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Playing with Fire: Ethics and Game Design

Social game developer Michael Fergusson takes a look at the ethics of using compulsive gameplay mechanics in the genre, suggesting that developers need to be more up front and players need to be more self-aware of the form and function of social play.

Michael Fergusson

December 1, 2010

10 Min Read

Judging by the emotionally-charged comments to Brandon Sheffield's write-up on game designers intentionally exploiting human weakness to succeed in free-to-play game models (monetizing them, in particular), it seems that there is room to continue the discussion about the ethical dilemmas facing game designers when it comes to building social games -- or games of any kind, for that matter.

Brandon recapped the ideas of Teut Weidemann, lead designer of Settlers Online for Ubisoft's Blue Byte studio, about how game designers can tap into our Capital Vices and then try to use these weak moments to monetize the game.

Yes, social games can be used to do that. They manipulate us. I think that Teut, Brandon, and I would all agree that social games are a volatile cocktail of sleek technology, dopamine-rich environments and brilliant game design. This is precisely why players get hooked. This is why these games are so popular. But this is not news.

We're talking now about something that has been well-understood and broadly applied ­in our industry (and many others) for many years. Our goals as game designers are to build engaging and fun games that people want to play. We use our tools -- the knowledge about evolutionary behavioral patterns for example -- to accomplish those goals.

This is our job, and our obligation to our craft. These ancient patterns are deeply-rooted in evolution and already present within us. So my point is that it seems to me the ethical dilemma isn't whether game designers should or shouldn't use their knowledge of unconscious human behavior to tailor their games to be more engaging.

Rather, my feeling is that the ethical questions to be asked are about why we're building our games, and whether we're being transparent about those motivations. My point of view is that, in general, technology is morally neutral. It is the application of that technology that carries with it moral and ethical implications.

Let's Recap the Research

I think at this point, it's beneficial to demonstrate what I think are two of the strongest biological processes at work during gameplay; things that can turn a chore into a hobby. The most scientific answer is dopamine release. According to Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at the Falk Center for Molecular Therapeutics at Northwestern University, dopamine has been found to play a crucial role in choice, learning, and belief formation.

You may recall B.F. Skinner's experiments with how the brain responds to rewards. If a behavior is rewarded, it is more likely to be repeated. If it is punished, it becomes suppressed. Rewards are at the heart of changing behavior thanks to how our brains respond to dopamine.

For Gamasutra readers, the concept of reward schedules should sound familiar. Most games are built around this system, because they allow for maximum player engagement and function as a motivation tool. The player is prompted to complete an action, and gets a reward if they do the task. The player always has a chance to recover from their mistakes, so the loop to stay engaged is reinforced.

Play and playtime is also important because it's an opportunity for the mind to learn about how to deal with risky situations, without actually taking the risk. This strong association of playtime with learning skills that could ensure survival has shaped our brains and how it recognizes and processes new knowledge and information.

Neuroplasticity is the changing of neurons in our brains and their functions by learning or participating in new experiences. This is how the brain integrates new knowledge and skills developed through play. Research indicates that our brain rewires itself in response to what we do with it. As a behavior becomes learned, practiced and refined, the brain appears to recognize this behaviour as important, having purpose and meaning. The “hardwiring” begins. Actions players take in gameplay “feel” more important, and more satisfying when done well.

Healthseeker and Socially Responsible Games

Each game designer must decide how to use these neurological tools. They can either be used purely for the enrichment of the game developer or to mutually benefit the game player.

One of our games, called Healthseeker, can also fit into this “games for good” category. The game's intent is to help people living with diabetes make better lifestyle choices by doing small incremental actions and then getting rewards for them. The design idea is that instead of making the primary goal getting one person to do a thousand healthy things, we would focus instead on getting a thousand people to do one healthy thing. To do this, we focused on two things:

  • Instant gratification rewards for healthy activity, in contrast to the usual approach of making long-term health your reward for doing healthy things.

  • Making those instant gratification rewards something that you can use -- to reward the healthy behavior of other players.

The game design is simple, yet fun. There are Lifestyle Goals, Missions, and Actions that players can select. The lifestyle goals are represented by colored bars that appear as a player starts making progress in the game.

This helps players measure their progress. Missions help reach each Lifestyle Goal. Missions are made up of healthy Actions that a player can take in their day-to-day life.

As a player completes Actions and Missions, they level up in the game and get access to new, cooler Actions and other virtual goods. Experience Points are collected when sponsoring a friend to play a game, inviting friends to join Missions, by completing actions, sending messages and writing on the public wall within the game.

Points and badges accumulate over time and help the player advance to different levels. Players can also record their progress and thoughts about their day on their Fridge Door, a wall that displays supportive and inspirational messages from anyone playing the game.

The game utilizes the player's own social graph and uses their friends as sources of inspiration and support as they push beyond intention to live their actions. The gameplay mechanics are familiar to players of popular casual social games. Using achievements, virtual prizes, and gifting to create instant rewards for healthy behavior, this allows for bridging the gap between a player's intentions and actions.

