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Andrew Phelps Andrew Phelps is an assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in Rochester, NY. He is the founding faculty member of the Game Programming Concentration within the Department of Information Technology and his work in games programming education has been featured in The New York Times,, USA Today, National Public Radio, and other publications. Email:
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September 13, 2004

Ethics in Computer Game Content?

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Posted by Andrew Phelps

I posed this question to my graduate class last year: "Does the games industry have an ethical obligation to produce less violent and/or addictive content?"

Not one of them said yes. Zero. I found that astounding. I don't really have an extended entry for this yet, I'm still mulling this over (a year later) trying to come to grips with it: I thought for sure there would be people on both sides of the issue - I've informally asked more students that I see, and *every single one of them so far* has said basically 'no, the games industry can do whatever it wants'.

I guess I feel sometimes that just because they can doesn't mean they should. I am saddened that so far I haven't found anyone in the younger than 30 player-base that agrees with me, and I'm wondering where the moral technological compass went. Perhaps it's all at the feet of Napster, the Greek God of Piracy, our ethical obligations in technology creation went right out the window. Seems to me if the games industry ever wants to shake off the shackle of its own stereotype, it has to do something about this issue (and no, I am dead-set against Congress trying to legislate the morality of video games - I am interested in the industry itself deciding for itself what it thinks is right). I've seen presentations of games at GDC where the *authors* of a game go red-faced and mumble about a games content.

Knowing that kids are dropping out of real-life society to slave against your MMORPG for 65 hours a week - sure, I agree, that's horrid parenting - but as a designer wouldn't you feel just a *twinge* of guilt designing that level ladder and reward spacing? Design to the hard-core and let the others bang their heads seems to be the motto of the day, with the exception of Call of Heroes. Final Fantasy XI stuck some warnings about remembering friends and family at the login, and that's interesting, if only for the sentiment.

I am just awestruck at the results. If you have a class, or access to folks under 25, see what they think. Hopefully it is just my microcosm.

EDIT: For related stuffs, see "Manhunt to Mortal Kombat: The Use of Violence in Video Games" by Steven L. Kent in this months Game Developer Magazine.

Comments (14) | Category:


1. Gerard Whyte on September 13, 2004 6:55 PM writes...

"Does the games industry have an ethical obligation to produce less violent and/or addictive content?"

Well, I'm 21 and a recent graduate and can answer yes, of course they have an ethical obligation. But I don't believe that there are very many ethical people in the industry. :-P Certainly not in the huge success stories....that's a worrying thought, to be successful do you have be unethical and ensure that there is a an overly addictive element in the game or cater to the ultraviolent desires of the adolescent boy?? I remain hopeful, that there's a larger market out there than just that niche and I can remain ethical. *grins*

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2. Colin Brayton on September 14, 2004 3:50 PM writes...

Ethical obligations don't have much weight in business, but organized customer rebellions do. Consider the case of a Microsoft-developed game that offended Muslim sensibilities, drew fire from the Saudi government, and had to be written off. Cluelessness has long been a serious problem for companies who think they can export content to new markets without examining the cultural characteristics of that content. Think of the famous story (apocryphal, it turns out) of the Chevy Nova in Mexico. In Spanish, "No va" means "It doesn't go/run/work."

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3. Bas Burger on September 14, 2004 5:36 PM writes...

The problem with the modern human being is that instead of trying to see a different point of view and place itself into another person, they think they need all living space and only to back off when told to (if you are lucky).

This is not solely something that has to do with the games industry but is valid for every day life.

I am afraid this has to do with our over population and the feeling that some of us (more and more however) have that if they did not try to take all living space they can that they get nothing out of life.

Morals and Ethics are not a hardcoded fact of our universe but shifts along with the circomstances that people live in.

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4. James Fischer on September 14, 2004 11:52 PM writes...

Your concerns are best addressed as

There's lots of comedy on television.
Does that cause comedy in the streets?

Disclaimer, I neither play, design, nor
worry endlessly over comuper games.
But I'll kick your butt in Scrabble any day.

