Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

13 April, 2010

Moral obligations of game designers
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 5:52 PM

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 his or her 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?

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  1. I actually got so angry about this a while ago that I sketched up a manifesto to show that I, as a game designer, will not abide by this kind of crap:

    Comment by Zaratustra — 13 April, 2010 @ 7:41 PM

  2. Huh, interesting manifesto, Zaratustra. I do agree with the last point: no need to trick people into giving you money.

    But, I will disagree with some of those things. I think it’s fine to charge more as long as it’s clear up front. One of the reasons I hate the term “free to play” is because the game really isn’t free. At least, it’s not free as the designers hope you’ll play it. This is also why “DLC” that’s on the disc feels sleazy, because it it’s already delivered to you, there shouldn’t be an additional charge to use it.

    At any rate, I agree with the sentiments, though. No sense in ripping people off. That kind of goes with the whole giving someone a great experience, in my opinion.

    Comment by Psychochild — 13 April, 2010 @ 9:22 PM

  3. I think that generally it’s our responsibility as adults to control our own behaviour. If we play a game and neglect our families that really is down to us, not the game. If someone stared out the window and neglected his families would politicians want to ban windows?

    The corollary to that though is that I’m very uncomfortable with games that aim to manipulate children. Jesse Schell recently cited a game that gives kids cash shop points as they play for free – but they can only redeem them if they make a purchase. After a few months they’re whining “mom, can I have six bucks please please, look at all this cool stuff I can buy”. That crosses my line and I would like to see regulation of that from a government body.

    Comment by Stabs — 14 April, 2010 @ 12:55 AM

  4. Really interesting post, thanks. I’ve been thinking about a long time how some activities of MMOs, namely endgame and raiding often put unrealistic or negative pressure on someone. For example, raiding, once you count everything(farming, research, etc..) often takes 2 to 3 nights of playing. The game doesn’t force me to do things this way but thats the way the player communities evolves in order to meet the challenge. To continue with the raiding example, if you design your dungeon to take 2 nights to complete you can expect players to have to input 3 nights(1 night for farm). Now spending three nights on a videogame is something that not everyone can do easily. I know I’ve fallen into the trap before because I wanted to be successful at raiding and ended up putting in more time than I should.

    Yes, it was ultimatly my decision but the design also required me to put in a set amount of time for an acitivity I really wanted to participate in. I wish, nay pray, more developers think like you.

    Comment by lonomonkey — 14 April, 2010 @ 8:23 AM

  5. I wonder where on the scale of moral obligation we’d find creating artificial scarcity for a $25 virtual item

    Comment by Melmoth — 15 April, 2010 @ 1:58 PM

  6. *chuckle* at capitalism/socialism side commentary. I believe that moral choices should be derived from individual conviction. The trouble is trying to mandate it from on high, whether by law or peer pressure. At that point, it’s no longer a moral choice, it’s norm enforcement. *That* is what I don’t like about “morals” in socialistic/fascistic systems; there’s no room for personal choice outside of following Big Brother, whether he’s the policy arm of an elite cabal or mob sentiment of a direct democracy.

    It’s better to self-police than call the police. That’s the rationale behind the ESRB, after all. Of course, not everyone acts morally, so we do have problems, and we do need police.

    I believe that companies and corporations need to act in morally responsible ways. That should come from the people who run the place, though. I think we, as devs, have a responsibility to go about and do good, not just try to make a buck. We have fantastic tools with great potential at our fingertips, and we should use them in morally positive ways.

    “Should” and “will” can prove to be disagreeable things, though, unfortunately.

    Comment by Tesh — 15 April, 2010 @ 2:33 PM

  7. Melmoth wrote:
    I wonder where on the scale of moral obligation we’d find creating artificial scarcity for a $25 virtual item

    I’ve said before that I’m not fond of the Blizzard cash shop because it violates some of the agreements they established with the players in the past. To someone buying the game at launch, selling items (even vanity pets) wasn’t even a glimmer in Blizzard’s eye. I further argue that these are more than just vanity items, since they help you with some achievements. The point of the pet/mount achievements is that you were crazy enough to go collect a wide variety of stuff using in-game means, not that you splashed out cash to get a few of the items.

