to have 1 more opportunity to win. Few of us would NOT
    call this manipulative, money-grabbing game design, fully malicious,
    brazenly Skinner.”

    Given that the game is free, how do you derive that conclusion? If you want to play the game more often you have to pay for it.

    I mean, hell, what if the first five hours a week for WoW were free and you had to pay beyond that? Would you call that bad?

    If you think that’s bad, then how is paying a subscription justifiable?

    If you think it’s fine, then how is your example different?

    “Yet most of us would defend the traditional use of daily quests which is
    precisely the same mechanic; it asks you to remain in the store to
    entice you to buy more.”

    Again, where are you getting that conclusion? Daily quests force you to repeat an action X times for a reward. Same as a grind, they just limit it daily.

    “Sorry, World of Warcraft (dailies …oh, hell EVERY MMO)!”

    If dailies solely gave gold, would you still damn them?

    If they gave cosmetic stuff and gold only, would you still damn them?

    Or is the idea of needing to do them for gear progression the important part? If so, then what about from the perspective of a player who doesn’t care about gear progression?

    “Daily quests are strictly obligatory and anti-fun & gamey by nature.
    Their ultimate impact is to remind players to play the game each day to
    get their reward for doing so.”

    How about daily lockouts on heroics? Or weekly lockouts on raids?

    “While players may benefit from game play features such as dailies, that
    feature isn’t likely designed on the basis of player enjoyment, but
    rather on a financial need of the developer. It’s not OK to profit by
    manipulating other people into any behaviors.”

    Theoretically, if Blizzard could produce a raid every two weeks the bosses could drop all of their loot a once. But they can’t.

    Does that mean giving raids lockouts and having bosses only drop a handful of items isn’t moral?

    • Bernard

      “Food surpluses and starving populations could not occur simultaneously in a moral world where everyone knows that both exist. Therefore, moral behavior is exceptional. Therefore, much of what we do in this world is unethical [….]

      Therefore, most of our video games are designed unethically.”

      Isn’t the logical next step to say that by playing games at all in a world with starvation populations is an immoral activity? A huge amount of resources is being expending to ‘entertain’ the top 10%. Even this debate can be consider to be an immoral waste our both of our times.

      • Doone Woodtac

        You’re right and I think that’s a solid point, definitely something to consider. It’s possible that the best thing for me to do right now is sell my computer and donate the money to the starving, but I won’t. And it’s not because of games. It’s because I use this machine to earn money. The point I’m making is that people are allowed to do things which sustain them, and that may include video games. Every person is different.

        There’s a philosopher (living and still teaching) by the name of Peter Singer who asks this very question you pose and it’s a very intriguing moral dilemma. He basically says that all this disposable income most of us spend on games (or Bugattis) is unethical; that we should be feeding the starving with that money. It’s a very tough argument to counter and I personally haven’t been able to. I consequently think I do TOO MANY immoral things after reading him 🙂

        • Bernard

          To answer your first question, I think this is how Peter Singer might regard video game blogging:

          Time = money

          Time spent debating the pros and cons of video games could be dedicated to the helping the poor or needy.
          You may find it gratifying and we may all enjoy the intellectual stimulation but it is ultimately unethical when people are suffering.

          • Bernard

            Note that I do not subscribe to this viewpoint. Or perhaps I am just comfortable being unethical or selfish in this way? 🙂

            All I am saying is that you can replace “Daily Quests” with anything that is done for fun if observed through this morality lens.

          • Doone Woodtac

            I disagree there. Right now you’re side-stepping the content of the article in a quest prove that we shouldn’t talk about ethics in game design because supposedly it’s a waste of time.

            So I ask what do you think of the arguments presented and the questions raised specifically on those arguments in the article? And lets not answer questions with questions. Let’s each give our thoughts and respond so that we can actually engage the topic.

            What we definitely can do is answer the questions posed in the article: do game designers bear responsibility for healthy game design? What is healthy game design? Are some devices employed in creating fun loops unethical? If so, which ones and why? These are questions we can actually deal with here. As much as I love entertaining you Bernard, we will have to be content with the small things we can address 🙂

            That said, I would definitely read and respond to any article you write which deals with the morality of video game blogging. At this juncture, I see nothing unethical about video game blogging, anymore than there’s something wrong with writing books on ethics.

