Ethics and Game Design: Are They Like Oil And Water?

Can the gaming industry grow and prosper without compromising ethics?

I had the opportunity to attend a very interesting roundtable at GDC 2018 presented by IGDA. The event was called Professional Ethics for Game Designers and was hosted by Sande Chen, Writers Guild Award and Grammy-nominated Writer and Game Designer (you should check out her interesting review of the event, by the way).

The roundtable beckoned readers to voice an opinion “as to whether or not game designers need a professional code of ethics much like the Hippocratic oath for doctors.” Here is the event description:

“With gaming disorder a mental health concern, do game designers have an obligation to refrain what would be considered ‘exploitative design,’ that is, game design that takes advantage of player addictions and/or mental defects?”

I expected to leave that event with some sort of consensus. What I really wanted was to see a core of game designers starting a movement that could culminate with a positive change in the industry. After all, we’ve seen similar movements on adjacent industries such as Social Media, where industry luminaries and even former Facebook executives complained about the addictive nature of social media (even implicating themselves). We’ve also seen organizations such as the Center for Humane Technology which was created to demonstrate how this technology could be used for good.

[Read our article about Social Media and Depression]

However, it seems that the gaming industry hasn’t reached that stage of enlightenment yet. Sadly, the roundtable ended with no consensus. What we saw instead was gamers split into three groups, which I have categorized:

  1. The Concerned: Game designers very concerned with the wellbeing of players, and with addiction and its consequences.
  2. The Skeptics: Those that were refusing to see the danger that games could cause. They attempted to blur the lines between an engaging experience with an addictive one.
  3. The Pragmatists: Those who took a more profit-driven focus. This group believes that exploiting addictions and vulnerabilities is the nature of the industry, and that those who refuse to do so will be less competitive.

Prisoner’s Dilemma

What I realized after leaving the event is that the industry is facing what is called a Prisoner’s Dilemma, which is a psychological experiment that tests self-interest. Basically, if two criminals betray each other, they each receive two years in prison. If one betrays the other, the betrayer walks free while the betrayed gets the maximum sentence of three years. If they cooperate, they each receive only one year on lesser charges. The criminals must make this decision without any knowledge of what the other will do.

Game designers seem to be faced with a similar dilemma, and few are willing to cooperate. They want to betray each other (and their consumers by proxy) by making their games more addictive than their competitors’. The harsh consequence they would receive by the betrayal of their competitor would be loss of revenue or even their company’s economic viabilities. Alternatively, game designers could cooperate and do what’s in the best interest of everyone involved.

Choosing to betray one another and continuing to design games to be more and more addictive can lead to very frightening consequences (such as the kid who had a seizure in China after playing the mobile game, Honour of Kings, for 40 straight hours). If something like that becomes the norm, it is likely that there will eventually be social pressure for the government to step in. The outcome could be harsh limits imposed by laws, which could mean compliance costs that will only benefit large corporations that can absorb those costs.

Professor Ian Schreiber, from Rochester, NY, talks about these potential government limitations, mentioning that gridlocked US politicians looking to score easy political points with their constituents could do so by regulating loot boxes (we will talk more about them below). “It is an easy bipartisan political win that’s almost sure to happen in the near future,” says Schreiber. He pointed out that the gaming industry must work on self-regulation, and take a proactive role to stop psychological exploitation of users before it’s too late. Using the Honour of Kings case again, the Chinese government stepped in by setting a strict 1-hour-a-day limit on gaming for kids 12 years old and younger.

But Pragmatists and Skeptics don’t see it this way, so they don’t see the need to self-regulate. They tend to view it as a simple supply and demand scenario, firmly believing that if they don’t offer this addictive service, someone else will.

It’s really no different than when criminals justify their actions by claiming that they hold no personal responsibility for providing a service that people demand. You hear this over and over in movies, usually when a criminal is caught by the good guy and justifies his actions by claiming he is just one among many, a cog in the machine. “If I don’t sell, some other drug dealer will. People are looking for this anyway.”

In real life, many famous gangsters used similar lines. Otto Berman, an accountant for the mafia in the 1930s coined the phrase “Nothing personal, it’s just business”. By ignoring the wellbeing of its players, aren’t game designers ultimately subscribing to this idea as well?

Or maybe, Pragmatist game designers prefer a quote from another mobster from the 1930’s called Lucky Luciano (he ordered Berman’s death, by the way). His phrase was “There’s no such thing as good money or bad money.There’s just money.”

Personally, I think it’s really hard for game designers to argue that they’re not only in it for profit, especially when you consider another topic we discussed at the roundtable: video games and gambling. It turns out that there are a lot of disturbing similarities between the two.

