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Developing Ethical Games
by Rohan Harris on 08/16/13 01:52:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Two years ago, I was a game critic and I was often pondering and analysing the moral message different video games left me with. Usually, these messages were grand ones told in sometimes-clumsy ways in monologues toward the end of the game by protagonists. But other times, it could be more subtle — analysed in the gameplay itself.

The obvious ones which were brought up in discussion or debate were often games like Bioshock (amongst other things, a critical look at Objectivism) which have a moral message clearly laid out in their design and story.

Then came designing my own game. With my brother and a small team, we just finished a crafting/city-building game for iPad called TownCraft. Despite our mutual interests in philosophy, science, ethics and politics, it never occurred to me that our game would ever really have much to say with regard to morality or ethics. Its point is to entertain, not be a platform for espousing views.

It’s set in a faux-medieval world, with deliberately anachronistic jokes heavily inspired by the likes of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Muppet Show. You start plopped into a forested valley, and have to build basic tools then begin chopping down trees to make your first log cabins, working up to having a full town.

Early on the process, before much else was working, someone seeing me demonstrate the alpha said, “I like the way the trees regrow after a while. Can you remove them?”

This gave me pause. They regrew for gameplay reasons. Chop a tree down? It becomes a tree stump. Some time later, as we didn’t want to do the Minecraft-thing of seeds being then used to plant fresh trees, it will magically become a full-grown tree again (unless you manually remove the stump).

“Is this a statement,” I was asked, “on sustainability?”

I was rather shocked. It could at a stretch, I guess, be viewed as a statement against sustainable ecology. I just hadn’t thought about it as anything but a mechanic.

By contrast to the tree thing, in our game you can strip-mine your mineral resources away in a heartbeat, unless you plan will and leave enough around to build sustainable mines — and even that could be argued as a statement in favour of mining!

This wasn’t the last time, either. We began to second-guess ourselves a great deal. Again for practical reasons, we have no animals in the initial release, beyond a canary which flies around above you from time to time. You certainly can’t hunt. In fact, early on, we realised that these medieval peasants were actually all vegan!

Especially given some of us on the dev team are vegetarian or vegan, it did seem like something people (especially those who knew us) would latch on to as something to read into. And yet, it was a purely unintentional thing. Later on, we added the ability to harvest eggs from bird nests (no longer vegan) and then later on fish (no longer even vegetarian)… but you still can’t hunt. Not yet, at least.

This made me realise just how impossible it is to create a game that is entirely devoid of political and moral statements. Since then I’ve read articles and posts talking about the politics of even the most abstract of games — likening Tetris to certain political ideologies, or discussing what the mechanics in some gangster game or other have to say about free market capitalism.

Some (most?) of these are stretches, but many aren’t.

I was doing some play-testing on our game recently and noticed a certain quest an NPC gave me. I read it twice, then paused to ask my brother, “Hey, is this a reference to same-sex marriage?”

“Yeah,” he replied.


I’m reminded of something which happened to a friend of mine. His daughter came home from school, confused as she’d just discovered that same-sex marriage was not actually legal in our country. This idea absolutely confused her. “But, my sims can get married because they’re in love!”

It recently came out that the inclusion of same-sex relationships at all in The Sims was half-accident, or at least not something anyone thought too much about it. And yet it has affected an enormous number of people who play it at a young enough age that these ideas hadn’t really been presented to them before.

By casually including social statements in the most important medium (in my opinion) for young children, we do affect their earliest exposure to morality, and this is not something I feel game designers should take lightly.

Fortunately, I don’t think many do. It’s hard not to receive emails and messages from people playing your game without being forced to confront the fact that people really are playing your game, and will be reading and absorbing in some cases hours worth of your work, and sometimes even learning behaviour in a subtle way from your games.

Still, it’s something I won’t be dismissing even a little bit on our second game.

Every game is political, and every game has something to say — it’s just a question of whether its message is intentional or not.

