This is a response or supplement to some key points, which Mr. Jonathan Blow delivered in a lecture at William Marsh Rice University, Texas, United States at 2010 September 27th. He is an independent video game developer and has made the hugely successful video game Braid (XBLA, PSN, PC, Mac OS, Linux). His personal website can be found here and The Atlantic has done a profile of him here.
He is an ardent proponent of ethical game design and has been known to preach about some contemporary games as being immoral due to their mechanics in more than one or two lectures. Examples provided were World of Warcraft, FarmVille, FrontierVille and the like. A lot of scope of this lecture had been delegated to this issue and I would like to add some of my own ideas to this affair of whether such games are ethical.
Manipulative game mechanics?
A lot of companies use in-depth group testing, like A/B split testing, and one may suspect foul play here. Large companies, who afford such rigorous testing standards, keep the public in the dark and silently tweak their products to be more attractive, more addictive, and make you spend more. Actually, testing isn’t some sort of secret, incomprehensible psychological testing. Google has tools where you can easily do A/B split testing of your own website! It isn’t necessarily a bad or evil thing. It is a technique to find out what your target audience wants and how to improve your product, especially if you’re designing something new and there are no cannons or known ways to make it surely better. Testing has a human face and it is through people and their thoughts that you try to improve your products or services. For example, the creation of an extra chunky tomato spaghetti sauce line is based on results from non-QA focus groups, where people didn't even know that they wanted an extra chunky sauce. It is a reciprocal relationship, where customers are getting something they wanted or yearned for, while the company is more financially successful. How is it manipulative, if you are finding out what people want? The crux of the speaker's argument is that this is unethical because games are designed to sort of manipulate people into playing them. While there is room to learn how to beguile users, there is also room to flop – Tony Blair’s led British Labour Party used focus groups to determine how to increase their ratings. It is a cunning populist strategy. By concentrating too much on what people wanted, i.e. not waste money on investment in railways, they neglected issues which deteriorated to a catastrophic point, and the Party’s reputation gravely slumped. Blindly following group test results may leave you with negative ratings and failed products, like New Coke. I know of ways that people have been and are being grossly manipulated using media and other ways, but they are too extreme to compare with the cases in video games.
From a pedagogical standpoint, a teacher has to teach by combining positive reinforcement with negative (in behaviourist models), that is using incentive and penalties. You incentivise good behaviour or good results, like a good mark for a well written essay, and punish with a bad mark and extra homework for an awful one, or penalise for being late for school by having the child bring in fruit or paper to class. Concerning the action point mechanic in FrontierVille, it incentivises coming back to the game often, but does not fine the player. The game does have a routine which penalises the player - planted crops wither in time, and one has to harvest before then. If the farmer is too late, the yield is gone. But it is possible to rejuvenate the plants, by using in game currency or real world money (at any case you can always buy in game currency with real money). You choose which crops to plant, and the game presents you with the time when the fruit will be ripe and when they will wither. There is also a wide variety of time-lapses, from 5 minutes to 4 days. Thus you can plan accordingly and the games do not force you into an unbearable schedule with which you have to keep up or you lose. By incentivising long-term crops - they yield more - the game designers conduce to player long-term patience and planning. And from another perspective, the limited amount of energy points causes the player to not play the game for hours on end, and to, most likely, lightly regulate the in game economy. So stating that this game interrupts your sleep or daily activities is an overreactive argument to deride and demean the game and its authors.
A venue for expression
Games like FarmVille are more like virtual homes, pets and the like - they require maintenance. They are like a space for people to exercise their home-tending and caring skills, and they are pleasant to play because they reward players more often and better than real life, providing an ease off of real word cares. Quite often we feel daunted by how much we labour daily and reap not any quick rewards. Just remember school: in and out of math or English class, once per day, many a week, four times a month, nine months a year, twelve cycles of winter, autumn and spring. Remember the four years of college, sometimes more with additional years for medicine or postgraduate courses, and then perhaps a mediocre job for the many of us, where we continue from day to day. Allow us to dream away our daily strain!
Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expir’d... Extract from Shakespeare's 27th sonnet
Now this is a simple plead which works for at least semi-innocent entertainment. You can watch no-brainer
”he awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feelings and impairs the reason. As in a city when the evil are permitted to have authority and the good are put out of the way, so in the soul of man, as we maintain, the imitative poet implants an evil constitution, for he indulges the irrational nature which has no discernment of greater and less, but thinks the same thing at one time great and at another small—he is a manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth.”
Naturally, Plato venerated philosophers, for they were the seekers of the true nature of life and the world. His position may appear very extreme, but what he had witnessed most in his day was the roaring of the theatre - masses gathered to a blatantly vulgar entertainment site for a senseless spectacle. From such a viewpoint, most escapist amusement could be valued critically, esp. now since we are of the society of the spectacle, and social games may be no exception. FrontierVille is nothing but a distraction, and one which a great Greek philosopher forewarns us about. Nonetheless, there are redeemable arguments for video games, because they are not passive acts which need only to be observed, like television. They involve some form of learning, challenge, and goals. First the player has to learn its rules, then he or she has to progress through increasing challenges. Only through a better understanding of the game world, analysis of its laws, do the players achieve higher and higher status. Further, simulation or toy-like titles like social games provide a place for self-expression. Of course, I would argue that more genres of games allow people to express themselves, but this currently does not concern us. Anyhow, while FrontierVille is not challenging much, its openness makes goal setting a responsibility of the players. Advanced farmers have huge farms to manage and think in larger scales, while beginners are content with foremost challenges. This is radically different from, say, dumb comedy, or simple romance novels, which critically does not involve any tasks of interpretation whatsoever, thus not requiring any cogs to be turned in the beholder’s dome.
How low can we go?
At what point an amusement reaches the point where moral issues arise? They most often arise at gambling games. These games are, as we all know, a great form of intense pleasure and recreation, however, I think most of us are aware of this affair’s controversies. Gambling is severely addictive and through that this industry relishes. Casinos have evolved to lure people in, they do everything so that people would feel welcome and would want to stay there as long as possible. They advertise free food, exciting, entertaining celebrity shows, and chances to win easy money. The layout of the casinos are similar to the layouts of supermarkets in that they are specifically designed to maximise casino’s profits and lure customers into the games. FarmVille and the sorts have taken lessons from casinos to the detriment of the populace’s bank accounts. One of the same tricks they use is in-game currency. Of course, I really doubt whether this is where they took it from. It is more likely that they just continued the honoured tradition of in-game gold coins, but it nevertheless shows the cunning of developers at “Zynga” and other companies. Here is why this is clever and leads to more profit: “Gambling with e-cash may lead to what psychologists call a suspension of judgement. The suspension of judgement refers to a structural characteristic that temporarily disrupts the gambler’s financial value system and potentially stimulates further gambling (
The same paper also suggests that the difference in Internet gambling to the traditional variant is that it may pray on a deeper need for self-esteem, and the same could be said of online video games, where this is more obvious. Online casinos introduce chat rooms, where players are able to boast their successes, send e-mails with details on who won how much, and operate in other ways to tease people into playing. The top comment by Timothy Bishop (NintendoCapriSun) written on Blow’s lecture on YouTube points out: “When I used to play Frontierville, my biggest motivation was to impress people. I thought people would look up to me 'cause I was Level 47 or whatever I was. If the game had been designed so that no one else could see my level, there would have been no point.” And truly, achievements in video games are one of the most ubiquitous tasks. Of course there are other predominant roles – socialising and role-playing, and for a long time it was believed that women players were mostly interested in mingling, rather than levelling up. Despite, in a study called Achievements, Motivations and Rewards in Faunasphere, 2011, February, Jason Begy and Mia Consalvo found that “the three most popular activities were Completing Goals, Levelling Up, and Breeding. Each of these fall under the achievement component in that they relate to progressing within the game…“ 93% of players were female and 71% were over the age of 35, and this casts doubt on a myth in colloquial debates and amongst researchers that women were more prone to play for socialising aims. Of course, these are the results of a survey, which was taken, as suspected, by the most dedicated player group.