    Long time readers know that I’m not anti-cash shop. I just think that it’s sleazy to change the terms of the assumed agreement between players and the company without extreme need. Let’s face it, the cash shop isn’t Blizzard’s last-ditch effort to save the game, this is them using the enduring popularity of their game to make some extra money.

    As for the queue, it’s about what I’d expect from someone like Blizzard. I remember that queues for a game used to be a bad thing until Blizzard came out; I think the trick is they were able to spin it to be about popularity rather than being foolishly underprepared. Assuming the queue isn’t some sort of trickery in this way, it shows that my opinion about Blizzard’s changing of the rules isn’t universal.

    Tesh wrote:
    It’s better to self-police than call the police. That’s the rationale behind the ESRB, after all.

    I think the rationale is better described as “It is better to predictably regulate ourselves rather than rely on unpredictable and fickle government regulations.”

    Comment by Psychochild — 15 April, 2010 @ 5:03 PM

  8. The Blizzard situation is really conflicting to me. Objectively there’s nothing wrong about it, Blizzard is charging a price for a service at a price that makes sense to them. At the same time it makes me really sad. I think I have more of an issue that players are willing to accept these kinds of transactions. Cash-Shops are a great way to fund a game, but that’s not the situation we’re in right now. It’s a case of Blizzard milking their playerbase for more money. Now that’s not a knock against Blizzard, but players should realize this and think about their purchases. Blizzard has already made $3.5 million off the mount. Being generous and claiming that it costs them $500,000 to develop and distribute said mount they’re still seeing a 600% profit day 1 (keep in mind that the rest of WoW is also very profitable).

    Comment by Logo — 15 April, 2010 @ 10:15 PM

  9. Drama aside, and focusing more on the method of selling it. I felt well, when I saw that link above, it sums it up. I felt that they created artificial scarcity and bottlenecking as a very ethically shady way to sell this.

    Normally I’d say “Big deal, that’s how F2P games do it.” But in free to play games, it is a given that that’s how they make their money.

    The difference I see, is that Blizzard has a game strictly under the umbrella that you get the whole game for this monthly fee. Yeah from time to time we’ll sell merchandise. But then they make this item limited in number? So everyone who is paying the monthly fee to play the whole game, isn’t really. That’s the part that has me scratching my head. I don’t know enough law, and would love to hear your opinion(if you want to try to tackle it :) )?

    Comment by Jeremy S. — 16 April, 2010 @ 2:59 AM

  10. Game designers being moral?

    [...] you haven’t read this from Brian, please do so…but for now, I’ll put down his summary on what he thinks the moral obligations are for a game designer…

    I think I can boil it down to one moral obligation: Concentrate on what you’re making for the player, not how much you are making from the player.[...]

    Pingback by The Common Sense Gamer — 16 April, 2010 @ 6:59 AM

  11. No, I don’t know when to shut up

    [...] hope he doesn’t mind this, but to explain just how I feel, Logo (over on Psychochild’s post about Moral Obligations of Game Designers) had this to say: “The Blizzard situation is really conflicting to me. Objectively [...]

    Pingback by Just One MOAR — 16 April, 2010 @ 6:22 PM

  12. I don’t know if designers should have moral obligations (other than those dictated by their individual morality, unrelated to their work, but that’s grain from another sack). But I do think designers should be responsible and thoughtful about what they put out, in terms of quality and the content itself.

    While it’s true that you cannot anticipate all reactions from all players, that doesn’t mean you should put out whatever junk, carelessly as you may, and not anticipate -some-. I’ll never buy that designers don’t know just how long the grinds are, how “rip-offy” some offers might be and so on.

