A recent article in The Age entitled Ethical Dilemmas canvassed the question of the ethical obligations of game designers to players. According to the piece, Jonathan Blow, the designer of Braid, claims that the grind of MMORPGs is unethical:
Mr Blow believes developers need to think about what their games are teaching players when they reward them for performing certain actions.
"That kind of reward system is very easily turned into a Pavlovian or Skinnerian scheme," he says. "It's considered best practice: schedule rewards for your player so that they don't get bored and give up on your game. That's actually exploitation."
"I think a lot of modern game design is actually unethical, especially massively multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, because they are predicated on player exploitation," Mr Blow says
I've never seen it expressed specifically in relation to level grinds or raid farming obligations, but the concept is familiar enough. Julian has made it a number of times, under the rubric of "ludocapitalism." (Damn, give that itinerant wordsmith from Indiana a prize).
I'm not sure that I have a great deal to say about this. Well, apart from maybe one thing. I am a long way from being libertarian, except when I read statements like:
"Developers should provide activities that interest players "rather than stringing them along with little pieces of candy so that they'll suffer through terrible game play, but keep playing because they gain levels or new items", he says."
I mean there's paternalism and there's paternalism. It's one thing to suggest that people should read more Shakespeare and less Harry Potter; but surely it's another thing to say that people are actually wrong to find the grind compelling because it's not "interesting". And then further to assert that the designers are unprincipled in implementing it. (I leave for the reader a fully worked-through articulation of the limits of gamespace autonomy under right libertarianism, left libertarianism, Marxism, your five favorite flavors of liberalism, etc etc)
Actually, there's one other thing. When did it become accepted that games were drugs? This has been a trope for a while, of course. But we seem to now be at the point that we don't even trust the player to act in their own best interest because, you know, they just can't help themselves.
[Thanks to my dad (of all people) for spotting this article. And especial thanks to The Age for including art of a mostly nekkid nelflette in an article on ethics. Priceless.]