Gaming Ethics: Can it ever be fun to do things that aren’t fun?

Towards the end of last year, I read several carefully argued (or passionately argued) blog posts about the ethics of daily quests.  In particular:

Doone had concerns about ethics of game design. He starts by discussing dailies but he has wider concerns.

We’ve got a lot of unethical game design going on. It’s bad. It’s contributing to bad ideas and promoting unhealthy communities of gamers. It’s making otherwise immoral acts normative and therefore acceptable to gamers.

If a game is based on Skinner techniques in it’s core design, it’s not a game. It’s a software device developers have created to keep you playing, often because the model is profitable. It’s like tricking the rat in the box into thinking they are winning a game. In fact, they are being controlled in an environment they’re barely aware of.

Saxsy has a strong rebuttal to this, and particularly the idea that ‘psychological manipulation’ is always unethical. (I think she’s wrong btw to keep accusing Doone of White Knight Syndrome, that actually wasn’t something I read in his argument.)

I seriously doubt Blizzard is putting non-fun things in the game for the purpose of getting people to continue to play the game. ((…)) Having people do not fun things make them less likely to continue giving Blizzard their money. It isn’t evil. It’s just stupid.

So, I have a few points to make here. This post isn’t really an essay with an argument and conclusions, more some thoughts on the topic.

I don’t think it has to be unethical per se to create fun games that people like to play and will want to pay for, or to recognise that some people enjoy having organised habits. Or even that many MMO players enjoy the process of grinding towards progress or an achievement.  I also think Blizzard cops a lot of bad press in the blogosphere for this, where actually they seem (via designer blogposts) aware of players’ wellbeing and try to design away from things that would harm it.

I also think that the best defence against accusations of unethical design are to be really up front with how this behavioural stuff works, and empower players to make informed decisions about how often they want to play and to set their own boundaries. This is social worker-y language, but you get the jist.  Have fun, but it’s down to you to take care of yourself. Don’t say ‘I was forced to play,’ because no one stopped you logging off when you’d had enough and it makes you sound a) whiny and b) unable to manage your own time.

But some people are genuinely vulnerable – in the same way that some people are vulnerable to online gambling (which is also a form of gaming that makes heavy use of behavioural mechanisms to keep people playing and coming back.) It likely is unethical to encourage them to play MMOs, but it’s not really clear what devs can do about that, or is it? Maybe mechanisms that do encourage players to take regular breaks are more ethical, it’s food for thought at any rate.

Ethics and Behavioural Psychology

I’m not saying behaviouralism is ethically dubious, but every famous psychology experiment I can think of in that field has been criticised for being unethical. At the same time, it spawned a raft of techniques that have given real help and real hope to many people with depression, helped people to make positive changes in their lives, and in other ways helped to make people happier and healthier. It is a powerful tool, and one which has been widely co opted.

Fact is, there are lots of organisations in this world that use behavioural psychology to try to influence people’s behaviour and opinions. Pretty much all marketing and advertising, for example. Psychological torture. Also many activist campaigns, and lots of educational initiatives. There is a big overlap between gaming and learning, which Raph Koster theorises about in A Theory of Fun (his idea is that games are fun because learning things is fun, basically.)

I think that the ethical side arises from questions this raises about free will. Is it possible to make someone do something that isn’t in their best interests without holding a gun to their head? Do we assume people aren’t able to decide what their best interests are if they’re subject to psychological manipulation? Can building these types of habits into games make them more fun for players? These are big questions. But the cat is out of the bag now.

We do know that traditional MMOs use a lot of operant conditioning. It’s all about the tasks and the rewards. And what players actually do in these games has been very dependent on this balance. Or in other words, when you log into your MMO of choice, how do you decide what you are going to do that session? A lot of the time, it will be based on some goal or reward.

Goals are used in other games too, it’s just that the relationship between grind and reward is very up front in MMOs. I also note that players will also often learn things that the designers never intended – such as being wildly elitist in PUGs. There’s no option for players not to learn something from their games and online communities, as a human being this is how your brain works … always learning. It’s just a question of how much of that learning should be designed, and whether its ok for there to be commercial elements present.

Some history of daily quests

Any old dinos who remember when daily quests were first introduced to WoW may also remembered that the player base welcomed them fervently. This was during TBC, with the Isle of Quel’Danas. They were welcomed, in part, because they were felt to be more ethical and less demanding than previous rep grinds.

It used to be the case that rep grinds were based on killing mobs and repeatable quests. So if you were hardcore, you went off and camped in the appropriate place for ages and kept at it until you were done. The daily quests offered a natural break; once you had done your dailies, that was it for the day.

Now later on, the whole idea of daily tasks was completely co-opted by social/ facebook games as a way to encourage players to keep coming back. I’m sure that was part of the idea behind daily quests too, but mostly it was to find a way to give players longer term goals which they didn’t immediately burn out on. And lets also remember that this was a time when players liked to feel attached to their MMO of choice, so having reasons to keep coming back could have made the game more fun. Many players still do. And also, the sense of working at the game to earn an achievement or reward may be behaviouralism in action, but it can also be fun. Players were doing this anyway before daily quests.

Ted A gives an example:

Between the lore, and the gear rewards, these dailies have not felt like a grind. I’ve wanted to do them and as a bonus I’ve kept playing my main and thoroughly enjoying the class.

 

Being open about the design

I find that the more unethical side to this type of design is where it’s not clear what the player is being manipulated to do, or where it’s made deliberately difficult for players to set upper bounds on either their play time or spending. F2P games with complex payment models can edge close to this.

The other questionable thing to me is about design by metric, especially where game designers assume that if a lot of players do something, that means they liked that content. I understand why you’d assume that — after all, why would so many people do it if they didn’t like it. But then I remember spending a weekend in PvP during TBC to get decent weapons for my Fury Warrior and I did not like it AT ALL. I did it. For the rewards. But I had a big grudge on Blizzard for years afterwards.

So my view: it’s all good, as long as it’s clear up front what you need to do to get your reward so you can make an informed choice. I also like games that offer clear breaks to players; dailies actually do this. I really get tired of people complaining that they were forced to do XYZ in a game when they clearly weren’t – if you do feel forced, it’s a wake up call to step back and look at the psychological manipulation.