    Comment by Julian — 17 April, 2010 @ 8:57 AM

  13. Good to see a developer “conflicted” enough to mention the moral decisions in making games. Agree specifically with the term “free-to-play”. It’s like saying I’m “free-to-play” in the NBA; but if I want to field a full team of five players I’ll have to pay extra… but for just one-on-five I’m fine to play for free as long as I wish.

    Comment by Jay Moffitt — 17 April, 2010 @ 10:00 AM

  14. When games are DESIGNED not to be entertaining, but to ding-gratz people into addiction, it is time to regulate them just as we regulate gambling.

    Comment by sinij — 17 April, 2010 @ 3:29 PM

  15. I’d another stage to the moral obligations:
    * Allow the player to quit.

    Provide exit points, clearly demarcated, of when they are “done”. This should also be done with MMORPGs. The reason isn’t to make the player actually quit, but let them know they have hit the end of the racetrack. (Since you should be building racetracks, not treadmills) The player then can go back and reexplore earlier pathways, but with the relaxed knowledge that they are “done”.

    Comment by Brask Mumei — 17 April, 2010 @ 3:34 PM

  16. Julian wrote:
    I’ll never buy that designers don’t know just how long the grinds are…

    One person’s grind is another person’s leisurely pace and another person’s challenge. I remember reading on 3DRealms Scott Miller’s blog about how he hoped the expansion to WoW (TBC at the time) would be long, otherwise he’d get his one character up to max level and then quit until the next expansion. (Don’t remember if he followed through with that plan.) But, I take that to mean that what you might consider a “long grind” would have been fine to him.

    One size doesn’t fit all. But, I agree that less of a grind fits a lot more people.

    Jay Moffitt wrote:
    It’s like saying I’m “free-to-play” in the NBA….

    Any time you have competition where money spent results in a significant improvements in the chance of winning, you have problems. A lot of “free to play” designers have said they think a game needs PvP to really drive sales, because people will pay huge amounts of money for advantages. That strikes me as exploitative. Not to say that you can’t have some advantages for paying, as long as it doesn’t dominate; I might buy the most expensive clubs in the world, but I’m still not going to beat Tiger Woods using a crap set of clubs, even if he’s not currently at the top of his game. Or, if you want to stick with your NBA metaphor, five of me won’t beat one Michael Jordan.

    sinij wrote:
    When games are DESIGNED not to be entertaining, but to ding-gratz people into addiction, it is time to regulate them just as we regulate gambling.

    I’ll disagree for two reasons. First, gameplay is intended to be compelling, otherwise game designers aren’t doing their job. Note that I say that we should avoid excessive psychological manipulation. Almost all gameplay is psychological manipulation in one form or another once you really get down to it.

    Second, there’s no incentive to spend large amounts of money for large financial gain like in gambling. People might feel the need to stay on longer than other people feel is healthy, but it doesn’t cause direct financial ruin like a gambling addiction can.

    Brask Mumei wrote:
    * Allow the player to quit.

    I’d consider this under my rule of “Make sure players have the tools to maintain control of their lives.” Allow them to gracefully leave the game without significant penalty.

    On the other hand, I’m not sure that it should be a moral obligation to point a neon sign on ways to quit the game. What about book authors who use tricks like putting a big reveal at the end of a chapter to keep you turning pages? Or, what about authors who make a books so awesome you just want to start reading it again from the beginning? What about TV shows that keep stringing the same lame plot along, getting people to watch in order to maybe see some resolution to the hundreds of unresolved plot threads?

    It’s likely a fine line between not using psychological tricks to “trap” someone into a game and encouraging people to quit your game on a regular basis. But, Richard Bartle agrees with you, so maybe you are on the right side of this discussion. ;)

    Great insight, all. Thanks for commenting. Keep it up!

    Comment by Psychochild — 17 April, 2010 @ 5:17 PM

  17. I’ve been lurking this post for quite some time while not being quite sure what to reply. I guess I was expecting something like “When games are DESIGNED not to be entertaining, but to ding-gratz people into addiction, it is time to regulate them just as we regulate gambling” to come up.