From an ethical standpoint, gambling is the point on which many take a stand. Subject to fraud, addiction facilitation, shameless profit off of people, and so on. There are many concerns with this activity. But beyond the discussed couple of similarities between it and social gaming, there is not much to go on with. However bad one could try to make FarmVille, it would be impossible to bring it close to the likes of money staking. You do not need money to play it, its innocent enough for kids, no fraud, no suspicion of misuse of private information (with online gambling), no suspicion of subliminal advertising, no employment of psychologists to tailor designs yet, it does not drain your bank account like a famished camel, and provides a pleasant environment where you can tend to your cows and crops. In addition it does not cause residents within 50 miles of an internet access point twice as likely to be classified as a “problem” or “pathological” player, it does not cause rise in crime, alcoholism, bankruptcy and it surely does not cause an outbreak of car bombings, public shootouts, and cocaine traffic.
Studies like that of Begy and Consalvo have shown that the older a person is, the more likely he is to become a paying member. Half of 18-24 year olds are free members, and this percentage shrinks to a 12% in 55-64 years of age group. Subscriptions are voluntarily, and there are free members in all age groups. People pay if they want additional content, if they like the game, and only if they can afford it. Nobody is being cheated out of their money. Sure, developers use all sorts of tricks so that people would buy their products, but that is inherent in all products or services in a capitalist model! Companies try to make good games and good marketing campaigns just like musicians try to make their music sound good, appealing, and be heard by you. And, interestingly enough, we do not blame makers of soap operas in beguiling viewers into watching them. While it is believed that games are more intrusive than a television show, it is suspect whether games are capable of manipulative acts by themselves. There are cases of people dying whilst playing a video game, committing acts of murder or even killing sprees, stealing, getting addicted to MMOs, but they are singular and games are not the causes of these events. There is still no consensus of whether video games can make you dependent and how to classify and diagnose such addictions, but the emergence of studies of computer-related obsessions recently will hopefully resolve this in the near future and inform us, how much of a threat, or none at all, it is.
I do not think that Jonathan Blow’s accusation of FarmVille being evil is grounded enough. At around the 56th minute of the lecture he says: “If one person wastes a little bit of time with some stupid game that doesn’t do anything for them, that’s no big deal. But when you have a nation of people, who spend a large amount of time on something that’s not just a waste of time, but actively makes them a little dumber, poorer, sheep-like, and infantilised, that becomes a much more serious issue.” And before that he even equated social games with alcohol. It is easy to see that he comes forth with an idealistic point of view almost similar to Plato. Nevertheless, there have been no studies, which have shown that social gaming is harmful at all. Actually, it may prove to be beneficial. But if they are not even benign, when does a video game become not a mindless drudgery, but an exercise in some certain respects? Would Braid fare any better? Or if social games are harmful, perhaps they are less harmful then other favourite past-times of a nation? Like crude soap operas for example? If so, then we should at least mildly rejoice. Anyhow, it is not known exactly how much use puzzle solving is, but it does not improve your intellect beyond your original capacities. And if you are perfectly apt in this regard, it won’t you do more good. A person with some disabilities will not cure himself via neurobic practice. Studies have shown that mental exercises do delay the onset of dementia, like Alzheimer’s syndrome, but do not prevent them. In this regard, any new experience is welcome, like experiencing a new video game, which teaches you its own sets of rules, goals, and tasks, and involves your brain. FrontierVille though is not a puzzle game like Jonathan Blow’s game, but we are uncertain as to how much the tasks in FrontierVille or Braid tax the brain, as they are very different. I have come across an interview with a mother, who regularly plays a social game, and who spoke about it being a relaxing experience. She would launch the application and watch television at the same time. This is delightful, because “watching television sends the brain into a neutral state and is void of thinking; therefore avoiding television is advised for someone wishing to have mental stimulation.” and if a person then indulges in an activity, which requires some interaction, processing and decision making, and is able to relax for a bit, then we should jump for joy!
At any case, there are other ways in which FarmVille is useful besides perhaps tasking the brain. It is its escapist value, relief, and ability to boost one’s self-esteem through its achievement and goal oriented systems. And this may be of great benefit, as fervent recreation should buff one’s productivity, feeling good about yourself may induce creativity and general well-being. Even if we took it at face value and just called it empty entertainment, there is nothing implicitly new or macabre about it. There has been little change since Plato’s time of popular theatre and poetry. Instead, we now have television soap operas and chart music. And FarmVille. Humanity hasn’t gone to hell because of that. Maybe it would be a better world if a lot more people were capable of producing high added value products and services, create wonderful poetry in hexameter, philosophise everything through phenomenology, play their own music in twelve-tone serialism, paint in grisaille, program in OO, construct their own cars (or build open-source ones, which you can already do), invent new devices, build their own homes, and travel at the speed of light. And maybe we will get there. Especially if FarmVille proves to be teaching the populace at least some useful skills. But is this the concern of popular entertainment industries, or education systems?
