All Games are Political; Are They Also Unethical?

Okay, I’m deliberately raking the coals with this title. What does it mean to say that “all games are political” or “unethical?” Obviously, some games are concerned with politics (such as Democracy), and some that are clearly unethical (Ethnic Cleansing–no way I’m going to link that). But what about games like Halo 4, Gears of War, or Skyrim? Clearly, there’s nothing “political” or “unethical” about them, right? They’re just “games,” you say, with no connection whatsoever to reality. But, hold on a minute–what if we’re wrong about that? What if all games, no matter what their content, are expressing a political and ethical perspective that we–as gamers, unconsciously embrace (or consciously reject) when we play them?

It’s hard not to ask such questions after reading James Porter’s chapter “Framing Postmodern Commitment and Solidarity” from his book Rhetorical Ethics and Internetworked Writing.  In this piece, Porter is discussing the ethics of writing, but I think much of what he says is directly (if not profoundly) applicable to gaming and designing as well:

Writing is an action involving an ethical choice about what one is to be and what one is to do. At the point when you begin to write, you begin to define yourself ethically. You make a choice about what is the right thing to do–even if that choice is a tentative and contingent one. (203)

Porter’s probably expecting the biggest objections from technical writers, since in their eyes there’s nothing “ethical” or political about writing a user manual or technical report. However, as Porter goes on to show, it’s not only disingenuous, but even potentially dangerous to think so. Take the situation that Steven B. Katz describes in his article “The Ethic of Expediency: Classical Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust,” in which a technical writer produced a “perfect” memo describing a holocaust gas vehicle. I’m sure the writer of that memo would have argued that his job is not to worry about the Public Good but just to write good memos. Obviously, there’s a huge difference between writing a memo about a holocaust vehicle and a manual for Windows 8. But it’s still dangerous to be driven entirely by the “ethic of expediency” and to pretend that nothing we do as technical writers (or game makers) matters in a broader context.

Just replace “writing” with “game designing” in Porter’s quote above and you can see where I’m going with this. Of course, the first hurdle you need to overcome is the belief that games don’t do anything; that is, they’re just harmless diversions or activities with no external relevance whatsoever. Perhaps that’s true for certain games, though arguably even Tetris may actually be quite deep. However, I’m thinking more about games with an obvious narrative, developed characters, and some room for players to make choices that affect both. I believe these games do affect players and that the choices you allow them to make can and do have real, lasting effects on their lives and those of others. Let’s agree on that point, at least. That will take us, then, to the next logical question:

If you know the game you are designing will have an effect on society, how can you ensure you’re going about it in an ethical way–a way that promotes the Public Good instead of just padding your (or, more likely, the CEO’s) wallet?

Porter points out a few ways writing can be unethical that apply equally well to games. First and foremost is his insistence that we respect difference. Many game designers suffer from a myopia when it comes to “the average gamer”–they want to assume that all gamers are alike; a kind of homogenous whole or universal collective. If you don’t happen to fit the profile, then you’re “not really who we’re catering to,” that is, you’re marginalized. There are, of course, exceptions, but it’s still clear that the “average gamer” is still, at least in our minds, a white, male, heterosexual. While we may “tolerate” or claim to “welcome” gamers who don’t fit that profile, they are seldom given truly equal consideration.

In older games, this is painfully clear, since there might only be a choice among white male characters and no other options at all. Most later games aren’t this blatant, of course, yet it’s arguable whether in most of them the choice amounts to much. So what if you can swap out a male character model for a female or darken a skin color? This seems to me to be the “color blind” approach that has been widely criticized in a variety of contexts. However, even worse are the many games that allow for a choice between male and female, but all the female choices are hyper-sexualized. Again, keep in mind that I’m fully aware some games are more progressive in these areas than others, but I’m not at all convinced there’s no need for improvement.

We need to move beyond just a grudging “respect” for difference, Porter writes, moving instead to “actively embrace difference and celebrate it, and we should certainly be in awe of the mystery of difference” (205). Game designers can clearly do more to achieve this goal than simply offer up more character models to choose from. They can celebrate (rather than merely tolerate) differences in their gamers. Allow for choices that don’t jive with your own personal set of values, for instance.  This could be as simple as allowing a highly intelligent or wise female warrior to be as effective in combat (or, perhaps, avoiding combat) as the stereotypical iron-clad jock. We still find plenty of games stuck in paradigms such as “female character = sex object or helpless victim.” Again, the few examples we might trot out to the contrary are, more than likely, hyper-sexualized. Do you think game developers spend more time talking about a guy’s ass moving realistically as they do obsessing about “boob physics?”