    I think my point of view comes from a cultural factor. See, I live in Quebec (that’s in Canada by the way). Let’s just say that if some americans think that Obama is a socialist then here in Quebec we are all extremist communists. What’s the link? Just hold on.

    I’ll start to say that “It is better to predictably regulate ourselves rather than rely on unpredictable and fickle government regulations” is something I agree with. So I do think that game designers should not try to play tricks on players at risk. Here I mean kids. Because if we don’t we can be sure someone will come and tell us what we can and can’t do and here in Quebec you can be sure it will happen.

    The analogy to gambling is funny to me because here in Quebec gambling is litteraly owned by the government. Government don’t regulate gambling it runs casino and decides if your contest is safe or not. That’s why all those cool contests where you can win nice stuff often exclude Quebec (and some US states). Corporations don’t want to go through the trouble of fitting the requirements of our government. So I don’t get to say a damn word about if the contest is fair or not because someone already decided for me to “protect” me from unfair offers. That bugs me a lot …

    So here you need to have moral obligations because you are always at risk of someone to regulate you. You might say it’s a good thing but the problem is that your moral obligations might not go far enough to please moral sense of the “majority”.

    When I speak to fellow quebecers I’m often tagged as a right extremist. When I speak to friends living in the US I usually sound like a socialist … My point is that based on my social situation I tend to push to reach the middle. When I hear about “poor people being dragged into addiction because of gaming” my initial thinking is to say “too bad for them I don’t care”. Yeah, I just don’t care because in the society I live we always remove personal responsibility before thinking it out. It’s a reflex we have. If something bad happens to someone then it’s someone’s else fault. That makes me sick. Not that I don’t aknowledge that some patterns are strikly designed to fool people but since we are never able to say “that’s his own fault” I just can’t get to say “they should have been acting in a more moral way”.

    Not sure if I push the limits here but let’s take cigarettes. We all know that those evil cigarettes makers are very well aware of what they have done and what they are still doing. I’m a smoker myself (don’t ask, I guess I must have some brain damage) and all those people sueing the cigarettes company are making me even more sick then the cigarettes I smoke myself. I couldn’t care less to know what kind of tricks those corporations used to drag people into smoking their products because right now it’s just common knowledge that smoking will get you in a worse health than you are right now. I still smoke anyway. Maybe I’m a addict. I never tried to quit. Maybe it’s because the toxic products they are putting in these death sticks are so heavy that I don’t even feel the need to stop. Still I will never blame them for my stupid habit. Go figure I like it. Just like that stupid kid that pass you at 100 miles an hour on the highway. That’s stupid but he’s still doing it. That’s not the fault of cars company for pushing publicity about “speed is nice” it’s just because he’s stupid. Just like I am for smoking while knowing it’s bad for my health …

    Enough self bashing (I can go on for hours about cigarette so don’t stick on that for too long). I do think that whatever we do we have moral obligations otherwise we are always at risk of all becoming quebecers (you don’t want that). You really don’t want someone come and tell you that you shoudl do your job in a specific way when you are designing games.

    Is my thinking only based on fear of repression and regulation? No. I couldn’t design something while knowing that I’m abusing the weakness of people. That’s just not me. I guess that buys me some “heaven points”. I just couldn’t. But I still can’t have pity for someone being dragged into a stupid addiction scheme based on where I live. I want the middle. So when I hear about moral obligations then hear we are already past that. We are on the other side. The problem is that very few people are trying to get us back in the middle where people are not trying abuse others but where we don’t also feel the need to make feel bad someone that is running a business.

    I hope it all makes sense because it’s getting late here. I’m just posting this becuase I felt that some people here were pushing a bit to far than needed. We already have that here and it’s not better. I know it’s easier to defend polarized opinions but when you put it in perspective it’s not so easy so not as easy. I just hope I’ve been able to make some sense out of this.

    Comment by Dave Toulouse — 17 April, 2010 @ 9:54 PM

  18. Zaratustra: I think you should modify #8 to provide for microtransactions. Something along the lines of, “If I charge for anything within the game, I will ensure that this content meets the same high standards as the game itself, and that the pricing does not take advantage of my customers.” (Think $25 mounts in WoW.)

