Designing An Addictive Game Part 2/2 – Is That Ethically Wrong?

Designing Addictive Game Part 1 (Resources) gave some entry points into addictive game design. Today I’d like to ask about ethics.

Is designing addiction in games like “designing a new drug”?

Since addictions can be destructive, where do we draw the line? Is it ethically wrong to create addictive games?

Are makers of World of Warcraft doing things ethically wrong since their game is probably causing problems in marriages where spouse is playing all day/night long this MMO game? Or kids who don’t do well in schools or skip lectures because they play WoW?

What are your thoughts?

Juuso Hietalahti


  1. Game companies don’t care about ethics. They only care about profits. The more addicted the player is the better.

    Now the fact is that most people have basic emotional need that will never be fulfilled in their lives, unless they work really hard and sacrifice other things. That said, addicting games exploit this vulnerability and give shortcuts to the player to get this fulfillment. Naturally, when the player cannot get the same fulfillment in real life, but he can get it in the game world, he will get addicted. But at the same time, his addiction destroys other parts of his life.

    Is it ethical to exploit people’s emotional vulnerabilities and give them a taste of something that they might not be able to resist?

    Drug addicts commonly say that being high is better than sex. Yet, drugs are deemed illegal.

  2. As a Game developer and a self confessed recovering game addict, I think it is the resonsibility of the player to have self control if that person is an adult, and its the responsibility of the parent if the player is a minor(under 16).

    You can put a million warnings on the product but it will only be ignored take smoking for example. YOU WILL DIE A HORRIBLE DEATH. But people continue to smoke as will people that like games will continue to keep playing.

    I am purposely making my game addictive. Learning to do things in moderation that’s the best game of all.

  3. @ Sargon

    ………..This is not whether to create weapons or not.
    Its wether you create a weapon that works, or a weapon that blows up in your face when you use it………..

    I think this is definitely the point.

    And I also think if you realize that there is chance to blow up, and if you have the power to prevent it and you are not doing anything about it because you are having a lot of profit, then it looks to me that it is unethical.

    By saying this I don’t mean that all responsibility is designer’s/or producers’. As Juuso said there are two parts, but I believe designer’s have more power to effect to the other side.

  4. This is not a black and white matter, like juuso said.
    This is not whether to create weapons or not.
    Its wether you create a weapon that works, or a weapon that blows up in your face when you use it.
    Would you be willing to pay for a weapon that the company created it didn’t mention it got a good chance to blow up?

  5. @Usorp: It’s okay man ;)

    I might have came across as blockheaded or something, but it was late for me and I got off the phone with my friend Armin who is in hospital. He’s there to have his drug addiction cured. Why? Because he finally said “Yes, I DO have a problem”, and then seeked help. He took responsibility for his life.

    I know those stories and it’s horrible and very sad..

    But.. “for several continuous days”? Please, someone tell me she didn’t have problems.. mental or health related. What did her parents do? When I played too much, my dad took my computer and locked it up somewhere, and rightly so.

    If it was just the game and prolonged playing, we would have several thousands of deaths on LAN parties every year.

    Warnings and break reminders are great, love them. But re-designing the game, changing the rules, look and feel, so it is not potentially addictive anymore (and probably less fun), would be wrong and unfair in my opinion.

    Some other ideas that won’t “damage” the games themselves:
    How about adding a little booklet or letter to game boxes labelled “To the parents”?

    How about gamers and game producers gathering together to have information events for parents where you can adress their worries and objections and tell them what to do if the kid won’t do anything besides being glued to a computer.

    How about visiting the doc and get his opinion before letting your kid go on a LAN party? My mom did that with me when I was a kid.

    How about little informative brochures made by game publishers that they can give doctors for their waiting room.

    Teachers can help, too. Back in school I had a maths teacher who would occasionally play WoW with his pupils, have fun, but also remind them about health issues and their studies if he saw them playing too much. Because he showed genuine interest, the pupils would talk to him more easily if they had problems at home that made them submerge into a virtual reality. Genius. Who knows how much value he added to the lives of his pupils just by having a closer look and offering help.

    My point is.. changing the game design, or stopping to make potentially addictive games, would just adress the symptom, a person playing games way too much. I think you have to adress the underyling problem here and that’s where game designers can help and take responsibility.

  6. Hmm… addictions aren’t necessarily easy to break. Some people who are truly addicted (and I mean in a way that “they can’t stop playing”) to some game. I guess this is really a small minority, but it happens. Some girl died after playing too much WoW.

    Is it girl’s fault that she died?

    Is it parent’s fault that they didn’t understand that playing games can be lethal?

    Are we saying… that the game designers have whatsoever no responsibility for this?

    “Thereafter, several online game communities have posted announcements to urge their members to pay attention to their heath.”

    Or… would she have died anyway because of some other hobby/addiction (if word “addiction” can be used in this case)?