Many, if not most, gamers I talk to still cling to an outmoded view. Since they personally don’t experience racism or sexism, they assume it does not exist. Porter writes that the privileged group (in this case, white male heterosexuals) “hide its ‘groupness’ under the coordinated claims of objectivity, impartiality, neutrality, and universality” (206). I’ve argued with people on these topics who literally make arguments based on animal behavior (e.g., “Even gorillas have a patriarchy,”) or some imagined “cave man” scenario. I heard someone argue that there are no gay animals, for instance, a view that is not only irrelevant but apparently factually wrong. The idea that it’s just historical accident that our society is dominated by white males is simply inconceivable; they can’t imagine what it would really be like to live in a matriarchy, for instance (or, if they do, they imagine it to be a nightmare.) The confirmation bias is staggering–and these are folks whose IQs are usually through the roof!

At any rate, rather than view differences among gamers as a problem or obstacle to be overcome, we should take Porter’s lead in viewing difference “as a value in its own right–that is, as ‘specificity, variation, heterogeneity” (206). Again, most game developers I’ve talked to are happy to agree with this in principle–of course they want people of all walks of life to enjoy their games. Yet often lurking in the background is the unethical choice to ignore or alienate different gamers because “we have to sell games, and straight white guys are the ones who buy them.” This myopia is wrong, and we can’t stand for it any longer.

Porter’s other principle gets at what was bothering Richard Garriott during the design of Ultima IV: moving beyond respect and tolerance and into caring. Garriott was bothered by a letter he received from a parent accusing him of morally corrupting children. He thought about the kind of behavior and choices he was enabling and rewarding in his games, and decided to do something about it. I’m somewhat ashamed to say that few other designers have taken his lead. Instead, they fall back on the old “we have to make a living, and this trash is what people want” rather than actually give a shit about their players as fellow human beings with actual feelings and a heart that can be moved by a well-designed, ethical game. It’s for this reason that I put Garriott at the top of my personal list of game designers. Whether he was successful or not is almost beside the point; the point is that he tried, even at the risk of alienating a substantial part of his audience.

Porter quotes Benhabib on the matter of audience. Instead of just generalizing your player base as a homogeneous whole, instead “engage the concrete and particular features of one’s audience, who is actually ‘there,’ as far as that can be determined” (207). Games are actually much better at this than a written document, since they can literally adapt to meet the needs of very distinct players. Games could do a better job taking a broader variety of differences into consideration, but I applaud the progress that’s been made in this direction. Porter goes so far as to say that making an abstraction out of your audience is “unjust and sinful.” I agree. Especially in the context of making games, there’s just no excuse for it: no-size-fits-all. Don’t use the term “the player” or “the gamer.” Instead, always talk about players and gamers, and respect the great diversity in those terms.

Porter’s last principle is that we should not oppress or do harm to our audience. Anyone making a game is exercising power, but he or she doesn’t necessarily have to use that power to dominate or oppress players. Domination occurs when players are prevented from “expressing alternatives or exercising alternate choices” (208). We’ve all played games where we’re forced by the game design to do something we consider unethical. Again, I point at Deus Ex and some of the Tom Clancy games as examples to the contrary–you can kill enemies or merely disable them. I just want to see this concept magnified and extended. Since I’ve never talked to a gamer who actually complains about having too many options or control over the narrative, I assume many people are on-board with this.

Domination also occurs when players are “excluded from participating in systems and institutions that guide or determine their actions.” Again, it’s very important to recognize our own indoctrination and susceptibility to the patriarchy and dominant ideology. When we look at the people who get to call the shots in the gaming industry, we may see what we want to see rather than what’s actually there.  Most developers I’ve interviewed simply deny that there’s any sexism or racism whatsoever in the gaming industry. They are eager to recruit other designers and developers of all races and genders. They want a greater diversity of people to play and make games. Of course they say that, and may actually believe it. So why are we still seeing characters like Cortana in our games?

The reality is, the vast majority of games are for white heterosexual men, by white heterosexual men. The few exceptions to this principle are touted so loudly precisely because they provide a convenient excuse for remaining complacent. It’s the same argument you hear in general about how Obama’s election “proves” there’s no racism in the U.S. Why do we need an anti-racist movement–the President is black! Slash and cut those diversity programs…It’s not a pretty picture. Sure, there are some prominent female and LGBT game developers out there, and you can also find some games that buck the trend. But to argue that there’s no problem is not only incorrect, but unethical.

Many gamers I’ve talked to fall back on the old argument they call “economic.” If you don’t like what a game developer is doing, don’t buy the game. Porter covers this argument as well, calling the “love it or leave it” philosophy an “act of domination and exclusion (209). Indeed, the alleged “choice” simply not to play the game can have repercussions, both socially, and in the case of game developers, professional. You may need to play Halo 4, for instance, to learn from the level design or narrative structure, or just to be able to discuss it with your fellow designers. It’s easy to say, “Well, it’s just a game, no one is forcing you buy or play it,” isn’t as liberal as you might think. Imagine telling a female machinist, “Well, if you don’t want to see the swimsuit calendar, don’t go into the machine shop.” It’s the same thing.