    Comment by Xalorous — 18 April, 2010 @ 2:04 AM

  19. The Best Of The Rest: Smack The Pony Edition

    [...] What moral obligations do games designers have? Brian explores. [...]

    Pingback by We Fly Spitfires – MMORPG Blog — 18 April, 2010 @ 2:19 PM

  20. Dave, you’re making sense to me, pesky conservative libertarian…ish nutter than I am.

    I’ve always come down on the side of self-regulation because when the nanny state regulates for you, you don’t learn anything or grow personally. Personal responsibility is huge in my book, both for players and devs. I firmly believe that games can and should be better, and that devs have real moral obligations. The thing is, I see them as personal obligations between the devs and whatever god or gods they worship, including the responsibility to treat other people well. The State has no part in that. It can handle criminal cases, sure, but that’s different.

    Comment by Tesh — 20 April, 2010 @ 8:11 PM

  21. games are important because they give people, particularly adults, the opportunity to play and escape.

    Now ask yourself why is that important? Why one has to escape real world? And the answer is because real world sucks. If it didn’t you wouldn’t have to immerse yourself in fantasy. Fantasy us about imagining something better (usually its better world and one’s role in it) .

    Games are akin to drugs or alcohol. Its about avoiding facing realities. I think they are harmful because otherwise people would try to actually change things in real world, but instead they waste time in virtual worlds

    So game developer is a crack producer, I dont think there is anything noble about that

    Comment by Max — 21 April, 2010 @ 7:48 AM

  22. I’m huge on personal responsibility, but it is quite incorrect to pretend we are all in complete control of ourselves. We aren’t. We are very good at pretending we are in control of our actions, of rationalizing our past behaviours to meet our constructed self-images. But we generally suck at actual genuine self control.

    This is particularly brutally put when people do end up with an addiction. Do not fool yourself that you are somehow “stronger” and that is why you don’t gamble the house away. It is more correct to say you aren’t “susceptible” and thus never truly felt the pull in the first place. I like the idea of gambling in the abstract, but when I visit Vegas my reaction is “meh”. Clearly my psychology is missing whatever virtue that is shanghaied into creating problem gambling.

    Alcohol is another excellent example. Individual reactions vary wildly. The majority of us can enjoy a pint or two with the greatest threat being liver damage or obesity. Some, however, are pulled into a downward spiral which destroys them much, much faster. Are they mentally or spiritually weak? Or just lacking some important enzyme to denature the toxin?

    We need to start to realize that mental illness is just that – an illness – often with entirely physical roots.

    That rant aside, I certainly agree with you that government regulation would be a wrongheaded idea. Video games just do not do enough harm in their current incarnation.


    As for Psychochild’s comments,

    Big reveals at the end of a chapter are excellent. So long as the *book* ends! Or, in modern fantasy, the *series* ends. The same is true of television shows. One of the things that makes Babylon 5 great is it had a story arc that *finished*. I’d call a television show that doesn’t intend to close the plots, but keeps pushing it until the audience finally gives up out of ennui or frustration, immoral.

    Thou shalt not waste my time.

    That is the law the consumer dictates to producers :>

    I also don’t mean encouraging them to quit on a regular basis. It suffices if you tell them to quit *once*. Civilization does this when it says: “You won!” – even though I still have a hundred tanks to finish crushing every last enemy city.

    Finally, I stole this whole idea of games needing to end *from* Richard Bartle, so it is more accurate to say I agree with him :>

    There’s that song, that you have to let go of what you love, and then it will fly back to you? That’s the image I see as a designer. You have the hook, you hold onto the player tightly until they’ve seen your world/vision. Then you let go. And, hopefully, they circle right back around and return. You don’t want people *escaping* your game. Their last moments being anger and hate.

    Comment by Brask Mumei — 21 April, 2010 @ 9:48 AM

  23. Max wrote:
    Now ask yourself why is that important? Why one has to escape real world? And the answer is because real world sucks.

