The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Ethics in Gaming 3.0

Yehuda Berlinger

August, 2005

Game Groups

In this article I discuss ethical aspects you may wish to consider when hosting or participating in a game group. This article is complementary to several other articles on this site that deal with the practical aspects of running a successful group.

Competition with Other Groups

If you live in a location where there is already a group whose members are likely to be the same people who would be attracted to your group (another game group, a science fiction club, or similar), consider the possibility that the success of your group may adversely affect the other group. You may be able to easily relocate or reschedule your group or join forces with the other group.

If the organizers of the other group are not interested in joining forces, this doesn't mean that you shouldn't go ahead and start the group. Be ready to deal with the possibility, if your club is successful and the other group loses membership, that the organizer of the other group will be disappointed, at best. It is then magnanimous to repeat your offer to join forces, if this is relevant.

The same considerations apply whether your group, or the other group, or both, intend the group as a profit-making venture. If the other group is for profit, don't form your group with the sole intention of undercutting this other group. On the other hand, the other group cannot expect to charge money for something that is easily had for less money or for free.

Location and Time

First of all, locate the group in a place that will not disturb others:

  • Away from a room or building where others are trying to sleep or study.
  • Away from a group, center, or community that does not approve of playing games, for whatever reason.
  • In a location where players can park freely without blocking residents.
  • Etc.

Don't use a game group as an excuse to start a family or political argument.

Some groups rotate locations among the members of the group. While this distributes the burden of providing facilities and/or travel to the location, be sensitive to the possibility that some people's spouses or parents might not really want to host a game group in their home.

Late evenings exclude both children and parents of young children from attending. In some locations, it may be dangerous to return home late in the evening. Ensure that all people have a safe means of returning home. If the group is large, this may be done by making a general announcement asking if people are willing to give rides or require rides, or by passing out flyers or sign-up sheets to this effect.

If you are an attendee, you can suggest locations or times that may work better for you, if you are willing to help do the arranging, but don't complain about the ultimate decision. It is impossible to please everyone; one must assume that the organizer has surely tried to please as many people as he or she could.

Member Specific Considerations

Some groups only allow people to come with an invitation. Don't be afraid to ask for one, but don't be too insistent, either.

You are not required to make your game group accessible to all people. Some groups may exclude children, while others may be only for men or women. This is acceptable, as long as you are not trying to give the impression that there is something wrong about any excluded group. Discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or physical disability is almost always unjustified and unethical. It would be very noble to try to accommodate someone with a mental disability, but unfortunately this is not always possible in a game group.

If you accept children, ensure that they can arrive and return safely. The guardians of the child are primarily responsible for this, and should arrange to deliver and pick up the children themselves or with someone they trust, and they should know who is responsible for the safety of the child at the group.

When children are around, all attendees must watch their language and behavior more than usual. Don't even mention games that glorify violence or adult themes. Leave off of membership lists and public session reports any personally identifying information about children.

Treat all children with respect, no matter what their age. For their part, children must be old enough to behave with reasonably good manners, capable of understanding the games and club rules, able to play at least passably, and understand that they are there to play games, not to win or to cause chaos. Otherwise, they should not attend.

I would also like to reference Tom Vasel's excellent treatment of the more serious issues regarding Gaming with Kids, which gets me out of having to deal with it.

If you are a man, don't assume women aren't as intelligent or as aggressive as you are.

If women are attending, and many of the players are men, put aside games with adult themes. Steer away from all topics having to do with sexuality, including jokes; some people are bound to feel uncomfortable, and others mislead into thinking that someone is coming on to them.

A man making jokes or narrating situations about raping a woman's game character (yes, I've witnessed this) or any other character may be interpreted as a real-world violent threat; don't do it.

If minorities are present, in whatever sense a minority means given the context, the same idea applies—jokes about abusing or killing people who they might identify with are not acceptable in any context and can be interpreted as a violent threat.

The location should, if at all possible, be accessible to the physically disabled. Sometimes this is not possible, such as when the only convenient place to play is in someone's apartment. If physically disabled people are present, note that they are not mentally disabled, and should not be assumed deaf or otherwise incapable of kicking your butt in a game.

Expenses and Amenities

If the game session goes beyond two hours, people will need to eat and drink. It is ok to collect a fee to cover the food costs if you provide the food, and even people who don't eat anything should contribute, unless there are special circumstances. Any location should also have access to clean bathrooms and a sink.

