Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 137 / JANUARY 1992 / PAGE 100

Computer game ethics. (World of Electronic Games)
by Sara Reeder

Consider these notes from the computer-gaming press:

In 1983, Atari seeks to halt the distribution of Custer's Revenge, an independently produced game in which the player's objective is to rape an Indian woman bound to a post.

In 1987, one of the most popular Macintosh programs on the market is MacPlaymate, an adult-oriented game in which the player undresses an animated woman and stimulates her with a wide variety of sex toys.

In the summer of 1990, California Assemblywoman Sallty Tanner introduces a bill to prohibit the depiction of alcohol and cigarettes in computer games distributed in the state. The bill is defeated in committee.

In 1991, an underground game creates a small flurry in the American computer press. The game, which is circulated on BBSs in Europe, puts players in charge of a Nazi concentration camp and rewards them for the quantity and brutality of their executions.

For game designers, software publishers, and parents who are already uneasy about their children's all-encompassing Nintendo obsessions, new items like these strike an ominous chord. As the novelty of personal computers wears off and electronic games find their way into the mainstream of American culture, thoughtful developers and consumers are starting to face the tough ethical questions. What effect do these games have on kids? Why are they so violent? And, perhaps most centrally, what cultural values do computer games communicate to their users?

The questions aren't new, but they're becoming more pressing as the market grows. The time is fast approaching when game designers and publishers must reckon with the moral questions that have dogged their colleagues in other media for decades.

Is the Medium the Message?

"Computer games are definitely not value-free," asserts Chris Crawford, a veteran designer noted for the strong ethical content of his games. "We can't argue that they're mindless entertainment with zero moral value, because it's obvious that there is some form of cultural communication going on whenever someone sits down to play a game. And I think it's very appropriate for people to be concerned about what messages are being communicated."

Roberta Williams, head of development for Sierra On-Line and designer of dozens of games for both children and adults, agrees. "Computer games communicate values the same way any other medium you watch or participate in--movies, books, TV, or magazines. And I'm not convinced that we should hold game to any different moral standards than we hold the movie or TV industries to."

According to Crawford, computer games do get extra scrutiny, mainly because they're perceived as children's entertainment. "Freedom of speech is paramount when you're creating entertainment for adults, who are better able to accept or reject the values presented to them. But we've also established the legal principle that freedom is appropriately restrained when you're addressing children. Right now, computer games are closely associated with children, and I think that the public debate about their moral content comes largely out of that association. Our image as a 'kiddie medium' gives us increased exposure to censorship."

Death, War, and Gore

As any parent can tell you, most of the ethical concerns about computer games centers around their notoriously high levels of violence. "It's the one issue the cuts directly to the heart of the industry," says Crowford. Computer game violence comes in a variety of flavors, including the following.

Repetitive death games in which the player's character dies over and over. After each "death," you typically insert another quarter or reload the saved game and start over. (Nervous adults have expressed concern that kids who spend too much time with driving simulations might actually think you can drive that way.)

Military games that simulate (and some say glorify) war. "A goodly portion of Americans find the rather strident militarism of these games objectionable," says Crawford, who has designed several war simulations. "They often present war as an exciting adventure, a noble quest by brave men and women. In short, they tell the player that war is fun."

In his games, Crawford attempts to redirect this message by working some humanity into the manual or right into the game itself. Take, for example, his upcoming game, Patton Strikes Back.

"After each major battle, there are these interruptions that stop the game to tell you personal stories about Patton and other people in the war--how this battle affected them pesonally. Some of them are quite graphic. People will still be entertained, but I hope they also walk away with a deeper sense of how horrific a real battle is."

Sid Meier of MicroProse, a company known for it war simulations, takes a different attitude. "You can make a case that war is full of terrible consequences--but I don't think that's news to anyone. There are a lot of movies and books about war, with a lot of different points of view. And I think that's because 'war is terrible' is not the only lesson to be learned; there's also the decision making and leadership and personal growth that occur because people have been through that situation. In our simulations, we want you to come to understand the decision process, the tradeoffs that are involved, the kinds of things people in battle are faced with.

Shoot-'em-up games in which the object is to blow away everything that moves. "It's instructive that all the early computer games were shoot-'em-ups," notes Meier. "In the beginning, it was just technically easier to do those kinds of games. And people didn't know what computer games were all about, so you had to make it clear who the good guys and the bad guys were. It's easy to do that in a battle context." These days, notes Meier, the last bastion of the shoot-'em-up is "your classic Nintendo game, where violence is the focal point of everything that happens."

