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Ethics in Game Design

Let's discuss why this is such an important topic, and what a developer's responsibilities are.

Jon Shafer, Blogger

July 17, 2013

7 Min Read

We all inherently believe we're doing the right thing, and rarely step back to make sure that is in fact the case.


What are the ethical responsibilities of a game designer?

That is the question which has been rattling around in my mind ever since a recent discussion in a recent episode of TGDRT regarding the “ultra-violent” Hotline Miami. This article is my proposed answer to that very difficult inquiry.

But let’s first back up a bit – why are we even bothering to ask this question?


Environmental Products

Few of us even think about it, but most of what makes us “us” is the sum of our subconscious wiring. Much of which is, in turn, shaped by our past experiences.

Consider a phrase or mannerism you’ve picked up from a close friend. Or the time someone dragged you along to try out a new type of strange food you now love. Or how  a hobby you just didn’t “get” before has become one of your favorites after your significant other introduced you to it.

Everything we encounter reshapes us, even if only a tiny bit. Needless to say, games are no exception. 


Unintended Consequences

Nintendo’s stable of games presents us with a good example of the subtle influence entertainment can wield. We’d all laugh at someone who suggested we shield our children from Mario, but the series is steeped in a tradition of male hero saves helpless woman. One can argue that its severity or impact has been overblown, but it’s there. Just as “niceness” and “selfishness” aren’t binary qualities, neither are racism, sexism, ageism, etc.

Will playing a few Mario games lead to a generation of young men who think women helpless and young women who suffer from low self-esteem? In isolation, certainly not. But minute influences like this can add up to a much stronger message. The first time we hear a word in our “mother” tongue our infant brain curiously processes the data, then stashes it away in a dark, untraveled corner. If the word is heard again it might be recognized, but still lack meaning. However, after the millionth time we probably have a pretty good grasp of what the speaker is trying to convey.

Similarly, all commonly-held attitudes began as outliers and it took time and energy for them to gather momentum. Whether we realize it or not, each of us has a small role to play in either ushering them along, or stemming the tide.

I’m sure Miyamoto didn’t set out with the goal of brainwashing players into believing that men are capable and women aren’t, but this is a subtle, unintended theme in some of his games. That doesn’t make him a bad man or unethical designer. Still, it remains a valid criticism, and had someone with Miyamoto’s ear shared this back in the 1980s it’s possible he may have altered his approach.


Stepping Back

It is both noteworthy and commendable that Nintendo took a different direction in its Legend of Zelda franchise. Our titular princess made her introduction as just another woman that needed saving, but later evolved into a strong and independent character.

The lesson here isn’t that creators need to mark every box on the diversity checklist so that they can sleep soundly knowing no fragile minds were offended, nor young ones warped. In fact, much of history’s most significant and thought-provoking art was very much not something contemporaries would have been comfortable displaying in their living rooms.

And that is the takeaway. As public voices, developers owe it to society to at least consider the impact of their work. Not every title needs to be Bioshock, but it’s irresponsible and ignorant to suggest that any game is completely disposable and has zero impact.


Money VS Morality

The subconscious mind is a delicate, primitive thing. It is influenced in millions of ways we’re not aware of. We take it for granted that there are people who are paid a lot of money to channel the brain’s hidden forces for financial gain. The analogue in games are some of the more controversial business models, particularly ongoing subscription fees and free-to-play. So what are we to make of this? Are these people morally reprehensible? Are they, like the rest of us, just trying get by?

I’m a realist, and as the owner of a studio I recognize that if games don’t make money they stop getting made, people lose their jobs, and everyone is worse off. So where do we draw the line?

Games exist to entertain people, and that should be the driving force behind their creation. Find effective ways to provide players with experiences they value and you’ll make money.

It’s impossible to know in advance what impact your actions will have – but one thing you can control are your intentions. Some teams incorporate free-to-play because they seek to get their work into the hands of people who otherwise would never have tried it. Others do so because it offers the best chance of earning a huge profit. Pursuing sincere, altruistic goals won’t fix all problems, but it goes a long way towards making a difference.

Okay, we should all play nice, help each other out and we’ll live happily ever! Yay! It’s a great plot for a children’s fantasy story, but we live in the real world. Say I’m in charge of a company that’s nearly bankrupt, and if our next project fails everyone gets canned. Should I really value this nebulous dignity of my art over the lives of my friends and employees?

Of course not. There are no black and white absolutes in ethics. There’s a profound difference between trying to do right by people (be they employees or customers), turning a blind eye to possibly exploitive practices, and consciously aiming to increase your net worth by another 1% - at any cost.

It’s easy to lump people we disagree with into the Evil Disney Villain category, but if you dig deeper you’ll find that most folks are decent human beings motivated by the same forces as the rest of us. The problem isn’t that people are inherently selfish or cruel – it’s that sometimes we just don’t think about the impact of our actions.


Ethics in At the Gates

My current project, At the Gates, is a game about a bunch of hairy, trigger-happy dudes stealing stuff they want and burning everything else for fun. While most people will find the notion silly, I’m sure there are at least a couple individuals out there who will get up from a gaming session thinking that, if only to the slightest degree, the way to get your way is to submit others to your will. (Sadly, history itself is the most damning tutor in this regard.)

And that is indeed something that weighs on me. I don’t want all of my creations to be about men at war.

But AtG also provides something of value. Late antiquity is an under-explored period of history few have given much thought to. One of my goals is that this game gives people a new perspective on the difficult decisions people had to make in that era, what it means to be “civilized,” and how the popular perception of the Roman Empire as a heroic bastion in a world of evil may not be entirely accurate.

With future projects I plan on exploring an even wider range of topics which I hope will not only entertain players, but also challenge them to think. And as a developer, I believe strongly that thinking is also one of my responsibilities.


With Great Power

Developers, players and pundits alike, we all need to recognize that although we cannot measure the impact games have, that impact does exist.

Not every title needs to qualify as edutainment, but why not challenge people’s expectations and beliefs? Opening someone’s mind is one of greatest treasures art has to offer. The purpose of a game is to enrich the lives of those who play it, and that can include much more than just idle whimsy.

And hey, appreciative players often turn into lifelong supporters willing to purchase your future products on trust alone. Good luck achieving continued success if your customers don’t respect the experience you provide them.

Ethics is too murky a field to lay down a codified set of rules capable of handling every situation. However, there is one principle that will never steer us away from the right answer:

Before making a decision, be sure to consider all possible consequences.

- Jon


You can read more of Jon's thoughts on design and project management at his website. You can also find him on Twitter.

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About the Author(s)

Jon Shafer


Jon Shafer is a lead designer at Stardock Entertainment, currently directing an unannounced project. Prior to working at Stardock, He was the lead designer and principal gameplay programmer for Civilization 5 while at Firaxis Games. Jon lives in Michigan and (when he's not fighting-the-good-fight on behalf of PC games) spends his free time cooking, listening to podcasts and playing strategy games/RPGs.

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