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5. Charlie Nixon on September 15, 2004 9:03 PM writes...

Hi. Just a visitor to your site (looks pretty good so far). Your post raises an interesting question, but it's far from clear why code of ethics for video games would include such prohibitions in the first place. Why would Video Games, specifically need, an ethical code that would be far more restrictive that any other medium? Another poster pointed out that the link between violent images and violent behaviour is tenuous. And how do you avoid "addictive" content? By making it boring? Can you think of any really good book, album, movie, or tv show that didn't, at least partially, fit into the addictive category? I've seen every sydicated episode of The Simpsons about 50 times and I've never wished that they were less funny. In my view, Video Games are the same as any other artistic medium, and so are probably better served by not having a set of rules that restrict what is and isn't appropriate.

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6. Andy on September 16, 2004 1:33 PM writes...

I'd actually agree with that. That's why I am dead-set against having Joe Lieberman or any other Congressperson attempt legislation to dictate the content of computer games.

At the same time, I think the industry may find itself backed into a corner of diminishing social acceptance if it does not begin to place some (very loose) guidelines upon itself. If I am designing a game that I know is going to be played by primarily grade-school children, should I construct the level such that it takes 3-4 hours per session in order to acheive any kind of reasonable reward? That's more the kind of thing I am interested in - if you know that what you are doing has an effect, do you modify what you are doing? Addiction is fine: but look at the modern spy novel: its fairly well chunked into pieces you can digest one night at a time (if you read before bed like a lot of people do). Sure, you can stay up all night and finish the thing and drag into work the next morning - but the *option* was there of using the little 30-40 page chapters. Why can't I have a reasonable play experience in an hour or two, instead of having to adjust my whole evening to a six hour session?

I don't propose to say I am "right" with this, I'm just pointing out what I consider to be an interesting issue - whether or not the industry will accept some form of responsibility for the clear social impact that gaming is having upon the world.

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7. Todd Hopkinson on September 16, 2004 9:57 PM writes...

I am not quite yet 30, though fast approaching. I have had a love of video games since I was 7 or so years old.

I think that any producer who has a product that cators largely to youth and children, by every means has an ethical obligation to the society in which he or she lives, and in which his or her products may have an influence, to be responsible.

I say ethical, not legal. Inasmuch as producers fail in their responsibility, then it should hold equally well that parents and responsible members of society then have their own ethical obligation to its members to take the irresponsible to task over, to address the problem and act to convince the producer to take a higher road, or choose to refuse to purchase the systems upon which such games run. The problem is of course that too often parents are unaware of what is hidden in the attractive packaging and alluring graphics delivered to their children. I'd wager that if most parents could magically have revealed to them a true understanding of what kinds of activities their children were virtually vicariously participating in, the game industry would be transformed overnight.

There is a shared ethical responsibility. Of course it is up to responsible parents and members of a community or society to make their voices heard and be influential in ways that will discourage irresponsible and unethical productions. That does not take away producers freedom to do so, nor the ethical responsibility, but discourages irresponsible practices for the benefit of the young and impressionable.

As an example, in the same way that Microsoft XBOX does not issue license for porno producers to develop porn games (though that might be argueable), if enough responsible individuals would make their voices heard, machine manufacturers for one would be less ready to issue license to other questionable productions.

My belief is that the quality of games will steadily increase with the voluntary adherence to higher standards, since cheap thrills and gimmicks will no longer be such selling points. Where innovation is rewarded, rather than the cheap thrill, it will thrive.

For the good of the state of gaming, for the good of the young and impressionable, and for the good of everyone in general, a judicious use of ethical responsibility in game production just makes plain sense.

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8. kyle hunter on September 19, 2004 1:48 PM writes...

"Does the games industry have an ethical obligation to produce less violent and/or addictive content?"

Less violent/addictive than what?
Ethical obligation? What does that mean?
Lastly, what is the "gaming industry?"

Let's suppose we have answered the above questions (and the other obvious ones). The purpose of the game industry is to make money by supplying a legal product to a customer base which seeks that product. The industry has NO obligation to change it's legal activities to satisfy the desires of a non-customer base ie, the complainers.

