24/6/2019: Added Q&As:
- “If more diverse peer reviewers declined to collaborate, shouldn’t you have just killed this whole initiative?”
- “What’s that about not covering work of former employers?”
Today we unveil the code of ethics and code of conduct for Meeple Like Us. There has been an awful lot of controversy about the topic of ethics on Twitter. A lot of arguments, heated emotions, and hurt feelings. A lot of ugly language has been thrown the way of a number of people engaged with this topic, myself included. As you might imagine, this did not make a convincing argument that it was a topic that should be dropped. If anything the sheer toxicity of negative feeling on this strengthened the case for its necessity.
This code is, first and foremost, an expression of what I want Meeple Like Us to stand for. However, I also make this available as a CC-BY 4.0 resource – anyone that wants to use it can. They can change it, remix it, and adopt it as they see fit. I won’t be trying to get people to adopt, but I will support those that do. I do not set myself up as an arbitrator of ethics or a regulator for this hobbyist space. Even if that was my desire, it’s not something that is remotely possible. This code is voluntary. It is not enforced. It is not enforceable.
To accompany this code, I’m also publishing this editorial of Frequently Imagined Questions. Nobody asked them because the code was published alongside this post, but these are the questions I asked myself about what I was outlining.
You’ll notice I have disabled comments on this post. I’m happy to discuss over email, and add to this post as necessary. There is too much heat and too little light on this topic to let it spill over into the comments. I likewise will not be debating over Twitter.
What’s the difference between a code of ethics and a code of conduct?
A code of ethics is aspirational – it’s a set of guiding principles that outline what might be considered to be ethical behaviour within a particular domain. A code of conduct is specific guidance as to how to actualise that code of ethics in real life. A code of ethics is the foundation upon which a code of conduct is built. That’s why this new policy for MLU has both.
Ethics is a bad word now. Why not avoid it?
Words have meaning, and we don’t let the worst people in society set the definition of the words the rest of us use. I am not prepared to idly cede important parts of my vocabulary and neither should anyone else.
What makes you so moral that you think you can dictate to the rest of us?
Morality isn’t the same thing as ethics. One can behave morally and unethically. One can behave immorally and ethically. Ethics are just a code of behaviours to which we pledge ourselves to honour. As to why I’m so moral – I’m not. I’m a profoundly flawed person. That’s true of most of us, and the ones who would argue otherwise can only do so from their own frame of reference. I’m a moral relativist. That’s one of the reasons why I value people being upfront about what they think is ethically acceptable. It gives me the necessary context I need to evaluate the value of their content.
How has this code been peer reviewed?
I solicited specific, selective feedback from a number of people who I trust to have sensible opinions on this topic. I also put out an open call for peer reviewers on Twitter, Facebook, our internal Discord and the Meeple Like Us subdreddit. Numerous changes were made on the basis of this – those that wished to be acknowledged as contributors have been but others asked not to be mentioned due to the risk of an unpleasant online backlash. Their wishes have been honoured.
I cannot include perspectives from those that have chosen to not to provide their meaningful views. Several very ‘robust’ opinions were presented on Twitter. The sources of these was were discredited by virtue of the unpleasant and groundless insults they had been casting towards other twitter commentators on the topic of ethics. Suffice to say if I already had someone muted I wasn’t inclined to take them very seriously.
This will absolutely be used as a reason to dismiss this code by many people, and that is entirely something within their rights. In deference to the fact that the makeup of peer reviewers was unfortunately somewhat homogeneous, I have strengthened the rights of adopters to remix and alter the code to suit their own purposes. I will also be very happy to listen to concerns, critiques and suggestions on this code of ethics and these can be directed my way over email.
In the end though, this code was written for Meeple Like Us and peer review in that respect is completely unnecessary.
If more diverse peer reviewers declined to collaborate, shouldn’t you have just killed this whole initiative?
No. Decisions are made by people that show up. If people don’t show up, they don’t also get to have their way by killing what I believe to be a necessary positive contribution to a currently toxic discussion topic.
Board gaming is a tiny niche. Why take it so damn seriously?
We are defined by the way we behave. The way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives. For most creators, the work they do takes up a massive amount of time. I spend 20-40 hours of my free time working on Meeple Like Us. That’s basically a full-time job at the upper extremes and a hefty part-time job at the lower ones. We can’t dispense with the need for ethical behaviour in large parts of our lives just because the stakes are low. If we can’t behave ethically when that’s true, we’re going to be in a very sorry state should the rate of growth continue and real money start to flow into the hobby. We don’t need a justification for acting ethically in everything we do. We just have to do it.
Nobody in board game media is behaving unethically
I have plenty of evidence to the contrary. It’s not a hugely wide-spread problem. It’s not an endemic problem. People doing it are not bad or even necessarily untrustworthy. Nobody is getting rich from Big Cardboard. There is plenty happening though that would be mind-bogglingly unacceptable in almost any other context, and we should strive to be better.
