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HowTo: Ethical engagement with urban communities for game design purposes

Ethics is a vast category of thought that underlies a range of domains of human interaction, as a system of moral principles. Ethics is also a distinct consideration in scientific or artistic research methodology, when we are dealing with other entities. As a constantly evolving branch in philosophy, that fuels and is fueled by developments in social experience and practice, and in scientific research, it may regulate our involvement with human, animal, environmental and artificial subjects.

All these aspects of ethical thinking inform personal interactions (eg, politeness and respectful manners), specific professional and scientific codes of conduct (transparency of intentions, privacy of participants, data protection), and national and international legislation (protection of the vulnerable, health and safety regulations).

Ethical guidelines can fall into three categories:

  • Politics of participation,
  • Players’ well-being and safety, and
  • Engaging in research and practice within communities and urban space

Politics of participation

This category involves the way you will invite and work with groups and individuals outside your working group. A special mention chapter of politics of participation also resonates in the approaches of Participatory Design.

• Make sure that the terms of participation in the co-design processes are clear and just.
Credit your collaborators, and award them according to their engagement and/or contributions.
• Communicate your research intentions honestly and transparently. Think in advance how you will be using the data you are collecting.
• Obtain the consent of people you are researching or working with. (more tips at the end)
• Who owns the game you are co-designing? Discuss with participants of what they want to make out of their participation, and consult a legal expert on issues on ownership (especially if your game is highly marketable).

Players’ safety and well-being

• Urban space is home of the unexpected. When designing for open-air activities, make sure you are in control of potential dangers (eg. temporarily stop vehicles from passing from your plot, or post-sign !SLOW DOWN!, after taking permission from the relative authorities). Consider someone from the team taking the sole role to keep an eye for everyone.

• Physical games increase physical risks. Although it’s quite rare to sue someone for an injury in football, when it comes to a prototype you are designing, you might be held responsible for a misstep or a fall. If danger is your game, you have to clearly warn your participants. You might also want to issue a disclaimer and/or a consent form to be signed by players individually, that they fully take responsibility for their safety by joining the game.

• Especially in occasions where the players’ senses are altered or tampered with (i.e. with headphones, mobile phone screens, VR/AR devices) your participants are more prone to accidents. Warn them to be extra careful.

• Every culture, or even every particular neighborhood follows different conventions in regards with safety. If your game involves expensive technology (e.g. top-notch smart phones) you should think in advance whether you can expose your players to danger, and if it would be safer to do it in a less dodgy area. Further, you can think of game mechanics that require group playing, and advise participants to look after one another. This might also enhance trust among each group.

• Not all games are fun. Serious games or other gaming genres aim to creating empathy between groups, or address particular social issues, by putting players in awkward, out-of-comfort zone positions. You have the option to warn your players, if you feel it will not “kill” the element of surprise in your game, but you should warn them if they are about to witness explicitly violent or insulting content.

• Pay extra attention when designing or facilitating games for children. Parental consent should be obtained, and responsibility waivers should be communicated next to a more thorough consideration of potential dangers.

Engagement with communities & urban space

• Remember that public space is a shared space. Create inclusive experiences for all, to the extent your game allows it. If the nature of your game is necessarily exclusive (eg. physical games, gender exclusive games, etc.), make sure it is not in someone else’s way, at least for a long time.

“Guerilla” or makeshift games and playful experiences can obtain permissions on a more personal level, but the more “formal” you go, the higher the ladder of authority you will need to address for licenses, particularly if your game includes physical installations in public space.

• Always reflect on your position and your perspective: who are you and what you intend to do? Sometimes we approach the urban field with the idea that there is a problem to be resolved. Discuss with the community/area dwellers whether they share the “problematization” with you. You might need to re-consider your position, from a “problem-solver” to a “beauty augmenter”, “relationship highlighter”, “kaleidoscope twister”. In other words: Do you regard your work as a service to the community? And does the community recognises the need for this service?
• Do not “parachute”. Exercise patience, spend time on your field of research, do not use your participants, work with them.

The world is full of projects that, due to poor communication, lack of transparency, or insufficient effort, failed to keep up with the needs of the people they worked with; others that, in the name of a community or a problem, were realised leaving the actual beneficiaries unaffected. These represent bad ethical practices that cultivate mistrust, and agglomerate in a growing scepticism towards future endeavours.

• If you are working with victims of traumatic events (war and dislocation) or hate crimes (sexual harassment or homophobic assaults, racist crimes, bullying, etc) are more vulnerable when it comes to re-presenting their experience. During research, be careful when it comes to asking sensitive questions, and make sure you have established an understanding, safe and trustworthy environment.
• Pay extra attention when working on marginalized, underprivileged areas. Interventional games can work in both positive or negative ways. Concerns have been raised in regards to the use of the arts and creative practices in real estate speculation and radical gentrification interventions. Look to your stakeholders: are you working with interests that collide? Does your personal effort, creativity and ambition might result in someone else being evicted or their rent skyrocketing?

