Guest Post: The Importance of Ethical Video Game Design

Happy First Day of Spring, everybody. 🙂 In January I was contacted by Erin Palmer from the US News University Directory about a guest appearance here. After some discussion and review of their directory, I asked if she might be interested in coordinating a guest post about finding a game design school that specializes or allows for a focus in Games for Health or other “social mission”-oriented game design. Rather to my (happy) surprise, I’m often contacted by students asking where and what they should study if they’re specifically interested in designing games that have an educational or social mission. This seems to be a growing specialization desire for students going into college, and it’s pretty terrific. So here’s the guest post they came up with. –Erin


The Importance of Ethical Video Game Design

Video games have grown up. No longer are games designed for entertainment purposes only or just for gaming enthusiasts. The U.S. military uses video games for training. Through video games, Fortune 500 companies sell products and charities raise awareness. Schools use them to teach logic and problem-solving skills.

As video games’ reach and use extends across broad segments of society, they are increasingly being held up as models of ethical and social inquiry. That focus is spilling over to the curriculum in game design schools, as well.

Students in game design school take courses like animation, special effects and graphic design, and 2D and 3D modeling. They’ll expect to learn how to create a game from concept to launch – but they should also be expected to dig deeper into social theories and impacts, as well as ethical questions of game design.

Game Design Ethics Are a Hot Topic 

The debate over violence in video games has always been lively, involving everyone from game producers to parents, educators to criminal justice professionals. Lately, designers and critics alike are increasingly calling for games to help solve social problems, contribute to ethical inquiry, improve social discourse and help users examine their own views on issues.

It’s clear that games can be used for more than just escape and entertainment. Some experts say they can – and should – help solve global issues like climate change, poverty and hunger; or individual challenges, like obesity and depression. It sounds like the future could be in the hands of those who play and design video games – and it’s imperative that game design schools focus on both ethics and entertainment.

Ethical Questions for Video Game Design Educators and Students to Ponder 

The video game field can lead in countless directions, from design and development to production and project management. Regardless of the focus, students of game design should be encouraged to ask how they can use the profession for the greater good:

  • How can we leverage the power of video games to deliver education to more people?
  • How do games influence users’ choices regarding social and environmental issues?
  • How can video games make a positive contribution to society?
  • What is the role of video games in ethical discussions?
  • Can games promote certain ethical positions while entertaining? Should they?

It’s important to learn how games influence and affect not only the players, but society as a whole. It is possible to create video games that advance moral and ethical education.

Incorporating Ethics into Video Game Design Programs

Whether single-player or MMOG, video games can teach basic skills like math and spelling; moral lessons like integrity and accountability; and life lessons that come from inhabiting another world with a different personality. They offer ways to explore philosophical and ethical ideas that are not otherwise readily available to most people. Where else can a player make the choice to be a hero or a villain, to invade a village or rescue it, or to keep a found treasure or share it with others? Where else can players learn the consequences of their choices, with the ability to try again, and hope for a better outcome?

Video game designers are being encouraged to think about games in a different way; to create games that are fun and have a positive message; and to help young people navigate through life with a better understanding of themselves and their choices. More game designers are seeking out ethical game companies. As demand grows, educational opportunities should expand as well. More students pursuing video game design careers will be seeking out design programs that include an ethical component, or that focus on educational, social or environmental issues. Together, game design educators and students can help make the world a better place, one game at a time!

Guest post provided by U.S News University Directory a leading resource for locating online computer degrees and IT certification programs from accredited colleges, as well as, a growing collection of education articles and career information.  For more information please visit

Why I'm in New York City at a ridiculous hour

Hi all. Quick update, since I realized I haven’t mentioned this and it’s kind of cool.

Flew out to NYC on a redeye about eight hours ago, and am hanging around in the JFK JetBlue terminal taking wifi sustenance until a more reasonable hour to head out into the city. I have meetings tomorrow and Tuesday for a project picked up rather serendipitously last year, and the folks at HumaNature are being nicely tolerant and supportive.

I mentioned awhile ago that I’d won a game design contest put out by the Games for Health initiative. This project is not related to that, but Charles, a guy from Stottler Henke, contacted me on the basis of what I’d designed for that project.

In 2004, Stottler Henke won an SBIR phase 1 grant to prototype a project called LifeSim, aimed at instructing kids — unless I’m mistaken, specifically in low-income urban areas, though they tested it broadly across socioeconomic statuses — on nutrition using a video game. So, pretty big coincidence that this was going on and I had no idea when I drew up the GfH design.

Last year, as one of my freelance endeavors, I worked with them to put together a proposal for a phase 2 grant, and by that I mean I spent a lot of time on the phone answering game design questions and they did all the work. They had high expectations for its passing, but — I think particularly with the election and administration change — it took quite a bit longer to get approved than initially estimated. But it HAS been approved, and I’m now a game design consultant working with them on LifeSim II.

It’s a very cool project, and if I weren’t so tired I would be beyond thrilled to be getting it started — but it is just tremendously exciting to see something like this go from concept to actuality, especially with the wonderfully intimidating team of experts they have working on this, from the Stottler Henke folk to the partners at Columbia University’s Teachers’ College — nutritionists and educators. I feel honored to be a part of it.

And I also have the Games for Health initiative to thank for prompting all of this. Turns out that contest is really having tangible results that, if we do our jobs right, will actually impact the problems of childhood obesity in the coming generation. And the NIH for providing the funds for this grant, and showing solid faith that games can make a difference.

And, uh, it’s a pet game. Also, I have an iPhone.