Category Archives: Philosophy

Ethical Game Journalism

There has been a pair of incidents in the past week that have brought the thorny topic of game journalism ethics back to the fore. First Microsoft thought it wise to bring their E3 conference to a close by handing out a free brand new ‘slim’ X-Box 360 to every member of the press in attendance. Then later in the week RPS broke a story about how the review embargo for Realtime Worlds new game ‘APB’ was being set ten days after the game was on sale.

Perhaps the most saddening thing about both of these stories wasn’t the actions of the companies involved, though those were eye rolling acts, but the reaction of some commentators rushing to say ‘it’s no big deal, after all it’s only video games journalism’. I’m not sure if this reaction was due to a continuing lack of respect for the people in the trade, a disbelief in the usefulness of the trade itself, a disbelief in the power of bribes and information control or a disbelief in the value of games themselves as a worthwhile endeavour. I don’t agree with any of these positions and I thought it might be worthwhile to explain why.

As a game developer I believe in the value of games as entertainment, as teaching tools and as an art form that can give us powerful experiences impossible anywhere else. To me it is the most exciting and novel field of entertainment with so much still left to say and do. I think it’s a completely valuable activity to try to bring about the best possible game experiences. They aren’t ‘just games’ to me and making them isn’t about just messing around to avoid doing a ‘real’ job.

If you believe that games are important then you should also believe in good games criticism. Almost nothing worthwhile in philosophy or science has been done that hasn’t been improved by well targeted criticism. If philosopher’s had just accepted Plato’s forms unquestioningly why might still be enjoying learning about his theories today. Creation so often starts with pinpointing the flaws in what exists already and then looking for a better alternative. If there is no one looking for any flaws then there is no reason to change, no reason to reject the status quo, no reason to create. In such a world perhaps chess could be the last word in games and we would all play it for eternity. You can get criticism from everywhere of course, from the man in the street to the creators themselves but there is no substitute for the practiced, professional critic. Criticism is a hard skill. It’s not enough to just feel that a game is ‘a bit off’ you must pin point exactly the reason why, you have to be able to compare and contrast with the features of thousands of games at your finger tips, you must be wise enough to prise the gleaming diamond of a great mechanic buried deeply in an otherwise terrible game. Most of all though you must be completely honest in your assessments.

I don’t think its possible to be honest as a journalist in any field if you are accepting gifts from the people you are supposed to be holding to account. It is human nature to feel a need to reciprocate any act of kindness, it’s one of the principles of honest human civilization. No matter how convinced you are that a ‘gift’ could never affect your incorruptible judgement, the chances are you are wrong. Just as everyone believes that they are not affected by advertising, and everyone else is the bad drivers making the roads unsafe, it’s usually a safe bet that no-one is infallible given the right conditions. Most responsible publications are well aware of the dangers of allowing their staff to receive gifts from public relations firms and have strict policies requiring the return of any such items. If modern game journalism with its click driven website model wants to be respected then it needs to maintain these same policies.

You also can’t be an honest journalist if you agree to not report the truth when it’s most needed, too many journalists now appear to be accepting ‘hush money’ or more commonly, increased access in exchange for keeping quiet. If actions like the APB post release review embargo are allowed to stand then why not start allowing the PR firms to have copy approval on reviews for increased access as well? There has to be a clear line drawn; and that line must be when you have to start keeping quiet or lying to your audience, especially when not doing so would be in their interests.

Luckily, for those of us who develop games, there are good journalists out there. There are people who grasp all these points completely and feel as passionately as I do about the importance and value of games, and who care about their journalism and the ethics of it. I even link to a few of them over on the side of this site; in particular Rock, Paper, Shotgun stands out for their courage in exposing unethical behaviour in the industry, but there are many more. Nobody should despair overly about the games industry while voices like these remain active, caring and honest. They help keep the game developers honest and as such are just as important as those of us making the games in the first place.

Game Design & Ethics

I think I’ve now digested and discussed enough of the happenings at this year’s GDC to round off my feelings on this topic for a while at least. Some of what is discussed here is in the context of my previous two posts on the topic and a few controversial talks by Jesse Schell, Chris Hecker and Ben Cousins from EA.

