The previous year has brought its share of gaming controversies, from anger over loot boxes to ties to gun violence to the World Health Organization's recognition of gaming disorder as a mental health condition. The roundtable, "Professional Ethics for Game Designers (Presented by the IGDA Game Design SIG)," at this year's Game Developers Conference, sought to shed light on the thoughts and opinions of professional game designers on their ethical obligations to players. The discussion was spirited and showed that there was no easy consensus.
The roundtable started off with a warning from a professor who studies these matters. He cautioned the group that if the industry doesn't self-regulate, governments will inevitably step in with their own regulations that might not make sense. He cited some examples from Asia, such as a law limiting gameplay hours to school-age children, and said that there were even systems in place whereby in-game rewards were reduced based on the number of hours played. There have even been rumblings in Europe about possible regulations.
While regulations may be looming, others felt like designers should not have any ethical obligations to players, even if players dropped dead after playing too much. With a comparison to the tobacco industry, one decried the nanny state and felt like players needed to be responsible for their own well-being. Another felt that game-playing was viewed too negatively and surely, no one would object if someone practiced continuously as an athlete. He relayed the story of a co-worker who had taken a week's vacation to get higher on the leaderboard and how people immediately thought his co-worker might have a gaming disorder.
Still others felt that without addictive design elements, players would not come back to the game. After all, there's pressure on designers to design an addictive, fun game that makes players come back and play the game. Even if designers objected to exploitative practices, their bosses or marketing would want them to keep on using those methods. And of course, a designer who wants to still have a job there will want the company to be successful. But there were designers at the roundtable who had quit because they just couldn't stand what was happening to the players. They recommended that designers think carefully about what line they would cross before being asked to cross that line.
After hearing jokes about some possible warning labels, like "WARNING: TOO MUCH FUN," the professor interjected, saying that tobacco wasn't the right comparison, but gambling was. He pointed out that the game industry even takes the same terminology, such as "whales," from the gambling industry. While the WHO's definition of gaming disorder can be subject to interpretation, it's most similar to gambling disorder. It doesn't specify a number of hours, just describes the way that compulsive gaming can cause distress or significant life problems. We commonly say a game is addictive to mean it's fun, but addiction has a clinical definition that is much more bothersome.
Another game designer said that he doesn't mind if his games have a specific target audience, like women over 50, but he would have a problem if the target was "senile women," or any vulnerable demographic. He would rather players come back to play the game because of its fun qualities rather than because they're addicted and they have a compulsion.
Another designer wondered if these addictive game systems were even necessary and offered other design alternatives to making a game sticky.
All in all, it was an interesting roundtable that could have gone on to discuss various other ethical issues. Do you have any opinions on the subject? I have heard from game design professors who include ethics in their lessons. Do you believe that game designers should have an ethical code?
[This article originally appeared on Game Design Aspect.]