Rebuking social games as unethical and immoral based on arguments delivered in the lecture is, in my opinion, unfounded. I would gladly use development techniques, which engross players best and set myself atop of competition. Implementing the best grind/reward mechanisms is to the benefit of the player, too, since he or she will have a more absorbing, entertaining, game. There should be a standpoint where they could be held as immoral, but, I think, this goes beyond the video game industry. If you are worried that kids are spending too much time on FrontierVille, should you blame the developers, since it is in their best interest to have their games played as much as possible, should you blame the parents, bad friends, a penniless family fiscal situation for they can’t afford active leisure, or should you blame society and its workings as a whole? Say, by eliminating the necessity for profit, it would ajar other reasons for creating video games, such as self-expression, education, recreation. But it is a personal political, economical, societal viewpoint and undoubtedly out of scope of this industry. Did parents blame Iron Maiden or Marilyn Manson when their teenagers started to listen to such "obsequial" music without stopping? Or an example question more akin to this issue - do you blame the computer if your kid is on it for too long? This is a kind of inquiry does not pertain to the scope of video game development. Concerning more the matter of fact, social games do not force your addiction, or at most it is unknown. Current psychological studies are focused on whether MMORPG addiction exists. So for the moment the status quo is that they are voluntary, they are free, they have mechanisms which make you stop playing, they are somewhat educational for younger kids, they nurture successful planning and management skills, they give some space for self-expression and even communication with your friends, along with providing relief from our daily lives. Maybe they are not that good, fostering sedentary lifestyles, straining our eyes, but they provide a lot of new jobs, a new sub-industry, and help a lot of women find relaxation and enjoyment. And for that I rejoice.
Another conclusion which I would like to add as a reminder for myself and a suggestion to fellow developrs, is to not be afraid of IAP. Everyone starting out is afraid of overpricing, afraid even of requesting a normal price, but this is not so much ethics as economy and marketing. If you do, you may bankrupt, end up homeless even if your poject is a hit! Ethical would, first of all, be not making a cultural artefact, a piece of art (in a broad sense) but instead making something of practical use, like physician training software, or provide relief for people in need. Video games are not being sold to starving kids in third world countries, where high pricing of such a bourgeois product would then be ridiculous in all regards. You are charging people with stable and good incomes. If they own an iPhone, most of them are already well off, it does cost a handsome amount and is worth as much as a new laptop. If you are still concerned over the morality of pricing, then you can do what Crocs Inc. have done. They donate some portion of their products to third world countries. At some delivery points people can buy a pair for a symbolic sum of 1 USD. This could not have happend without great company profits. So if you feel you overcharged, donate to people that really need it.
A small idea for game developers
I think the video game industry could learn a lot from casinos and gambling games. There are some similarities between some games and slot machines already! Their sparkling design. A good example is a conference talk at NordicGame 2012 by Martin Jonasson and Petri Purho Juice It or Lose It. They present a core design principle in making an attractive game by making it livelier with sound, graphics and action on screen. The end result at 14:20 is quite reminiscent of a slot machine and vigorously draws you in. It is amazing how much prominence is given to visual and aural feedback, like special effects, pop-ups, colour, screen effects, etc. to games like Diablo III or Critter Crunch (PSN, iOs), both of which I think are remarkable examples of solid game design to the point where I want to apotheosise them. Actually, I think Diablo III (PC, Mac OS) is very, very akin to a slot machine, to its great benefit. Other titles which would be good examples are Shatter (PSN) and Pac-Man Chamiopnship Edition DX (PSN and XBLA). There are many out there though. As a video game developer I think the Juice It or Lose It is very inspiring and informative talk, which splendidly delivers an important aspect of development. To a lot of people, even including myself, who is still just a student, these methods were already known, but I would want to point out that these principles were not new at all, and the slot machine industry might do it even better.