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9. Jussi on September 19, 2004 5:34 PM writes...

"The purpose of the game industry is to make money by supplying a legal product to a customer base which seeks that product."

I think this is our problem. We think that only purpose of our work is to make money. If its legal you can forget the ethics and morale. Just money.

The crazy thing is that we don't see anything wrong with it.

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10. Dr. Cat on September 26, 2004 10:23 PM writes...

Where to begin? "ethical obligation" - personally, I think ethics aren't necessarily "obligatory" in all cases. "Don't kill anyone" is probably something society should consider obligatory. "Giving some money to a worthy charity leaves society a little better off than if you choose not to" might be more like a "good suggestion" than an "obligation", in my view. Your actual viewpoint may vary.

"addiction" - I think being addicted to something healthy and positive might be a good thing. Addicted to reading, excercise, your job, food, breathing, sex, teaching, to a reasonable degree, can be just fine. Though excesses can and do exist in any of those too... I would still look favorably on a new piece of excercise equipment or sport that some people get "too hooked on", if most people are gaining more benefit than harm from it. "Hooked on going up levels" isn't very beneficial to people, but "hooked on socializing" just might be.

But the most interesting point to nitpick about the way you ask the question is that you ask about "the industry" as a whole, rather than specifically about an individual working in it. Both are valid things to ask. In my view, should the entirety of the industry be expected to produce only beneficial (and/or neutral) works, or only addictive games full of sex, violence, and/or whatever else society disapproves of this decade? No, like in movies, TV, radio, books, magazines, or any other media, I expect "the industry" to give me a mixture of treasures and trash. At minimum, I might support a statement like "the industry is 'ethically obligated' (or perhaps 'ethics says it's a better idea) to produce SOME games that are positive, helpful, and/or beneficial, among those it may produce that are not".

That sets the backdrop for the question "Is an individual game developer ethically obligated, in an industry that's going to produce both good and bad, to try to make some of the 'good'?" I'll state first off that in my career, I've probably done some of both. I worked on some of the games in the Ultima series (that old single-player series with 9 games in it, not the MMORPG that seems to be the only Ultima these kids today ever heard of), which was noted for its attention to moral and ethical dilemnas. I also worked on some video slot machines. (Though they're for Indians, and maybe it's "moral" to help them take money from us white people to make up for everything we took from them when we came here! That's mostly a joke when I say that - though I'm not sure it's entirely a joke.) My latest game, Furcadia, focuses mainly on socializing, creativity, sharing what you make with other people, making friends, roleplaying, etc. And there's no combat or monsters to kill at all. So I consider it a net positive. But all of this has been my personal choice.

Is an individual developer "obligated" to choose to work on one of the more positive, socially beneficial games, rather than "Foreverquest" or "Nuke-Blastem 3.0" or what have you? (Setting aside the question that they might not be able to find a job working on the type of game they wish - they can at least try.) I say no. If we take as given not only that the industry will produce a mix, but that it is ok for the industry to do so... Then in my view, those parts of the industry that are producing the "negative" games are the result of individuals making a choice that's ok to make. Further, I'd say that if an industry was producing all bad, or mostly bad content, it's not necessarily the obligation of those making bad content to "change" themselves, and in any case it's more practical to expect new people to come along and increase the amount of good stuff that way. Some people genuinely think the "bad" stuff they're making is "good". Reasonable opinions do vary. Others simply don't care and would rather exploit shamelessly to get cash. They won't be making the "good games" very effectively if they try, either. Others might like to make something educational, uplifting, or what-have-you, but simply don't have the right kind of ideas, inspiration, or talent to do so. I wouldn't look to a shlocky B-movie director to raise the level of quality of the film industry, nor would I look to the makers of violent addictive games to "feel shame and reform" and make a wave of "art film" type games.

There will be occasional exceptions, people who can make almost ANY kind of game and do it well. But for the most part, I look for game designers, or book authors, to "follow their passion" and create the kind of works that excite them the most to make. And THEN I look to the public to "filter" the industry by buying a lot of the stuff it wants, and not much of the stuff it doesn't want.

