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Can Games Teach Ethics?

Can games teach ethics? I think they definitely can, but my colleague Frank Lantz argued that I have it wrong. Before going on, I should define some terms such as "ethics" and "Frank Lantz."

Frank teaches game design at NYU and is the co-founder of an unusual game company called area/code. I see him about every year at game conferences. We have a shared understanding of competitive games and the culture that goes along with them. I draw from fighting games while Frank's drugs of choice are Poker and Go. (Yes I capitalized those on purpose.) We seem to disagree on things when we talk, but it's the "good kind" of disagreement where I think each of us learns some new point of view from the other.

Here's my side of things. Imagine a game vaguely like Oblivion, a 3D world where you control a character who can visit towns, talks to people, pick locks, and fight. Now imagine that the there's more of a diplomacy system in the game, the ability to sway politics (perhaps a voting system and the ability to persuade voters) as well as the ability to accomplish things by force. Actions have consequences, so you can break into houses and you can fight people in the streets, but you'll have to deal with the legal system and the police system if you do. So there's our world.

Now let's start with ethics. Stealing, lying, and killing are usually morally wrong things to do. Backing that statement up is beyond the scope of this post, so I'm hoping that can be taken as a given. The game world I propose is set up to reinforce those values. But, we would expose the player to a few extreme and unusual situations where stealing, lying, and killing become the morally correct thing to do. If you have the ability to save the life of a drowning person, but a thick-headed guard won't let you steal his boss's boat without a forged note, then it's probably good to forge that note. Saving a life is more important than a blanket commitment to "never forge." Perhaps you disagree, but it's definitely the kind of ethics I subscribe to and it's my game after all.

These extreme situations would be engineered so to make it obvious that breaking the usual rules can be a morally sound thing to do. This alone would be a big idea for some people whose thinking is stuck in the "lying is a sin, period" mode. (When a murderer with bloodied hands, stops and demands that you promise not to tell the cops which way he runs, and you agree, then the cops run up and ask where the murderer went...I think it's ok to break your promise, for example.) Anyway, this is not Earth-shattering stuff (I'd hope), which is why we then need to move into areas of gray. After we've established conventions (it's usually wrong to steal) and shown some exceptions (sometimes in unusual circumstances, it's wrong *not* to steal), then we can cook up a bunch of really gray areas where most people will disagree. Some people will make choice A, some choice B, and hopefully almost everyone will be confronted with the question "what is the right thing to do here?"

It's easy to go through life not asking questions like this, and getting stuck into one mode of thinking about ethics, but you can't have much a personal theory on things unless it stands up to tests...the very kind of tests we can create in a virtual world. The player would hopefully end up exploring his own view of things just as much as he'd explore the game world. It would also be very valuable, I think, to show that when you make a certain decision about stealing or whatever, that the local bartender thinks one thing, the distraught mother thinks another, the church thinks another, and the professor of ethics (he's definitely an NPC in here somewhere!) thinks another. And yes, the professor of ethics disagrees with the church on a great many things.

Now for Frank's side of the story. He says that one or the other is true: your in-game decisions about ethics have in-game consequences (meaning they manipulate various stats) or they don't. If they do, then no matter how clever your situations, the player will really just try to "game" the system. You'd just choose the path of least resistance and most power, or whatever other stat maximizing suits your fancy, rather than care about any "real" (or should I say "virtual?") issues. And if your decisions *don't* affect any stats or gamestate, then they are meaningless and that doesn't teach much either. Actions without consequences don't have lessons.

He says the entire approach is wrong, and that games he's learned the most life lessons from have no mention of ethics at all: Poker and Go. Here you learn about self-improvement, patience, seeing people for their merit rather than their skin color, and so on. Furthermore, he reminds me that *I* learned all those same lessons too, also from competitive games that don't concern themselves with explicitly teaching ethics. He says developers should care a lot more about just making good games (Starcraft 2, yay) and less about the authorial meaning I'm trying to convey.