"This sort of generalized blood-thirstiness, which a lot of games have, makes people very uncomfortable, and I think rightly so," muses Crawford. "This sort of rampant, dehumanized killing generates an aura of tawdriness that does our industry no favors."

Blood and gore. Designers are widely divided about the morality of showing up-close-and-personal scenes of blood and death. "Of the games I've done, I've stayed away from gore; I don't think it adds anything to the game to show blood and arms and legs flying around," says Meier.

Tom Loughry, who designed the close-range combat simulation Gunboat for Accolade, wrestled long and hard before coming to the opposite conclusion. "The fact is, when you shoot people, they bleed and die. You're not telling them the truth about war if you sanitize the death scenes."

Why are computer games so violent? According to most of the designers interviewed, they don't need to be. "Violence is a symptom of lazy design," asserts Crawford. "All games must have conflict of some kind, and violence is the most direct and intense form of conflict there is. As the industry matures, we should move away from it, but for that to happen, people have to make the effort to design games that take other approaches."

Several thoughtful designers and publishers are already making the effort. "We've all but banned death from our games," boasts Brian Moriarty, a senior game designer at Lucasfilm Games. "The possibility of death is a convenient and easy way to create game conflict, which is why you see so much of it. But I don't buy the notion that you need it to create dramatic tension. There's almost always a more elegant way to move the plot along if the designer is willing to think a little more creatively. Our perception is that people equate death with failure. And failure is not fun."

Among Moriarty's more recent games is Loom, "which took this idea even further--not only can't you die, you can't fail. The fun of the game is in making choices for your character. Like all good stories, it also has a strong moral.

"After all, computer games do teach people things about the world," he concludes. "If our ideas of conflict are limited to violence, we've got a lot to learn about art, storytelling, and game design."

Moriarty, Crawford, and Williams project that shoot-'em-ups, war games, and other types of violent games will soon be only small niches in a much broader market. In fact, the game shelf at your local Egghead might ultimately be as diverse as your local video rental store with a full spectrum of comedy, drama, mystery, adventure, and children's software. And the analogy may extend one step further to include X-rated adult games behind a curtain in the back of the store.

For Adults Only

Games with strong sexual content have been around almost as long as personal computers. Along with the infamous Custer's revenge, the more notable efforts include Interlude, a 1982 text adventure that contained several X-rated scenarios; Leather Gooddesses of Phobos, a 1986 game that was actually a lot tamer than its hype led one to think; and Sierra's Leisure Suit Larry series, a tacky spoof on the hot-tubs-and-gold-chains singles lifestyle.

Perhaps the most famous of all, however, are MacPlaymate (1986) and its second incarnation, Virtual Valerie (1989). "They're probably the most pirated games in the history of Macintosh," sighs creator Mike Saenz, who cobbled MacPlaymate together in just three days. "I don't even think the games were very erotic. I did them for a laugh because I think the idea of interactive sexual computer entertainment is parently absurb. MacPlaymate was a spoof of all the fetishistic trappings of the average male's preferred sexual imagery."

Saenz says there's no question that his two products objectify women as sexual playthings. "It's like having your own 'Stepford date-on-a-disk'; you don't even have to send her roses," he muses. "But I was hoping that the absurdity of it would sink in, that by putting it into such bold, simplified relief, men would realize how unreal it is to expect women to behave that way sexually. I was hoping to make some of this outrageousness clear. But I overestimated my audience; it ended up in the hand of a bunch of nerdy guys who'd never talked to a woman besides their mother.

Although it seems that there are always one or two popular adult-oriented games on the market at any given time, most mainstream publishers regard X-rated games as a very small niche. "Every company has its moral or ethical limits," says Williams. "There might be some company that decides it wants to make money doing Playboy-type games. But that's not what Sierra is about. We decided at the time we did Larry that that was our absolute limite, as far as the R-rated stuff is concerned."

Williams adds that some of her designers approached her about doing a more explicit game, but she refused. "It's not just that I don't like the way women are portrayed in these games. It's also that we'd be shooting ourselves in the foot if we sold them. We might sell quite a few to the men who buy that kind of thing, but over the long run, we'd lose the respect of our market. Even those same men would hesitate to buy our kids' games for their families--and women wouldn't go near us. It would be a long-term loss for us. If some other company decided that that's who they were, fine, but we're in the business to make software for everybody."

