Monday, April 30, 2018

Ethics and Game Design: Are They Like Oil And Water? Part I

In Part I of this article, Saferize founder Gustavo Guida reflects on the recent GDC 2018 game design ethics roundtable and concludes that game designers are locked in a Prisoner's Dilemma with potentially devastating consequences.
Can the gaming industry grow and prosper without compromising ethics? 
I had the opportunity to attend a very interesting roundtable at GDC 2018 presented by IGDA. The event was called "Professional Ethics for Game Designers" and was hosted by Sande Chen, Writers Guild Award and Grammy-nominated Writer and Game Designer (you should check out her interesting review of the event, by the way). The roundtable beckoned designers to voice an opinion “as to whether or not game designers need a professional code of ethics much like the Hippocratic oath for doctors.”

Here is the event description:
With gaming disorder a mental health concern, do game designers have an obligation to refrain what would be considered ‘exploitative design,’ that is, game design that takes advantage of player addictions and/or mental defects?
I expected to leave that event with some sort of consensus. What I really wanted was to see a core of game designers starting a movement that could culminate with a positive change in the industry. After all, we’ve seen similar movements on adjacent industries such as Social Media, where industry luminaries and even former Facebook executives complained about the addictive nature of social media (even implicating themselves). We’ve also seen organizations such as the Center for Humane Technology which was created to demonstrate how this technology could be used for good.

However, it seems that the gaming industry hasn’t reached that stage of enlightenment yet. Sadly, the roundtable ended with no consensus. What we saw instead was gamers split into three groups, which I have categorized:
  1. The Concerned: Game designers very concerned with the well-being of players, and with addiction and its consequences.
  2. The Skeptics: Those that were refusing to see the danger that games could cause. They attempted to blur the lines between an engaging experience with an addictive one.
  3. The Pragmatists: Those who took a more profit-driven focus. This group believes that exploiting addictions and vulnerabilities is the nature of the industry, and that those who refuse to do so will be less competitive.
Prisoner’s Dilemma

What I realized after leaving the event is that the industry is facing what is called a Prisoner’s Dilemma, which is a psychological experiment that tests self-interest. Basically, if two criminals betray each other, they each receive two years in prison. If one betrays the other, the betrayer walks free while the betrayed gets the maximum sentence of three years. If they cooperate, they each receive only one year on lesser charges. The criminals must make this decision without any knowledge of what the other will do.

Game designers seem to be faced with a similar dilemma, and few are willing to cooperate. They want to betray each other (and their consumers by proxy) by making their games more addictive than their competitors’ games. The harsh consequence they would receive by the betrayal of their competitor would be loss of revenue or even their company’s economic viabilities. Alternatively, game designers could cooperate and do what’s in the best interest of everyone involved.

Choosing to betray one another and continuing to design games to be more and more addictive can lead to very frightening consequences (such as the kid who had a seizure in China after playing the mobile game, Honour of Kings, for 40 straight hours). If something like that becomes the norm, it is likely that there will eventually be social pressure for the government to step in. The outcome could be harsh limits imposed by laws, which could mean compliance costs that will only benefit large corporations that can absorb those costs.

Professor Ian Schreiber, from Rochester, NY, talks about these potential government limitations, mentioning that gridlocked US politicians looking to score easy political points with their constituents could do so by regulating loot boxes (we will talk more about them later). “It is an easy bipartisan political win that’s almost sure to happen in the near future,” says Schreiber. He pointed out that the gaming industry must work on self-regulation, and take a proactive role to stop psychological exploitation of users before it’s too late. Using the Honour of Kings case again, the Chinese government stepped in by setting a strict 1-hour-a-day limit on gaming for kids 12 years old and younger.

But Pragmatists and Skeptics don’t see it this way, so they don’t see the need to self-regulate. They tend to view it as a simple supply and demand scenario, firmly believing that if they don’t offer this addictive service, someone else will.

It’s really no different than when criminals justify their actions by claiming that they hold no personal responsibility for providing a service that people demand. You hear this over and over in movies, usually when a criminal is caught by the good guy and justifies his actions by claiming he is just one among many, a cog in the machine. “If I don’t sell, some other drug dealer will. People are looking for this anyway.”
In real life, many famous gangsters used similar lines. Otto Berman, an accountant for the mafia in the 1930s coined the phrase “Nothing personal, it’s just business.” By ignoring the well-being of players, aren’t game designers ultimately subscribing to this idea as well?

Or maybe, Pragmatist game designers prefer a quote from another mobster from the 1930’s called Lucky Luciano (he ordered Berman’s death, by the way). His phrase was “There’s no such thing as good money or bad money. There’s just money.”

Personally, I think it’s really hard for game designers to argue that they’re not only in it for profit, especially when you consider another topic we discussed at the roundtable: video games and gambling. It turns out that there are a lot of disturbing similarities between the two.

[This article originally appeared on Saferize's Medium blog.]

Gustavo Guida has been involved with product and marketing since 2000. Third-time entrepreneur, he found and sold two successful businesses before co-founding Saferize. Father of triplet girls.


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