We don’t need to “vote with our dollars.” We need game developers who are willing to grant their players the right to vote. And believe me, the first thing players of difference will vote for is representation.

This takes me into the final part of Porter’s article. Here he talks about how we can write ethically. The first step is not to do it alone: “The ethical writer has to consider a plurality of choices, including diverse and often conflicting laws, polices, and theories” (209). This isn’t the same as saying “everybody is right,” but rather that, in any particular situation, there will be competing ethical standards to consider.

My favorite part of Porter’s article is this line: “In the best of worlds, we always hope the writer’s hug is an embrace, not a strangulation” (214). I know there are designers and developers out there who genuinely don’t care about gamers beyond getting their money. Thankfully, these are in the minority. Most are as politically and socially conscious as you’d expect to see in any field that attracts such smart people. Unfortunately, also common is their inability or unwillingness to take what they do seriously, to see that “just making games” has an impact that goes far beyond just killing time. Wielding your power irresponsibly might do far more harm than you realize.

You can’t avoid division in writing (much as you need some kind of conflict or challenge in a game). We’ll never all agree on what is “ethical” or what is best for the common good. Porter defines his position as “situated ironic communalism,” a position in response to Rorty, Lyotard, and Vitanza. It amounts to “pursuit of the common good; respect for individual and community, for diversity and unity, and constant questioning and revision.” With games, perhaps more than in any other medium, we can respect both the individual gamer and the gaming community simply by giving them more choices, representation, and, ultimately, power over their gameplay experience.

Porter ends with a lovely metaphor of a musical group. Harmony is not everyone playing the same note or beat. Instead, harmony occurs when “different sounds  aligned and blended in a particular way produced a pleasant sound” (216). I love this idea applied to games, particularly MMOs. Why make everyone play the trumpet (and play the same notes on it?).

In short, whenever you make a game, you are exercising power. How do you intend to use that power? To promote the common good, to celebrate diversity, to empower players regardless of how different you feel they are? Do you want to “hug” your players by caring about and respecting them as people, or “strangle” them by presenting only a few choices and a cruel, myopic view of the world?









9 thoughts on “All Games are Political; Are They Also Unethical?

  1. Aleksey

    Every game reflects the designer’s vision. If someone wants to reveal issues of sexism, or slave trade, or racism or anything else they feel passionate about, they are free to do so.

    For example, “Papers Please” resonates greatly with me as a Soviet immigrant. I feel it is an important game because it brilliantly preserves the atmosphere of living in a totalitarian statist regime.

    On the other hand, the creator of “Democracy” series is a liberal, so he skewed his “balanced” game so the best outcomes always happen with liberal, as opposed to conservative, policies. It is his right to put his opinions in the game, of course, just as it is my right not to play it.

    1. Matt Barton Post author

      I’m not sure it’s right that you only have those choices. Why should you have to “take it or leave it?” Wouldn’t it be a better game if you had the option to play this Democracy game in another way?

  2. Jake

    “We don’t need to “vote with our dollars.” We need game developers who are willing to grant their players the right to vote. And believe me, the first thing players of difference will vote for is representation.”

    But how do you get those game developers? The only way is for people to vote with their dollars, or use the law to manipulate who gets to make games. I don’t think anyone wants to see the FCC regulate games and create a “Fairness Doctrine” (or maybe somebody does want to see that?)

    There are hard realities – most gamers are white heterosexual males. There are alternative voices in gaming, but there will never be equality in the numbers.

    1. Matt Barton Post author

      Fairness doctrine? Not a bad idea. But I have more in mind a couple things. One would be simply getting to know their audience better. Instead of the myopic and self-perpetuating focus on white straight guys, why not get out more? Bring more diversity to the development side, but also cater to more diversity on the gamer side. I’m not saying it’s a simple issue or that nobody has tried. I just want to promote what’s been done already and try to encourage more of it.

      And there’s no “hard reality” that says games must cater to white heterosexual males. That’s just a historical accident. If there were more women and LGBT game developers making games for others, believe me, that “hard reality” would evaporate overnight.

      1. Freeman

        Have to agree with Matt here. The D&D culture came out of white males arch type at a time before there really was any concept of equality for other genders, races or sexual orientations. The question is do we accept that as a cornerstone of these games, or change them to become more inclusive.

        There really is only one answer.

        Because if we keep making games for white male heterosexuals, then no one else will feel at home there. There isn’t an initial market to be had for just offering the black lesbian experience. (note to self, make a game for black lesbians). So saying gamers want these games, so they’re all we sell, this is all gamers buy, so it proves we’re right…. is fundamentally flawed logic.

