I’m sort of surprised that we don’t speak more about ethics in game development. I know there are pockets of discussion here and there, but not to the level I have been expecting. Perhaps it’s because I’m trying to follow more accessibility focused individuals, perhaps it’s because I’m naïve and trusting (there’s definitely a part of me that leans in that direction, believe it or not), but I honestly think that deep down, people are good. Perhaps this is why I keep getting disappointed. Aaanyway.

In games, there’s an established view of who the player is. Just like so many other areas in life, the design point of view for games is considered to be an able bodied, heterosexual, cis, white man in his early 20’s. This is how we design games. This is who we take our cues from. These are the people in power in game development. Well. Maybe they’re not in their 20’s anymore. But those are the people we design for, and the viewpoint we adopt when designing games. This template decides what is good. This viewpoint informs canon, if you so will.

Design schools are built around it. The canon of multiple design design subjects rests upon it and we laud it as the apex of knowledge.

There are glaring omissions in that viewpoint and there are issues big enough that they cause real damage if we restrict ourselves to believing that this is the one truth, the apex of knowledge.

The viewpoint we take as designers, if we adopt the viewpoint above, is a privileged one. It comes from a place of power and it can become a relentless juggernaut when it comes to steamrolling those who are not in power, those who do not have the privileges of that same power.

Looking at the world and looking at design from a male perspective from the position of power above creates unsafe spaces for those who are not in power and it’s time to deal with those issues.

As a UX designer one of the things I often do is to advocate for social and security tools in the games I participate in making. Unfortunately tools to protect the player are even less considered than accessibility options which to my mind is insane. To be honest the expectation that everyone is able bodied is equally insane.

In any context, I believe that the idea of universal design should be the foremost consideration for any designer. Safety and accessibility shouldn’t be an afterthought. It should be front and center in everything we do not because we have to but because it is the right thing to do.

Due to the fact that we do have just one point of view as the starting point (at least in mainstream triple-A games), this is not likely to change until we start updating that point of view. Just as we design games for the lowest possible resolutions and settings, we should design games from the perspective that not everyone functions the same. At the same time, we can probably agree that not all games are for everyone, but if you already have restrictions and gates that keep you from playing all games, imagine how little you have left to choose from once you have removed the games that you physically or emotionally1 can’t play? What if all you have is a platformer and you don’t enjoy playing platformers? If you’re part of the privileged crowd you probably think this is a non-issue, and if you are privileged, it is. It’s so easy to dismiss someone asking for more choice as entitled but the truth is that it is the privileged players who are entitled. They can’t fathom what it feels like to be unable to play a game that “everyone” loves because there simply is no physical way to play it. Not only does this exclude people from playing the game but it also excludes people from the social aspects of playing and discussing games. Layers on layers of exclusion are created because we simply do not care enough to make something so pervasive as games accessible to all.

There are way too many white male designers out there that start from themselves. There is way too much teaching material that starts from that same viewpoint.

As long as that is the case, I believe that ethics and universal design is going to be an afterthought. Why do I believe this? Ask yourselves how things have been designed when it comes to social media and multiplayer spaces until now. The first stories I hear about new spaces are stories about bullying, harassment, sexual harassment and similar, and it is always directed towards marginalised groups. If you don’t ever have to be afraid of bad treatment, you never think to protect others against it.

It’s still a white, heterosexual, cis white man’s world. Everything is designed around that one single viewpoint. It’s time to change that.

  1. I do count emotional boundaries and gates as well. As marginalised individuals, we’re supposed to accept any kind of violence on our persons without complaint, but being constantly stereotyped, victimised and pointed out as an enemy is also a boundary that some of us won’t or can’t cross without massive discomfort.