Palworld: The moral quandary of slave labor and sweatshops with cute animal sidekicks

(Image credit: Pocketpair)

“Palworld” is an indie critter collector survival game, which means that players need to craft supplies and build bases to survive. As we briefly touched on while explaining what exactly is “Palworld”, part of that gameplay loop includes making your virtual animal companions, known as Pals, work in factories to build equipment for you.

Using animal labor as a substitute for machine automation is morally questionable at best. When that labor is used to craft guns you can use against other Pals and players, the morality gets even murkier.

Players have already found ways to capture other humans in-game as well, which takes “Palworld” from the tricky world of virtual sweatshops right to virtual slavery.

Can you avoid it?


(Image credit: Pocketpair)

Some aspects of the game’s darker nature can be avoided, yes. You don’t need to capture human NPCs — the game even refers to the capture of other humans as “inhumane” within in-game tooltips. However, the fact that it is a tooltip comment means the ability to capture NPCs isn’t a bug, but a feature. Which is objectively a questionable addition to any game. In a survival creature collector game, it feels both out of place and deliberate at the same time.

When it comes to forcing your Pals to work in a factory making guns for you, well, you aren’t required to use guns and can stick to weapons and tools you craft yourself. You also don’t need to build a base. Palworld is a survival game, though, which means not doing so will lock you out of a lot of endgame content. Bases are pretty much required, and you’ll need machinery to craft much of the gear and items you’ll need to go out and collect more critters or delve into dungeons.

While you can leave all that crafting to your player character rather than your Pals, using Pal labor shortens the crafting time exponentially. There are Reddit threads about trying to do runs of Palworld that avoid base building or using Pals for automation, but this ramps up the difficulty of the game by a fair amount and has the potential to lock you out of content.

So, human slavery isn’t required to enjoy “Palworld” to its fullest, but exploiting your animal companions and putting them to work in virtual sweatshops is almost a necessity.

The value of evil actions in video games


(Image credit: Pocketpair)

There is something to be said for games allowing people the freedom of choice. And there is value in allowing players to be evil if they desire. “Baldur’s Gate 3,” our runner-up for Game of the Year 2023, allows for nuanced moral choices and playstyles including the ability to become the next big bad guy if you so desire.

The key here is that being evil is the player’s choice. They have every option to do a good thing, a kind of shady thing, a manipulative thing, or an objectively terrible one. And if someone decides to roleplay an evil run, there can be many motivating factors. For some, it may be just the completionist desire to see everything a game has to offer. For others, it may be a way to fully escape into a virtual world, by acting the opposite of how they would in reality.

But if the game requires you to commit to an evil action, that takes away from the player’s ability to choose. Which makes it less of a nuanced conversation about human nature and more just a scummy game mechanic.

While “Baldur’s Gate 3” has our current attention, the game that best tackled the issue of morality in-game is “Dishonored” because BG3 will let you be a good guy while also being a murder hobo. “Dishonored,” meanwhile, used a “chaos” metric rather than a black-and-white good versus evil scale. If you killed as few people as possible and stuck to a “low chaos” run, you would get the good ending. The more people you killed, the higher the “chaos,” which could lead to the bad ending (or the very bad ending depending on just how committed you were to leaving a sea of bodies behind you). There were more challenges in a low-chaos run of “Dishonored,” but it felt earned.

Trying to play “Palworld” without engaging in at least some Industrial crimes doesn’t feel like something developers PocketPair expected of players. This is why you can only be “somewhat humane” to Pals by keeping them happy while they work for you. Unlike “Subnautica,” where you don’t need to kill any of the local fauna unless you choose to, “Palworld” wasn’t designed with the ethical treatment of animals in mind.

Bottom line


(Image credit: Pocketpair)

Palworld isn’t “Manhunt.” It isn’t “Postal.” But it does require that you divorce yourself from the implications of your actions at least a bit. Sure, you can keep your Pals happy and fed while they work, but at best you’re then running a “Factory Town” instead of a forced labor camp. The evil isn’t gory or violent but it's still there, staring you in the face.

This is not to say that other critter collector games don’t also have their share of moral quandaries. Pokémon may not have you putting your critters in work camps, but you do still put your animal companions in dog fights and any attempts to breed shiny Pokémon are an exercise in casual eugenics.

A lot of the things we do in games are questionable at best. Much of the time, violence is the answer when it comes to video games. And that’s been a problematic aspect of gaming for decades now

The question is, where do your lines on virtual sweatshops and slavery stand? Because Palworld isn’t built to handle that kind of moral question. So, if you aren’t okay with making animals work in factories, it is probably best to sit this one out.

Madeline Ricchiuto
Staff Writer

A former lab gremlin for Tom's Guide, Laptop Mag, Tom's Hardware, and Tech Radar; Madeline has escaped the labs to join Laptop Mag as a Staff Writer. With over a decade of experience writing about tech and gaming, she may actually know a thing or two. Sometimes. When she isn't writing about the latest laptops and AI software, Madeline likes to throw herself into the ocean as a PADI scuba diving instructor and underwater photography enthusiast.