13 April, 2010
Morality is a tricky subject. It's an issue that can be shockingly subjective for something that seems so crucial to living in modern society. It can also be something very personal. Trying to impose morality upon another person is often met with resistance if not outright hostility.
But, given the issues surrounding the game industry in the past few months, it's worth talking about. So, what are the moral obligations of a game designer, particularly an MMO game designer?
A Topical Subject
Obviously there's been a lot of talk about social games and how they impact players. A common accusation is that they use direct psychological tricks to keep players playing the game and eager to fork over real cash to get past obstacles intentionally placed in the design.
Of course, this has really been an issue since the first time someone used the word "addictive" to describe a game. If games are literally addictive, it puts us on the same moral equivalent of tobacco companies. Now, personally, I don't think that games are addictive in the same way that physically addicting drugs are. And, while I will agree that games can influence people, it's often a question of to what degree people are influenced and how that affects the world in general. Does the potential harm done outweigh the positives?
Even more recently we have had two major events related to MMO gaming that have grabbed a lot of attention. Mythic/EA overbilling people and causing direct financial harm to some people, and Turbine offering the "rewards" that were seen as scams in social games.
It's All About Fun, Right?
There is the common insistence that games should just be about fun. Some advocates say that all other considerations, such as social cohesion through mechanics perceived as "forced grouping", should be subsumed in the pursuit of "fun". This is potentially troublesome since it can obscure other issues such as moral obligations.
As I've said before, I think there's more to games than just fun. Focusing on mere entertainment is a great way to make sure that games remain in a ghetto and never achieve the legitimacy I hope for them. Not to say that the world needs too many games that are painful to play, but I believe the core essence of a game is the interactivity, not the "fun" aspect of entertainment. For MMO games, interactivity takes on a new dimension as you interact with other players in the context of the game world. So, I don't think game designers can exculpate themselves by claiming that they're providing fun and don't need to worry about other issues.
The Soulless Company
The flipside of the fun issue is seeing the largest game company as a corporation. Corporations have a mandate to increase shareholder value. This is reflected in the focus on short-term profit to increase the value of the company. Especially when one talks about larger corporations, the need for profit often subsumes any other considerations. For example, if EA weren't legally obligated to make things right due to the recent billing issue, would they spend the time to do so? It can be hard to justify the short-term expense for long-term benefits when you live and die by your quarterly statement. The financially beneficial thing to do and the morally correct thing to do can be at odds. (I'm sure some hard-core laissez faire capitalists probably cringed at me talking about "morals" and "corporations" in the same sentence.)
This is one reason why I think indie gaming is growing in popularity and attention. While I will certainly argue that game developers need to buy my book and be aware of business realities, there are motivations besides maximizing profit to worry about. A lot of indies are more interested in making fun games and giving people a great experience. I'd trust A Tale in the Desert to not abuse psychological tricks sooner than I would a company that has to worry about their valuation to provide enough ROI to investors.
Rights and Responsibilities
Seth Godin had an interesting post about Rights and Responsibilities for companies in general (not just game companies). He talked about how often some companies talk about their rights and how some restrictions, such as restaurants having to post signs showing how inspectors graded their cleanliness, can violate perceived rights.
The part about a "sweet soda tax" is interesting since food issues are coming to the forefront these days. While the posting's position might seem enlightened, that a soda company should support a tax to save their customers, it ignores some business reality: it's hard for a company, especially a profit-focused corporation, to retool to provide a different service. The cheaper option, particularly in the short run, is to try to maintain the status quo. (Interestingly enough, that's also the natural human psychological reaction.) A tax might affect all competitors equally, but increased prices usually mean less demand under classical economics, especially when that increased price doesn't result in increased income. Finally, there's the issue that regulation can sometimes get out of hand; for example, there are suggestions that the sugary drink tax should include diet sodas as well. It's the fine line for the government between discouraging harmful behavior (consuming excess calories and sugar or high fructose corn syrup) and looking for a new excuse to raise revenues. (See, capitalists? I'm not a complete socialist.)
But, the sentence near the beginning is probably what is most interesting to this discussion: It seems, though, that organizations and individuals that focus more on their responsibilities and less on their rights tend to outperform. In this case, I want to talk about more than just legal responsibilities, but about our moral obligations.
