Games need difficult, negative or uncomfortable experiences to create the kind of empathy and understanding necessary for social change.
So suggests researcher Sam Gilbert of the MacArthur-funded GoodPlay Project, which explores the intersection of ethics and online worlds, virtual spaces and games, speaking on a panel at the Gamasutra-attended 2009 Games For Change conference in New York.
For an example, Gilbert looks to World of Warcraft. "The game could do some kind of automatic loot distribution thing -- that would allow it that nobody would get screwed over when deciding how to distribute loot," he says. "But if that had happened, [players] would not have had bad experiences with it."
Bad experiences in games are important, Gilbert argues, because they're essential to engendering empathy. Getting "screwed out of loot" in WoW can teach a player "what it means to be taken out of something you feel you've rightly earned," he says -- and that design principle can encourage players to better empathize with others in the real world.
"Often times, to encourage change in the way we think about ethical issues, you need to be at the brunt of some bad moral issues," he says.
Other participants on the "Ethics in Game Design" panel included Alison Bryant of Nickelodeon's Kids and Family division, Microsoft researcher John Nordlinger, and Electric Fun Stuff co-founder David Langedeon.
When asked by an audience member, all of these panelists unilaterally agreed that when public outcry comes up around issues like the ethnicity debate surrounding Resident Evil 5 or the real-world war concepts in Konami's canned Six Days In Fallujah, the worst things teams can do is distance themselves from the uncomfortable ethical conflicts under the pretext of making a product just for fun.
When a game forces players to take actions or confront issues with which they're uncomfortable, said Gilbert, it makes them "most reflective on what it is that you're doing, why you're doing it -- and often that can lead to very positive things."
He acknowledged that positivity isn't always the result, and that developers need a "steady hand" when making such games.
"Any other art form makes you feel uncomfortable -- so why should games be any different in that regard?" Agreed Bryant.