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Michael Joseph
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"Every game is political, and every game has something to say — it’s just a question of whether its message is intentional or not."

Very insightful article. I think to deny that even the games we build for "fun" are (at the very least) reinforcing certain views or ways of thinking about the world is willful ignorance and a denial of responsibility. Because I think as you have explained, to acknowledge this now means we have to make moral choices. And to understand our aversion to this sort of responsibility is to understand the human condition a bit better.

We hear a phrase like "with great power comes great responsibility" and can accept it as true for superheroes, but we don't accept it as true for our own lives because we don't want that kind of responsibility.

We all want a better world but we don't want to take the red pill. So the dirty little secret is we really don't want a better world, we only want to believe that we do.

Max Bee
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I liked your article. I'd like to ask you a quick question.

What kind of messages would you say games like Clash of Clans or Angry Birds send? If a message is non-sense or clearly very far removed from reality, the brain tends to ignore. The player can still learn lessons from the mechanics of the game. The themes don't really make that much of a statement to me other than being cute and quirky.

Luis Guimaraes
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Angry Birds: "Keep on trying and you'll get better".

That's the most important message video-games convey, IMHO.

Angry Birds = Coach Carter

Eris Koleszar
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The original plot of Angry Birds revolves around the pigs stealing their eggs in order to eat them. That's why they're angry in the first place.

One interpretation of the game could say that when parents have their children taken from, they will do anything, including sacrificing their own bodies, to get them back.

Ian Uniacke
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Well there is clearly some kind of xenophobic subtext in Angry Birds. What with the 'evil pig empire' working on the trope of the evil foreigners come to steal our babies. I don't think this is intentional, and most people will just interpret this as some kind of fairy tale villain but it does reinforce stereotypes all the same.

I haven't played Clash of Clans so I can't comment on that.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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This just in, humans are good at finding patterns and building narratives around those patterns.

Eris Koleszar
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It's not just patterns that the author picks out. There are ways of valuing things that are inherently built in to designing a game.

Including things in your game world is a way of validating or valuing them (depending on the context). Certainly keeping people, places, ideas, etc... out of your world makes it clear that the game is *not* about them and is *not* valuing them.

Reward mechanics within games also necessarily value certain ways of interacting with the game world and do not assign value to ways that don't get rewarded. Also, forbidding certain kinds of interaction by making them impossible says something of the value that was not assigned to them (e.g., not being able to make peaceful relations in an FPS).

Kevin Hassall
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"This just in, humans are good at finding patterns and building narratives around those patterns." Meaning that the viewer/reader/player creates meaning - not the developer/author?

Yes, true, to a point.

But many games do have a very clear morality, or make clear assumptions and value judgements. The player can't very well impose an alternative reading onto this sort of material.

For example, in the Civ games there are clear assumptions about what democracy is good for (e.g. scientific research), what totalitarianism is good for (military production), etc. Now we might all say "oh no, those aren't political messages - that's just how it is" - but all that means is that the game's judgements chime with our own.

Less obviously, RPGs have always been a kind of extreme fable about the nature of capitalism.

And that's without getting into more politically loaded conversations about what video games teach us about war, about the role of heroics, etc.

Having said that, I'm not convinced that Angry Birds has a great deal of "meaning".

I suspect that the simpler and more abstract the game, the less meaning it has, as a general rule. Pong, for example, probably isn't especially politically resonant ;-)

Jakub Majewski
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I very distinctly recall always switching from monarchy to communism in the original Civilisation. Monarchy was naturally the best political system, as it had none of the bizarre disadvantages of republic/democracy (e.g., being essentially unable to declare wars), and communism... was remarkably, even better. It was just like monarchy, except that corruption was magically divided equally over your empire - instead of having a trouble spot here, a clean spot there, you had uniformly average levels, and building a courthouse in one city actually affected your entire empire.