This is a harmful discussion and you’re perpetuating it
Fundamentally I don’t accept this premise. I agree it is a difficult discussion but those are often the ones that are most important to have. I find it worrying that there is, in the media scene, a willingness to tell publishers and consumers that they need to ‘do better’, but that a similar exhortation directed inwards is considered to be a problem. Critics, by and large, are ironically unwilling to accept criticism. We all need to get better, all the time. As for perpetuating it – yes. We need to have this conversation, again and again and again, until we get it right.
What are your credentials?
As a journalist? None. As a trained ethicist? None. As someone that has been thinking and publishing on this topic for years? A few – enough to teach several classes on the topic across several universities. Sufficient credentials to have been invited to write an encyclopaedia article on the topic of computer ethics. I literally wrote the book on the topic. At least a chapter of the book. Or at least a chapter of a very specific book. You can also read up on the ethics heavy publications that Mrs Meeple and myself have published:
- Heron, M.J. (2018). Ethics in Computer Science. In The Encyclopedia of Computer Science and Technology. Taylor and Francis, Oxford.
- Heron, M.J., Belford, P. (2017). Disclosure and Disavowal: Professional Issues in the Scandal in Academia. Computers and Society. 47(4). 29-45. ACM, New York. [Available online from https://dl.acm.org/authorize?N660610]
- Heron, M.J., Belford, P. (2016a). The Quantified University: An Analysis of the Scandal in Academia. Computers and Society. 46 (3). pp28-44. ACM, New York. [Available online from http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=3024953]
- Heron, M.J. (2016). Ethical and Professional Complications in the Construction of Multi-Developer Hobbyist Games. The Computer Games Journal. Springer: New York. [Available online from http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s40869-016-0025-0]
- Heron, M.J., Belford, P. (2016b). Musings on Misconduct: A Practitioner Reflection of the Ethical Investigation of Plagiarism within Programming Modules. Computers and Society. 45 (3). ACM, New York. pp438-444. [Available online from http://dl.acm.org/authorize?N08508]
- Heron, M.J., Belford, P. (2015a). Fuzzy Ethics: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bot. Computers and Society. 45(4). pp4-6. ACM, New York. [Available online from http://dl.acm.org/authorize?N08509]
- Heron, M.J., Belford, P. (2015b). A Practitioner’s Reflection on Teaching Computer Ethics with Case Studies and Psychology. Brooks’ eJournal of Learning and Teaching. 7 (1). Oxford Broooks, Oxford. [Available online at http://bejlt.brookes.ac.uk/paper/a-practitioner-reflection-on-teaching-computer-ethics-with-case-studies-and-psychology/].
- Heron, M.J., Belford, P. (2015c). Power and Perception in the Scandal in Academia. Computers and Society. 45 (2). ACM, New York. [Available online from http://dl.acm.org/authorize?N08500]
- Heron, M.J., Belford, P., Goker, A. (2014). Sexism in the Circuitry: Female Participation in Male Dominated Popular Computer Culture. Computers and Society. 44 (4). ACM, New York. [Available online at http://dl.acm.org/authorize?N84609]
- Heron, M.J., Belford, P. (2014a). Ethics in Context: A Scandal in Academia. Computers and Society. 44 (2). ACM, New York. [Available online at http://dl.acm.org/authorize?N84600]
- Heron, M.J., Belford, P. (2014b). Do You Feel Like A Hero Yet? Externalised Morality in Video Games. The Journal of Game Criticism. 1(2). United States. [Available online at http://gamescriticism.org/articles/heronbelford-1-2]
- Heron, M.J., Belford, P. (2014c). It’s Only A Game: Ethics, Empathy and Identification in Game Morality Systems. The Computer Games Journal. 3(1). Scotland. [Available online at http://tcjg.weebly.com/uploads/9/3/8/5/9385844/tcgj_31_heronbelford.pdf]
If that’s not enough, I don’t really know what to tell you.
I just do this for a hobby. These codes are for standardization bodies and employers, not me.
We aren’t professionals – at least in this context. We’re hobbyists. That doesn’t mean we can’t behave professionally because that is inherently an act of respect for an audience.
Why should any of us take this code seriously?
There’s literally no reason you should. This is a code that is primarily for our benefit. To outline what we consider to be ethical behaviour for Meeple Like Us. It’s our pledge to our audience. It’s not binding on anyone else, and I don’t intend to agitate for any circumstances under which it would be. I make the code available under a creative commons licence for those that would like to make a similar pledge to their audience. I will recognise those that do. Other than that, it’s completely safe to ignore it. I’m not going to be knocking on any doors with my pamphlets.
How many sites do you think will adopt the code?