    I will admit, some people will consume stuff (entertainment, drugs, whatever) in order to escape from a situation they don’t want to have to deal with in their lives. Yes, some people will dive into a game because they don’t want to face an ugly situation outside the game. If it weren’t a game, it’d probably be TV or spending time at the bar.

    But, for many people, gaming (and other forms of entertainment) are healthy releases. Again, pointing at a quote in the article Syp of Bio Break that I linked in my post (which I’m sure you didn’t read in your drive-by commenting):

    “Fantasy frees our minds from the bondage of drudgery and corruption.”

    “Tolkien argues further that fantasy doesn’t undermine our relationship with the natural world; to the contrary, the glimpses that it provides cleanse and heals that relationship. He suggests that this may become necessary, that our understanding of reality may become diseased without it. Fantasy doesn’t distort the world, it helps us regain a clear view of the world.”

    Sometimes it takes something unreal to shake us out of our comfort zone. Trying to adapt our minds to surviving in a world full of elves and faeries and dwarves can give us a reason to pause and consider the outside world a bit more closely. Especially if you share these experiences with friends and loved ones, it can help you get a new perspective. It can be the catalyst that gives you the ability to change your situation by giving you the tools to understand the situation even though you’re in the middle of it. Sometimes people need that extra perspective. I know I have a few times in my own life.

    Brask Mumei wrote:
    Or, in modern fantasy, the *series* ends.


    d call a television show that doesn’t intend to close the plots, but keeps pushing it until the audience finally gives up out of ennui or frustration, immoral.

    So, is Robert Jordan immoral, then? He created a fantasy series that didn’t end. Some people believe he had little intention of finishing the series, intending to stretch out the popularity to keep income going. I worry you’re throwing around the word “immoral” a bit freely here.

    The main problem I have with Richard’s theory is that he ignores the social impact of the hero’s journey. As has been pointed out many times before, the common excuse people gave for sticking around in older games was, “I don’t want to leave my friends.” Is it really fair to disrupt the social fabric by encouraging people to leave? And, even if we do, given what we know about social obligation are people really going to leave?

    I think most current games do have a “you’re done!” point: max level. Sure, some people will argue that “the game really begins at max level”, but we know that means the next phase (and possibly the most interesting phase to them) starts then. As I pointed out above, Scott Miller of 3DRealms saw max level as the time to quit and wait for the next expansion. Raiders could quit when they’ve master the content. People choose to stay around.

    As for Richard’s full “Hero’s Journey” concept, I think that while that may be a great idea for a game, it’s not necessarily the template all games need to follow. But, I get the feeling that perhaps you want something a bit more “ritualized” in the process of allowing people to leave the game?

    Some food for thought, at least.

    Comment by Psychochild — 21 April, 2010 @ 12:30 PM

  24. When I worked as a game designer in the industry there was no way I or any of the other designers had the time, authority and luxury to even contemplate issues like this. Everything we did was at the behest of the publisher. Not once did I ever feel that the industry that I was part of even considered a lofty concept like “moral obligations”.

    Just look at the recent panel held at PAX East with Curt Schilling and 3 other MMO executives. Their prime concern seemed to me to be monetizing their MMOs. I worry for the future of MMOs after seeing this panel. The only thing missing from the participants of this panel were the cigars and champagne.

    There’s very little evidence that modern day corporations today have any kind of moral compass beyond the typical “we love diversity” and “we are going green for the environment” politically correct type of attitudes.

    And now with the success of Facebook games like Zynga’s FarmVille we are about to descend into an era of the games designed to addict people all in the name of extracting money for these companies and their shareholders.

    Bottom line: as long as money is involved, there’s very little chance of the video game industry even remotely having the capacity and intention of contemplating something abstract like their moral obligations. If this were to ever happen it would be by the CEO of the company and not by the lowly designer working in the trenches.

    Likewise, there probably is very little chance of the billion dollar porn industry reflecting on their moral obligations to their customers.