Our design reflects our (we think, safe) assumption that incremental actions, no matter how small, are more effective in trying to achieve a goal, than doing nothing at all, and that neuroplasticity will help habituate these new behaviors as you play. By using game mechanics, we are directly triggering psychological reactions in the brain and in this case, the side effects are beneficial to the player.

Let's look at another game called Evoke. The game is a ten-week crash course in changing the world. The goal is to help empower young people all over the world to come up with creative solutions to our most urgent social problems through gameplay.

Earning online mentorships, scholarships and seed fund investments -- even having the opportunity to become Certified Evoke Social Innovators -- the game is relevant to our discussion because in this case, the game designer's motivations about what they're asking the players to do are transparent, it's to try to save the world. Why not use technology to do something good in the world? Overall though, the same game mechanics that help people habituate and modify behaviors in Healthseeker are also at work here.

The Filters of "Good Enough"

We spend 3 billion hours a week playing computer and video games. That's a lot of time. So, isn't it important, then, to make sure the technology is being applied for the right purpose? Shouldn't it benefit the player? Here are a set of questions I like to ask myself when building a game and a take away exercise you might find useful before conceptualizing your next project.

1. How clear is your game about rules?

Recently, the University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada) Problem Gambling Research department conducted a study where the effects of "unclear" rules were addressed in slot machine play.

As an example, Ontario approves multiple versions of the same game with payback percentages varying from 85 to 98 percent. The different versions look identical to the player. How does it influence gameplay when the player isn't aware of these rules?

2. Is your game beneficial to players?

As I discussed in a previous section, there are many good games that promote positive personal and even collectively beneficial behavior. Healthseeker hopes to modify the lifestyle of players, encouraging the habituation of healthier practices over time.

Some would argue that FarmVille, for example, while not the most fun or productive game to play, does encourage social interactions by looping the player into social gifting cycle. The player somehow feels good by giving gifts and vice versa. This also adds more social relevance to the game.

3. What are the consequences if the game turns into an addiction?

A CNET article looking at FarmVille used an example of a player who confessed that since beginning to play the game last August, she's reached an unusually high level 111 in the game -- 40 levels beyond where the game offers incentives in the form of newly unlocked features.

She spends most -- entire -- days playing the game. She's spent about $2,000 on in-game currency expenses -- roughly $100 a month. By definition of the word addiction -- the recurring compulsion of someone to partake in an activity -- this lady is addicted to the game.

But here it is a question of degree. Sure, she is spending a lot of time and a considerable amount of money to entertain herself. But the consequence of her addiction isn't as extreme, for example, as someone who might lose their home because he or she couldn't stop pulling the slot machine handle.

You may think that it's too much to pay under any circumstances; perhaps you believe it should be entirely up to our player to decide if she has the financial resources to spend this money without harm. In any case, as the game designer we need to be aware of the potential consequences of our work, and feel comfortable with what we've built.

Ethical and Personal Considerations

Game and play are a basic survival adaptation. Using game mechanics that tap into our deeply-rooted hunter-gatherer urges, game designers can trigger and manipulate powerful neurological processes, like dopamine release and neuroplasticity, which motivate players to action and perhaps even modify longer-term patterns of behavior. This is why the ethics of applying this technology have been at the centre of many debates.

I'd like to make the argument that the technology is morally neutral. However, it's the obligation of game designers to be transparent about our motivations and more intentional about the effects that our games have on end user behavior; to know what the games are promoting and to ensure the end user is aware of this process. In the end, the more we can ensure this powerful technology is used for good -- or at least for good, healthy fun -- the better for everyone, from designers to publishers to end users.

This article has focused on the responsibilities of game designers, as key players in this ecosystem, but I'd like to end with a final thought about our responsibility as end-users and citizens: As author A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz said, "Citizens must educate themselves in the use of sociable applications, such as Facebook, and learn how they can better use them to forward their best interests."

Ultimately, no matter the responsibilities of game designers, publishers and distributors, the person most responsible for the player's well being is the player. Nevertheless as a community of game developers, we need to hold each other accountable for our mistakes and transgressions, applaud where appropriate for our triumphs, and contribute positively to the discussion of what we believe to be acceptable, helpful, and worthwhile. What do you think?

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About the Author(s)

Michael Fergusson


Michael is the Chief Executive Officer and founder of Ayogo Games Inc., and is dedicated to the idea that playing is one of the most productive things we can do. He's been an entrepreneur and innovator on the Web for over 15 years, and the games he has developed have been played by millions on computers and Smartphones all over the world. This year, Michael has been invited to speak on game design at SXSW, Vancouver's F5 Expo, Games and Health -- Vid Week, Banff Television Festival and NextMedia in Toronto, and has been featured by Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CBC, and the Globe and Mail. Michael lives in Vancouver with his beautiful wife and four amazing children.

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