In this article, I investigate the ethics of freemium games, microtransactions, and loot boxes. Three distinctions are relevant. First, there is a difference between a fixed-reward microtransaction and a random one, such as a loot box. Second, there is a difference between cosmetic items and those which affect gameplay; this is particularly pronounced in multiplayer games, where a player might have an advantage over another through the expenditure of real money. Third, there is a difference between items which are obtainable both for real money and for in-game effort and items which are only obtainable for real money. Ultimately, all three of these distinctions will prove necessary to show that fixed cosmetic rewards are ethically permissible, random rewards of all types are ethically problematic, and fixed functional rewards can be acceptable, but only under certain conditions.
In this paper I will be investigating the ethics of freemium games, microtransactions, and loot boxes. Three distinctions are relevant here. First, there is a difference between a fixed-reward microtransaction and a random one, such as a loot box. In the former, a player knows exactly what she is purchasing and how much it will cost her. In the latter, a player knows how much she is paying for the loot box, but she does not know what is inside. Second, there is a difference between cosmetic items and those which affect gameplay; this is particularly pronounced in multiplayer games, where a player might have an advantage over another through the expenditure of real money. Third, there is a difference between items which are obtainable both for real money and for in-game effort and items which are only obtainable for real money. Ultimately all three of these distinctions will prove necessary to show that fixed cosmetic rewards are ethically permissible, random rewards of all types are ethically problematic, and fixed functional rewards can be acceptable, but only under certain conditions.
Society has become increasingly aware of the need for accessibility in many realms. While frequently the focus is on physical space, such as promoting universal design in architecture, people are spending more and more time in video games and social virtual worlds such as Second Life. For our society to be truly inclusive of disabled people, we are morally obliged to attend to these virtual spaces as well. Specifically, I discuss two key aspects of inclusion: accessibility and representation.
Some may think this focus frivolous; why worry about what happens in virtual worlds and games? First, as Johan Huizinga recognized in Homo Ludens, humans have a need for play in our lives. Secondly, we are social beings. An increasing amount of play is taking place in digital worlds, and with the dwindling of physical third places, the same is true of social interaction. We have an ethical obligation to ensure that these virtual spaces are accessible to everyone.
Accessibility is only the first step to inclusion, however; representation is also key. Virtual spaces offer those with visible disabilities the chance to control their presentation to others in ways that are impossible in the physical world. Being able to choose whether and how to reveal one’s disability is empowering, particularly given social tendencies to reduce a person to nothing but their disability. Similarly, being able to engage in activities that are difficult in the physical world (perhaps for reasons of mobility or social anxiety) can be enjoyable. However, on the flip side of this coin, there is often no disabled representation in virtual worlds and video games at all, which can send the message that disabled people are unwelcome. Inclusion is thus more than mere accessibility; the manner in which disabled people are represented is also key.
Augmented reality (AR) blends the virtual and physical worlds such that the virtual content experienced by a user of AR technology depends on the user’s geographical location. Games such as Pokémon GO and technologies such as HoloLens are introducing an increasing number of people to augmented reality. AR technologies raise a number of ethical concerns; I focus on ethical rights surrounding the augmentation of a particular physical space. To address this I distinguish public and private spaces; I also separate the case where we access augmentations via many different applications from the case where there is a more unified sphere of augmentation. Private property under a unified sphere of augmentation is akin to physical property; owners retain the right to augment their property and prevent others from augmenting it. Private property with competing apps is more complex; it is not clear that owners have a general right to prevent augmentations in this case, assuming those augmentations do not interfere with the owner’s use of the property. I raise several difficult cases, such as augmenting a daycare with explicit sexual or violent images. Public property with competing apps is relatively straightforward, and most augmentation is ethical; those apps simply function like different guidebooks. Under a unified sphere of augmentation it is unclear whether augmentations should be treated more like public speech (which we value) or graffiti (which we do not) or (most likely) some of each. Further consideration is needed to determine what kinds of augmentations we view as ethical.
