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Game creators tackle ethical issues

A few panel discussions at the Game Developers Conference focus on everything from metaphysics to racism, all to help produce games that are more fun and socially responsible.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--The video game industry really cares about you.

That's reassuringly evident after attending a few lectures and panel discussions at the Game Developers Conference, where game creators this week discussed everything from metaphysics to racism, all with the goal of producing games that are more fun and maybe even display a little social responsibility.

Take the panel on the addictive quality of games: In a discussion reminiscent of the scene in "The Godfather" in which the five families debate the ethics of peddling street drugs, game makers wondered whether it's possible to make a game that's too compelling.

Besides the ethical implications of customers devoting excessive time to a game, at the expense of family and other real-life elements, it's not good game design to rely on addictive behavior, game designer Steve Meretzky said. Players will stick with a game just to finish it, he said, but they may not be having much fun toward the end, a bad idea for a business based on fun.

"It's the feeling of investment," he said. (The player thinks) "I've put a lot of time into this game. Even if I'm not enjoying it, I need to keep going so it's not all wasted time."

As far as ways to limit addiction, nobody had a solution.

"Even if you accept that we have a social obligation here, what do you do?" Meretzky asked. "I don't think anyone would stand for it if they were playing a game and a window popped up saying 'You've played for three hours--that's it.'"

A roundtable on violence in games inspired some of the most spirited debate of the conference, with developers arguing over hot-button issues such as the value of rating systems and the effect of violent entertainment on kids.

Few, however, argued against the idea that gratuitous violence has played too big a role in some video games, becoming a "design crutch," according to conference program director Jason Della Rocca, when developers can't think of a better way to make a game exciting.

"I don't think we need to make more of these stupid games where you run around killing everyone," a developer agreed.

Attendees also agreed that the industry needs to do a better job of informing parents of exactly what is in a game before they let their children play it. "I don't think any one of us is going out trying to sneak violence into games or sneak it past parents into their homes," said a developer experienced in shooting games.

Racial issues were the subject of another roundtable, with panelists decrying the ethnic stereotypes that dominate characters in some games, a situation that may be related to the scarcity of minorities in the upper echelons of the game business.

Moderator Darrell Porcher, e-commerce manager for Sony's game site, said game industry jobs are fairly open for programmers and similar jobs. But few programmers, minority or otherwise, rise to levels where they decide which games go on the market.

"There are people who have been in the business for 20 years, making decisions about what's realistic, what's cool, and they've never been outside a middle-America environment," he said.

Creative issues also grabbed attention, including veteran game developer David Braben's critique of current storytelling capabilities in games. "Most games today have nursery-rhyme stories," he said. "The stories are essentially an excuse to unfold a series of action sequences."

Narrative improvement depends on significant advances in dialogue. Characters who react to each move and the player, instead of mouthing prerecorded sound bites, could bring games closer to a cinematic experience, Braben said. But such capabilities will require major technological leaps.

"One of the technologies we're going to need is the ability to generate speech on the fly," he said. "It's a frighteningly daunting technology challenge. We need an absolutely huge leap in game logic."