Just us. The CC-BY 4.0 licence is an offer, not an expectation of wider adoption.
Bit up yourself then to call it the Hobbyist Media Code of Conduct then, right?
Almost certainly! I wanted something that would be sufficiently encompassing should others actually want to use it.
Plus I made its short code to be HOB-COC and that makes me laugh.
Let’s say I want to adopt HOB-COC – what do I get out of it?
Ethical behaviour fundamentally has to be its own reward. However, I am happy to provide links to those adopting it and while that’s not going to send any traffic your way it is at least a backlink you might not otherwise have.
How are you going to enforce that anyone adopting is adhering?
I’m not, because I can’t. Fundamentally the hobbyist space is trust driven. Trust is the real currency of enthusiast work. This is self-regulation. It’s voluntary. The only sanction I have is to remove those violating the code from our list of adopters and that’s a penalty with approximately zero impact.
How will you make sure those that want to adopt the code are sufficiently compatible to merit linking?
The actual obligations on anyone adopting this code are really very minimal. I’m regularly told that there are no ethical problems in this space so everyone should be already fully conformant and a lot of that is easy to check. Those that aren’t are usually obviously so.
Under CC-BY 4.0 I can take this and change every word of it, can’t I?
If you like, but it’d be a hell of a lot easier to just write your own and deprive us of your backlink. We’ve provided a reasonably comprehensive bibliography of relevant exemplars you could use as inspiration if that’s what you want to do. We’ve also included some of the editorials that have underpinned the philosophy of this. We’ve been talking about this topic for a long time.
Under the terms of this licence if you take our code and modify it you need to link back to the original and note your changes. You must also avoid including any language that suggests that we endorse your variant, although I’ll be happy to discuss that on a situational basis.
You can be as permissive, or as restrictive, as you like. I’ll link anyone that adopts a derivative code of this strength or greater. Give yours a different name though to avoid confusion.
Why would I need a code like this?
Codes of this nature are standard in professional media. Hell, they’re common pretty much everywhere. Most of us are bound, professionally and personally, by dozens of the things. The ethical problems that come with providing media coverage in a complex world are not solved, but they are only unsolved in interesting areas. In hobbyist spaces, unethical acts are occasionally committed with breath-taking indifference.
Those of us working in hobbyist spaces have a platform, sometimes quite large, and absolutely no formal accountability. There is no professional body that accredits our sites and neither should there be. We are bound only by law, and law can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Enforcement, when it comes, is uneven and easily discounted. Everyone has a different opinion on what is okay to do, and some of those opinions are considerably less valid than others.
A formal code of ethics is an attempt to be transparent to an audience – to show responsibility over the power a platform gives. Parasocial relationships make an audience believe you are their friend, but your own incentives and goals may be at odds with theirs. A code of ethics permits for you to set out your position so that an audience can make a truly informed decision with regards to your content.
Using a code like this, which is drawn from best practice and supported with a bibliography, gives a consistency to that informed context. If everyone uses the same code, everyone familiar with it knows how to interpret the content they are provided. This is better than everyone having a different code, but everyone having a different code is better than nobody having any code.
Why would I need your code?
Use whatever code you like, but I didn’t see anyone else doing the work and offering up the result under a Creative Commons licence. If you want to write your own, I’ll even lend a hand.
Is there a danger this will enable harassers?
The fundamental naïve assumption at the core of this argument is that harassers are driven by reason. Harassers harass not because they have a reason but because they have a desire. The reason is something they make up on a situational basis. I can imagine circumstances in which the existence of this code is cited as the reason for harassing people not adopting it. We’re too small a site with too small an impact for me to imagine that being a large problem.
However, if that is a genuine element of harassment then it was almost certainly going to happen anyway. Harassers need post-hoc justifications, they don’t need incitements. Those justifications can be anything. If it isn’t ‘ethics in game journalism’ it’ll be something else. Think of the reason as a blank into which anything situational can be inserted. The same level of harassment will be observed, but feasibly this code could enter into the rotation of reasons why people claim it’s happening. I would be extremely skeptical of any claim it was the actual reason.
In terms of this code leading to a situation where creators are reasonably quizzed more often with regards to their transparency, then I don’t see that as being a bad thing. I understand people will disagree with this. I do not consider respectful queries regarding editorial policy to be harassment or even impertinent. I consider that to be healthy. I have been quizzed on several elements of my own coverage and have found it valuable to consider the objections raised. I have made numerous changes myself on the basis of critiques raised by others. Having a platform comes with certain responsibilities to an audience.
What are you going to do to people that don’t adopt this?
Literally nothing. I am not going to agitate or provoke anyone into adopting this code of ethics. I will however be making a private note, for my own personal interests, of what sites are opaque about their ethical policies and will be curating my own viewing accordingly. It doesn’t have to be this code, but I think people should have a code.