How ethics interacts with game design is an area that arouses much passionate feeling, not least because if you tell someone that they might possibly have acted less ethically that they potentially could have, even unknowingly, there is a good chance they will take personal offence. There are also those who believe that ethics is all relative and those who believe that ‘art’ is inherently outside of ethics. The games industry also has a long history of having to defend itself against moral crusaders who believe that games are ‘for kids’ and thus should not be allowed the full range of expression that other media are allowed. Touch on ethics near games enthusiasts and you will inevitably cause someone to instantly reach for their defensive shield. Indeed most early discussions of game design ethics that I can recall would only focus on the visual content and themes, and not on the mechanics of games. I’m thinking particularly of this piece from Dean Takahashi as a prime example. It’s only been more recently that people have begun to consider that the structure of the systems that we create could themselves have an ethical dimension.

Another defensive reaction against discussion of game design ethics I’ve been seeing post-GDC is from people assuming that a reaction against the design mechanics of Farmville must really be a reaction against ‘new things’. This too is understandable, whenever there has been a new demographic, type of platform or way of playing games there is always a host of people saying both ‘this is the most amazing thing ever and will comprise the sole future of the medium’ and others decrying it as a ‘corruption of the form, ruining everything I ever loved’ when in truth things rarely pan out anything like this. It’s unfortunate really that Farmville happens to be both part of a new platform & demographic and leading the way in the kind of less ethical game mechanics that some designers have been complaining about from before Farmville even existed. There was always going to be some confusion.

Jonathon Blow, creator of Braid and all-round game design wise man has been making these same points since at least 2007 where his prime example at the time was World of Warcraft, the same arguments could have been used back in 1980 with Rogue used as the example. The ethical concerns with mechanics can stand apart from any particular new demographic or trends. What has changed is a growing awareness among designers of the effects these mechanics can have on players and with that knowledge comes increased responsibility. I found a great explanation of the conditioning effects that games can have from 2008 over on Edge’s website:

“Reward structures allow for conditioning”
Calling this the Pavlov’s Dog Problem is a little misleading. We do both classical conditioning and operant conditioning through games. The root of classical conditioning is generating an instinctual response to arbitrary stimuli by associating those stimuli with events which naturally cause the instinctual response. Here’s an example from Aliens Vs Predator: in the game Aliens Vs Predator the marine carries a motion detector that lets out a very distinct and specific “ping” noise, that ping implies that something’s on its way to kill you. The verisimilitude of the experience was good enough that the player really got into the mindset of the hunted marine. That ping would almost always be followed by a terrifying life or death struggle. To this day, on the rare occasion that I hear a noise similar to that ping I go into fight or flight.

What if that “ping” was replaced by shouting in Arabic…

Perhaps less insidious but more common is the operant conditioning that almost every game indulges in. The core principle of operant conditioning is associating rewards or punishment with voluntary behavior. Imagine training a dog. When it does something you like you give it a treat. When it does something you don’t like you yell at it or spray it with a water bottle (or conversely you take away its favorite toy if it does something bad or you take off its choker when it’s good). The effect? Eventually the dog becomes trained to behave a specific way, even if the incentive is removed.

Let’s break that down a little further. The dog is faced with a choice. Initially it chooses of its own free will. Later it chooses a specific way because it’s being incentivized to by an outside entity. Lastly it simply stops choosing. What once was a choice is now a reaction.

Who tries to pet the Koopas anymore?

Games are very powerful tools for training and conditioning responses from their players. It’s why the armed forces all over the world use battlefield simulators based on video games. Most people learn and are trained best through performing actions, through interaction and through reward structures.

Variable ratio reward structures aren’t the only methods that designers can use to condition player behaviour, though it is the one I’m most familiar with. I’ve also heard reports of games that take advantage of social conditioning theories. One that I read this week (but can’t locate at this minute) detailed a micro-transaction driven MMO whose top-selling items were an item that allowed one player to publically shame another and a second item that protected players from the effects of the first item. Through the design system a system not unlike a protection racket has developed with the only real beneficiary being the developer/publisher making the micro-transaction revenue. Is this a less ethical way to design an MMO? I think so. There may be many more examples of game mechanics whose effects on their players aren’t currently well understood and I think it is worth all designers attempting to view their design mechanics through an ‘ethical lens’ and considering carefully what effects they are having on the players that interact with them.

