Most people on social media have heard about the rage-inducing mobile game Flappy Birds and the developer’s surprising decision to take it down. For those of you that don’t know, Flappy Birds was a ridiculously simple phone game where you had to guide a little bird through openings in the Super Mario Bros pipes. And you would fail. A lot.
The creator of the game, Dong Nguyen, received a ton of hate mail about the game, because apparently it’s his fault that people can’t guide an 8-bit bird through a crude maze. Instead of telling people to stop sending hateful messages to people they’ve never met (but then what would they use Twitter for?), Nguyen felt personally responsible. Realizing he created a horrible monster, he pulled a Frankenstein and removed the game from the app store. His reason for removing it? It became ‘too addictive’.
Addictive is a word that game developers are proud of. Glance over a couple game blurbs and you’re bound to see it proudly plastered over the description. They made something so engrossing that it made people stare at their screens and neglect their personal hygiene for weeks on end. It’s a very light way to use a word that can be associated with pills and booze to describe a videogame, really.
But the question is, does that make them bad people? I mean, if they purposely sat down and designed something that they knew would hook people? Well, first of all, it can’t be that bad. Those cases of people playing Xbox until their hearts give out are rarities. So let’s not talk in hyperbole. But like, is it unethical to try and hook your players?
Is it unethical to try and hook your players?
I think the answer is, it all depends on your intent. If you created something that you wanted people to enjoy and get drawn in by, that’s probably not a bad thing. But if you worked out some kind of design mechanism specifically designed to turn them into arm-scratching junkies itching for your game, that’s probably a bad thing.
And as David Wong of Cracked.com points out, there are game developers that have exactly that mindset. If you’re treating your game like some kind of bizarre Skinner box, then you are a cynical and manipulative dev. People like Jon Blow would go as far as to call you ‘evil’.
The worrying thing is that games are now sold in a way where players need to stay involved for studios to make any money. That’s how the much-maligned Free-to-play works. You’re not selling anything up front, but you’re hoping that they like it so much that they pay you little bits of money over time or keep looking at your ads and eventually people are selling their pants to buy digital swords.
Recently, the worst offender has been the Internet’s favorite punching bag, the company that has been compared to Hitler with little or no irony, EA games. Their recent HD remake of the popular classic Dungeon Keeper made it so that you would have two options for clearing ground in the game: Spend an entire day playing or pay up. They designed it in such a way that the gameplay would engage users, get them involved in the playing world and then ask them to pay up.
Comparing Dong Nguyen and whatever evil, cackling suit at EA decided to take a big steamy dump on our childhoods, I see two kinds of developer. One who sees games as a positive, enjoyable experience and the other who sees it as a cheap ploy to trick 11-year-olds into giving him money. Note that Dong Nguyen is still being paid for his game, but at least he acknowledges that the game turned into something ugly.
So maybe ‘ethics’ is a strong word to use when describing videogame design. But I definitely think that game developers should want their audience to see the experience as positive, enjoyable and maybe a little addictive as opposed to some sort of bizarre chore.