The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Ethics in Gaming 6.0

Yehuda Berlinger

June, 2006

In this article, I attempt to lay groundwork for game designers and publishers to consider their moral responsibility while executing their craft.

Theme and Subjective Morality

Rather than argue that morality still exists but is subjective, we tend to argue that morality doesn't exist because it is subjective.

It's true that we don't all agree on where the line is. But it's also true that the line, or maybe some series of lines, is still there. Anyone who tells you otherwise is being self-deceptive. And probably making money from it.

Even people who cry "Freedom!" at every opportunity don't want other people talking during a movie that they're trying to watch. It's fine to rally against all restrictions on art and print, until someone publishes a game called "Raping and Disembowling Christian Girls". Suddenly you remember that a line exists, but that you lost sight of it.

How is it that we lose sight of this line?

It's because we confuse subjective morality with no morality. Even if every given act or expression may appear moral to one person and not to another, what doesn't change is our own moral responsibility to choose and stick to some line.

When someone else crosses over a line similar to the one that you chose, this doesn't make it acceptable to redraw your own line. Otherwise, we become like a group of children taunting and pushing each other to break a rule. One child alone doesn't break the rule, but when you get two, or a group, each child sees the other one go a little further towards the line, which spurs them on to go just a little further themselves.

Approaching morality from an outside perspective is fine for an anthropologist. Each civilization must be judged in its own historical context. That's moral relativism. Fine. But I am not talking about theoretical views of morality. The pertinent issue is how you act right now.

It's fine to say that you may hate what someone says or does, but defend to the death his right to do so. I agree with that sentiment. But that doesn't mean that you have to go and do it yourself, nor smile or condone it being said or done.

Wherever you make your line, stick to it. Don't cross it because somewhere somebody was willing to cross it themselves. Don't cross it because it's "edgy", "shocking", or "controversial". That isn't morally responsible.

I can't possibly convince anyone that a specific idea is morally reprehensible for all people at all times. Still, I have my ideas.

As far as I'm concerned, any game that derives its humor from "Man, I can't believe he got away with printing that" is probably over the line. If something is reprehensible when considered seriously, it is likely reprehensible when considered humorously. The subject may laugh at it, but this is only because he knows that if he objects he will be told to "lighten up".

Lunch Money cardAbstract examples of violence, such as rolling dice to determine kills in a war game, don't bother me terribly much. They might, if I were a pacifist. On the other hand, explicitly illustrated violence, and egregious acts of senseless violence, rape, or humiliation, do bother me. I would consider Lunch Money to be an example of such a game.

A theme that rewards players controlling immoral forces when harming innocents is over the line for me. So too is a theme that makes fun of races, sexes or nationalities along stereotypical lines. Examples in this category include the Grand Theft Auto line of games.

You, as a game designer or a publisher, have to decide what is moral or immoral to create. If you find the game offensive, then you shouldn't print it, regardless of whether there is a market for it, even if others don't find it offensive. Don't cross your own line for the sake of market share.


Don't use components that you know are going to break or get destroyed during normal game play in order to reduce the game's price. Don't include useless components that are not required in order to boost the game's price.

If your game can be played with a standard deck of playing cards, and so can your next one, and your next one, you shouldn't expect people to buy all three products to play all three of your games. Try to produce games that offer value to the consumer.

Shannon Appelcline wrote another helpful checklist for component design on the Gone Gaming blog.

Customer Service

Try to ensure quality control on your product, and respond quickly and generously to people who have bought the product with broken or missing components.

Answer all customer queries with politeness, even those that are impolite themselves. The losers of any argument are the rude ones.

A brief aside about apologies

There are many incorrect ways to formulate an apology, but only a few correct ones. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is best:

  • "You can always take your business elsewhere." (1): Thank you, I will, and so will all of my friends.
  • "It's not our fault." (2): This is a non-apology, where you are not seeking to redress the issue, nor evincing any sort of sympathy for the injured.
  • "We're sorry that you feel that way." (3): This is also a non-apology, which roughly translates into "It pisses us off that you feel that way. If you didn't feel that way, we would be happy." It also doesn't take any responsibility for the problem, and places all of it onto the injured party. Be careful of any apology that starts "I'm sorry that you..."
  • "We're sorry if we did something wrong." (6): This is getting there, but doesn't really accept responsibility either. You are not acknowledging that you did anything wrong; you're still hoping that you haven't. You are offering an apology for appearances sake.
  • "We're sorry that this occurred." (7): You are sorry, but as a matter of principle you're still trying to insist that it wasn't really your fault.
  • "We're sorry that we caused this problem." or "We're sorry that we have let this happen." (9): This is a full apology, and is what the customer needs to hear. Frankly, it doesn't matter that it was really the post office's fault, and not yours; the customer doesn't care. Most people hearing this cannot help but respond with some sort of graciousness, such as "Well, all right then, these things happen. What are you going to do to fix it?" This is the target level that you want to hit for your customer service. But for the record, there is still one level to go. The complete apology is:
  • "We're so sorry that we caused this problem; we are really distressed over this. Please know that we take this very seriously. This is a huge oversight on our part. I will immediately notify my supervisor, and we will review our procedures to ensure that this cannot happen again. In the meantime, that is no consolation to you for our lack of service! What can we do to regain your trust? We will be sending you a little surprise as a token of our appreciation of having you as a customer." (10)

In truth, this little speech goes on until the customer interrupts. And it is followed by a few more apologies as the conversation closes, as well.


Be absolutely sure that you understand how patents, trademarks, and copyrights work before you start bandying them about on your products. Your game is likely chock full of inventions from other people, such as dice, cards, suits, laminated boards, tokens, spaces, turn order, and so on. You borrowed game elements from other people, and other people are going to borrow elements from your games. That's the way it works.

The more games, the bigger the game industry in general, and the more all people in the industry win. Trying to patent ideas is a generally a bad idea; a far better idea is to continuously create products that offer value to your customers. On the other hand, you should acknowledge any games or designers that have been specific influences on yours.

In addition, the principle of First Sale (that the customer can resell your product to someone else) is your friend, not your enemy. First Sale increases the value of your product.

When people know that they can resell your product, they will be more likely to buy it in the first place. The more restrictive you make your product, the more likely you will inspire contempt for your game and your company. If your game is any good, it's more likely that people will try to create their own version without buying your original.


If you make games that are offensive to some people, expend at least some effort to ensure that they don't end up in those people's faces. In Germany, it's illegal for box components to display Nazi symbology. In many places, it's illegal to display adult items where children can view them. Do the best that you can.

Don't promise updates, reprints, or games that you can't deliver. The best approach is to run a company newsletter or blog with information that is as accurate as possible.

As a customer, distribution monopolies are riling, but understandable. Nevertheless, some people will get around them if they can, by ordering online or by having out-of-area visitors bring them games.

The Rest

Of course, all ethical considerations that apply to any business apply to yours as well, such as racially- and sexually-blind hiring practices, reasonable treatment of employees, avoiding unnecessary environmental damage, and so on.

Your employees are your face to the customer. If you treat them fairly, you are bound to treat your customers fairly as well.

- Yehuda Berlinger

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