It was, in short, a bizarre apology of communism, and I suppose if someone were to end their political education on playing Civilisation, such a person would conclude that Americans were crazy to object to communism.

It doesn't seem to have happened, though. I guess either Civ players treated the game mechanics as completely abstract, and irrelevant to their worldly experiences, or the game's strange message was nullified by the fact that the game also did a good job of encouraging players to find out more. Hard to tell.

The really interesting thing is that there's no reason to assume Sid Meier is a communist sympathiser. Nothing of the sort. So, why the pro-communist slant? Well, who on Earth would choose to adopt communism in Civilisation, if it was portrayed just like reality - a system of no possible advantages, and extremely destructive disadvantages?

I think there is a very fascinating study topic right there - how do "gameplay purposes" affect the way games portray reality, even contrary to the creators' intention?

Ian Welsh
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What? The scientific research bonusses from Republic and Democracy made it vastly superior to communism for anything except warmongering.

So, yeah, that's interpretation.

Jakub Majewski
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Oh, and Kevin - Pong is very politically resonant :). It is a perfect paradigm of modern two-party democratic politics, with the voters being the ball, and the paddles being the two dominant parties. Sometimes one party slips up and loses, sometimes the other, but at the end of the day - the voters are still just material to be smacked back and forth between them to their own advantage.

Kevin Hassall
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lol - yeah, "the author is dead" in that reading of Pong ;-)

Kevin Hassall
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It's certainly possible to argue about which civics are "best" in each version of Civ, and I've been bemused before to see a player complain that Civ is "pro-Communism" because (a) Communism isn't completely useless, and (b) its in-game benefits suit their play styles. (Personally, like Ian I guess, my play style tends towards Democracy.) But...

The rules themselves still make statements about the benefits of different political systems, which are very much value judgements (some of them quite arguable), and which are then internalised by the players.

Less obviously political games actually do the same, but more subtly.

Jakub Majewski
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Oh, well, certainly for more research-oriented players, the republic and democracy have their own set of advantages, I'm not arguing against that :). The point is, the game presented politics with a very specific bias, where communism was vastly superior to reality, while democracy and the republic were actually peculiarly limited - again, in opposition to what we see in reality. I mean, when was the last time the United States had been unable to launch a war because the senate refused to declare war? I guess Vietnam, and even then, not because of the declaration-of-war formalities, but because after several years the senate refused to keep financing the war. I suppose you could argue that the United States is actually a peculiar kind of hybrid system, a short-term popularly-elected monarchy, but that would be stretching things a loooong way :).

By the way, an even more interesting example of this kind of unconscious (unintended, even) bias towards communism is the Victoria series from Paradox Interactive. Especially in the first game, there was a major problem because the game mechanics had been overwhelmingly designed for total state control of economy/society (to the point where you'd be the one deciding which group of people changes profession from farming to industry or whatever). When the player would put a non-interventionist (i.e. free market) party into power, he would suddenly be unable to use most of these game mechanics, so he'd literally be sitting there watching paint dry. In a way, this is actually pretty accurate, because logically, a "small government" will always have less to do than a "big government". In a game context, however - well, no one has yet managed to earn a huge profit off games that concentrate on watching paint dry, so the developers simply had to concentrate on the communist-slanted mechanics, knowing that even players who are absolutely free-market and pro-democracy in real life will prefer to retain greater control over their nation when playing a game.

Alexander Muscat
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Reminds me of Ian Bogost's Persuasive Games book, which goes into these ideas in great detail with a whole lot of rigorous research.

It's true games are always saying something whether that be a seemingly ideal representation of a sport through simulation to something more politically motivated or unwittingly insidious.

But this rule applies to all manner of media.

Bart Stewart
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I like the thoughtfulness of this article.

But I disagree that "all games are political," or that it's impossible to make a game that's devoid of political or moral statements.

