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A collection of posts by game designer Gregory Carslaw, including mirrors of all of his blogs maintained for particular projects. A complete index of posts can be found here:
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Morality in Games

United Kingdom
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Original Post

In the last couple of weeks I seem to keep coming across examples about how people feel about expressions of immoral behaviour in board games. It's pretty common for games to push us towards activities that we'd never even consider in regular life. In the context of a game we're happy to destroy people, cities or entire planets. We lie, we cheat, we steal. We're willing to commit the most vile and heinous of crimes, right up to profiting from forcing people to live with really inefficient and arbitrary road networks.

Generally people are pretty comfortable with the idea of being monsters in games. I briefly touched on the idea that table etiquette requires people to play to win in the 'behaviour at the table' post. Playing to win is generally pretty incompatible with playing in the best interests of the fictional inhabitants of the game world, so as a rule of thumb vicious behaviour is not only permitted but encouraged.

So is it a problem? In the past I've written that board games are a form of media that has an impact like any other, so they can influence how we think about things. As such I feel that we need to be as responsible with our board games as we are with our computer games, movies or books. Or perhaps as responsible as we'd like to be with those things.

I think that we're generally okay with the idea that some people will die for our amusement. Actually I imagine some people reading found that pretty objectionable, but I believe that it's true. Consider the following: Would you be okay with one person dying if the alternative were the banning of all forms of entertainment, books/tv/sports/everything? I think I'm okay with that, it'd suck bigtime if the situation came up somehow, but I think I'm okay with that even if the one person is me. If you can agree with that statement in principle we're really just haggling over price.

In general I'd summarise the research on violent media as follows: No form of media is particularly special, they all have roughly the same impact. In general there are no measurable long term effects, though you do see a spike in aggression immediately afterwards for a few minutes. Where actual violence follows media violence, the media was generally a contributing factor but is a much much smaller factor than a hundred other things. Worldwide there've probably been a handful of assaults and other violent crimes that wouldn't have occurred if the perpetrator had not been consuming violent media immediately before the crime but these are a decided minority. A statistician might say "insignificant" but the individual victims could reasonably argue otherwise.

Still, overall I think that as a culture we're better off having books, games, films, all of sport, most of art, the capacity to have discussions with intelligent people who disagree with us and so on than we are saving an extra dozen lives each year. I acknowledge that there is room to disagree on this point, depending on where you place the balance between valuing quantity and quality of life.

So, to bring this back to morality in boardgames: Board games almost certainly have an impact on the thinking of people who play them. The magnitude of this impact is likely to be very small and in general we accept very small negative impacts if it adds significantly to the quality of our lives. So I think that it boils down to this: In our play and design of board games we should strive to execute and encourage in-game moral behaviour where doing so does not negatively impact the quality of the game.

In terms of playing a game, I don't see that this changes very much. As mentioned earlier, a lot of games are more fun when everyone involved is trying their hardest to win. That doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room for caring about the wellbeing of your meeples. I think it's very rare to hit a situation in which you could make two moves which are genuinely more or less equal in terms of enjoying the game, but that are different from an "in game world" moral perspective. When it happens, there's no reason not to be lovely.

In terms of designing games it becomes a bit trickier. With core gameplay it's almost always impossible to satisfyingly execute an ideologically driven retheming of a game so that the mechanics make as much intuitive sense and are as fun to play. I think that the best approach here is to have a willingness to change things that do not matter from a gameplay perspective but do project a negative message.

I've avoided talking about the meta-morality of games, stuff like "Is it okay to play the best move if there is a real consequence, such as someone not enjoying the game?" but that can have a post too at some point, I think it's an almost entirely distinct problem. I can also see room for individuals with issues that they hold as being more important than any other to object to games on a moral basis. "Pretty much anything that causes arousal can cause violence so we have to accept some level of entertainment lead violence or ban all entertainment" works okay, but some issues are impacted on my a much smaller number of games and are arguably bigger problems so that perspective wouldn't apply.

It's a pretty complicated issue with a whole bunch of factors at work and stuff on scales that humans aren't really very equipped to deal with, but I've tried to give a take on it without doing too much fence sitting. So that's where I stand, until I find something better
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