If the public wants a lot of stuff that's bad for it, and not much stuff that's good for it... That's a Big Problem. And one it's not easy to find the solution for. I think this problem exists to a great extent, for example, in modern television news. But I do think there's a large demand for games that do us some good in one way or another. And when people make games that satisfy more of those demands in future, some of them will be rewarded by the marketplace. Time will tell. But I was heartened to hear the statistics from GameTrust, when they polled gamers (including a LOT of "casual gamers") on "why do you choose to play this particular game". 40% said "to win". 43% said "to relax". And 17% said "to socialize."

43% plus 17% makes 60% of that audience. Those are the people I'm going after these days, and I'm glad of it. :X)

-- Dr. Cat

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11. Dr. Dog on September 26, 2004 10:47 PM writes...

Absolutely correct, Cat.

Good job.

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12. A1C J. K. Coffman on September 26, 2004 11:05 PM writes...

Many people have touched on the "gaming industry's" responsibility, existent or not, to develop products that cater to the ethical constraints of the moral majority.

However, there is a lack of attention to what is, in my own opinion, a key point of this whole debate: The end user. You. The consumer.

The end user has more responsibility than any person, group, or industry to filter out what that specific individual would consider to be unwanted content. If you walk into your local software retailer and see Doom III or some similiar violent game on the shelves, you, as the consumer, have the right and obligation to make an active decision as to whether or not you will purchase that product. If your objections to the product are that strong, simply don't buy it! The amount of bad publicity that the gaming industry receives is obscene.

My point? The vocal objectors to the aforementioned game software, as well as any other controversial entertainment, don't realize that the gaming industry is only one half of the equation. Everyone has the right and the mental ability to make a conscious choice: Buy it, or don't. If your child is under age, then it is the parent's responsibility to make that choice in the best interests of their child. The gaming industry is doing what Hugh Hefner did when he founded 'Playboy Magazine' by issuing entertainment material that appeals to a certain portion of the masses, namely the male demographic, to do what is the basis of American economy: Make a profit. Is it Hugh Hefner's job to decide how many nipples to show? Absolutely not. It is the consumer's job to decide whether or not to buy his magazine. Is it the gaming industry's job to decide how much blood to show? Same answer, no. It's your job to decide whether or not to buy the game.

I sincerely hope that everyone comes to realize the power of human choice, and stop placing the blame on corporations.

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13. Talzhemir on September 27, 2004 6:15 AM writes...

>>>> "Is it Hugh Hefner's job to decide how many nipples to show? Absolutely not."
--A1C J. K. Coffman

Job, no. But, responsibility as a human being, to consider what it would do to society, yes. And that this is the kind of thing he thinks about, I have no doubt- for over twenty-five years, the Playboy Foundation has given out the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Awards, for achievements in freedom.

>>>> "I sincerely hope that everyone comes to realize the power of human choice, and stop placing the blame on corporations."
--A1C J. K. Coffman

The corporations *are* sometimes at fault, so it is entirely sensible to blame them. They sometimes deserve to be fined, regulated, or stopped altogether. Human beings have the right to protection from businesses.

The power of human choice is extremely limited. It is only human choice channeled into an institution that is meaningful.

Big Tobacco was only stopped by government intervention. That intervention was accomplished in the face of billions of dollars of spending to keep cigarettes legal.

It was not stopped by me refusing to buy any cigarettes. People cannot, as individuals, protect themselves, and that has nothing to do with "standing up for themselves."

It makes sense to hold corporations accountable for what they do, after they've done it. Given that, it make sense for employees to take responsibility for knowing what they're about to do.


That the young people you interviewed don't think they have any ethical
responsibility doesn't surprise me. Situational
ethics isn't taught in most schools. The concept
itself has been villified, a buzzword for evil
(much the way the word "rhetoric", which ought to
mean "clear and reasoned speech", has been twisted
into "using words we don't understand to trick us.").
Lots of teens I've talked to thought that situational
ethics was a fad, a philosophy in which "it's all
good, everything is okay, you just have to look at
it the right way".