    • Doone Woodtac

      Dailies in the games I’ve been willing to play don’t cost anything themselves. Like I mentioned in the article, it’s the keeping you in the store so you may pay for something else idea. Let me know if you still don’t understand that point and I’ll try to elaborate as best i can.

      As to raid lockouts, I think their initial purpose was to increase the life of the game, but the question I pose still stands: for what purpose? Profit? I think profit is a poor motive. I think it’s unethical and I welcome counter-arguments to the contrary.

      I question here the mechanism, the delivery of the quest and I question their purpose foremost. I think they are problematic whether or not I had fun (and continue to play) with these games or not. It’s a question in which I happen to think there’s an ethical conflict there. Something about the idea of a game being designed not for enjoyment in itself but to “hook” me is disturbing, despite the fact that I have enjoyed these things.

      You might have used the examples of slot machines or even arcades in your questions since they analogous to the daily question and the downloadable game example. Slots and arcade machines are designed to wring dollars out of you and I don’t think they are good game design mechanics for the purposes of enjoyment. They are designed for to manipulate me into inserting more coins; for profit. I enjoy arcades as much as the next person, but I don’t think they are designed for my enjoyment. I tried to make that clear so forgive me if my writing failed there.

      I also stated that these games are not inherently evil in the very next sentence that you quote my apologies to said games. I’m not sure how best to apply the Caillois’s rule and I made that much clear as well. However, for the sake of argument, if his definitions of fun are to be taken then we have a huge problem in the leisure games. They are clearly not intended to be fun, but to be profitable.

      What do you think of these mechanics? I used as few specific game examples as possible to avoid the impression that I was picking on any one of them, but I see how that had it’s trade off in explaining specific instances. Instead I just borrowed from what I assumed were features the most people would be familiar with, so take the examples as just examples. The only point I am making in the argument is that game designers have a responsibility to keep the trust of gamers in good faith; to not manipulate us for profit and to design their games in healthy ways. Is that so problematic?

      • Bernard

        “Dailies in the games I’ve been willing to play don’t cost anything themselves. Like I mentioned in the article, it’s the keeping you in the store so you may pay for something else idea”

        What if the ‘store’ is actually a ‘club’ or ‘themepark’?

        You’ve paid for membership, which entitles you to entry, and you want something to do when you’re there.
        The leisure club’s management owe you entertainment services that you can enjoy whenever you like or you will cancel your membership.

        In this sense, aren’t they obliged to give you fun stuff to do?

        • Bernard

          Bonus question:

          Would MMOs be less unethical if all random loot was removed from the game?

          Is a game with linear gear grinds less likely to play on our instincts of addiction?

          • Doone Woodtac

            Note that I never conclude that MMOs or other games are ENTIRELY unethical. I also state clearly that most of the time designers go in with the intent to deliver fun and games. I’ve questioned the mechanics they employ to do so and whether those mechanics lead to systems designed for profit, not entertainment.

            I’m more than willing to answer these questions you pose, and I will, but first I want to nudge us back to the bigger picture that these belong to. I also encourage you to state your opinion on the matter, since I can’t really be sure that I’m addressing your concern without it.

            The question is whether these things are designed for fun and games (leisure) or something else. I conclude that in many cases, it’s something else.

            Do you believe these things are designed for the sole intent of entertainment or for profit? Should they be? Keep in mind Caillois’s 6 characteristics of fun, which are integral to the argument I’ve constructed. Hold games against that standard and ask yourself i they are designed for fun and play, or for something else. Tell me your answer.

            Perhaps you can post a counter argument to illustrate what you think on the issue of moral game design?

            Thank you for engaging. I know it’s a very contentious topic and I know that some of my conclusions are bothersome to people; it’s the nature of arguing a point of view and raising disturbing questions. I’m more than willing to be challenged on them, but I need to hear a counter argument. I spent a lot of time constructing this, so I’ve been as thoughtful as I can be and I think I need a counter argument in order to gain a new perspective.

        • Brian Green

          I wrote a longer comment, but seems like it got eaten by the system. I’ll write an abbreviated version of it again.

          The main flaw in your discussion is the assumption that games have to be Skinner Boxes. Take another look at the cycle: stimulus -> reaction -> change. Yes, this can describe a Skinner box; but this could also describe another process that we all appreciate: learning. Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun posits that fun is basically just learning, so this makes sense. Trying to cast all learning as manipulative Skinner Boxes is misguided, I think.