You can charge fees to cover other costs, or simply because you wish to make a profit. The higher the fee, the more likely that certain types of people, such as children or low-income families, will not be able to attend.

As a player, scrupulously ensure that you do not degrade the value of the games or the location through sticky or greasy fingers, leaving drinks where they could spill, or throwing trash onto anything other than a garbage can. The host can ban food and drink from the gaming area and request that players wash their hands before touching the games.

During the evening, and after the evening, all attendees, including those that did not eat, should offer to clean up. Those that ate must be especially insistent and ready to do so, and continue to do so until the host indicates that everything is done.


Like any social gathering, one of the first rules of manners is to not get into needless arguments. Don't talk politics or religion unless you are all good friends and are the type who can politely listen to opinions that you staunchly disagree with.

As a player, ensure that your voice is kept to a reasonable level, that you don't dominate conversations, and that you adhere to the basic rules of etiquette and sportsmanship for playing games (see my first article, Ethics in Gaming 1.0).

When it comes to selecting games, trying to find the right set of games to please everyone presents a challenge. Regulars to the group could provide an updated list of games that they love, like, tolerate, and hate to the organizer, so that the organizer can plan for when they know that a regular is attending.

The more rigid your requirements, the more difficult it will be for others to cater to them. Try to be open to others' desires.

New players like to play games that experienced players do not care for anymore. If you have several new players, you can situate them together with an experienced player on call. That way, the new players can enjoy the game without a lot of free advice every turn from the experienced players. Make sure that the new players have a complete understanding of the rules and a basic understanding of major strategies and tactics, running through an example turn if necessary.

Socialize with the wallflowers, and not just with the clique of people who are your old friends. If you want to enjoy time with just your friends, have a smaller, invite-only game session.

Thank your players for attending. Thank your host for hosting, and also the host's spouse, if he or she is around. If the spouse is not engrossed in other activities, talk to him or her occasionally between games. Unless the group is run for profit, then an occasional gift beyond contributing to the snacks might be appropriate. If the host usually provides all of the games, the guests could contribute to a fund to purchase new games every once in a while.


Find someone else to take over responsibilities if you are not be able to start a session on time or have to cancel altogether. Otherwise, notify everyone as soon as possible about any changes.

If you are planning to attend a session, inform the organizer in advance so that they know what facilities to provide (food and/or games). Call if you will be late! Expect people to be in the middle of a game if you come late, unless the group is big enough that you can expect a "pick-up" whenever you arrive.

Inform the organizer when you expect to leave; inform people before starting that game of Die Macher that you need to leave in 45 minutes.

There may come instances where you will have to deal with unruly behavior or a clash of personalities. Most problems can be addressed with a simple change of conversation, short verbal pleas, or a curt meaningful glance. If the problem persists, talk more extensively to the player. First, find an excuse to speak to them privately—for instance, you need their help in carrying something into another room. When you are in private, explain that you and/or the other players find their behavior difficult to deal with, and you need their help to keep things running smoothly.

Whether by invitation or not, there may come a time when you need to ask someone to leave the group. When you are in private, lie to them, if possible. Say that your neighbors can't handle the noise, so you have to cut down on membership for a while or that the group has grown larger than you are comfortable with. If you can't lie convincingly, call the problem a "clash of personalities". In any case, use your best judgment, be profusely apologetic, even if you are not at fault, but be firm and clear that the message you are conveying is that they can no longer attend.

Tournaments and Record Keeping

Tournaments make some people very happy—competition is at the very heart of game playing. However, some people take tournaments way too seriously, especially if the prizes are valuable. This can turn a friendly club into a nasty one.

Organizing a tournament can cause all sorts of resentment: people are now being rushed into finishing on time; people are forced to play a particular game and to show up at a particular date and time; decisions about hair-splitting rules are suddenly required and often turn into arguments.

If you are going to run a tournament, make it a small part of something larger, so that people can choose to attend, or not attend, as they desire. Dedicate the planning, time, and personnel required to ensure that it runs smoothly.

When writing session reports, remember that everyone will be reading it including the losers, and eventually their spouses, children, and parents. Concentrate very little on anything negative that happened -mention incidents in a general manner ("This evening was a bit noisy; let's all try to keep it quieter next time.") or mention them lightly with discretion ("Jon tried a new strategy which didn't work out as well as he had hoped it might.").

Lastly, create a set of ground rules to be made available to each player. A good example can be found in Jay Schindler's article, Groundrules for Gaming.

- Yehuda Berlinger

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