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Edward McNeill, Blogger

April 18, 2014

7 Min Read

[Cross-posted from the Darknet Dev Blog]


In the wake of the GAME_JAM fiasco, Robin Arnott wrote about the value of an ethical code: "I’ve come to think of ethics as a useful system for making complex scenarios easier to cut through... It’s one thing to think that lying is generally wrong, but if you’ve previously committed to a code like 'I do not mislead people', you’ve given yourself a tool to make doing the hard thing easier."


I think he's right. It's one thing to know your values; it's another matter entirely to actually live by them. Imposing a clear-cut code on yourself makes it a little bit simpler.


Recently, I've been crafting a similar sort of code for game design. For years, I've been trying to learn as much as I can about game design, and I began to discover what I want games to be. I started to view game design through an ethical lens, to see it as something beyond mere entertainment or business, and to reflect on why I want to make games in the first place.


At some point, I began going through all my notes and journals and compiling them into a simple set of precepts that I could easily remember and refer to for guidance. They aren't perfect, and they hide a lot of meaning in their brevity, but they're enough to remind me of what I've decided is important:


1) Respect the player.

2) Have high standards.

3) Be earnest.




To unpack these a little bit:


1) Respect the player.


It's easy to see the player as an enemy of the game designer. "The player" is a faceless abstraction, someone who wants to pay you as little as possible and wring out as much value as they can. Players pirate your game, cheat at it, grief other players, demand features, and criticize every design decision. Over time, players start to feel like a herd of wild animals that need to be controlled.


It's harder to remember the larger truth: every player is an individual, and every one of them has given you the gift of their attention. They had a practically infinite choice of how to spend their time, and they chose to give you and your work the benefit of the doubt. Art influences people, and your players chose to give you that power over them. The question is: how do you use that power?


Some designers choose to use that power to exploit players, maximizing profit above all else. Others choose to provide players with trash: work that is addictive and appealing, but shallow and corrosive to the player. These strategies envision the player as a target, focusing on using the player's weaknesses. I find that nauseating.


If players give me power over them, I feel a responsibility to use that for good. I want to make games that are truly worthy of the time and money put into them, that treat the player with dignity, that assume the player is intelligent and valuable, that leave the player better off than before. Those are broad goals, and obvious, but it's easy to lose sight of them, and so this is my foremost rule.


2) Have high standards.


I see a lot of potential in games. I think I can fulfill some part of that potential, and it would feel like a shame to choose not to. If I'm not pushing the medium forward in some way, I don't want to be satisfied with my work.


I want to achieve greatness, not mediocrity or marginal improvement. It would be far too easy to find success by scaling back my goals until that "success" is within reach. This rule is meant to push back against that impulse, to remind me of my ambition.


This doesn't mean that I have to crunch endlessly, build huge games, or insist on total perfection. Burnout and feature creep are still dangerous. It just means that fear of failure is not an acceptable reason to scale back. At some point, I realized that I'll never feel like a real success unless I try to accomplish something truly difficult, and that's what this rule asks of me.


3) Be earnest.


In the past, I've tried to invent a public persona to fit the tastes of my audience (or whatever I imagined that to be). At other times, I tried to act detached or ironic as a means of protecting myself from the judgement of others. These strategies were exhausting, ineffective, and disrespectful, but most importantly, I felt like they robbed my work of meaning.


I don't want my games (or myself) to be founded on pretense. I don't want to feel like a fraud or an imposter. There's a lot of pressure to "fake it 'til you make it", contorting to fit the expectations of others, but I'd rather know that my triumphs and failures are genuine. That might sometimes require upsetting people or showing vulnerability, but at least I'll be able to feel true ownership over my work.


This rule isn't meant to prohibit sarcasm or politeness. Those just shouldn't be used as a mask; the deeper meaning ought to be rooted in honesty.




I don't know if these precepts will be useful to other designers. I chose them to push back against my own failings, and so perhaps I'm the only one who will find them valuable. But I hope that by sharing them, I can provide other designers with some clarity and inspiration. The process of introspecting and crafting this code felt extremely valuable in itself, and I encourage others to try it out themselves.

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