          Now, we can talk about what is being taught, but in most cases what is being taught is mastery of the game system. I don’t think there’s a secret agenda in most cases, although I can hardly talk for most developers. Most people can separate fantasy from reality, and playing a shooter will no more make you a killer than viewing El Tres de Mayo will, although that also shows vivid violence.

          As for “addiction”, we need to understand that when gamers use that term it is used colloquially, not in its medical sense. Although there are people who will profit from warning about “computer addiction”, I think most people can recognize that no matter how addictive it is, a game will not drive you to the lengths that meth or heroin will. I wrote about this before:

          What most gamers mean is that a game is fun and compelling. This is the same as a book being a “page turner”, where a good book that you want to keep reading is seen as a positive thing. My job as a game designer is to make games that are fun and compelling; if I fail to do this then I will not be a game designer long. This does NOT mean I want to hook players on my game like junkies are hooked on hard drugs.

          I wrote about the moral obligations of game designers previously: I think this is an important topic, but you start from a few flawed premises and assumptions that I think change the nature of the discussion and make it more accusatory than helpful.

          • Doone Woodtac

            Ah, but you are wrong. That is not my premise. The main argument is spelled out in the intro as follows:

            We do not live in a moral world. Food surpluses and starving populations could not occur simultaneously in a moral world where everyone knows that both exist. Therefore, moral behavior is exceptional. Therefore, much of what we do in this world is unethical.

            Therefore, most of our video games are designed unethically.

            I go on to use examples that my audience would be familiar with but in no way do I limit it to those games, nor do I argue that those are the only examples. I merely state that the ones named are problematic and are common to MMO games.

            Most video games (and they are mostly offline games) don’t use the technique. In fact, it could be argued that most “skinner” games are service games and it’s a problem almost unique to those kinds of games, where it’s more or less an “insert coin” mechanic on the part of the developer. I’ve also written about that before..

            Whether a gamer will self confess colloquially or have it diagnosed by a doctor is irrelevant. I’ve been addicted to games and most of my friends who have played MMOs have had a similar experience. You go on to point out heroin and meth addictions, which are quite different. I explained this in the article; there are different addictions and there’s no possible way to sum up the kinds gamers may or may not suffer from. But that’s also not the point. The point is that mechanics which *aim* to induce addiction should be avoided.

            You also state “most gamers” which is a bit too much into subjective territory; neither of us can prove such a thing. But it happens not to be important to my argument. If even ONE player suffers from the use of poor design devices, that design should be revised. That’s my ultimate conclusion in this argument. That plenty of games are made every year which don’t employ such devices and they don’t fail over them. As a gamer, i don’t consider the ones I took issue with to be particularly fun or amazing such that games would be horrible without them. I don’t see why any designer should feel the need to “condition” a player into playing their game. Too many games have been successful without the use of such “conditioning”.

          • Brian Green

            Ah, I see my wayward post surfaced! You get my thoughts in stereo, I guess. 🙂

          • Doone Woodtac

            EDIT: I also forgot to mention that I make the distinction between just the type of compulsion you do for gamers who aren’t addicted, but who nonetheless are “hooked”. You also mention in your latter article the varying degrees of addiction, yet you seem to think some less malevolent than others. I don’t believe addiction in any form is a good thing and there’s no varying degrees of “bad” really (as descriptors, sure, but not *really*). Something that is bad for me is bad for me. “How bad” is not the standard by which we measure if we can use it in games. So your comparison of game developers with tobacco companies has more merit than you give it, I think. That’s not my personal opinion, that they are, but I think the comparison is very valid; whether nicotine or coin-op mechanics, they both are detrimental to the player though I admit the latter is more on the manipulation side of the equation.

            Finally on your point about corporations and their mandate to make a profit (from the linked article) …I addressed this argument and made it clear in my own that I’m not discussing legality. I’m discussing morality. If the principles which a corporation live by make it an immoral institution, so be it. What is legal is not equivalent to what is right.

            For the record Brian, I happen to think you’re one of the good guys on this. But I hope I can give you a strong player perspective on how it sucks to be manipulated. I find that kind of thing less and less fun as I grow older and much more disturbing. It’s no wonder developers might try to aim for the younger, less-experienced crowd. Still, gamer and designer should be able to work together on making games which matter to us both and which we all can appreciate on their own merit. Manipulation is a dirty trick when used *against* the player.