A Duty to Care
The ever insightful Spinks wrote a post entitled Should game companies have a duty of care? where she talked about how encouraging people to spend more time in a game could lead to problems. I have also written about similar issues, where there is definitely a potentially "darker" side to RPG play that engages people and can influence them in negative ways.
What is a game designer's obligation here? Is it bad to provide compelling gameplay that encourages a player to spend more time in a game? If the player is having fun, is that acceptable that he or she spends a lot of time in a game if it doesn't negatively impact their life outside the game?
This is really an individual issue. Two people can be playing 30 hours per week and have different situations. One is a person who stopped watching so much TV and is spending more time in a game with this friends, while the other is someone who is skipping out on work obligations and is letting his or her marriage fall apart due to neglecting spouse and child(ren). To the game developer, the behavior we can observe (without going through privacy-destroying measures) shows that the behavior is pretty much the same. Given that we can't tell the difference without becoming invasive, I find it hard to say that we have an obligation to stop people from harming themselves.
Treating the Player Right
But, note that not having an obligation to save the players from themselves isn't the same thing as saying we don't have an obligation to care or to help people out. I think we should definitely offer tools to player to help themselves out. In Meridian 59, we would sometimes temporarily suspend accounts when people asked us to; they might have some obligation like finals week at university and they wanted to focus on that instead of being tempted into the game. A few years ago it was fashionable for games to add timers so that players could reasonably limit how long they were playing, as another example.
Designers can also work to reduce potentially harmful elements. Not having a visible clock or timer could be seen as similar to a casino trick. Casinos do a lot of subtle things to get you to spend more. Even though the term "gaming" can cause confusion between computer games and gambling, I would prefer to avoid using those types of tricks as much as possible.
I think this focus on psychological tricks is one reason why people are wary about the "metrics-driven" design of new social games that focus on profitability over fun: it does seem a bit much like the psychological tricks that casinos use. But, while there are resources to warn people about the dangers of gambling and programs to help people with gambling problems, we don't have the same thing for social games. Again, I'd rather not get to the point where we need to have these types of support networks and education, because strict government regulation comes shortly thereafter.
But, there is always a balance. Some people are compelled by a list of achievements to complete them. Is this as harmful as removing clocks so that the individual loses track of time easier and spends more time in our games? Depends on many factors, primarily the individual player. So, a with a lot of other things, this tends to be subjective. One person's compelling gameplay is another's sleazy manipulative trick to hook them into the game. I think the lesson here is to understand the tricks you're using, using some understanding their impact, but avoiding excessive use of these types of elements.
Weighing the Good vs. the Bad
Unfortunately, a lot of these types of discussions tend to focus on the very negative aspects of games: addiction, compulsive behavior, ruining lives and relationships, and other problems. Sometimes it can seem that the best solution is to just get rid of games and avoid the whole mess.
However, there's a moral reason why I'm doing games instead of some other creative industry. There are the usual reasons: I need to create, I grew up with games, I have a technical mind so I can deal with the programming side of game development. But, I believe that games are important because they give people, particularly adults, the opportunity to play and escape.
Syp over at Bio Break posted a great article about the Tolkien Professor entitled Escapism Is a Good Thing. There are a few quotes that talk about how escapism and a good dose of fantasy are good things because they focus our desires and awaken our sense of awe and wonder. Especially in this day and age where children seemingly get jaded from thinking they've seen everything, being able to give a person a sense of wonder about how the world worlds is a tremendous thing. A fresh perspective is a marvelous thing.
I think that games are perhaps the best way to do this, particularly MMO games. As we explore a new world and interact with others, we get new perspectives on our everyday life. No, raiding a dragon isn't going to bring world peace or solve world hunger, but knowing how to do things like listen and sympathize with others, understand the value of helping others, and conquering a huge goal can be tremendously beneficial for people. Of course, there's the fine line between trapping someone in an escapist environment and letting them use that environment to better themselves.
What Are Our Moral Obligations?
So, what are our moral obligations as game designers? I think they can be summed up as follows:
- 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.
What do you think? Is there more to game development? Or, are moral responsibilities only for people who don't want to make a profit in games?