    Comment by Wolfshead — 22 April, 2010 @ 5:48 PM

  25. The first step is to understand that there is an issue to contemplate. I’m not sure it’s an issue of time, authority, or luxury; I suspect it’s more of a default assumption by idealistic designers. We just assume that games are good and that everyone wants to create a great game.

    To be blunt, the whole Zynga/social games issue has really been an eye-opener for a lot of us, me included. It has made some designers really look at what we’re doing. It’s not that we haven’t had metrics-driven design or used psychological systems to make compelling games. But, now that the potential for abuse has been laid bare, where metrics are used solely to get players to spend more and psychological tricks are used to trap players into a game, we really do need to take a look at the situation in more depth.

    If all you can do is offer up excuses like, “I was just doing my job,” or “I have a mortgage to pay,” then you should go into advertising, accounting, or business programming. These fields pay a lot better and you can let the moral implications wash over you just as it does for other people in those fields. Sure, money is involved in games, but there’s a lot more money to be made in other fields besides game development.

    Anyway, there’s a reason why I generally prefer to work on my own stuff. Moral obligations is one reason. :)

    Likewise, there probably is very little chance of the billion dollar porn industry reflecting on their moral obligations to their customers.

    That would be because the law does that for them. Pornography is heavily regulated, at least in the areas I’m familiar with. I’d rather not get to the point where games are as regulated as porn, how about you? I think worrying about moral obligations before that happens is a better strategy.

    Comment by Psychochild — 23 April, 2010 @ 11:41 AM

  26. I think the place to draw the line when it comes to “casino tricks” can be based on whether you can look your hypothetical player in the eye- that still you can say “I have done you no wrong” to someone who fully understands your hand in things.

    Mind you, it’s fine if that’s followed up with “Yes, I played you like a fiddle and put you through all kinds of anguish. And I take no small amount of gleeful satisfaction in having been able to do so. But if you’ll just take your hands off my neck, I think you’ll thank me in the long run.”

    Comment by Dagda — 24 April, 2010 @ 6:34 AM

  27. >>>Bottom line: as long as money is involved, there’s very little chance of the video game industry even remotely having the capacity and intention of contemplating something abstract like their moral obligations.

    … and there is no other choice but regulate.

    Comment by sinij — 25 April, 2010 @ 4:34 PM

  28. “Pornography is heavily regulated, at least in the areas I’m familiar with.”

    That made me chuckle :)

    Comment by We Fly Spitfires — 26 April, 2010 @ 11:11 AM

  29. I do agree with this and although I believe it is a noble cause, I don’t see it realistically improving the situation immediately, not without a different approach.

    The reality of the situation is that the majority of developers do not have the freedom that your suggestions require. As I’m sure you are well aware, people both need and like money, and this is the reason independent game developers are a minority. The majority are stuck working in the offices of large corporations, where they do not have the flexibility to voice, as well as act upon their opinions, however morally correct they might be. Most are under pressure to deliver by strict deadlines, the success of which potentially determining the status of their employment, something most are not willing to risk. As another commentator previously stated, for this reason developers are often too busy to consider, let alone act upon, such issues. There are also things that influence the direction in which a corporation’s product might head in that is out of a game developer’s hands. How many times do we hear of creators complaining about a marketing team warping the integrity of their product but are still under a contractual agreement to deliver? If they don’t comply, they’ll just get replaced. It’s all because of money. The reasons for this can be traced back up the corporate ladder to the investors who expect their return on investment.

    You have discussed money hungry corporations and the responsibilities to their investors in your post, but how should a developer working for such a company go about disagreeing with morally ambiguous corporate decisions while having the possibility of being replaced hang over their head? It might be easy to say that they should stop working there if they disagreed with the company’s principles, but tell that to a middle aged man relying on his job to support his wife and kids while paying off a mortgage. Your suggestions might work on a smaller scale organisation, where developers are able to make decisions, but I just don’t feel that it is motivating enough for the average employee to risk their job over.