Abstract: Video games are a specific kind of virtual world which many engage with on a daily basis; as such, we cannot ignore the values they embody. In this paper I argue that it is possible to cause moral harm or benefit within a video game, specifically by drawing attention to the nature of the choices both players and designers make. I discuss ways in which games attempt to represent morality, arguing that while flawed, even games with seemingly superficial devices such as morality meters can attempt to promote moral reflection. Ultimately, I argue that the moral status of the actions depends on the effects of those actions on the player herself; if those actions make us less ethical then the actions are wrong. Unfortunately, it is not clear to me that players are always in a position to tell whether this is the case.
The final publication is available at Springer via http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-01800-9
Many video games incorporate some form of moral system and try to force players to make difficult ethical choices. I look at various ways that video games represent morality, ranging from simplistic meters to more nuanced attempts to adapt the gameworld in response to player actions. While in many cases a game’s moral system is obviously very artificial, I argue that it can still be used to encourage moral reflection. I also consider two situations in which players were deceived about how much effect their choices would have, one of which resulted in a great deal of outrage. Ultimately, our ability to care about and be affected by choices in video games is what opens the door to moral engagement. Video games have the potential to foster more moral deliberation on an everyday basis, particularly since playing through moral dilemmas is much more interesting to most people than simply reading about them.
Note: This was an invited talk and incorporates portions of my paper “The Ethics of Choice in Single-Player Video Games” along with my more recent work.
As video games flourish, designers have a responsibility to treat players and potential players justly. In deontological terms, designers are obliged to treat all of them as having intrinsic worth. Since players are a diverse group, designers must not simply focus on an idealized gamer, who is typically a straight white male. This creates a duty to consider whether design choices place unnecessary barriers to the ability of certain groups of players to achieve their ends in playing a game. I examine the design implication of this for the gameworld, avatar design, and accessibility to players with disabilities. I also consider the limits of designers’ control by examining responses to abusive player chat in multiplayer games. Ultimately, a careful balance must be found between what is necessary to create the game a designer envisions and what is necessary for treating all players as having intrinsic worth.
Augmented reality (AR) blends the virtual and physical worlds such that the virtual content experienced by a user of AR technology depends on his or her geographic location. With the advent of games such as Pokémon GO and technologies such as HoloLens, an increasing number of people are encountering augmented reality. This raises a number of ethical concerns, among them the issue of who has an ethical right to augment a particular physical space. I address this question by distinguishing public and private spaces; I also separate the case where we access augmentations via many different applications from the case where there is a more unified sphere of augmentation.
Private property under a unified sphere of augmentation acts much like physical property today; owners retain the right to augment their property and prevent others from augmenting it. Private property with competing apps is more complex; it is not clear that owners have a right to prevent most augmentations in this case, given that those augmenations do not interfere with the owner’s use of the property. I also discuss several difficult cases such as augmenting a daycare with explicit sexual or violent images.
Public property with competing apps is relatively straightforward, as those apps function much like different guidebooks; they are public comments on public property which do not interfere with each other. Under a unified sphere of augmentation, the matter becomes trickier. Ultimately it is unclear whether augmentations will be seen more as public speech (which we value) or grafitti (which we do not). Unfortunately, there may not be a single answer to this; I suggest the need for further consideration of what kinds of augmentations we view as worth protecting.
As video games flourish, designers have a responsibility to treat players and potential players justly. In deontological terms, designers have obligations to treat all of them as having intrinsic worth. Since players are a diverse group, designers must not simply focus on an idealized gamer, who is typically a straight white male. This creates a duty to consider whether design choices place unnecessary barriers to the ability of certain groups of players to achieve their ends in playing a game. I examine the implication of this for the gameworld, avatar design, and accessibility to players with disabilities. I also consider the limits of designers’ control by examining responses to abusive player chat in multiplayer games. Ultimately, a careful balance must be found between what is necessary to create the game a designer envisions and what is necessary for treating all players as intrinsically worthy beings.