          • Brian Green

            This is a deep topic that could generate endless discussion, so let me focus on one area since I’m writing this while still traveling while visiting family.

            I think the nature of the addiction is an important point as it relates to ethics. Getting someone physiologically addicted (as with narcotics) and then demanding money is obviously immortal. Creating a fun experience that someone chooses to play to excess? I have more trouble seeing this as an unethical activity at the same level on the part of the game developer; although, this could indicate a problem with the player. That’s my point: at what point does the responsibility of the individual to deal with their own problems outweigh the responsibility of the developer?

            Now, I think that game design can tread into unethical areas. For example, including real money rewards in gameplay tends to encourage players to spend money for the temptation of a higher payout, primarily because it encourages financial risk. But, in my analysis most games stay fairly far away from the really psychologically tricky aspects. The closest we’ve seen were social games; I think we see this a bit more as Zynga is starting to make moves toward real money gambling.

            But traditional entertainment tends to be a thing where people want to pass the time and have fun. A game that encourages people to spend time having fun, and even encouraging them to pay for that, seems to be giving most players what they want in a capitalist society. If someone feels like they’ve spent too much time or money on a game, I think we need to look at what responsibility that individual should take for the situation as well. Trying to blame a game developer because you spent too much time or money feels like trying to blame a golf course for spending rent money on expensive clubs and missing your wife’s anniversary.

            I say this as both a game developer and a gamer, so I’m trying to see this from all angles. Just because I’m a game developer doesn’t mean I get magical immunity from psychological manipulation. But, I’ve taken some responsibility as a player, and have been looking at what I think my ethical obligations as a game developer should be. I think it’s important for game developers to be mindful of this issue, although I don’t quite agree that it’s quite the problem you’ve said.

          • Doone Woodtac

            at what point does the responsibility of the individual to deal with their own problems outweigh the responsibility of the developer?

            This is a good question. In my opinion, the best answer we can give as a rule of thumb for the whole community is that each take their own responsibility in it and not worry about whether the gamer will take his/her own responsibility in the act. I specifically discuss the role of the designer in this particular article. I agree gamers must be responsible also and I mentioned this in the article.

            But let me give you a concrete example: I’m a carpenter so from time to time I build stairs. If a customer tells me that a kid fell down those stairs, I go back and I add as many safety features as I can and I do it at no cost. This does NOT mean someone will not fall down the stair, but I have done all I can as a carpenter to ensure the safety of the product. I’ve removed all slippery surfaces, even when wet. I’ve added guards for holding on. I shorten them where possible or add a ramp. I do my part without worry that someone will get drunk or have a fight or something else and fall down those stairs; I can’t control that. I don’t think my article suggests game designers do anything much more than this. The designer must do all they can and they must do it with integrity. To do that they must monitor their audience and take the feedback very seriously. I question the ethical lines crossed when employing mechanics designed to encourage Skinnerian behavior, because once someone stands to make a profit from that behavior then we’re in dangerous territory. Do designers ever question their mechanics in this regard?

            I agree that games which are about having fun should be about having fun. Encouraging the customer in one way or another is questionable and I don’t know the line between good and less good there. But I’m willing to be convinced either way. Games for fun should be fun, but I should be compelled because I like it. Not for any other reason. I question mechanics which aim to keep me in the game. There’s a big difference in having a compelling experience and being compelled to have an experience.

            Crossing that gulf I think is morally gray and potentially dangerous territory and in fact this is really what I question in the entire article. The best I can say is that there’s enough responsibility to go around. However, as game creators it begins with you. I can only have the experience you craft for me and after that I must decide what to do about it (my responsibility as a gamer). But you must take every precaution not to manipulate players for profit. I think I’ve not argued more than this in the article.

            You’re right that this is a long discussion 🙂 But that is exactly the idea behind publishing on the topic in the first place and I think it’s worthwhile. I thank you for continuing to give us gamers your perspective as a designer. Often we only get to have these conversations amongst ourselves and that’s not nearly as useful as this.

          • Brian Green

            I wish I had more time to really address all the points raised here instead of catching bits of internet access as I visit family.