There are people I think need to adopt this policy
No, and I’m not interested in hearing your list either. At this point anyone working seriously in this landscape has already formed their opinions with regards to the necessity of a code of ethics. Your views, and my views, need not be expressed to those parties until such time as they are directly solicited. Seriously, at this point nobody has anything new to add to the discussion.
What should we do to make the people we don’t trust adopt this code?
Absolutely nothing. I can’t emphasize that enough . If you seriously distrust a creator, they don’t earn trust by banging a code of ethics on their outlet in response to external pressure. Make use of your fundamental power as an audience member and don’t support content from outlets you do not trust. If you feel as if you must exert some kind of pressure, and I don’t think that’s helpful in individual cases, do so by directly supporting the transparent outlets. Do not target anyone for not providing transparency. People will come around, or not, on their own time.
Before you leap to any conclusions too, do your own due diligence. Make sure you’ve done your own homework. I see plenty of accusations thrown around to content creators that have never produced opinion based content and make no claim to provide content that isn’t primarily marketing. If you missed key information, that’s on you.
I don’t agree with several of your statements in the code of ethics.
That’s fine. They aren’t invented by me though. You’ll find these themes repeated again and again in the supporting literature linked in the bibliography.
What’s that about not covering work of former employers?
This kind of clause is very common in ethical codes for journalistic outlets – it ensures that sufficient ‘cooling off’ time has passed that previous emotional connections, positive and negative, are likely to have lost their fire and intensity. I’ve had jobs where if I ‘fairly reviewed’ their ‘product’ after quitting they could fairly argue the circumstances of departure would unfairly influence the results. Really though this comes down to how you would define ’employer’. For me, I think of this as having a long term, sustained contract of employment. If someone has done occasional freelance work, I think simple disclosure of that fact would be sufficient on all impacted articles.
Bear in mind here that the code only states that people shouldn’t cover former employers for a period of time set by the outlet. That time can be zero, provided that outlets are transparent about that fact. The transparency, rather than the time period, is what really matters.
You’ve left out lots of important things that I think are vital to include.
HOB-COC represents a minimum viable product – a bare bones statement of the lowest level of ethical behaviours that I think are universally applicable. If you want to be more restrictive, or perhaps include ethical conditions that could support a particular ethical goal (inclusion for example) you have my 100% support to take this code and strengthen it.
There’s a lot of stuff you’ve said is bad in your editorials and it’s not addressed here
This code isn’t my attempt to shape the media landscape in the way I prefer. There are lots of things I wish people didn’t do, but that’s not the same thing as deeming them to be unethical. As above, this code represents a translation of best practice from applicable disciplines to ours, not a charter for how I think everyone should do things. You’ll notice there’s no requirement for anyone to push for increased accessibility in games, and there damn well would be if the purpose of this was to get my own way.
I want to continue to be an asshole in my blog posts and fight with people on Twitter
Good news for both us – there’s nothing in the code that would stop that. Nothing in this code puts any limits on expression other than ‘Be honest, be transparent, be accurate’. You can be as aggressive and as violently unpleasant as you like provided you’re doing your audience the courtesy of being upfront with them. I have no intentions for example of becoming a nicer person.
What if the code needs to change?
Then it’ll change. It comes with a version number, and previous versions will always be available for people to adopt. I don’t claim this code is perfect. Merely that it is better than not having one. If later versions don’t appeal, stay with the versions that do.
Who decides when to make changes?
Wow, that’s a good question. For now, it’s decided by the editorial team of Meeple Like Us because we are the only adopters. If more people wanted to come on board I’d certainly be willing (eager even) to adopt some kind of committee structure where changes are made through consensus. I think this is something we should regulate as a community, but I am wary of putting a burden of work on anyone. There is no point worrying about this until it becomes an issue.
A lot of people really hate you for this
Are you a Gamergater?
No, and I have a zero-tolerance policy on blocking for anyone that accuses me so. I was a direct target of Gamergate harassment by virtue of having written the first (very critical) academic paper on Gamergate. Claiming I am a supporter or an enabler is a bullying tactic – an attempt to smear by association. It’s a very ugly look and I have to trust it comes across that way to the people that actually matter.
Are you enabling Gamergaters?
No. Once again – harassers do not harass on the basis of reasoned objection. The topic of ethics in game coverage is definitely tainted by Gamergate, but that was primarily a harassment movement that found a post-hoc justification. However, as with the word ‘ethics’ we don’t permit the worst people in society to set the parameters of our Overton window. We don’t wave our hands and say ‘Let’s not talk about this’ just because terrible people have spoken about it. That is how they win – if we cede the topic to abusers, then they get to define what the topic means forever.
Are you going to shut up about ethics now?
For a good long while, yes.
Are we done here?
I think so.