        You should feel like the game you’re playing accepts you, the way the old D&D groups would accept the people the rest of society branded as nerds and sent away. Shutting our doors now makes us the backwards thinkers.

        I don’t think a law is going to be needed, nor should it be. That’s just changing where the power comes from. But the problem with it being a money vote is that there has to be an alternative in place to vote for. If we only had one candidate running for office and he won you don’t get to say “Hey, we had an election!” because it really wasn’t a choice. The two party system is barely a choice.

        So, what’s the other option? Tell them you want these things in games. For now, we need to start making sure the games we make consider them as part of the audience. A game that shows my character on screen that doesn’t offer a male/female choice always rubs me the wrong way. If you’re doing an CRPG the minimum you can do is offer Name, Gender, Race… and then not change any of the game’s romantic options. This costs minimal extra code time, and mostly is just an art re skinning for the main model that will use all the same animations anyway.

        So make sure you let reviewers know you want to hear that stuff. Encourage public people like Matt who are trying to have the conversation to KEEP HAVING IT. We do need to let game companies know that these choices matter to us, to our friends, and can be what keeps them away. That will be done on forums, reviews and when possible with our wallets. But lets not just presume wallets are the only way. The rest of it needs to happen too, or we’ll find ourselves as gamers the object of ridicule again, but in that case we’d deserve it.

        1. Jake


          I’d just like to point out that when you tell developers what you want, you are in fact still voting with your wallet – you’re just giving them the courtesy of informing them why you voted the way you did. Which is the most effective way to vote with one’s wallet.

          What do they say, 97% of customers never complain, they just go away?

      2. Jake

        Oh no! You weren’t supposed to like the Fairness Doctrine idea! I’m sorry I thought of it :)

        I like the idea of encouraging everybody to make games. But I still think it would be an uphill battle. I still don’t think I’m told what to like, though. I reject almost all games for one reason or another. Just like I reject most fast food except for a few choice items that I think are spectacularly delicious. The few games I do buy are what I think I will like.

        Getting more women and other marginalized groups into designing games seems similar to the efforts of getting women interested in computer science and programming in general. Men in Silicon Valley are currently falling all over themselves to prove they’re not sexist or misogynistic, in an effort to attract women, and yet the verdict is still out on wether or not they’re making any progress.

        You can lead a horse to water, and all that.

  3. Nick

    It’d be better to have more choice as always, but many developers, at their direction or the publishers, aren’t going to include so many different characters that vary in race, sexual orientation, politics, etc. It would add, I assume, months and months of extra work. They would have to add so many extra lines of dialogue, endings, character models, art assets, etc. It would be a huge undertaking. I’d love for there to be games where I could be a vicious dictator, murdering bastard, etc, but also play as politically correct carebear if I wanted to. I suppose that’s why I tend to like RPGs so much, because they attempt to give us those options. I don’t care for forced morality or preachy subject matter though.

    You should check out the game Expeditions: Conquistador, it’s an RPG released last year. I started playing it a few days ago, and if you aren’t aware of it you play as a Spanish explorer as they were conquering Central America in the 16th century or so. You can play your character a variety of ways and select a group based on their traits like, “Proud”, “Racist”, “cautious”, etc. Just yesterday, in game I had my slaves revolt and after I beat them in combat I had the option to tend to the wounded and let them all go, kill just those involved and make the others clean up the bodies, or kill them all, even the innocent ones. You could also refuse to take slaves in the first place and ask for paid servants instead if you’re curious. It obviously had a limited budget, but it really tries to give you that variety you desire.

  4. James

    If Porter isn’t a mystic you are doing a good job of making him sound like one:
    “(W)e should certainly be in awe of the mystery of difference.” If we aren’t it is “unjust and sinful.” Difference is “a value in its own right” whether or not people think so. And on the very next line of the book: (you didn’t quote it but, hey, Google Books exists; I went looking for more context) the point is “a theological one: Embracing and celebrating difference brings us to a transcendent spirituality.”

    Let’s consider the statement that the privileged group will “hide its ‘groupness’ under the coordinated claims of objectivity, impartiality, neutrality, and universality.” Why is he telling us that his opponents claim to be objective, impartial and neutral? Sure, anyone can say they are but, by the same token, it doesn’t mean they aren’t. (I’m sure Porter doesn’t use the word ‘opponents’ but let’s be clear, you and he are attacking the group for not meeting your standards; the word is appropriate)

    He wants to give his reader permission to disregard rather than engage with their arguments; and if they are consistent across the whole group (“coordinated”) so much the worse, somehow. Presumably this is alright because Porter has seen the Light of Difference and cannot let earthly concerns stand in the way of spreading Its Word.


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