            Your stairs metaphor is not quite equivalent, as you’re dealing with someone’s private property that they paid you to construct. What happens if you build stairs in a public area, then one person says a kid fell down the stairs. But, then another person says their blind grandmother would trip over the stairs if you changed anything. What do you do?

            The vast majority of players handle game playing in a healthy way. Those that have problems are in the minority as far as I know; there have been few unbiased studies where someone isn’t trying to profit off of a a new “internet addiction” diagnosis or trying to show their own company is blameless, so I have to go off of personal experience while running a small game. And in my personal experience (and I mean very personal experience) people who play games to excess have other problems they are avoiding while playing the games. I got heavily into WoW around the time I was having other problems in my life; WoW didn’t cause those problems, it just provided an excuse for me not to deal with them head-on as I probably should have. But, I’m still alive and my life isn’t in shambles, so things are going okay despite playing too much. In other words, I don’t believe games don’t take a normal, healthy, well-adjusted person and turn them into an “addict”.

            I’m also wary about trying to take more responsibility for “addicts” in my games because it starts to cross over other moral lines for me: collecting data on players. Until you start collecting a TON of data on an individual, the play patterns of an individual who is “addicted” compared to someone who has a lot of money and time and who loves the game is not easily distinguishable. How much data do we collect on our users? Do we ask them their socioeconomic background and limit the playtime of poorer people? Do we ask if they have a history of depression before they sign up for an account? I, personally, feel VERY uneasy about asking about this type of information, and would not play a game that did ask these types of questions.

            As for the motivations of game developers, let me put it this way: if someone wants to make a pile of money, the game industry is a terrible way to do it. Game developers are smart people, and the majority of us could have been running the financial industry if intelligence and a lack of morals were the only qualifications. In general, we get into games because we love games and we want to create experiences others enjoy. Focusing on “addicting” people to get them to buy expensive monocles or keep paying $15/month is a joke plot for a cartoon, not a realistic way to make money. On the other hand, I can’t say that some of the social game companies didn’t engage in questionable tactics to try to pump up their valuations before getting acquired; but I think the stupid amount of money flying around the social games area is more of the exception than the rule for all games, especially if we consider MMOs.

            Anyway, great discussion. Glad to chip in my perspective.

          • Doone Woodtac

            I feel somehow that you’ve only given reasons you shouldn’t take the issues at hand into consideration. I feel confident I’ve only implied that game designers do their part in this equation, but you seem to keep falling back on “players must do.”

            The example of the stair works in both cases. The moral principle is to do your part in ensuring things you design don’t harm people. This doesn’t change because it’s private or public or anything else, and in all cases I correct the design flaw at my own expense; this is the right thing to do and is the ONLY reason I do it. I think you can understand that and I find it hard to believe that this is disagreeable to you. Is this the case? You’re explaining a lot of stuff but you’re not actually giving your position on this question.

            I’ve been clear: Game designers have responsibility to their audience to not manipulate them. If their products prove harmful, they should try to creatively solve the problem. In no way have I stated designers must be responsible for their addicts. I have ONLY said that they must be careful of manipulating players for profit. Again, there’s a huge gulf between having a compelling experience and being compelled to have an experience. What do you say to that?

            Collecting data on players …you must solve the problems of your games in the most ethical way possible. Personal or private data is NOT necessary for observation of impacts. Designers have access to researchers, scientists, and surveyors who have done this kind of work for years without such invasions so I don’t really buy this line of thinking that you have to violate some ethical code to understand the impact of your game on players. I somehow think you’re implying something over technical where it’s unnecessary because it’s much more straightforward: if you’re employing a mechanic which is designed to get the player to drop more coins, you ought to think twice. It isn’t likely a device for fun and games as Caillois defines it, which was the standard I used in this article.

            We disagree I think. You don’t see a problem with using manipulative devices against players in order to get them to drop more money on a game. I think this is definitely ethically questionable. I stand by my argument: developers don’t need to manipulate players for profit in order to provide an awesome gaming experience while keeping food on the table. Mechanics which cross into the gray area of compelling the player into behavior is problematic. You seem to to disagree and as a player, that’s a little discomforting; I don’t think it’s asking too much to not manipulate me. Of course in the long run, I just don’t pay for those games but this doesn’t solve the problem. It doesn’t even address it. Thus this conversation.