Saenz admits to feeling a similar backlash. He recently published a mainstream fantasy game called Spaceship Warlock--"an old-fashioned space opera that's nostalgic in a Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers sort of way, complete with sophomorically bombastic dialogue. Unfortunately, if you really try to capture that 'golden age of science fiction' feel, it will inevitably be somewhat chauvinistic, although it looks very liberated compared to, say, the first Star Trek series. Still, because of MacPlaymate and Valerie, people are looking for me to have this attitude. It turns out that there are a whole bunch of people who love what I do--a lot of closet Mike Saenz fans out there--and a lot of other people who think, 'That guy's sick.' I've been typecast as a terrible misogynist."

Of Demons, Drugs,

and Censorship

Sex and violence may be the big ethical issues, but they're not the only ones. Over the years, the television, film, recording, and publishing industries have felt pressure to watch their language (as in the recording industry's well-publicized degate over parental warning stickers), Just Say No (as part of the federal government's much-ballyhooed War on Drugs), and beware of demons (at the behest of the fundamentalist Christian movement). Through it all, though, computer game developers have managed to stay well out of the range of fire.

You would think that Mike Saenz, for example, would be an obvious target. "But none of the pressure groups seem to have found me yet," he marvels. "I haven't heard from Tipper Gore or Women Agaist Pornography. I think the hardliners and fascists must be very small groups that exert a lot of focused pressure--and right now they're going after the record companies."

"Sure, we've all gotten letters from parents who scream that hack-and-slash fantasy games are inspired by the devil," concurs Crawford, "but the numbers are so small that we tend to think of it as a marginal concern."

As computer games go mainstream, though, they're starting to attract at least some attention. And, surprisingly, one of the early battle-grounds washn't violence or sex, but drug abuse. "Drugs and tobacco just aren't usually a part of the context of most games," says Moriarty. Crawford echoed this, adding that "sometimes players will come across a vial that says, 'Drink me,' like in Alice in Wonderland, and you flot over the river or something as a result of taking it. But nobody's ever suggested that this promotes drug abuse."

Because designers and publishers regard drugs as such a nonissue, the introduction of California Assembly Bill 3280 in June 1990 took them completely by surprise.

The bill, introduced by Assemblywoman Sally Tanner (D-El Monte), would have prohibited designers from placing any alcohol or tobacco company logos in games or showing characters holding or using alcohol or tobacco products. Even though it was drafted with the loftiest of intentions, the computer game industry was quick to perceive a threat and moved quickly to block the bill. "We ship a children's product called Mixed-Up Mother Goose, which has been widely used in classrooms for years," says Williams. "In the game, King Cole loses his pipe, and the child helps him find it. It didn't make sense. Under this bill, reading a book of nursey rhymes would be perfectly legal, but I could go to jail for animating the same nursey rhyme. I don't like my kids seeing people smoke or drink, either, but to be restricted where other media aren't isn't fair."

A Kinder, Gentler Future?

All the designers are publishers interviewed for this article were optimistic that the ethical nature of computer games will continue to improve as the audience broaders in numbers and sophistication.

"Right now, we're locked into a traditional, hobbyist market that has a specific set of expectations about the kinds of games they want," Moriarty observes. "A lot of us want to move beyond those expectations but feel held back. Still, I'm convinced that there are a lot more computer owners out there who are interested in using their machines for entertainment but aren't attracted to the traditional offerings."

He's pleased that Loom has been very popular with first-time gamers and women--two groups outside the core market--but complains that publishers are often reluctant to support games that fall outside of standard genres, even if they might open up the world of computer gaming to a broader market.

As game developers look toward the bit time, they're taking their cues from the film and recording industries. Many publishers have long adhered to their own internal standards. At Sierra, for example, games are categorized as either adult games, like Leisure Suit Larry and Space Quest; family games, like King's Quest, that children and parents will likely play together; or children's game, in which blood, death, and violence are entirely banned. "Our goal is to make software for everyone," says Williams.

There's also widespread talk of an industrywide rating system, based on the system the MPAA uses to rate movies. "We're kind of in this window where we don't have a ratings system yet because we're still a new industry and not all the pieces are together," Saenz says. "But I think a ratings system would be useful because you'd know where boundaries exist and it would help both the developers and the audience clear up a lot of the confusion in the marketplace. I don't want to limit freedom of expression, and a rating system might be one way to protect it."

Crawford points out that, as with books and movies, the truly outrageous games appeal only to very small and specialized niche markets. (The numbers bear this out. MacPlaymate, despite its tremendous popularity, was only available through mail order. The concentration-camp game is only distributed via BBS, and no American game designer interviewed had actually seen it.) "Mass marketing will be the key to improving the ethical climate in computer games," Crawford predicts." You can only push people so fast, but the messages we communicate will certainly improve as we slowly learn how to design games for a larger audience."