Ethics in Videogames Workshop

Jose P. Zagal presenting, but Karen Schrier (Columbia University) and Miguel Sicart (IT University of Copenagen) helped proposed it.

This was quite cool – and I wish it got wrapped up properly. Needed perhaps more discussion on the fact there is designed ethics (which may or may not match players expectations) and player-made moral situations which designers don’t set up intentionally – there is never enough of the latter except in multiplayer games. The discussions were good and I didn’t even write half of what people were bringing up in any depth.


Ethics of Videogames, not Philosophers!


– Little sisters
– Other players in a multiplayer game

Open Ethical Design

Usually MMO’s where players can define their own code of conduct and behaviour.

Eve Online is a different type to Toon Town, since Eve is harsh – you lose something, through stealing or otherwise, you can’t get it back. Toontown is highly moderated since it is a kids game. A Tale in the Desert allows a great degree of control.

Social experience games such as Rock Band and DDR, where social aspects are more important can have some of this – the level of difficulty to use etc.

Two flavours:

Open System Design

Jedi Knight basically gives you good or bad powers, but no changes to the plot.

Open World Design

The world and plot can be altered by the players actions.

Black and White – buildings change, powers change in the game when you choose to do things.

Deus Ex – more typical game story changes based on points in the game.

Can have a game with both designs.

Closed Ethical Design

Game provides a value of ethical actions. Must accept the values as a player to enjoy the games experience – sort of like suspension of disbelief.

Basically which force a certain ethical type of game – Manhunt, Grand Theft Auto, Super Columbine Massacre – all force you to play these people and can’t choose what to do.

Super Columbine Massacre – people felt bad doing it, which was the point, especially considering it happened in real life.

There is also enforcing ethical design – such as Ultima IV Quest of the Avatar, which requires you to be certain virtues, so can’t steal but should give to the poor and so on, forcing you to be good.

Again two subtypes:

(Closed) Subtracting Design

Player subtly feels bad about doing something – Shadow of the Colossus killing the big monsters, and at the end you realize you’ve been doing the wrong thing and you’re the bad guy. You think “What have these creatures done?” being so peaceful. You interpret them as evil, but instead it’s the other way around and the player is evil.

(Closed) Mirroring Design

Has a strong relationship between player and character actions. Manhunt doesn’t provide a reward for doing the highest level execution (except if you play after reading an FAQ for the small amount of rewards around). Why did the player go over the top to kill the person?

Ultima IV – you need to ask “Why” you do an action such as opening a chest and taking gold from a random villager.

Question – Isn’t it also the intention of the developer? The question of intention if they want to make the action feel bad.

– We’re discussing what the player feels, rather then what the developer intended. Super Columbine Massacre was made as a self-therapy game where it was later released. It has an effect on it, but not the topic – although examples like RapeLay might be just bad examples of the above types.

Group discussion on the ethical choice examples.


First was limitations of choices, frustratingly limited such as committing Genocide in Mass Effect was a yes/no choice with no real reaction. The Sims also could emulate the wise-18-years-in-basement situation except the Sim will enjoy it (no windows etc.), perhaps because they don’t know any different.

World of Warcraft has a ethical choice at the end of a quest line where you have not even working for the two main sides but a third faction who comes in and kills them all (including heroes that might want to help both factions!) – constantly reminded since the area changed due to the choice. There is however no real reason not to do the quest since it’s another quest line and you ignore the innocent bunnies dying to get to level 80. A little twist since there is no choice if you start it too, only choice is not to play. Duped into it. You don’t get a chance to redeem yourself later on either. Also no one really saying what the quest line is from other players. Those little hints of odd things happening you don’t question it since it flows along, and face the consequences later. Lots of desensitizing especially if playing Horde from previous quests. You can only not play too – not complain it is not ethical. It is closed ethical design, but if the player senses it they can’t do anything about it. The option is between having the experience and just stopping and not, most will likely choose the experience, or at least interesting to see how many would stop. The rewards are also not massive – experience and items are available elsewhere.

Interesting ethical action when a funeral procession for a real-life death happened, and the enemy side attacked – a in-game sound military decision perhaps. The enemy posted videos of it online though, so you have to wonder about their intentions.

Kinkou is abstract ethical choices (shapes being there to move, destroy, merge and change colour) which could be biological survival, ideas, or anything else. Uses the terms “killing” and “making” (personally I think this swings the ideas to a very specific area!). Question is when is diversity good? The idea behind it is to keep the balance.

(Our personal contribution we didn’t get a chance to do is The Witcher’s long term ethical choices – slightly different to the situation brought up by Mass Effect).

Should have gone onto Post-It notes into certain areas, but in any case…

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