            As a player, my actions should be independent of the game even while immersed in it. MMOs/social games use questionable devices worth examining and this is especially true when money is involved. I don’t think this is good for the gaming community, but lucky for me such games are fast becoming relics along with their designers in that regard.

          • Brian Green

            I’ve thought long and hard about this. Yes, I’m explaining why I don’t think games cause harm. If I honestly thought that games do cause harm, I would have change professions. I think most of the harm that appears to come from games are actually self-inflicted by the player. Again, this comes from personal observation and personal experience with my own problems. Therefore, I think that the first step needs to be for the player to look at his or her behavior before we start thinking about the problems game designers could cause, if they can cause problems.

            I don’t think that any game design can turn a well-adjusted person into an addict ready to knife his or her mother for the next hit. No matter how hard a game designer tries, he or she cannot force a person to play a game. The player needs to be a willing participant. How willing or the nature of their willingness is a reflection of the player, not of the designer. I think this is the true nature of our disagreement, in how much pressure the game designer can exert to cause harm. You seem to think it’s more than I do; and while I will agree that game designers can manipulate the player’s behavior through game design, I know there are very precise limits and that it’s hard to make the player do something that goes against his or her nature.

            “Manipulation” is a tough concept. In your original article above, you use manipulation: you give multiple examples dealing with harming children, a rather blatant emotional manipulation. Even in your comment above you refer to “a kid fell down those stairs”, invoking the harm of children to make your point by manipulating the emotion of the reader. Did you intend to repeatedly associate game designers with the harm of children? I assume not, otherwise this conversation would not be taking place. But, the manipulation is there and it colors the conversation.

            So, depending on how you define manipulation, I think that some is unavoidable and some can be unintentional. Does that give game designers an excuse to use endless psychological tricks to maximize profit? No, absolutely not. So perhaps we might talk about how much manipulation is acceptable, which is a deep discussion that requires us to really dive into what the definition of “manipulation” really is. I don’t see making a fun and compelling game as “manipulation”. I see using casino tactics to get people to spend more money as manipulation, though. Again, I think this has primarily been a problem with social games, not mainstream games.

            As for collecting data, we need data for context. Let me give an example: if someone plays a game for 50 hours in a week and spends $1000 during that time, are they at risk? You don’t know. This could be a single mother wasting months of child support while ignoring her kid. But, it could also be a rich lawyer enjoying a week off playing the game. It could be a shut-in spending money saved up on his or her only social outlet. It could be the lawyer above ignoring his outside life after being fired from his firm, too. Without data, we don’t know if this person has a problem or not, if they are using the game to cause harm to themselves. This isn’t as simple a situation as “a kid could fall down these stairs” as you try to make it seem. This is why I say that we would need to collect personal data to determine if this is harmful or not, and that’s something I don’t feel would be morally acceptable.

            I do agree with you that ethical/moral behavior should inflict the least amount of harm on others possible. But, how to accomplish this is something that philosophers have debated for many lifetimes. It’s not something we’re going to resolve in the comments of a blog. I think we can explore the shape of it, but I don’t think we can come up with the definitive “ethical game design” guidelines, if such a thing exists and is even meaningful.

            As for my personal opinions of what is moral/ethical game design, I’ll once again refer you to my blog post: I came up with four moral obligations:

            * Give people a great experience that they can enjoy or something that makes them grow as a person.

            * Avoid excessive psychological tricks to “trap” people in the game while understanding what psychological impact your design decisions have.

            * Make sure players have the tools to maintain control of their lives.

            * Focus on the positive aspects of games, and make sure we give
            players useful things like a sense of wonder and awe when they are in
            our worlds.
            I think these are good guidelines. Does it mean that nobody will ever be harmed by my games? Probably not, but I feel that these are the reasonable moral actions I can take. And, personally, I think most game designers do behave morally. I know I try to do so.

          • Doone Woodtac

            Yes, I’m explaining why I don’t think games cause harm.

            You think this true for ALL games? Perhaps I should write an additional argument about a couple of specific games and pick on them a bit. I definitely don’t think this true for all games, and I think it’s especially untrue for service-based games like MMOs. I can think of a dozen off the top of my head which do NOT operate by Caillois standard. I will work on proving it so we can take this discussion deeper.

            I also don’t think that players intentionally cause harm to themselves any more than you think designers cause harm to players. The point is that there is clearly some harm out there. Both sides need to reconsider their approach to games. In this article, I focus on designers. They definitely have some responsibility in this: all creators are responsible for their creations.

