Crunch, DRM and data-mining are all issues that must be explored 'on a moral basis', says game research professor

GDC11: Should game dev have a code of ethics?

Game developer associations around the world were today called to consider establishing a code of ethics for the good of the profession.

Miguel Sicart, an associate professor of Computer Games Research at the IT University of Copenhagen, told Develop there are numerous ethical issues in game development, both in professional and creative areas.

Sicart finds data mining – the process where a player’s real-time habits are profiled – an issue that’s “extremely interesting from an ethical perspective”.

He said: “We agree to let companies take data from us and profile us, and I think that’s a fantastic tool for developers. But data mining raises moral concerns. The main problematic question is what happens to our data.

“I don’t know what Steam is doing with my data, I, like millions of others, haven’t spent time reading through all the licence agreements. The duty is on the developer to be clear and transparent about what they are doing with such information.”

He also said the treatment of gamers was an ethical issue, especially in light of unpopular tools such as DRM-locks.

“Any game is not only an entertainment product, but an implicit contract between the developer and player. Every future game developer should know how they are going to relate to these people, these human beings, and not just see them as customers.”

He also touched on how there are some games that force players to engage in acts that would, in the real world, be deemed unlawful.

“Players thus create values in games,” he said.

“Developers should think about what the good values can be transmitted to players. The defining moral principal of life is to be the nicest, best person you can be.”

But Sicart’s idea for a game development code of ethics would be particularly useful in engaging game development workplace issues, such as crunch and overtime.

“The key moral issues in game development are workplace ethics; crunch and team management,” he told Develop in an interview following his talk at GDC.

“Those are very problematic issues in game development that affects a lot of people. A lot of game developers eventually get married and work in other, less demanding industries.”

Sicart believes a ‘culture of crunch’ means the development workforce will remain young.

“If you look at most software development practices, the issue of overtime is considered either in a professional code, or day-to-day workplace ethics,” he said.

“I’m not saying the conclusion to this issue is no crunch at all, but crunch has ethical implications. It harms people and therefore it harms the profession. Crunch may or may not have a negative impact on the quality of a game, but it affects developers’ mental health, family life and social relations. You have a burn rate in game development, and that’s a long-term issue.”

Pointing to the masses of people that walked around the Moscone Center, Sicart said: “Look around; this is a very young, passion-driven industry, but the good old guys just leave. There should be hundreds of them at an event like the Game Developers Conference, but look, there’s hardly any. And these are wise people who leave the industry.”

He said it was important that the development workforce had an institutional memory.

“The Association of Computing Machinery has on its website a code of ethics,” he continued.

“It means that any time there’s a dilemma in the workplace, an engineer can look up the code and make a choice based on that. So, my question is, should game associations establish a code of ethics for developers? I think that’s a question we should all, as an industry, discuss.

“The better we treat our workplace, in terms of ethical thinking, the more fulfilling the profession will be, the more long-lasting the profession will be, the more communicable the information will be. Developers will improve and better themselves if they look a bit closer at the job they are doing and the demands placed on them.”

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