Now I'll open it up to the floor. Is one of us right, or both of us? It's been three months since I discussed this with Frank, and while I still think the game I describe could be very effective if implemented well, it's hard to ignore his arguments. What do you guys think?


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Reader Comments (13)

You were really debating whether or not game mechanics can teach ethics, not games as a whole.

Presumably we are attempting to get people using stage 6 reasoning:

... action is never a means but always an end in itself; one acts because it is right, and not because it is instrumental, expected, legal or previously agreed upon.

So fundamentally you can't promote this kind of thinking using game mechanics, because by definition the action should happen without any consideration about its effect on the game. I side with Frank.

Games as a whole can include story components, which can at least expose players to stage 6 reasoning, possibly helping them learn a thing or two.

January 12, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermurrayh

Neither Frank nor I were discussing "games as a whole" as in the field of games generally. We were discussing whether an individual game can teach ethics. An individual game has game mechanics in it, so your statements are vacuously true, I suppose.

I also think you're glossing over the entire actual problem by quoting the first-year psychology class material and claiming QED to the proof. Maybe it really is possible to learn something about ethics from playing a game. I would love to construct a 1p game entirely based around ethical decisions (not cartoon fake decisions like KOTOR, but real ones), though I'm out of development teams right now to implement it.

Anyway, a tiny example from first-year ethics classes is the example of the two train tunnels. One has 5 workers (people) in it, the other tunnel has one worker in it. An out-of-control train is going to crash through one of those tunnels, you have no time or method of stopping it, and the only move you can make is to flip a switch (causing it to go down the tunnel with one person) or not flip it (causing it to go down the tunnel with 5 workers). You choose whether 1 or 5 dies.

Various NPCs you meet will have different opinions on your action. It seems clear-cut what you should do here, but you'd be surprised at the crazy reasoning some people try to use. Anyway, you'll make some friends and enemies in the town and maybe examine their points of view. Then later, another situation arises that is functionally the same, but dressed up very differently. This time the "switch" is not a mechanical lever. It's a fat guy you can push into the train tracks to derail the train. If you do, only fat guy dies. If you don't, 5 workers in the tunnel will die.

Now imagine what the NPCs of the town will think of that. The professor of ethics NPC and the local bartender probably have different outlooks and will not provide you different in-game advantages. You probably don't know what those in-game advantages even will be, so it gives you a chance to actually think about this. You might say "but I won't think about it." First of all, you might. Second of all, I bet a lot of people will. They will compare notes with friends and have a discussion about this. It's not so clear-cut what the right thing to do is in this situation. (And you need to know more details than I gave to make a decision, really, I understand that, this is an abbreviated version).

That is so far a poor game because it has only 2 decision points. I get that. It's an example that illustrates you might just get someone to learn something about ethics if you let them interact with a system designed to create ethically gray areas and expose possible flaws in your own thinking. If you imagine such a thing is not possible, I'll use my standard response: "imagine harder."

January 13, 2009 | Registered CommenterSirlin

I've heard that story before but with a robber telling you to shoot one person to save five others or he will kill the 5.You can't really make this decision in the fat guy's case since he is in no risk and you can't decide for him

January 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDH

My point was you want the person making a decision because they believe it is right, not because the game believes it is right. There is no way for the game to tell the player they made a good or bad decision without injecting itself into the decision making process.

My games as a whole statement was poorly worded. I was trying to say that an individual game's mechanics can't teach ethics, but an individual game's story could. But teach isn't really the right word. It is more of a case of exposing people to these kinds of scenarios and encouraging discussion and hoping they learn to think more ethically.

Regardless, maybe such a game is possible. I still believe at a fundamental level that having a game evaluate ethical decisions is flawed, because then the game itself becomes a factor in the decision. But maybe you can minimise that effect; minimise it so much that it becomes irrelevant. Practically, you should be able to put enough distance between the making of the decision and the evaluation of the decision such that it becomes far to much effort to try and game the system.