            Did you intend to repeatedly associate game designers with the harm of children?

            Yes it’s intentional. I deters people from arguing that adults deserve the consequences they receive, which is fallacious but it keeps the conversation on track with the principle at play. The principles in all of my illustrations is that if there is harm done, we have a responsibility to act. It’s not about the victim: it’s about what you do when you see one. We’re trying to determine the morality of the actor. Using children keeps the spotlight on that fact since no one is likely to blame children for making a mistake.

            Nonetheless, don’t get caught up in who is the victim. That’s drastically west of the point. The point is what to do when you see something going wrong. What do YOU do, what is YOUR role …this is the principle being exercised.

            Developers collect lots of data about players and they use it mostly to see how to profit for their next title. I absolutely don’t believe they couldn’t pour those energies into making their games more ethical, i.e. not manipulating players into inserting more coins. I stand by my assertion that this is probably unethical.

            But we agree that it *can* be complicated getting those results, but it’s because by and large the industry doesn’t seem to care about this sort of thing. Again, if they spent half the energy they put into making more money, we’d have twice as much data about the impacts of their games on their players. But we don’t. Even anonymous surveys of player behavior would be more effective than NOTHING. We don’t even try so of course the argument that it’s impossible has no legs; we have to try first. One designer at a time. Maybe you can put such a survey in your next game 🙂 Be sure to hire experts so we can all get the best possible results!

            I’ve read the articles you linked and I thank you. It’s why I said I think you’re one of the good guys in this. Still, you seem to think it’s the players fault if a game is able to manipulate them. I think even you can see how that sounds. In any case, both parties share responsibility. One half acting irresponsible is not license for the other to do the same. We all have a duty to do what we have to do, regardless of others. If that weren’t true, there would be no such thing as ethics.

            Philosophers have wrestled with coming up with a framework of behaviors for people, yet they’ve all left us with the knowledge that this isn’t necessary, nor is it possible. Those who know better should do better, and be the example that teaches those who don’t know. In our consumerist society I won’t deny so much of this wisdom is lost that it’s as though Aristotle never existed. I’m sure they’d all be appalled at where we are on these questions. Still, not having a legal code for ethics isn’t a good reason to not do right by others. The Golden Rule is fully applicable the world over no matter what year it is.

            I will definitely write a follow-up article in the near future to address all the wonderful feedback and questions presented in this entire discussion.

          • Brian Green

            Just to clarify one point: Trying to compare the death of a child to any harm a game could inflict on a person is emotional manipulation of the reader. If you’re going to criticize game designers for using any manipulation in their works, you might want to double-check your own usage as to not be labeled a hypocrite.

            Anyway, it seems the core of our difference of opinion is how much influence a game can exert over an unwilling participant. I don’t see it being as great as you assert. I’ll be interested in reading your subsequent post.

          • Doone Woodtac

            I know I’ve said this a dozen times, even in the article, but maybe 13 is a charm: I don’t criticize “any manipulation” but specifically manipulation for the purposes of “insert coin”.

            I didn’t realize you weren’t familiar with the device I use for the examples and I apologize. The examples using children aren’t about the victim and it isn’t about manipulating readers; experiments rarely are. But people tend to focus on who is the victim and thus a strategy was adopted to neutralize the victims. It is a well-worn device used in sociology and philosophy when constructing scenarios to answer questions. I’m not the inventor nor even the second nor hundredth such person to use them and they aren’t tools to manipulate readers. They do exactly as I explained earlier. To focus on who is the victim derails the question, thus children are considered a neutral person in these constructions, nothing more. I’ll leave you to look that up for yourself, but I assure you they are examples for a reason. Emotions have no value in answering these questions. I would not trust an answer given on emotion. I want your thinking, well-reasoned explanations for the questions posed. The reasoned part is more important than anything else.

            Thanks for your interest, though.

          • Brian Green

            Yeah, writing “any manipulation” was a mistake on my part. I’ll save my critique of “insert coin” for your future article.

            As for using children as examples, I’ve never heard of that in the academic psychology papers I’ve read. I couldn’t find any references from a casual search, so any pointers would be much appreciated.