Loot boxes and gambling

Take for example loot boxes. For those who don’t know what loot boxes are, they are treasure chests with random items. Players do not know what’s in loot boxes, and the chances of finding valuable items inside them are very low. Players can buy more loot boxes with real money, and are incentivized to do so, with the promise of huge payoffs, just like in casinos. The difference is that, with technology, game designers can actually personalize the payoffs depending on the individual player’s appetite for risk and reward, maximize their attractiveness. As Robert de Niro’s character in the movie, Casino, says: “In the casino, the cardinal rule is to keep them playing and to keep them coming back. The longer they play, the more they lose, and in the end, we get it all.”

Some countries, such as Belgium, are already classifying loot boxes as gambling. In the UK, regulators admitted that “the line between video gaming and gambling is becoming increasingly blurred”, but have not made any moves to classify loot boxes as gambling. Here in the US, some regulators are increasing the scrutiny over loot boxes, but the practice is still permitted. It doesn’t help that ESRB, the self-regulatory organization founded by gaming companies, considers loot boxes to be no different than any other paid content, refusing to classify it as gambling. For me, ESRB is just another Skeptic, and is being willingly blind to the negative effects this feature could have on children.

To add to the pile of evidence that game mechanics are inspired by gambling, Consider that video game companies use the term “whale” to define a user who spends lots of money on virtual items. The same term is used for casino players who bet (and lose) great sums. And, like in casinos, game companies focus their marketing efforts to extract the most from those whales.

And like gambling, video games can be extremely addictive. But many Skeptics tend to use misleading language to convolute the argument and blur the line between what is compelling and what is addicting. For example, Aaron Marshall, a video game designer from LA summarizes how Skeptics think: “Video games are akin to most legal products and pastimes today. They can be responsibly consumed, or they can be abused. We do not condemn books because an avid reader is spending an irresponsible amount of time reading fiction novels. Why should video games be singled out when a player is playing too much?”

His point is valid, but I would argue that his conclusion is false. If someone reads so much that her life is affected, that person should seek “rehab,” just like any other addiction. In fact, there are rehabilitation facilities for digital addiction. But the reality is that children don’t spend that much time reading — less than 30 minutes a day. However, they do spend many hours per day on screens. According to Common Sense Media, even kids as young as 0 to 8 years spend over 2 hours a day on screens. According to another study from Common Sense media, for tweens (8–12 years old), this time triples to almost 6 hours a day on average. Teenagers (13–18 years old) spend an astonishing 9 hours per day interacting with screens.

However, it turns out that there is a scientifically measurable difference between a desire to play a video game, and an addiction to video games. With a focus on internet games, the North American Psychiatric Association (APA) has defined this addiction as Internet Gaming Disorder. It is disturbingly similar to gambling addiction (which is the only recognized addiction besides substance addiction). It basically states that a person is addicted to gaming if it interferes with other aspects of their lives and the pursuit of their goals.

Game Addiction and Cigarette Addiction

No discussion of addiction would be complete without mentioning tobacco, and some Pragmatists are not even embarrassed to make the connection between gaming and tobacco. Take for instance how this game publisher shamelessly recommends the use of celebrity endorsements: “For generations, celebrity power has been used to sell everything from soda and cigarettes”.

But there were also Concerned participants who made the same connection between gaming and smoking, specifically pointing to how some gaming companies employ similar practices used by the tobacco industry in the past. And gaming isn’t the only industry that is faced with these issues, nor is it the only industry where people are concerned with the effect that these tactics are having on children. For example, at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff was interviewed and voiced his concerns. Later on, he made the following statement via Twitter:

But again, we see the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Do game designers betray each other in a never ending cycle, continuing to make video games more and more addictive in an effort to stay ahead of the curve? Or will we eventually see an era where the industry cooperates to create better, safer games? The biggest question is whether or not game designers would be willing to potentially lose some profit in order to self-regulate.

Professor Schreiber summarized this dilemma well, saying: “If the goal of game designers is to maximize the revenue a game brings, creating addictive experiences might be required”. He added, saying, “Trying to ethically monetize a game might impact the company’s profits.”.

Solving the Dilemma

But what if there were a way for Concerned game designers to create non-addictive experiences, without abandoning the goal of maximizing monetary profit? Well, there is.

Saferize offers a way for designers to eliminate this trade-off between profit and ethics. By implementing our SDK, apps have an area specific to parents, so they can set up controls such as screen time. To have access to those controls, parents pay Saferize a monthly subscription that is shared with the app publisher. While parents get the tools to effectively curb digital addiction for their children, game designers are incentivized to implement our software, since they receive extra revenue from Saferize. It’s truly a win for everyone involved.

We hope that Concerned game designers and publishers embrace our vision, so kids have a balanced life, enjoying games without succumbing to addiction. If you are a game designer, or app publisher,, please visit Saferize to learn more. Or feel free to send our site to anyone you know who may be interested.

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