    (Sorry for pushing this… things aren’t so black & white… but I really want to bring the other side of the story here too).

    My own opinion is… that in the end all parties should perhaps take some responsibility. Game Designers & developers could do same stuff as Wii does: it mentions every 45 minutes for player to take a break and go outdoors. Some online games have information that mention this stuff to players. Perhaps games could have some sort of “parental video tour” that would explain what kids do. Of course in the end, the decision lies in the shoulder’s of the player (or the parents in case they have a kid playing), but I think we game developers could try to support ‘healthy gaming’, and take responsibility where we can.

  7. c’mon… these are just sophisms

    if you prefer to play WOW than giving attentions to your wife the problem is your.

    you are a game producer or what???? an holliwood wanna be producer?

    it sounds to me like: “writing an addicting book is good?” yes man, definitely.

    I hope you have the time to read some books sometimes.

  8. “Now now… weapons are also used to hunt food, in sports, hobbyists…”

    I clearly said “killing life”.. which includes animals. And I also mentioned deer, which is an animal. ;)

    “…so does that mean game designers have no need to think about ethics?”

    No, it just means that, from my point of view, addiction is a problem with the player. If the player wasn’t receptive to addiction, he wouldn’t get addicted to your game in the first place, as hard as you might try.

    I have lost friends to WoW because they got addicted. Is it Blizzard’s fault? I don’t think so. My friends made a conscious decision, for themselves, to spend most of their time in-game, and give in to addiction. In my eyes they have a mental problem and should seek help. Who puts off going to toilet or getting some water to “just finish this one more quest”? :)

    I tried WoW and it was fun but I didn’t get addicted. Many other people didn’t. Therefore, it can’t be the game designers doing something ethically wrong to their players. They did a good job at making a fun game that people enjoy to stick around.

    I think “ethics in games” covers much more than addiction and the question if game designers need or don’t need to think about ethics can’t be answered just with the addiction-angle.

    For instance..

    Is it ethically wrong to allow a player pick up whores and then kill them? – GTA
    Is it ethically wrong to make it fun seeing a human burn to death from your flamethrower? – Metal Slug, many ego shooters..
    And is it ethically wrong to promote the idea of eating shrooms to get the illusion of growing taller? – Super Mario. ;)

  9. Now now… weapons are also used to hunt food, in sports, hobbyists…

    “he will just indulge in something else”
    …so does that mean game designers have no need to think about ethics?

    (again trying to poke the bee hive with a stick… ;)

  10. Weapons are for killing life – this will always happen in nature. If I am determined to kill someone or something, I can use a spoon, stones, sticks, if I can’t find somebody to sell me a more efficient weapon. The man who creates the gun doesn’t necessarily know if his customer is going to use the gun on deer or human. Take away all guns and weapons, and humans will still kill.. with their tools, hands, with sticks and with stones.

    Games are for entertainment (mostly). If I create a game I can’t know if the person will play it until he rots away in his room. If this happens, the person has a problem sitting deep in his psyche. If he can’t find somebody to sell him a game, he will just indulge in something else. Taking away the game won’t make the problem go away (sociopathy or whatever).

    That being said, I still believe that games can create a downward spiral and destroy lives.

    So again, yes… we as humans need to change and use things responsibly, let it be weapons or games. See things as they really are, and then seek help if necessary.

  11. There will always be temptations, whether it be in media-form or other. The answer isn’t to stop the production of tv shows which effectively hook in the audience or games that are highly addictive. If we begin to limit our creativity in the media, we are draining the world of its full array of colours. The world shouldn’t be devoid of temptations, but rather educated on how to correctly prioritise the various aspects of life.
    In this sense, it is a shame that electronic stimulation has rocketed in the past couple decades. Younger generations born into this electronic world easily lose touch with what life is all about and the prospect of getting what you put in.

    Addictive games are the products of the world’s population competing to create the quickest shortcuts to the simplest pleasures.

  12. Well of course not all responsibility is on the players.
    The game maker has a great responsibilities too.
    For instance, if you create a game and ship it with bugs, you can’t blame the players, saying its their fault they didn’t make an educated purchase of your game.
    Or even not as drastic as bugs.
    Lets say you make a very frustrating game that make players angry. Would you blame the players for getting angry and direct them to anger management courses?
    I could make a game in which your goal is to get the star.
    If you don’t get the star in a certain amount of time, you need to start all over.
    Now, I never reveal to the players that you actually can never get the star, no matter how difficult you try. You can only get closer and closer.
    Is this a fair game?

  13. Let’s pose another question: so, all responsibility lies in the hands of those who play games? If they get addicted, they should seek help? (lol – nice point on the “warning: can cause addiction” sign Eli :D)

    Is it similarly to guns makers: the makers have no responsibility? Since it’s in the hands of those who decide whether to use guns?