There's a difference between carrying a message and imposing a message. Just because some people feel a need to impose their belief systems on everything around them does not mean that the creators of those things intended them to carry that message -- or any message at all. If someone wants to read some ethical statement into Tetris, that's just them.

That said, the more a game includes systems that simulate aspects of reality affected by or wholly about human behavior, the more that game is able to carry a "should" message. Seeing ethical statements in Tetris is simply making things up, but seeing them in a game that simulates some elements of human social organization, such as Civilization or Alpha Centauri, may be well-founded and worth exploring.

So for games that simulate human-affected reality, I agree it's wise to understand that your assumptions about what *is* and what *should be* will determine the shape of your simulated systems. They will carry a message about how you think the world works, and how you think it should work. It's a good idea to know what your simulation of reality is saying to prospective players.

But that doesn't imply that every game, just by virtue of having rules and graphics, carries a political message. Sometimes a game really is just a game.

Ian Uniacke
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I don't entirely agree. Everything is a valid target for deconstruction. Saying that people are just making stuff up is a bit dismissive to the person doing the deconstruction.

I don't agree there is nothing to see in Tetris. To me the game has a clear utilitarian approach to game mechanics. Like, why do the blocks have to be neatly aligned? Why is the player rewarded for the being the most efficient as opposed to the most creative? Is it because the game was developed in Russia? Just as an example. I don't think we can read too much into this but I don't think the questions I've posed are baseless, or making stuff up.

Bart Stewart
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I'm not dismissing the person, but I am dismissing the belief some people hold that any/every human-created thing carries a political or socio-ethical message.

Just because a consumer wants to impose a statement of some kind does not mean the producer intended any such thing. Isn't insisting on seeing some message where none is intended dismissive of the producer's wishes?

Chip Morningstar's "How to Deconstruct Almost Anything" ( sums things up pretty well, I think. Or as Lincoln is said to have put it: "If you call a tail a leg, how many legs has a dog? Five? No, four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg."

I don't object to people looking for meaning in someone else's work. Informed criticism can be valuable. But they're not free to assert that what they personally believe is necessarily the only possible Truth, even if everyone they know believes the same thing, or that their belief supersedes the producer's creative intentions just because they care passionately about it.

Jaime von Schwarzburg
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A creator's worldview shapes their art. If they aren't consciously thinking about the political ramifications, they will simply include their own unexamined biases. Moreover, a game that "really is just a game" still carries a message about the nature of art

Jakub Majewski
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I definitely agree with Bart, there is a limit to how far deconstruction can be taken. It's not that it's impossible to take it all the way, but you simply get to the point where you're imposing your thinking on the game, rather than reading any kind of message put in there by the creators.

My joking analysis of Pong above, and Ian's analysis of Tetris here are good examples. In both cases, the analysis is absolutely correct - Pong can be read as an allegory of two-party politics, while Tetris can be read as an allegory of communist state control (alternatively, Janet Murray actually claims Tetris can be read as an allegory of modern capitalist society - you work, work, work, things get more and more hectic, and finally you lose your job).

The question, however, becomes: is that message in the game, or is it only in my head? What exactly is the point of inventing an interpretation that only I will ever see? I mean, you can do this with anything. Why does the AK-47 have a banana-shaped clip? Well, duh, because the Russians wanted it to appeal to people living in third-world countries who eat lots of bananas... it's just nonsense :).

However, it is a fine line between reasonable and unreasonable interpretation. Why is it that critical analysis normally does not concentrate on the creator's intentions, and why is it that critics consider it perfectly valid to interpret a work in a way contrary to the author's intention? Well, precisely because the author does not stand alone, as Jaime sort of points out. We all have our views, and often we are not even aware of them. Furthermore, we are shaped by our circumstances, surroundings, events and so on - no person can ever truly know what makes him tick, because that would require him to deconstruct all the influences on himself, and those go at least all the way back to his birth... conception, even.