January 13, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermurrayh

There's one or two really big problem with the idea, and they're not the one that Frank brought up... Well, as long as we're not talking about game mechanics specifically anyway....

The issue Frank brings up is kind of akin to saying that a novel can't teach you about ethics; games can still have narrative effects that have nothing to do with the mechanics, and those narrative effects are just as valid as any other type of narrative when it comes to exploring a topic. There's a more agency because the player is actually making a choice perhaps, but even if that choice is meaningless as a choice (though I think it does have meaning), the narrative can still have viable impact. Letting the player explore certainly does provide some benefit over a straight narrative as well, even if you are predominently leaning on narrative to get your points across.

One thing that you have to be careful about though, is the question of whether or not the player already knows the result of all possible outcomes or not. Spoilers can rob a lot of the impact, just like they do in other narrative forms. And if you don't go about providing the ethical choices in the right manner, it can also deny the questions of value.

BioShock is a good example of where this happens. Anyone that knows that there's only a marginal difference between killing the Little Sisters and saving them, in terms of the amount of Adam you get, isn't really presented with any choice at all. You save them (unless you're deliberately going for the evil ending), because the thing that would make the question morally difficult no longer has any impact. You know you'll end up in the same spot, and you don't need to question whether it's the ends justify the means. If your ethical game has an authorial voice as to which is the right decision, and which is the wrong decision, spoilers would ruin any question in the mind of the player. That means you need to make your gray areas very gray, and you can't actually tell the player whether they made the right decision or not. You seem to be on the right track there in terms of your description of the hypothetical game though. Making the NPCs view the act in various different ways nicely sidesteps the issue and instead presents the players with questions rather than answers. Care just needs to be applied to make sure that such a game doesn't stray from that concept very much, or it'd end up losing most of it's impact. If it's done right though, then the player explores the question just as much regardless of the choices they make, and even if they go through the game multiple times to try all the various combinations of actions, the game still has something for them to learn through dialogue or other narrative elements.

And there's one more element that must be dealt with as well and that's the issue of player investment in the game world. You need to emotionally engage the player with the game world so that they care about the characters and the world in general. Without proper engagement, the game would be about as useful at depicting these things as an ethics text book; it's an entirely intellectual process. But if the players care about the npcs, it becomes much more valuable an experience because it puts the ethical decisions into the proper emotional context. If the five guys at the end of the train tracks mean something to you, and the fat guy doesn't, or you dislike him even, how does that change the dynamic? Or vice versa? And how do you react if both the group and the fat guy mean something? What if you don't like the fat guy, and you like the five guys, but you know the fat guy has a daughter that you're fond of that cares about him deeply? It's not easy to provide this sort of meaning to virtual characters, but it's certainly doable with the proper level of talent and skill. And it's pretty necessary if you want to explore the concept to the greatest possible extent.

All of this being said, doing this with a game isn't very different, though it's perhaps much more efficient, than doing this with a book or movie. Branching narratives make it easier to explore concepts from lots of different angles and the player has greater angecy because they're projecting themselves more into the character they represent, and those benefits are harder to pull off in a book or a movie, but you're still not doing a great deal on a mechanical level.

I think this is pretty much inevitable, and doesn't diminish the value of making a game like that, but it's why there's that qualifier up at the top about specifically talking about game mechanics. Game mechanics cannot teach ethics very well; mechanics, being little more than math, are terrible at context, and ethics require context more than anything else. Games as a whole, however, can, since they're not just mechanics. And they let you leverage mechanics in a way that makes it easier to get your point across too, so there's value in it. It's just not the gamey parts that do the real teaching there.