    Now I don’t believe that we are all excused because of our financial commitments and should just give up the moral obligations we all have, but I feel a different approach, targeting those at a higher level is required to make real change. I do hope a way to achieve what you discussed is developed. I also don’t think government regulation is the answer, as I agree with your statement “It is better to predictably regulate ourselves rather than rely on unpredictable and fickle government regulations”.

    Comment by Aiham — 4 May, 2010 @ 4:10 AM

  30. Aiham wrote:
    It might be easy to say that they should stop working there if they disagreed with the company’s principles, but tell that to a middle aged man relying on his job to support his wife and kids while paying off a mortgage.

    I heard a joke once: “I had a mortgage to pay.” is the modern equivalent of “I was just following orders.”

    Has the game industry really reached the point where people are doing the job just to collect a paycheck? Does it not really matter to people if they’re making games, writing accounting software, or creating the fifth variation of a magazine ad to show to a focus group? At least from my perspective as a holder of a computer science degree, I could have done a lot of other things rather than making games if I just wanted to keep the bills paid. Hell, I definitely could have done something else besides trying to run my own company and be an independent game developer.

    Yeah, I don’t have a mortgage to pay or mouths to feed. I made some decisions that allow me to do games for a living on my own terms. And, I’m using that opportunity to think about the moral implications of what we do. I think the person who has kids to support and a mortgage to pay should still start to wonder if what he or she is doing is best for society. If money and stability are the only things that matter, then perhaps it’s time to look for a new job, perhaps one in a more lucrative field.

    Anyway, our industry is still fairly young, even if some of us are getting grayer beards or heads of hair. Yeah, there are some people I’ve worked with who have a mortgage and kids to support, but the majority are still young kids who move across the country for their next job. They can certainly start looking at moral implications of the work they’re doing, and they can certainly choose what companies they can support while drawing a paycheck.

    I feel a different approach, targeting those at a higher level is required to make real change. I do hope a way to achieve what you discussed is developed.

    Change can come from the top and trickle downward, or it can come from the bottom and rise up. I agree that top-down change is generally less disruptive, but change may be needed. Best to take that change on your own terms rather than having them dictated to you.

    As I said before, this is my attempt to draw attention to the matter. I’m taking my own steps, I recommend people consider their own situations.

    Comment by Psychochild — 4 May, 2010 @ 11:57 PM

  31. I am quite attracted by the title of this article, though I am already over twenty years old, while I am playing video games or browse electronic game relevant information I always could hear words to describe the game as the “electronic opium”. Though I do agree that some people may addict into the game play, but still different from the drug addiction, still many people can benefit from playing good games. If we think carefully, it is obvious that everything exists on this planet have side effects, even eating kills. It is not wise to support eliminate video game to save the addicted people. Even though it works, those people will sooner or later addict into other things like alcohol or something like that.

    On the other hand, unlike other things, together with the rapid developed Internet technology, game could be spread to each corner of this planet within a very short period of time. The influence of a game could be massive. Under this situation, we should think things like what we to care about, what we should and should not committee. As game production companies and game designers some tools that can prevent players addict could be essential. Besides that make the game worth to play is also important. In my opinion, all those things mentioned above is self motivated, sometimes could be useless, we should consider to boil some of them into the law. Using the law to protect people away from harm. Compare with other measures, law can be more effective. But still we need to make sure that the law won’t make the game become bored.

    There is another aspect that the author does not mention in this article, which is the relevant education of our next generation. The power of education is massive; an appropriate education to our kids of the electronic game can help them understand how to treat the game properly and how to avoid get harm from it.

    Comment by Yizhou Zha — 5 May, 2010 @ 3:30 AM

  32. Blood Elf Porn

    [...] an industry where we're worried about moral obligations and the darker side of metrics-based design, sex is a touchy topic. I've made the joke before that [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 3 August, 2010 @ 2:24 AM

  33. On Social Games

    [...] I do want to leave you with this sobering thought, from Psychochild’s Blog: [...]

    Pingback by Third Helix — 13 March, 2011 @ 8:03 AM

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