Many people have discussed ethics and video games. Thus far the focus has been on two elements: the actions players take within a game and whether certain kinds of games are wrong to create, such as extremely violent video games. Taking Miguel Sicart’s work as a key starting place, I emphasize the moral importance of choice with respect to video games. This has several components. Focusing on single-player games, I consider gameplay choices that players make, such as how to complete a particular mission in a game and how the game evaluates and adapts to player choices in a way that attempts to impose and/or encourage a particular moral stance. Much literature focuses specifically on gameplay as the interactive component that makes video games a unique medium. However, I stress that we must also consider the choices designers make when they program a game; these choices can frequently go unnoticed and unquestioned by players. As such, while I agree with those who emphasize that players are capable of moral reflection, I question how often they actually engage in moral reflection. This suggests that there is room for pragmatic concern about how actual players – not ideal players – are affected by video games.
Abstract: Video games have become a pervasive form of entertainment in current culture. As such, it is essential to examine the power structures inherent in creating and participating in video games; to fail to do so runs the risk of simply recreating current social injustices. While designers hold most of the power in single-player video games, that power is shared with the players in multiplayer games. I argue that this power comes with social responsibilities.
Designers’ social responsibilities are most evident in a game’s creation; they have a strong responsibility to avoid microaggressions in the design of their game world and gameplay. Their obligations to the game community do not end at game creation. This is particularly evident in multiplayer games, since designers have an ability to encourage or discourage particular behaviors among players. However, a game’s community is not only what occurs inside the game; it encompasses the behavior of its fans in alternate venues such as forums on the game’s website. In this way a game’s community blends into the larger gamer community; I consider the obligations that designers have both to the community of their specific games and to the gamer community as a whole.
While game designers hold much of the power, players hold power as well. Particularly in multiplayer games players have ethical responsibilities towards other players within a game; while games take place in a fictional space, the players are real and can suffer real harms. However, responsibility is not shared equally. Due to both player-created social status and inherent power structures in many games, particular players hold positions of power within the game community. I argue that these players have greater than average social obligations as a result of that power.
Abstract: Additive manufacturing has spread widely over the past decade, especially with the availability of home 3D printers. In the future, many items may be manufactured at home, which raises two ethical issues. First, there are questions of safety. Our current safety regulations depend on centralized manufacturing assumptions; they will be difficult to enforce on this new model of manufacturing. Using current US law as an example, I argue that consumers are not capable of fully assessing all relevant risks and thus continue to require protection; any regulation will likely apply to plans, however, not physical objects. Second, there are intellectual property issues. In combination with a 3D scanner, it is now possible to scan items and print copies; many items are not protected from this by current intellectual property laws. I argue that these laws are ethically sufficient. Patent exists to protect what is innovative; the rest is properly not protected. Intellectual property rests on the notion of creativity, but what counts as creative changes with the rise of new technologies.
Abstract: In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, there is an ongoing battle between Death and a group of beings known as the Auditors. These beings strive to maintain order in the universe and dislike humanity and all its inherent messiness. Death, on the other hand, is rather fascinated by humans and sees value in the individuality humans exhibit. This illustrates a more general tension between the individual and the collective. One place this tension emerges is in ethical theorizing. While traditionally there is a push towards universalization in ethics, recently many have come to believe that our ethical thinking must recognize the embodied and individual nature of humans. This position is echoed by Death in his battle with the Auditors; he knows that humans are inherently individual and this cannot be stifled without destroying humanity. Death thus becomes the unexpected champion of humanity and individuality, explicitly committed to the importance of care. I argue that Death’s actions in their various skirmishes demonstrate that the only way to do justice to the group is by fairly treating the individual; to care for the individual in the way he does is to enable justice to occur. While Death may claim that “THERE IS NO JUSTICE. THERE IS JUST US”, his care is the catalyst for justice to occur.
