Addressing Ethics in Entertainment Software Development

AUTHOR

Andy Bissett, Paul Parry, Innes Ritchie, Bob Steele

ABSTRACT

Computer games have often been the subject of moral criticism and even the cause of moral panics, especially amongst concerned parents, educationalists, and politicians [Morris, 2003].

Participating in a computer game is different to passively ‘consuming’ a film, television program, or text. It is reasonable to be concerned that the player may be affected by the nature of the game that he or she is playing. Lending weight to this concern is that both the US and the UK armies are pioneering the use of (sometimes violent) computer games as a training ‘simulator’ for their infantry. This at least suggests a belief on the part of military authorities that behaviour can be modified by participation in such games. Yet psychological studies seem ambiguous in their results when an attempt is made to answer the old question of whether exposure to violent or sexual content in various media encourages the consumer of that medium to reproduce similar acts in reality.

However, whilst these questions are currently undecided, what is clear is that offensive content in computer games benefits no one, least of all the reputable producers and publishers of such entertainment software, who may well find themselves the subject of public opprobrium rather than commercial success. Due to this some games have had to be withdrawn or modified after publication. An example of the latter was the game ‘Hitman 2′ from Eidos, which in its original version could give offence to Sikhs on ethnic and religious grounds [Anderiesz, 2003]. In another case the industry body ELSPA commented of a Dutch game ‘Hooligans’, that (it) ? ‘is not a game with which the UK games industry wishes to be associated’. Publicity material for the game boasts ‘You must kill, maim, and destroy the opposing Hooligan teams ? You muster and control your faithful troops by administering drugs, alcohol, and of course a good dose of violence every now and then’ [Poulter, 2002].

Recognising that computer gaming, and entertainment software generally, is a very large industry worth $19 billion annually, and which frequently employs the most sophisticated technology, Sheffield Hallam University has introduced a new MSc degree course in Entertainment Software Development (ESD) [SHU, 2003]. This course is aimed at addressing the peculiar and powerful challenges that entertainment software development generates, and has excited considerable interest in the press internationally, and in the computer games industry at which it is aimed. Sony Computer Entertainment UK has agreed various kinds of sponsorship.

The computer games industry has distinctive characteristics when compared against the ‘mainstream’ of industrial software development. Many useful educational schemes have been propounded for the latter [Edwards & Thompson, 1996; Gotterbarn, 1996a; Simpson, 1996], and searching analyses have been made of the relevant codes of ethics [Wheeler, 2003]. Most of this work has taken place within an (appropriate) discourse of professionalism [Hall et al, 1996]. However, the computer games industry has different roots and mores. The content of the product itself, and the culturally loaded yet often informal processes by which it is generated, raises burning ethical questions, as outlined earlier. Consequently, dealing with this ethical dimension takes on a different tone to the approaches that may be considered for other commercial software development businesses.

After discussing the problems of computer game content we examine the process by which ethical considerations are brought into the MSc ESD. The syllabus addresses concern for conventional ethical issues within an IT project by requiring study of professional codes of conduct such as those promoted by the ACM, the IEEE, and the BCS. However, students are encouraged to go beyond the ‘normal’ IT project management questions. The ACM Code of Ethics, for instance, aims to ‘articulate and support policies that protect the dignity of users and others affected by a computing system. Designing or implementing systems that deliberately or inadvertently demean individuals or groups is ethically unacceptable. Computing professionals….should verify that systems are designed and implemented to….enhance human dignity’ [Gotterbarn, 1996b]. This opens the door to wider ranging discussions. Students will gain wide exposure to invited speakers from the entertainment software industry, and extensive use is made of case studies in which ethical aspects will be emphasised alongside technical issues. Students often work in teams, with industrial input, and this will give them the opportunity to see how ethical considerations impact on product development.

REFERENCES

Anderiesz, M. (2003) Crisis of conscience, The Guardian, 27th March, 2003. Life section, p.X

Edwards, H.M., Thompson J.B. (1996) Ensuring that social and ethical issues are addressed within a postgraduate software engineering unit, in P. Barroso, L. Joyanes, S. Rogerson, T. Ward Bynum (eds) Proceedings Volume 1 ETHICOMP’96, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 1996. 154-163.

Gotterbarn, D. (1996a) Computer Ethics activities for use in introductory computer science courses, in P. Barroso, L. Joyanes, S. Rogerson, T. Ward Bynum (eds) Proceedings Volume 1 ETHICOMP’96, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 1996. 181-195.

Gotterbarn D. (1996b), Software Engineering: A New Professionalism, in Hall, T., Myers, C., Pitt, D., Stokes, W. (eds), Proceedings of Professional Awareness in Software Engineering (PASE’96), University of Westminster, UK. 1-12.

Hall, T., Myers, C., Pitt, D., Stokes, W. (1996) (eds) Proceedings of Professional Awareness in Software Engineering (PASE’96), University of Westminster, UK.

Morris, N. (2003) Howells attacks savagery of video games, The Independent, 13th January 2003. 1.

oulter, S. (2002) Censors pass game that glorifies thugs, Daily Mail, 6th March. 36. SHU (2003), Sheffield Hallam University, www.esdmsc.com

Simpson, C.R. (1996) University courses and ethics – using collaborative on-the-job education, in P. Barroso, L. Joyanes, S. Rogerson, T. Ward Bynum (eds) Proceedings Volume 1 ETHICOMP’96, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 1996. 427-442.

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