So let’s talk about ethics for real. My last post was certainly over the top but it was over the top for a reason: it was responding to an article that was filled with buzzwords, ridiculous hypotheticals and implied that gamers were trapped helplessly into playing boring games by unscrupulous game designers. This article contained no specific examples from any games, only once (to my memory) named a practice that was deemed to be unethical, and never stated how game developers benefited from those unstated practices to the point where one could infer that they are doing so with malice. Its call to action contained many wildly implausible hypotheticals that had no bearing on games, and in at least one case represented an impossible choice for the person involved.
The article offended me and I responded accordingly. I will not mention it further.
Let’s consider ethics in more concrete terms.
What does one mean to behave ethically? One guiding principle for ethical behavior is the Golden Rule: Treat others as one would like to be treated, or inversely, do not treat others as one would not like to be treated. There are other ethical principles out there, but this is the best known and is a good way to start.
Let’s consider an application of that rule: don’t act deliberately to harm others for your own benefit. I think certainly if you follow this particular rule you will be behaving ethically, but I also think this rule is too broad. If you are playing a game against someone, you will inevitably be trying to beat them at the game. This could be seen as “harming others”, at least in the sense that the other person would rather win than lose. But by playing the game the other person generally offers consent to the possibility of losing. This leads to a rule that I think can be applied:
It is unethical to deliberately harm others for one’s own benefit without the consent of the people being harmed.
Admittedly, in many situations the issue of consent is simply not applicable. This rule, however, is one that I think can be applied to specific things Blizzard and other game developers have done. Does the game developer benefit from the action? Does the gamer suffer harm from the action? Did the gamer consent to the potential harm? If the answers to these questions are “yes”, “yes” and “no”, then the thing is unethical. If not, it isn’t. The specific thing might be a bad business practice or objectionable in other ways, but it wouldn’t be unethical.
I don’t think this rule is necessarily exclusive. There may be an action that would be unethical for some extraordinary reason where this rule is inapplicable. One that I can think of is the “helpless gamer”, one who is mentally incapable of providing consent where a typical person could. In these examples, I will not consider helpless gamers, as I believe that group to be so small and so otherwise guarded that I don’t think it’s useful to talk about them and it would be offensive to the grand majority of gamers who are not helpless. You may disagree, and that is why you have your own blog.
The above rule provides a framework for analyzing the examples that follow. Let’s get to those examples:
Dragon City and Purple Gems
Dragon City is a game on Facebook that I understand to be fairly popular and also fairly typical. It is a SimCity style game where one places buildings and habitats onto an area of limited size. The ultimate goal of the game is to raise dragons, with one notable application of that being able to battle those dragons against dragons controlled by the computer.
The game has three resources: gold, food and gems. Gold is generated naturally by dragons living in their habitat. Food is generated by farms. Gems, however, are much harder to get within the game, offered as rewards generally for extraordinary accomplishments. Outside of the game, though, you can purchase gems for money, which will have a highly beneficial affect on your ability to progress.
At some point in the game, your progress will slow to a crawl unless you are willing to do two things: buy gems, and “recruit” your friends to play the game. There are other possible problems within the game but I’d like to focus on those. Let’s examine these practices through the rule given above:
Does the developer of the game benefit by slowing your progress to a crawl unless you buy gems and advertise the game for them? Absolutely. It is my understanding that this is the only way the developer makes money off of this game.
Does the player suffer a detriment by purchasing gems and advertising to friends? No, unless you believe the player to be helpless. A player who purchases gems has made a decision that the game is enjoyable enough to pay money to continue to play. There is no trickery involved. Whether you phrase this as consenting to the harm of losing money or an acknowledgement that the player has decided that paying the money because it is a benefit, either way the action is not ethical.
I will note that when I reached this point in the game, I decided to quit playing.
Is it a good business model to make a game unfun unless the player coughs up some money? I don’t know. I think it probably is. But I don’t think it can be called unethical. There’s no trickery involved, and the game developer has to make money somehow. Gamers who object to this practice can do what I did: quit playing.
