In Praise of Ethics — and Money, Part 1

There were a few topics that bubbled up at this year’s GDC and in follow-up blog posts:

  • The impact of social games as something more than a fad
  • General disdain for Zynga as a game developer, if not as a money-printing machine
  • Game designers having to confront monetization in and as design

The first is exciting; the second is predictable, deserved and unfortunate.  The third is inevitable, and not nearly as unwelcome as many seem to think – I believe this is actually an important victory for game designers.

I’m going to cover this in two posts: ethics first, then monetization-as-design.

Zynga and Ethics

First I want to say that yes, game developers should be ethical.  Fortunately there are many companies that try to treat their employees and their customers well.  On the other hand, like a lot of others I was disappointed and embarrassed for our industry when I heard Marc Pincus say he “did every horrible thing in the book to get revenues.”  This is my third game start-up; I know how difficult it is.  But nothing justifies unethical behavior like scamming your customers with horrific little tool bars, predatory “offers” and the like.

Zynga now has a firmly established image as an “ends justifies the means” shop with little regard for the niceties of ethics.  At GDC in addition to the now notoriously clueless acceptance speech for Farmville as the best new social game at the Game Developers’ Choice Awards, there were oft-repeated rumors that Zynga has people who do nothing but play other companies’ games looking for Facebook violations, that their touted metrics are more PR than reality (possibly as a defensive play to keep others from focusing on actually developing games), and that they stand ready to clone from any other game while suing anyone who attempts to do the same.  The talk “How Farmville Was Written in Five Weeks” was broadly seen not as a success story but as one that should only have started with a slide that says, “Step 1: Rip off FarmTown.”  (Or at the very least, “eliminate the pesky need for actual design, and just pump out a clone of someone else’s hard work.”)

Now, whether any of the many rumors and allegations about Zynga are true is almost beside the point.  At GDC these were taken at face value, which tells you about how people feel about a company that, from the CEO on down, has made it clear they are not overly encumbered by ethical considerations.  To me this is unfortunate not only for the apparent lack of ethics, but because I know several people working there whom I would not expect to have signed up to work in such a culture.  That means they’re either uncomfortable and yet unwilling to leave in this economic climate, have changed their views on “soft” matters like ethics (perhaps due to golden handcuffs?), or that Zynga isn’t really so bad but at the very least has a world-class image problem.

Sex and Ethics

But here’s another side of the ethics argument: there have been increasing complaints that social games — or those monetized via virtual items transactions — are themselves bordering on unethical – that they work only because they exploit flaws in our brain wiring, that they are pale imitations of “actual” games, and that “real” game designers wouldn’t stoop to work on these (said maybe by those who aren’t in a position to do so?).

But creating social games and charging for virtual items doesn’t mean these games are merely playing on people’s weaknesses.  People repeatedly do what they enjoy (which is not the same as the specious argument that what people do most is the most fun thing in the game, per Zynga).  People see romantic comedies and action movies because those provide a certain kind of enjoyment.  Some people do the “quest grind” in traditional MMOs or play Bejeweled for hours because they provide different kinds of enjoyment.  Are these also examples of faux gameplay that survive only by exploiting our neurological weaknesses?

Beyond these examples, there are other long-standing traditions in the games industry that don’t often come under the same fire, practices like using sexy images (SFW), especially women’s breasts, to sell games in magazines, cover art, online, in show booths, etc.  Long before Evony was made infamous for their ads that proclaimed “hey it’s a game about breasts!” (oops, except it’s not), game marketers have been using sex in many forms to sell to their presumptively young male audience.   Tastes vary, but to me that’s not much higher on an ethical scale than scamming your customers.  But such lowest-motivator marketing is so pervasive that it’s often taken as a matter of course or even celebrated.

Is providing gameplay people find enjoyable enough to pay for in small transactional amounts really as bad as either scamming your customers or relying on titillation to sell a lousy product to them?  I don’t think so – and that takes us into the gameplay and monetization discussion (part 2).

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