    (I don’t know “right answer” – not sure if there’s ever gonna be one – I just want to challenge thinking…)

  14. Well, first of all, I think people can “waste” their time by playing games, and having fun. I remember wasting hours even playing minesweeper, but it was fun! And it was a conscious decision between other activities or playing a game. But when I think of today’s online games this question causes two separate voices in my mind.

    First one says it is definitely not wrong. Games are made for fun, and sometimes if they are more fun than the other things, is it really a bad thing? And for the extreme cases where games cause self-destructive behaviors on the player, I can say “Hey, everybody is responsible for themselves, if you cannot see what you are doing to yourself, what can a designer do. He/she just gave you a game to have fun, not to die for.”

    As soon as I thought like this, other voice starts to shout:

    Well OK, but think of a simple scenario, where there is a person who has a weakness to drugs, and a drug dealer is watching him so closely, studying each and every thing that makes him to search for drugs, and put those things in line waiting him at the end. Well, this is really exaggerated but in this case it is so clear that dealer is a bad guy (at least to me). Because everybody has some weaknesses (and teens have even more), people always have the chance to make lots of money by using those weaknesses. We can easily see that big brands, which studied those weaknesses, make the most addictive and self-destructive games, and they make lots of money (I guess anybody who played WoW at least once tried to calculate how much money they are making.)

    Still at this point I cannot blame the designers, because I don’t believe any designer creates a game with those “bad” intentions. But there is also the truth that companies study so well to make the games addictive, and when they push it so much for more profit they create an addictive and self-destructive game (which is no different than the “bad friend” who always gets into your kid’s mind, so you don’t want them be together.)

    At the end I feel like there is an ethical problem in the ones that cause self-destructive behaviors more than usual possibilities. And it would be better if people take responsibility of what they are causing, even though they were not intended it to be like that.

  15. What was my point is, some games literally waste your time.
    What do I mean?
    If a multiplayer game is structured like a pyramid, then only a few people will reach the high status, while all the others only dream of such high status.
    Why make a game where everyone want to win but only a selected few can really game?
    I would much prefer playing a game I could win from time to time, instead of investing my time trying to achieve something that only a small percent of the player base could achieve. Not because I am not good enough, but because of the design of the game to let only a few players to be on the top.

  16. HOMM, amongst other games… I found to be quite addicting. (What a wild tangent to kick things off with)

    I’m going to firmly say no, game designers are not doing anything ethically wrong or right by generating addicting games: they are merely making experiences to be played and a way for themselves to survive. As stated in above comments, if a developer has created a game that takes the fancy/delight of a person to such a level that it becomes self-destructive – one need only look at the root of the descriptor. SELF-destructive.

    If developers were at fault, then the same could be said of the folks who mass produce house hold cleaning chemicals that many people abuse. But that sounds ludicrous right?

    At best, ask the developer to put a warning label on their game – “Warning: Game is so awesome as to cause addiction, possible divorce or death!” – but if most saw such a warning, it would only make me want to purchase/play the game even more.

    (Note to self: add warning label to my next game…)

  17. Hmm… I am really not sure about it.
    I can think of some addicting games I have played.
    The most notable one would be a browser game where you would give orders to your troops, and every once in while(real world time) you will get new turns and see the results of your last action.
    That was kind of pointless addiction, because you wanted to win so much, and you would play against other people. But you really never can stand out in the crowd, yet you are trying to be the best.
    Its kind of sad, because they lure you to try and achieve something only very few people can achieve. To be one of the best.
    So in this case, its kind of like a lottery game, only you are required a bit of strategy and thinking to improve.

    I do not have a lot of experience with MMORPG, but I did play star wars galaxy.
    And again, I wanted to be some powerfull jedi, but after figuring out how much time I spend to improve my character a little. And after figuring out, I will never stand out in the huge crowd of an MMORPG, I quit.

    On the other hand, I am not against spending a lot of hours playing, if the game you are playing does exahust itself at a certain point(Couldn’t find the right words for this).
    For instance, I played Civ3 a lot. Woke up, started playing, ate quicklly lunch, continue playing, dinner, playing, sleep and the same the next day.
    However, at a certain point, I had enough of this game. I just wouldn’t enjoy it anymore.
    This is an “exhaustive game”.
    So I am not against these kind of games.

  18. I think that’s something everybody has to decide for themselves.

    If somebody is so addicted to a game that he can’t let go, that’s a problem within the player, not the game. He should seek professional help to get back his life.

    I think gamers exist because they were bored before they became gamers.. we’re in this because we love to be entertained that way, right? With playing we’re fulfilled an emotional need.

    The creators games are serving these needs. And these needs will NEVER be fulfilled, but we only have the attention to play one single game in a moment. So, at some point, somebody will come and take advantage of my need, so you better serve me before that other dude does it. If a game is so good that I don’t feel like playing any other game, meaning, I got “addicted” to that game, it just means that this particular game excels at serving my emotional need.

    My 2 eurocents. :)

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