A case for ethical game design from BioWare's Ã…sa Roos

BioWare lead UX designer Ã…sa Roos argues that game developers stand to benefit from considering the ethical implications of their decisions in game-making and how they impact games culture as a whole.

On Wednesday at the Sweden Games Conference, BioWare lead UX designer Åsa Roos gave a presentation on what the Canadian company's learned about applying ethical game design in games like Anthem and the studio's upcoming Dragon Age sequel.

In an age where game designers are pushing the boundaries of user experience design to maximize retention and drive player interest, there's been a common concern about development practices that wrangle with real-world ethical issues. As Roos explained, there are ways that triple-A companies pursuing large, passionate playerbases can still approach game design from an ethical perspective. 

In particular, Roos called for game designers to begin thinking about the ecosystem of companies, culture, and content that games exist in, creating a clear link for how toxic behavior at a company can feed into toxic game content, and beyond. 

Making games as part of an ecosystem

Roos' talk began with an anecdote from talking with her colleagues in 2008 that highlighted some of the ambivalence that has plagued the games business in years past. Roos said that she "was talking to a colleague, saying that game companies don't take responsibility for the content we put out." 

"His response to me was 'why do you care, it's only a game?'"

In Roos' career, she's had reason to push back against that diminishment. At one point, the users she targeted included the teen users of Habbo Hotel, and other games/technology projects centered around younger players.

Roos started by separating the concepts of ethics and morality. She defined ethics as 'a set of concepts and principles that guide us in determining what behavior helps or harms sentient creatures.' Caring about ethical structures, she pointed out, is not an inherently moral conceit.

"What happens if I collect data on a certain set of players, what do I do with that data? What happens if I encourage a certain culture at the workplace? How does that impact the content we put out?" These were some of the example questions Roos posed to point out that the way game companies treat ethical concepts impacts the decisions that impact its players. 

At BioWare, this led Roos and her colleagues to ask "why is it so hard to do the right thing?" She credited the studio's release of Mass Effect 3--a game loaded with ethical challenges for players--as helping her through a bout of depression, and an example of how players can use games as coping tools. Yet despite that framing, game-makers often struggle with using ethical lenses in their decision-making. 

In making ethical decisions, Roos explained the idea of a circle of ethics. It contains an outer circle, that impacts how studios treat its employees, customers, and real people, and an inner circle, that reflects how a studio approaches concepts and characters within its games. And between the two, there's a meta circle, where data from each layer of the circle impacts the other. 

This creates an ecosystem, she said, where culture influences education, education impacts companies and development teams, teams impact context, and context in turn, affects culture. 

Roos' big argument about the ecosystem that developers are influencing is that there's a link between the way studios make games and the cultures they influence. For example, Roos examined the particularly noxious aspects of game culture that drove Heartbeat Games to cynically put their game on sale at the same rate as the transgender suicide rate, supporting a series of anti-transgender statements from the game's lead developer.

That edgy attention-grabbing move, she argued, did not exist in a vacuum. Until rather recently, game developers have leaned on transgender characters as being monstrous, something of a joke, or nonexistent. Even BioWare, despite portraying a broad range of sexualities in past games, has faced challenges in bringing that same level of representation to different gender identities, with Krem from 2014's Dragon Age Inquisition being the first transgender character created by the studio.

When one attendee asked Roos about these kinds of depictions, she admitted that depicting a broader range of gender expression was a challenge because it can expand the amount of content a developer is trying to ship. If BioWare wants to support nonbinary characters for instance, it needs to ship a fully-voiced dialogue set that will acknowledge the player character as "they," as well as "he" and "she." 

"But we're working on that!" Roos said with delight. 

Roos' talked closed with an array of real-world events that tie directly to games culture, and in turn she argued, how developers should think about the way their companies operate and they design the content of their games. The noxious content on the gaming message boards of 8chan and 4chan, the choice of mass shooters to use streaming platforms like Twitch to broadcast their attacks, these may not be game companies' fault, but through an ethical lens, Roos argued they were part of their responsibility. 

Roos even conceded the reason game developers have avoided this kind lens is because the implied liability has been a political danger in the past. "It's hard for us to admit games might have negative effects, regardless of what that effect is. We're used to the can of worms that opens saying 'games can make you violent.'"

But if games are capable of helping people through bouts of depression, capable of helping them make friends, capable of so many good traits, then when making games, Roos says it's important to consider the negative as well, if only to try and improve what the game industry is capable of. 

Gamasutra is a media partner of Sweden Games Conference, who provided travel and lodging to cover this event

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