The example I like to point to is Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Tolkien explicitly stated that the books have nothing to do with WWII, that he himself utterly hates allegory and certainly his work is not allegorical. That's fine, I believe him - but reading the books, I do as a matter of fact see a very clear WWII allegory. Especially the end of the trilogy perfectly shows the confusion of a wartime society transitioning to peacetime. Tolkien did not intend this, but he *lived* through these times, and he could not possibly have done so without being influenced by his own experiences. So, in spite of Tolkien's protests, the allegory is there.

Eris Koleszar
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I'm not sure anyone's saying that what they see inside a game is the only possible Truth, but perhaps one truth. I certainly don't see only one Truth in any art. From my perspective, neither the intention of the artist (or lack thereof) nor the interpretation of the critic invalidate each other.

If a game mechanic rewards a certain style of play, as in Tetris, isn't it fundamentally valuing that way of play as opposed to another? These are the kinds of everyday reinforcements that can go unnoticed, but may shed some insight if brought to light. If it brings you something of value to know it, then great, if not, there is nothing lost from your enjoyment of the game.

As another example, Bejeweled values finding sameness and forward-thinking. By making the only way forward in the game through these mechanics, it does not function the same way a game of Memory does, relying on thinking in the past. Again, this may not mean much on the level of one single game, but perhaps if we step back we may start to see patterns of valuation emerging over a multitude of games that reflects what the creators and their sociocultural environment value. This can be a powerful tool for sociocultural reflection on a larger scale.

I also think that the quote about a the tail being a leg can be worked with further. Whether or not calling the tail a leg makes it a leg is irrelevant in a sense because a "leg" is also a category we created that does not exist outside of definitions we agree on. What *can* be gained from calling a tail a leg is the questions that it brings. If this appendage (tail) is a leg, what does that have to tell us about legs? How could we see legs differently? Sure, the questions seem silly and somewhat irrelevant in this context, but when applied to the analysis of games, it can bring something of value. What does it mean if Tetris is a game about capitalism or communism or whatever you like to interject? How does that help us understand capitalism/communism/etc...? How does it help us understand Tetris? How does it help us understand ourselves?

Ian Welsh
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Take zoning in the Simcity series. They always irritate me because of the way they do it, there's an entire school of urban planning which calls for much more mixed use, and hates rigid commercial/industrial/residential zoning. But if you mix together in most SimCities (don't know about the last one) it will hurt your city.

That's a statement, and it's not always true (to oversimplify, that's how suburbs work, not cities.) Simulations always embed assumptions about how the world works.

Jakub Majewski
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I'd go further, and argue that SimCity really only makes sense from a New World perspective, or even a Wild West prespective (because in this regard, cities like New York or Boston have more in common with Europe than America). Setting up a city in the middle of nowhere is a specifically New World experience, which probably only happened a few times in Europe in recent centuries. SimCity is thus biased towards top-down city planning where the urban planner is the undisputed master of the universe, while ignoring completely the bottom-up approach, where a factory might spring up in the middle of what you had planned to be a residential zone, while that pesky farmer in the middle of the new industrial zone simply refuses to sell his land, leaving a big swathe of farmland surrounded by factories. Similarly, at least in all the SimCities I played (and I haven't played the last couple of them), the player is free to bulldoze away anything, regardless of how old a building may be, how many people live in it, and even regardless of what he intends to put in its place.

Again, this may simply be the result of SimCity being a game - it's fun having control, and it would be far less fun if building your dream city forced you to constantly deal with the realities on the ground. But it is nonetheless a message, and a powerful one - I am willing to bet that a person who plays SimCity a lot will be far more understanding/accepting towards the government perspective in controversial eminent domain cases (e.g. Kelo v. City of New London). Instead of seeing private property being encroached upon, they will be seeing the perspective of the city planner who knows exactly what he wants to develop in this part of the city, and simply needs to bulldoze away the opposition.