We use moral terminology when talking about food; we judge it “good” or “bad” and apply moral terms such as “sinful” to it. While food varies in nutritional value, using these terms without qualification falsely implies that nutrition is the only determiner of value. I follow Aristotle in arguing that goodness has to do with function and showing that food has many other functions besides keeping us alive. Food provides emotional sustenance, aesthetic pleasure, and can fulfill ritual or communal purposes. Multiple uses for food lead to multiple goods.
The rhetoric surrounding food ignores this plurality. This generates problems, particularly since we judge the eater, not simply the food; we see people eating “bad” foods as themselves bad. This has unacceptable social ramifications, since we risk labeling entire cultures and social classes as bad for consuming foods our society disapproves of. Moreover, such absolute judgment is inconsistent with our treatment of permissible risk in other arenas; a food which poses a threat to our health should not invite special moral condemnation beyond that usually applied to risky activities. No food is good or bad absolutely; our rhetoric to that effect is misleading at best and potentially harmful at worst.
Abstract: Understanding identity requires understanding the communities to which we belong; virtual communities are increasingly relevant to our personal identity. While many point to alleged differences of behavior and presentation online, these are not as great as first appear; characteristics which encourage antisocial behavior online do so offline as well. Furthermore, while deception and alteration of identity are possible online, they are difficult to sustain and rooted in our understanding of physical identities. Thus while there is space between our physical and virtual representations, the two are not sharply separated. Anonymity is often used to argue for such a separation, however while there is sufficient anonymity to allow for deceptive portrayals online, it is harder to attain than most realize. I discuss ways of piercing anonymity online and possible future ramifications of our increasing ability to do so. Less anonymity will likely lead to greater responsibility for our online actions, but it also will diminish our ability to use virtual worlds for identity experimentation. Ultimately, I argue that virtual and physical identities are intertwined: our online identity is influenced by the physical world but can also shape who we are and who we become.
Abstract: Almost thirty years ago, James Moor’s paper “What is Computer Ethics?” was published, arguing for the special status of computer ethics. As part of an invited symposium celebrating his work, I reflect on the issues Moor raises before turning to the five overarching areas I see as most important in computer ethics today: privacy, identity, trust, responsibility, and access. Within each of these broad areas I consider a number of related philosophical questions which have either arisen or become more pressing with advances in technology. While Moor argued for the special status of computer ethics thirty years ago, I argue that the situation is even more urgent now, with our abilities rapidly outpacing social convention on how to handle relevant ethical dilemmas.
Abstract: A key distinction in ethics is between members and non-members of the moral community. Over time, our notion of this community has expanded as we have moved from a rationality criterion to a sentience criterion for membership. I argue that a sentience criterion is insufficient to accommodate all members of the moral community; the true underlying criterion can be understood in terms of whether a being has interests. This may be extended to conscious, self-aware machines, as well as to any autonomous intelligent machines. Such machines exhibit an ability to formulate desires for the course of their own existence; this gives them basic moral standing. While not all machines display autonomy, those which do must be treated as moral patients; to ignore their claims to moral recognition is to repeat past errors. I thus urge moral generosity with respect to the ethical claims of intelligent machines.
Abstract: Communities play an important role in many areas of philosophy, ranging from epistemology through social and political philosophy. However, two notions of community are often conflated. The descriptive concept of community takes a community to be a collection of individuals satisfying a particular description. The relational concept of community takes a community to consist of more than a set of members satisfying a particular trait; there must also be a relation of recognition among the members or between the members and the community as a whole. The descriptive concept is simpler, however, it does not provide a sufficiently robust concept of community. I argue instead that the relational notion is philosophically richer and more accurately captures the true nature of a community.
This is an essay I wrote to be included as the afterward for a collection of short stories by science-fiction writer Tanya Huff.