Research Ethics
When you, as game designers, are called to collect data through research, and make use of them in their projects and in potential scientific publications, you will need to visit and follow the guidelines for responsible research deontology, aka code of conduct, needs to be followed.
Different codes-of-conduct are followed by different scientific fields of expertise and by country. I found a very good, comprehensive and brief bulleting by City University of Hong Kong, on guidelines that can be followed universally. To list them in-text, the principles to be followed, from data collection to the exploitation of its results are:
Honesty, objectivity, integrity, carefulness, openness, respect for intellectual property, confidentiality, responsible publication, responsible mentoring, respect for colleagues, social responsibility, non-discrimination, competence, legality, animal care, human subjects’ protection. (for a more explanatory approach, follow the link above).
For a more specific approach on Design Research ethics, Ruben S from the Australian “Paper Giant” design consultancy (so, nothing really to do with games) has published his views in https://medium.com/paper-giant/ethics-in-design-research-d43c56fb8952. Very interestingly, the writer lays out a design of the relations between positionality (who you are), participation (the ways you invite and work with collaborators), and representation (how your design product represents its theme and values), discussing them in various occasions throughout the duration of a research project, from conception to application.

Privacy and consent
Another aspect of our legal obligations that falls under the “ethics” category is the concern you will give to the protection of privacy of your participants, as well as the ways you will ask for and obtain their consent.
EU has legislated the General Data Protection Regulation, to address emerging concerns regarding data privacy.
Under GDPR, consent must be:

  1. Unbundled: When you ask for consent, this needs to be separate from other terms and conditions. You can’t make consent a precondition for signing up for a service, unless you would be otherwise unable to provide that service.
  2. Active: You must use blank opt-in boxes (or a similar binary method, where each choice is equally prominent) so that people can actively choose to give consent.
  3. Clear: You must phrase your request for consent explicitly, in a way that’s easy to understand. Confusing double negatives or vague phrasing is not valid.
  4. Named: You must give the name of your team/company and name any third party you are requesting consent on behalf of. This ensures people are fully informed about who they are giving consent to.
  5. Easy to withdraw: Consent must be easy to withdraw. You need to make people aware of how to do this. Never hide your unsubscribe button.
  6. Documented: You must keep a record of what each person has consented to, what they were told, and when and how they consented.
    For matters of documentation of your project, you will need a consent form when depicting individuals. The consent is more complicated when picturing children. Consult a legal expert about what applies in the country you are working.

Tip: If you need to take pictures for documenting the game, and not everyone has given their consent, stage a round with those who have. Be clear about it, ask the ones that did not consent to step back, and take the pictures that you need.

You will find numerous templates for consent forms online, for research, documentation, waivers and disclaimers. In those, you will need to communicate the following:

  • Who you are, and what is your project about
  • What do you need of your participants, and for how long
  • How are you going to use their date, how and how long are you going to keep them stored, how are you going to transmit them.

For additional information and experiences from the field of Urban Game Design, watch 4th TiP webinar, which is focused exactly on the topics of Safety and Consent. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S5-MW_WHzp0&feature=emb_logo

Future projections of ethical considerations
Discussions and critical thinking on Ethics is one of the most vivid domains in philosophy, art critique, and has become a parallel concern in scientific research. And it will remain vivid, as long as the ontological categories’ boundaries (humans, animals, machines, the environment) are constantly shifting together with the relations and our understanding about them.

This very interesting article on the NY Times lays out some ethical considerations in regards to the development of AI sex-dolls). Current discussion on ethics is also resonant in popular culture, being the driving force behind the narrative plot of futurist (?) “Westworld” TV series, which provides a beautiful example for contemplation on the AI technological niche, but also for potential future applications in LARPs.


*The discussion on Ethics in TiP was one of the first to be set on the table of collective thinking, between tutors, trainees and independent participants, due to the versatility of the subject, the different considerations that can be identified in diverse cultural and urban contexts, the varieties of engagement with the field according to our fields of expertise, and the range of viewpoints and experiences. The discussion was initiated by Maria Saridaki and Yorgos Samantas to a group of participants, and was taken into further collective reflection by Lilly Higgins and Lizzie Hudson during the unconference. The following guidelines are a mixture of the above processes and of parallel study.
Enormous thanks to the contributors! (any inconsistencies and inaccuracies burden the editor of the piece, Y.Samantas).