Just a Game

What We Talk About When We Talk About Ethics In Games

I recently had the pleasure of listening to Sam Gilbert describe the research being done at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on the Good Play Project — a study designed to find out how people think about their actions while playing games online, and in so doing, help to develop mental models of online play so that parents and teachers can better foster ethical thinking in children (you can watch his presentation here — find “Talks: Games and Civic Engagements” and just forward to the 51 minute mark). After absorbing the talk, it left me thinking a lot about how fantasy baseball — a game I’ve been playing online for over a decade — has influenced my own thinking in regards to my ethical practices.

People seem to think that they have a looser ethical standard when playing an online game with others (typically strangers), and as Sam reported, you’ll often here the proverbial “it’s just a game” phrase get tossed around. Sam explains that the vast majority of participants in the study did not see how ethics belonged in games, that actions in games are “different in kind and degree” and that they have different meanings than those of the real world. If we define ethics as how you consider yourself as a part of a larger community in terms of roles and responsibilities (this is Good Play Project’s definition), then you might think of the last time you indulge in any game with multiple players: you probably took yourself very seriously while having fun. That is to say, you probably did everything you could to explore the boundaries and strategize to win without breaking the rules (cheating), being a jerk to other players (greifing), or simply not caring or trying (spoilsporting). If there was a gray area of the rules between what was deemed fair play, then you probably appealed to the intentions of the game designer and made your best judgment along with the community. So you see, games have ethics and ethical dilemmas.

The conclusion of the Good Play Project is fairly simple: people do think ethically while playing online games, even though they claim they don’t. Even when a player claims “it’s just a game,” they are still practicing ethical standards in their play. Sam argues that because in game actions are different in kind, games are great for creating new spaces for arguing about and reaching consensus about ethics — that games are great training grounds for ethical thinking that might be required in higher risk situations. I certainly agree with this assertion. As I think back to my younger days (I turned 30 yesterday), I can remember how managing backyard games with friends or card games with my parents sometimes led to arguments over rules or game moments and, as a community of players, we had to work it out. I can acknowledge how games helped shape the processes for which I use to problem solve, and this includes ethical problems. More recently, it’s been in my fantasy baseball leagues where my training ground has been.

In most fantasy baseball leagues, of the ten or twelve players managing a team, one player serves as commissioner. Sometimes the powers of the commish are broad (ruling on trades), and sometimes not so much (setting the order of the draft). It’s a necessary conflict of interest, or so it seems: someone has to be the organizer and you’re not going to find a schmuck outside the league willing to do this, meaning one of the players automatically has more power than any other. You hope this person has high and strong ethical standards. In fact, the integrity of the game depends on it.

The very first league I was in (which wasn’t online), turned out to be a scam where the commissioner never paid me my winnings. An early lesson for me on ethics and a late lesson for him in mail fraud (thank you post office inspectors). Fast forward about ten years later, I’m playing in an online league with mainly ex-military strangers (but they all know each other). First let me explain why a democracy doesn’t work in fantasy baseball where trades are concerned: many leagues unfortunately have rules that allow for the every player to vote on the legitimacy of a trade (legitimacy meaning suspected collusion or cheating, or a lopsided value that would affect the balance for the entire league). It’s simple game theory: why would you ever vote to allow a trade between two other teams if it helps both of those teams — meaning it hurts your own team? Leagues with this democratic approach rarely have trades that get processed. So the other option is to have your ethical commish make decisions as to the legitimacy of the trades. Well, I learned about the perils of this approach from a former Marine. Someone offered him — the commish’s team — Barry Bonds and Randy Johnson back when these baseball players were studs (or should I say “juiced?” — a whole other topic in the games and ethics genre) for next to nothing. To make a long story short, the commish refused to veto his own trade even though a majority of the league threaten to quit, and later did. I truly believe this commish has used reason to justify the trade and saw himself in the right. I was one of the players who quit, as I saw this trade unfairly creating an imbalance of power in the league — and that the commish was using his leverage or power to improve his own team. This commish claimed he believed in market forces and thought trades should only be vetoed when their was proven collusion or cheating. I’m sure anyone who has played in a fantasy baseball league has a story about a similar situation where the community of players were forced to discuss and hope for consensus around such a debate.

Now fast forward to today. In my current fantasy baseball league, we’re having a debate that goes much like the one described previously. The difference is the trade at hand that has caused the stir does not feature the commish’s team (nor mine). This debate is simply about perceived value of players over the course of the season and years to come (this is a keeper league when certain players can be held onto for up to 3 more seasons). How do you weigh the value of player A who is average but has 3 more seasons of service vs. player B who is awesome but is done after September? In the course of the current message board fiasco, I made a post that argued for letting market forces decide value (I’ve become more conservative in my later years). I was told to basically shut up because a) this was just a game, b) that the unfairness of the trade in question was obvious (and apparently needed no facts to prove so), and c) stop pushing the discussion as I was being a pain in the ass for the commish. Perhaps I was taking the fun out of the game by pushing the debate as I often do, but the other players probably don’t realize games and ethics are pretty much my two favorite topics (I’m a game designer and a former journalism teacher). But since the commish is actually my cousin, the league is probably stuck with me being a pain in the ass, for better or worse. Needless to say, I’m sure debate will continue in the league until we reach consensus on how to trade with keepers, and in so doing, much of the conversation will be framed by ethics.

Taking the fun out of a game is never my target effect as a game player or a game designer. That probably goes without saying. But as Sam Gilbert and the Harvard Good Play Project have pointed out, it’s important that communities of players use games as a training ground for ethical thinking. If fantasy baseball has given our culture anything — besides jealous girlfriends and multimillion dollar industry — it’s a space for small groups to simulate ethics debates and try to reach consensus. And to me, that sounds like a lot of fun.