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The Ethics of Game Design

November 19, 2010

From 2004, this clear and insightful article by Gamasutra’s Dean Takahashi explores the emergence of ethical concerns in game development and the delicate balancing of entertainment and responsibility.

“When it comes to the ethical choices that game developers make when they decide what to put into their creations, they face the same moral issues that artists in any other communications medium face. They must struggle with balancing their rights to free expression with the tastes of consumers and be concerned about the effects their content has on their audience. While it’s easy for games to enlighten and enliven the human experience, they are still a form of media and expression, and thus possessed of the ability to influence those that play them

But because videogames are a newer medium, game designers are still struggling with what kind of ethics code they should adopt. Legally, games qualify as a form of expression that is protected under the First Amendment. In a recent court case in Washington, a judge tossed out a state law that restricted the sales of M-rated games to minors, particularly games that depicted violence against law-enforcement officers. The judge noted that games qualified as speech, but he also noted how ridiculous it would be to try to sort out whether violence against law enforcement occurs in games such as Age of Empires, in which Roman centurions might be interpreted as law enforcers.

Value judgments about which games are unethical depend on the eye of the beholder. And the gravity of the debate depends on what games really are. If they are just a form of entertainment, then they need not pay more attention to ethics than movies do. If they are works of art, then they should be held to higher standards. In other words, it is the design goals themselves that put ethical limits on game designers. “Discussing ethics and morals is a tricky subject, as the terms are very vague and slippery,” says Jason Della Rocca, program director of the International Game Developers Association. “Each person’s definition of what is ethical changes.”

Download the full article here

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