Warcraft Trial Accounts
Blizzard gives away World of Warcraft in various ways to people to try. People are allowed to play a character up to level 20 without paying for the game. If they wish to progress further than that, they must pay a monthly subscription just like everyone else. Trial accounts are limited in other ways, not all of which are known to me, but here are some examples: Trial accounts cannot talk to any player in the game without that player talking to them first or adding them to their friends list. Trial accounts cannot trade gold or items with other people. Trial accounts cannot use the auction house. There may be other limitations, but for the purpose of this example it is sufficient to say that there are limitations to the account in general.
Does Blizzard benefit by offering trial accounts? Undoubtedly yes, or they would not do it. I don’t know how many new players Blizzard snares from trial accounts, but I doubt they would do it, crowding their service with unpaying players, unless it provided some benefit to them. I hope this is not controversial, because I see no other reason why Blizzard would allow trial accounts.
Do players getting trial accounts suffer harm from Blizzard’s actions, specifically those that limit the account? No, and it is a hard case to make otherwise. I believe such players would rather be playing the game under limited circumstances than not playing the game at all, and at the very least they consented to those limits when signing up. It’s not unethical for this reason.
Do paying players suffer harm from Blizzard offering trial accounts? Quite possibly! Judging from experience, trial accounts are able to grief paying players despite the limitations to their account. At the very minimum, system and game resources are consumed by trial players (i.e., they kill mobs) that could otherwise theoretically be used by paying players. Also, if we consented to this actively I don’t remember it.
These harms, however, are so slight and so infrequent that it would belittle the word “unethical” to apply it. Blizzard certainly has made a significant effort to minimize the harm caused to existing players by offering trial accounts. In my opinion, it would be petty to call Blizzard unethical for this reason, but I do acknowledge that a case may be made.
Warcraft’s Golden Lotus Dailies
In truth we could examine any set of daily quests, but I’ll use the Golden Lotus dailies as examples because they perhaps best illustrate the problem. Once you reach level 90, a few members of the Golden Lotus offer daily quests, which when completed give you four things: 5 valor points, 2 lesser charms, about 20 gold, and a certain amount of reputation with the Golden Lotus. It is in this latter aspect that many people find the dailies to be objectionable, because the dailies are the only reasonable way to raise reputation with the Golden Lotus. (Presumably you could kill mogu to get cache keys to get tokens that raise such reputation, but that would be absolutely nuts.) There are many rewards within the game that are not available without Golden Lotus reputation, including many items purchased with valor points, reputation with the Shado Pan and its specific items, and various other things I’m just not remembering.
The fiercest objection seems to be the restriction on valor point items to people who have gained a certain reputation. Valor points can be earned in dungeons, scenarios and raids, but those valor points have little use (at least, pre-5.1) unless you have the requisite reputation to purchase those valor items. And without those valor items, earning enough gear to be competitive in progressive raids is nearly impossible. For this reason, people who are interested in raiding feel compelled to do these quests, at least until they have gotten the reputation necessary to purchase valor gear.
Let’s examine this in the context of the rule above.
Does Blizzard benefit by “forcing” or strongly encouraging players to do these dailies? This is an extremely difficult case to make. It may end up with players playing for a longer amount of time than they would otherwise, or doing activities such as dailies rather than running dungeons, raiding, or other activities. But as long as players continue to pay their monthly fee, I can’t see how Blizzard benefits anything more than marginally by them doing dailies instead of something else.
Do players suffer harm from being “forced” to do these dailies? Arguably yes, and certainly a lot of people do feel as if they are being harmed by this practice. We have formed social groups based on activities that are difficult to perform without doing these dailies, and to refuse to do those dailies would be to abandon commitments made, pre-Pandaria, to those social groups. I do understand the argument (and have expressed that very argument) that players aren’t technically forced to do anything, but in reality many guilds would not function if people did not do daily quests to get ready to raid. Needless to say, I don’t think we’ve consented to this.
Because of the harm done to players, I think there is a possible argument that the way Golden Lotus dailies are constructed is unethical. But I won’t make that argument. Instead, I think Blizzard believes that providing these quests, some of which are in fact enjoyable, heightens the enjoyment of being able to raid by making it feel like an accomplishment. That Blizzard does not seem to derive any benefit from the design of these dailies leads me to conclude that at most, the design is a bad business decision rather than an unethical one.
