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Come for the game, stay for the cash grab: the ethics of loot boxes, microtransactions, and freemium games

Conference Paper
Erica L. Neely
ETHICOMP Conference, September 2018
Publication year: 2018

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.

Digitally Disabled: Accessibility and Inclusion in Video Games and Virtual Worlds

Conference Paper
Erica L. Neely
The North American Society for Social Philosophy’s Thirty-Fifth International Social Philosophy Conference, July 2018
Publication year: 2018

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, Augmented Ethics: Who Has the Right to Augment a Particular Physical Space?

Conference Paper
Erica L. Neely
Presented at the International Association for Computing and Philosophy Annual Meeting
Publication year: 2017

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.

No Player is Ideal: Why Video Game Designers Cannot Ethically Ignore Players’ Real-World Identities

Conference Paper
Erica L. Neely
Presented at the CEPE/ETHICOMP Joint Meeting
Publication year: 2017

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.

The Ethics of Choice in Single-Player Video Games

Conference Paper
Erica L. Neely
Presented at the International Association for Computing and Philosophy Annual Meeting
Publication year: 2016

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.

Video Games, Power, and Social Responsibility

Conference Paper
Erica L. Neely
Presented at the North American Society for Social Philosophy Annual Meeting
Publication year: 2016

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.

Virtuous Salads and Sinful Desserts: How the Rhetoric of Morality Taints our Relationship to Food

Conference Paper
Erica L. Neely
Presented at the North American Society for Social Philosophy Annual Meeting
Publication year: 2013

Abstract:

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.

Intertwining Identities: Why There is No Escaping Physical Identity in the Virtual World

Conference Paper
Erica L. Neely
Presented at the International Association for Computing and Philosophy Annual Meeting
Publication year: 2013

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.

Moor Food for Thought: 5 Key Issues in Computer Ethics

Conference PaperInvited Symposium
Erica L. Neely
Presented at the International Association for Computing and Philosophy Annual Meeting
Publication year: 2013

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.