            In my experience and from the work I’ve read, people invoke children as victims, particularly victims of death or serious harm, in an attempt to emotionally manipulate the reader. Most people who aren’t psychopaths will go to greater lengths to avoid harm to children than to adults, regardless of who is to blame. And, notably, politicians invoke harm against children when they want to regulate video games to score political points.

            Anyway, if the intent is to not put the focus on the victim, then I’d recommend using a neutral and more precise construct like “a blameless victim”.

            So, instead of:
            “How about another scenario where I’m walking down the street past a swimming pool. In the pool I see a child drowning.”

            this would get the point across triggering less emotional reactions:
            “How about another scenario where I’m walking down the street past a swimming pool. In the pool I see a blameless victim drowning.”

            Precision in terminology is one of those bugbears in game design.

          • Brian Green

            Read this article and thought about this conversation:

            It talks about an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where the crew is enslaved by a game that gives orgasmic pleasure as you play it. The main quote:

            That’s what makes the game so insidious. It doesn’t just deliver pleasure, but it also hijacks the natural desire of these go-getter Starfleet officers to solve problems and accomplish goals. It uses their own ambition against them. Once Riker and Wesley Crusher get laid, their libido will ebb. Once Troi eats that chocolate sundae, her hunger will be sated. But one of the central premises of Star Trek is that human ambition is bottomless (and sacrosanct). So the game, having exploited that jewel of the human psyche, can never end.

            The article does use the term “addiction” casually, diappointingly. But, it’s an interesting perspective on this discussion through the lens of a TV show. (Of course, you can also look at this as older media fearing the influences of new media, too.)

  • Brian Green

    I thought i posted walls of text… 😉 Pardon the mega comment, because there are a lot of issues to cover.

    You start from a flawed, unwritten assumption: that operant conditioning is bad. In fact, the basics of operant conditioning form the basis of the learning feedback loop: perform an action, get stimulus feedback, and either continue or avoid the action. The “conditioning” part is when you try to influence the behavior, and this isn’t necessarily bad, either. In a school setting this is the teacher grading your papers. In life this is feeling pain after touching a hot stove. In an MMO, this is the faction bar filling up after doing your daily quests. I feel none of these scenarios is innately sinister.

    It’s hard if not impossible to separate fun from learning. Raph Koster’s book, A Theory of Fun posits that fun is learning. Part of the fun of a game is learning more about the game: how to manipulate it, how to predict it, how to master it.

    Now, obviously, there is some question of what is being taught. Teaching people to hate minorities is terrible, whether it’s through pamphlets or a game. Teaching people to get better at a game they have chosen to play? I don’t see that as quite so terrifying.

    You also misuse the word “addiction”. To be fair, a lot of other people do as well. When we talk about addictions as a problem, we tend to think of physiological dependence, such as a junkie’s addiction to heroin. When gamers talk about addiction, they are usually referring to something that is fun and compelling. (I wrote about this incorrect usage a while ago.) Yes, people can obsess over “soft addictions” like playing games or shopping, but usually this is a sign of other problems in a person’s life, not some sinister, unethical grand design.

    The reason why “addiction” is a particularly loaded words is because the job of a professional game designer (or any creative person) is to create fun and compelling works. If I don’t create games that people want to play, then I fail as a game designer. Now, that doesn’t mean my goal is to get people to forsake other important parts of their lives to play my game, that’s where the line gets crossed.

    Finally, your examples near the end are highly emotionally charged, using imagery of children and dying, and therefore fail to properly illustrate your point. Let me give a more reasonable example: you’re at a party with 35 people, most of who are socializing and laughing and having fun, and you see someone quietly watching TV. Do you have an ethical obligation to get them to participate in the party? I would say “no”.

    Likewise, I don’t see it appropriate for me to take responsibility for the actions of players of my game to make sure they’re using my game the “right’ way. Now, as a human being I’d like to help people who need it, and when I ran Meridian 59 I personally spent a lot of time just talking to people who were in the game who just needed a friendly ear to listen to their problems. But, to say there’s an obligation there because someone might use my game while causing themselves harm is misplaced. Of course, if the game itself is causing the harm, then things are different; but, I don’t think you’ve demonstrated that games cause harm rather than being a tool. (Likewise, I don’t think it’s proper to make companies who make razor blades for shaving responsible for people who use razor blades to harm themselves.)

    I wrote about moral obligations of game designers a while ago, if you want to see some of my pondering from the other side of the fence:

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