As video games became prominent as a form of entertainment, parents and others raised concerns about their violent and sexually explicit content. The response was based on precedent-as with movies earlier in the 20th century, game makers slapped a rating on their products to give consumers an idea of the content embedded in games such as “Doom,” “Half Life,” and “Mortal Combat.”

But labels are applied only after games have been produced, which means games continue to embody violence, gender biases, racial stereotypes, and cutthroat competition. What if game designers could consciously take into account values in the course of creating a game and make deliberate choices about the values their games embody, offering players opportunities to engage with games that embody alternative value configurations, say, cooperation, equality, and creativity?

Helen Nissenbaum, an associate professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education, and Hunter College’s Mary Flanagan are addressing this question. Under a $790,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) new Science of Design program, the researchers are developing mechanisms so that game designers can consider implementing social values while developing video games.

“Industry-wide rating systems, public regulation of access through age restrictions, and independent reviews all seek to address concerns about games’ content,” Nissenbaum explains. “But these remedies are largely retroactive. We believe it is important also to take a proactive stance, to grapple with values not only after completion of games’ systems but at the outset.”

The project, dubbed Values-at-Play (V AP), will develop an approach to taking values into consideration systematically during the process of design. The researchers first devised a blueprint for this approach in the context of a multi-player computer-game research project, where it influenced such elements as how characters are represented and how players score points and communicate with one another. Results from this project offered a roadmap for implementing values in game design and system design, generally.

They are now embarking on a second phase of development in which they are creating tools game makers can employ in creating values-friendly products. This tool kit will contain components that demonstrate how decisions on particular game features have implications for values. For instance, these components will show multiple ways in which designers might allow cooperation and collective decision making through a voting system, group rewards, and recognition or reputation features so that designers might explore collective processes when making a game. In addition, the tool kit will contain demos to show the correlation between specific design features (e.g., games-scoring systems, player perspective, character representation) and specific values. Nissenbaum and Flanagan are also developing a handbook to provide a design “checklist” that will walk designers, step-by-step, through the method.

While some balk at the endeavor because they believe it adds an unnecessary component to entertainment, Nissenbaum points out values are already a part of video games.

“Values are already embedded in design via mechanisms that afford and constrain players’ behaviors in ways that are relevant to particular values,” she explains. “For example, communication and item-swapping systems, a scoring system, systems of social recognition are all ways in which players encounter values in larger game structures.”

In addition, Nissenbaum and Flanagan are not alone in their efforts. Organizations such as Games for Change, which include academics, representatives from state and local governments, and members from the games industry, are trying to spur development of digital games about social issues, including poverty, race, and the environment.

Nissenbaum expects her work to be completed in 2009.

Press Contact