Just because a player is playing your game over and over doesn’t mean that it is necessarily enriching their life. If games are a far more powerful medium for shaping behaviour than film, music or literature, as seems almost certain, then with that power comes a responsibility. We have to make sure that we, as designers are aware of the behaviours we are shaping and why and, if we want to treat our players as ends rather than means we owe it to them to avoid shaping their behaviour negatively. It becomes our responsibility to avoid wasting their time and money.

Next time I’ll try to talk about something more silly.

Behaviourist Game Design

I spend a lot of time thinking about the ethics of game systems and how to make my game systems something that reward and delight intrinsically. Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of designers don’t tend to think like this when making games. I suspect some wouldn’t even consider that mechanics could have a moral dimension.

It seems to me that the very interactivity of games that makes them so compelling also makes considering their ethical dimension more vital. Every game is a system that you interact with; listening to and responding to your actions in a certain way. While the game is responding to you, you are responding back to it even if you don’t realise it. Every game is teaching your brain something, every game is a dialogue with its player.

It worries me that this power of games to teach and train their players is either not understood or being wilfully misused for commercial gain. It doesn’t strike me as ethical to train a player to want to do something that they wouldn’t want to do in the absence of an external reward.

One particular example that always sticks with me is how closely the reward system of item drops in most modern roguelike games closely mirrors psychological research on the most effective methods to encourage repeated human (and animal) behaviour. By which I mean they could train mice to hit buttons over and over again by rewarding them in a certain way for this behaviour, even though the mouse would never normally perform that action. Behaviourist psychologists spent a long time analyzing which type of reinforcement strategy was most effective in conditioning animals to respond how they wanted:


As you can see the ‘best’ schedule on that graph is labelled ‘VR’ or variable reinforcement where a reward is given not every time an action is performed but at a random time conforming to an average. Wikipedia describes it thusly:

# Variable ratio (VR) schedules deliver reinforcement after a random number of responses (based upon a predetermined average)

* Example: VR3 = on average, every third response is reinforced
* Lab example: VR10 = on average, a rat is reinforced for each 10 bar presses
* Real world example: VR37/VR38 = a roulette player betting on specific numbers will win on average once every 37 or 38 tries, depending on whether the wheel has a 00 slot.

Which is also exactly how the random drops work in a roguelike such as Diablo or World of Warcraft. Its no wonder that people will spend hours grinding for loot if their brains are conditioned to do so by the most efficient reward system that we know of. Does this mean that they are actually having a good time? They might be, but they might also just say that they had a good time after the fact. Another psychological effect causes us to post fact self-justify the amount of time we spend performing any action because we never like to believe we are wasting our precious resources of time and money.

Whether designers are doing this deliberately or subconciously I believe its damaging to the people who play these games and obscures what is otherwise often excellent craftsmanship and polish in their production. There can be excellent intrinsically rewarding game design built up around this core unethical mechanic but that conditioning mechanic is still there lurking at the centre.

I believe that we need to be increasingly aware of the physchological effects of the games we design and how these effects can have an ethical dimension

Jesse Schell also believes in the power that psychology in games has to shape behaviour. He recently gave an interesting talk at DICE on where this future is likely to lead, which originally prompted this post. He puts a somewhat more positive spin on it than I despite describing a dystpian future where watching more advertising becomes a game that awards points.:

Jesse Schell’s DICE talk

More in tune with my negativity on where this practice will lead is Sirlin:

External Rewards and Jesse Schell’s Amazing Lecture

Who finishes his discussion of Jesse Schell’s speech with this warning:

I urge you to be vigilant against external rewards. Brush your teeth because it fights tooth decay, not because you get points for it. Read a book because it enriches your mind, not because your Kindle score goes up. Play a game because it’s intellectually stimulating or relaxing or challenging or social, not because of your Xbox Live Achievement score. Jesse Schell’s future is coming. How resistant are you to letting others manipulate you with hollow external rewards?

All of which also harkens back to a great talk done by Jon Blow a few years ago which you can find the slides and audio for here:

Design Reboot at Montreal International Games Summit 2007

In which he famously likens World of Warcraft to Mc’Donalds.