Warcraft’s Guardian Cub
In November 2011, Blizzard offered the Guardian Cub, a non-combat pet, in its online store for the price of $10. (Its current price is $5.) Unlike other non-combat pets, the Guardian Cub was bind-on-use, meaning that it could be traded with other players. More specifically, it could be placed on the auction house for others to buy, where it could fetch over 10000 gold from a pet collector.
The problem with this item is that it became for some a roundabout way of purchasing gold, an activity Blizzard bars from its game. In my view, Blizzard barred gold purchases for a number of reasons, but most theoretically because they did not want players to be able to use money as a means to advance within the game. The Guardian Cub provides a legitimized way around this.
Let’s examine this in the context of the rule:
Does Blizzard benefit by sales of the Guardian Cub? Unquestioningly. They get money for each sale.
Do players suffer harm as a result of the sale of the Guardian Cub? Yes. Their progress through the game is cheapened by having other people being able to purchase gold by using real money.
Did players consent to this harm? Not knowingly; in my experience, one of the reasons people play World of Warcraft and pay money each month is because Blizzard has not, like other companies, allowed people to cheat the system by buying items for real money.
In my opinion, offering the Guardian Cub was unethical. Blizzard could have fixed this by making it bind on pickup like other pet store items. The decision to offer this pet legitimized gold selling and was not simply a business mistake. Blizzard is capitalizing on people’s desire to buy gold.
Warcraft’s The Secrets of Guo-Lai
As part of the storyline regarding the Golden Lotus, players are assigned the quest "The Secrets of Guo-Lai". In this quest you are to meet up with He Softfoot to uncover a mogu plan in the Hall of Statues. In the quest you face mogu after mogu until you are inevitably “overwhelmed”. By “inevitably overwhelmed” I mean that the game, regardless of how well you are actually able to kill the oncoming mogu, will stop the combat, forcibly restrain you and disable any ability you have to break that restraint (e.g., blink or Every Man for Himself), and “capture” you. In the process of your capture, the Mogu leader has something to say:
Zhao-Jin the Bloodletter says: You are ignorant to the powerful secrets contained within this vale. I will take them, and then I will destroy all of your kind.
Zhao-Jin the Bloodletter says: Throw these prisoners in the cages. Let the men have their way with them.
As Apple Cider Mage pointed out in a brilliant post, “Let the men have their way with them” indicates that the next step in the process is that your character will be raped. For the purposes of discussion let us assume that Blizzard in fact intended this to be so, that it intended for players to understand that their character was raped during a fade-to-black scene. If you disagree, fine, but do so on another blog.
Is this unethical?
Does Blizzard benefit from this quest? I would say yes. They benefit by creating an environment that caters to a certain male audience, the kind who use the word rape frequently in trade and party chat as a synonym for “beat badly”. These people, as far as I can tell, are among the most dedicated followers of games and are possibly influential.
Do some players suffer from this quest? Yes. All you have to do is read Apple Cider Mage’s article, in which she describes her physical and emotional reaction to the quest. (And in truth she outlines her objection far better than I could). We see a lot of death in games, but people playing the game generally haven’t died. But many people playing the game have been raped, or have had a loved one who has been raped. This kind of quest makes the game inhospitable, both in the sense that actually having your character raped is extremely unpleasant if you have a close connection with your character, and in the sense that it promotes an attitude where anyone with feminist ideals is felt unwelcome.
Did these players consent to such treatment? No. Though the quest is optional there is no clue that such a shocking event is coming. It is certainly not the kind of thing you would expect from a “teen” rated game.
Thus, I believe this quest is unethical.
There is no question in my mind that game designers in general and Blizzard in particular has been unethical from time to time. The examples above are examples, meant to be illustrative rather than exhaustive. I find the three question approach as to benefit, harm and consent to be one that is good in identifying specific instances of unethical behavior. I do feel that when Blizzard acts unethically, it deserves to be called out for doing so (and I salute Apple Cider Mage for doing a wonderful job with the last example). But I believe we also must be specific, not only about what it is we find unethical, but why it is that we find those things unethical.