Software creators I spoke to in the late 90's swiftly
dismissed the possibility that software might have a
negative effect on people. Here is their reasoning
(I'm paraphrasing, of course, but they invariably
mentioned television).

"I watched alot of television while I grew up.
Older people said that would do bad things but
I think I turned out okay.
Therefore, computer games are harmless."

Back then, there were no studies (sample size too
small and not enough time to tell), but now, I think
we're seeing some answers. A web search can turn
up what psychologists have learned about the subject.
For example:

In response to "info-shock" I am teaching as many
people as I can, "You have the right to accuracy."
That covers why it's not okay to tell a lie as well
as why they should support the philosophy of science.
I'm spreading the idea that, even if you cannot tell if
someone's data is accurate, you can, with a modest bit of education, make a
judgment about their methodology.

I used to think 'ethics' was something only generals, judges,
and other authority figures had to worry about, and the
only ethical choices I was going to make were things like,
"Paper or plastic?". I had the mistaken impression that
the common person's ethical choices don't amount to much,
that it's the high-and-mighties who really have the power,
and so, THEY should be making the decisions.

We're societally functioning on an ethical basis based on
a myth of "sameness" but, as a species, we've changed.
Individuals are professionally specialized and may carry on
with that specialization for potentially 9 decades.
Different people have wildly different abilities. And,
that means that our ethical obligations vary wildly.

Most people don't have an obligation to create ethical
software because they can't create software. So, why
should the software designer be functioning under some
special new restrictions?

This myth of sameness needs to be dispelled; its purpose
has been served but we need something more. "Do unto
others as ye would have them do unto you", assumes
we all need and want the same things, and that
our responsibilities are all alike too.

Everyday living brings major ethical choices that
are different for different individuals.

The fast-food corporation worker has to decide if it's
right to be promoting liver damage (see the movie
"Supersize Me"). The television station employee has
the obligation to decide if it's right to pass off
biased media as journalism with an aim of being
objective (see the movie "Out Foxed"). The soldier
has to decide if it's right to point a gun at thousands
of innocent civilians in Iraq (see the movies
"Fahrenheit 9-11" and "Control Room").

[i][b]People are very confused today.[/i][/b] A common
response to these ethical dilemas is to throw up
one's hands and say, "I was just following orders."
A major source of this moral abdication for many
is religion. Most religions are institution
based on release from personal responsibility in
favor of following orders. If a religion has no
position on a particular subject then any answer
is as good as the next; it's just a matter of personal
freedom and taste (is a common view).

Personal responsibility has been replaced by an accent on
obedience. Whether you're doing the right thing is being
judged by whether or not you're doing what you were told
to do. As a result, ethical responsibility has been
replaced by "If it's legal, it's okay."

Rather than learn situational ethics, and how to
apply ethical principles, many people today try
to live by a rules-based paradigm. We teach young
children rules to live by 'rules' but older children
must learn to live by 'principles' instead. Adults
lead complex lives and need complex problem-solving
tools. Through the villification of situational
ethics, a lot of people in our society
are being kept in perpetual toddlerhood.

It's resulting in the abdication of responsibility.

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14. Michael on October 6, 2004 7:28 AM writes...

As you have a definite opinion on this matter and you think it is important isn't it your obligation as a teacher to help students see things from your point of view?

Lots of examples exist of businesses that have addicted people as a way to make money. Take the British who sold opium to the Chinese as one example. Take the tobacco industry as another. Wouldn't it be interesting for your students to hear how these people rationalized their decisions?

Will videogames fall into a similar category as opium and tobacco someday? It certainly has the potential, given what we are learning about attention, brain chemistry, and making content sticky.

And no, I would argue that businesses don't have any ethical responsibilities. Ethical responsibilities should be the concern of human beings that run a business.

A business is a fictional person that never dies unless people take action to kill it. How can we expect or demand that an undying fictional person act ethically?

Personally, I am with your students. Businesses shouldn't be expected to act ethically. People, on the other hand, should always be encouraged to act ethically especially by their teachers. If not by their teachers, then by whom?

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