At parties, it’s usually a positive experience to introduce yourself as a game designer.
“Oh wow, you make games! Cool.”
“That’s the right industry to be in right now.”
“So are you going to make the next Angry Birds?”
But, a few times I’ve had a slightly less positive response. Once I had met a couple, and one of them was a teacher. I said I was doing some research work for my university, and she somehow misunderstood me to be a teacher as well, so she started emailing me about the extreme responsibility for the future generations that “we teachers” have for applying the right teaching and learning techniques to children.
When I responded that I am actually a “game design researcher”, suddenly she was quite silent and much less enthusiastic.
Not much fanfare there.
“Gaming” up to current day is still seen as entertainment or distraction and not anything “serious.” We in the gaming community like to hype up the positive things about gaming, but most people outside the game industry still are separated between gamers and non-gamers, and non-gamers don’t see games as something beyond time-wasting entertainment. Gamers also see games as entertainment, but devote many hours of time into them, so the only difference between gamers and non-gamers is that gamers see them as worthwhile entertainment and non-gamers don’t.
Beyond pure entertainment however, there is so much possibility for gaming: to teach, to show, to stretch imaginations, to say something political or deep about being human. But a lot of times, I must admit games don’t have such lofty goals, especially not the average game release. Jane McGonigal’s positive speech about how gaming can change the world for the better claimed that gamers collectively can fix the world and change the future. But when we look at that current situation, that is more of a declaration of what we could set out to do, but there are still some obstacles in the horizon. If we take a look at the current game culture, we can see these things:
Learning. Kids are learning faster and faster these days. We have computer literate kids, kids that can program, all kinds of fast learning kids. Assumingly, adults can learn faster via games too, but the future generation is the one taking the most advantage of our digital media saturated world.
Tropes. What are our kids learning here? That females have to dress like porn stars? In games that’s how they appear.
Addiction. Do you want to be the guy who has take five iPads to shower everyday to stay on top of his game? Addiction isn’t funny. To be fair, it isn’t specific to just the videogame industry but it is specific to anything highly enjoyable and highly addictive, such as sex, drugs, and gaming. Not everyone is vulnerable, but there are definitely enough people vulnerable to cause social issues and damage to their own lives and those around them. While sex and drugs are pretty much linked to the ability to acquire these things on a regular basis (meaning money, and some dodgy/illegal connections), gaming addiction is exactly the opposite: it is much more easier to acquire the goods and less likely to be noticed. Noone knows you have a social problem unless you don’t show up for work. Some people even end up not working, so then they could be living in a basement for years on a gaming addiction.
We live in a society where extreme amounts of time consuming digital media is seen as ‘normal’, so destructive game addiction is not visible to anyone except for the people who are relying on the responsibilities of the said addict: bosses, partners, and their closest friends. Even while writing this article, I acknowledge that I’m consuming an amount of digital media on the borderline of sickness to be able to have read enough viewpoints of the issues I’m talking about to be able to write about it. I’m calling myself out as a digital media addict.
The danger of gaming addiction is that it is much more under the radar than for example something like meth addiction, which has consequences more visible to others. On the positive side, gaming addiction in most cases is recoverable, and not in line with the destructiveness of drug or sex addiction, but there have been some gaming related deaths in the past where people forgot to eat or sleep.
It’s interesting that one of my game designer friends recently posted a link applauding Greg Costikyan‘s article on Ethical Free-to-Play Game Design (And Why it Matters), but when I read it, it didn’t really touch on the issues that concerned me or the people concerned about the game industry in general. I think we, the game developers, on our conquest to make successful games, have buried our heads into the sand on the issue. I’ve only ever heard high ground stances on ethical game design from indie developers, who don’t have some head of marketing or CEO breathing down their necks to sell copies, or show charts on sales targets. For the rest of developers in the corporate world, the reality is that most big studios care more about turnovers than ethics or morals or social impact.
You can look at games like GTAV which is a nightmare for women in particular, featuring only strippers or ‘stand at the side’ characters like wives or girlfriends (all unplayable, by the way), but also a nightmare for moral groups on aimless violence, and developers will conveniently write it off as satire, and of course, fiction. We are exposing people, including children, to all kinds of media daily, and children in particular are drawn to games over movies. We shouldn’t necessarily excuse the ability of children being able to access this content in other ways anyway via a movie or tv series. We have to add into the fact that games are interactive and often first person, and the psychological impact of killing someone ‘as a character’, is not quite fully researched, or the effects of violent media on developing children.
The world is so uncontrollably loaded with media that society cannot avoid it, but we as media makers have a chance to take a step back and analyse what’s happening and whether our productions have any negative impacts on society and rewrite the things we are going to release onto the world. We have some kind of responsibility when the audience of our productions consists of hundreds to millions of people.
All I’m really asking is for game designers to look at what they are making and decide whether the social impact is good or bad and make significant aims to improve it. As the saying goes: “First do no harm”.