January 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEolirin

Well, as a avid gamer and a former teaching fellow in ethics at harvard, I love the question, "can games teach ethics?" There is a lot I could say on the topic, but my first hunch is, "yes, of course!" That hunch was quickly followed by another thought, "no, of course not!" When this happens to me is usually means that I am getting tripped up terms or perspectives, so here is my attempt to get them untangled....

1.) Using the word "can" means that it only has to happen once or be possible to be true. So, sirlin is cleverly covered there.
2.) There seems to be some connection between murrayh's post on Kohlberg's moral stages and sirlin's RPS article. That is, depending on the individual's stage of moral reasoning (or "type" of moral reasoning, see C. Gilligan on feminist ethics), stealing the loaf of bread may be very low-level or very high-level. Just observing the behavior will likely tell you very little. You need to know the reason behind the action. If you could get people to discuss or think why they would choose one action or another, then you're right there (along with most college ethics classes).
3.) A good ethics game could add the missing piece: consequences. What I've always hated about teaching ethics using case studies is that students don't actually have to make choices and suffer the consequences. If the players really associate to the reactions of the NPCs then sure, you could teach ethics this way.

NO, or why I don't think a game can teach ethics...
1.) The consequences still aren't real. Frank's claim resonates here. If it is a game, then you are trying to win. Learning in a game is a means to an end. That is why I like games more than lectures. The life lessons don't need to be explicitly moralizing to be valuable.
2.) It would be difficult to equate moral decision-making with game advancement in any sort of complex way. As I mentioned, the observation tells you little. The reasoning behind the action or inaction is more important (if you are trying to teach ethics). How do you include this?
3.) Supposing that you could develop a very good game that develops moral reasoning (which is my clever rephrasing of the original question) then you probably wouldn't help any body at a higher moral reasoning stage than the game developer. So, if you tried to create direct in-game consequences based upon in-game behavior (which has the above problem) then you would have to predetermine the "goodness" of those in-game behaviors. Therefore, the moral developmental level of the game developer would become the standard measure of moral reasoning, which has its own obvious problems.

So, I'll stick with my original answer and agree with Sirlin that in general games can teach ethics (or help advance stages of moral reasoning). Now, I don't think you'll take someone who operates on a low level of moral reasoning and turn them into Gandhi after playing a game for a few hours, but how could it hurt?

The impact of the game on moral reasoning may be related to the strength of the game (which Sirlin is an expert on), but at that point I think it just depends on how ambitious you are. Even a "bad" game could possibly teach you good moral reasoning.

For a basic entry into game theory and ethics see

Great question Sirlin. My apologies for my inarticulate rambling. It's late. Hopefully I'll see you on hdr!!!!

-CC (skeptic355)

January 14, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterchris cowan

I'm still sticking to "yes." I think it's just a test of whether you are imagining hard enough or not. If you can't imagine games can teach ethics because "players in a game only play to maximize in-game consequences" then to me, you've proved that you just aren't thinking hard enough. I can just keep giving examples until one sticks with someone.

I already gave the example above of showing functionally similar situations to players, but dressed up so that one you decide logically and one you decide instinctively with your primitive monkey brain. That you must decide makes it different from a book or movie. The realization that both decisions should be the same but that you don't want to decide that way prompts you to ask yourself why that is. That is learning something.

Next up, imagine a game of "hamlet on the holodeck" style, an interactive fiction. In this world, you are a one member of an interracial couple living in 1960s America. Your decisions do have consequences and you will be treated differently by different NPCs depending on what you do. Stats can change, branches close off, new areas, can open, and all sorts of game-like stuff. But at the end of the day, you realize that no matter what you do, an marriage between a black person and a white person in 1960s America is going to be relentlessly discriminated against no matter how you play it. This is a more powerful experience than reading about it in a book.

Next up, Ayiti: The Cost of Life.
This is an actual game, not just a theoretical one. You play it as an optimization / simulation game. Shift around your resources in such a way as your characters live. It has zero ethics, when you look at it that way. But by playing it, I think you'll find that characters in this world are stuck in a (literally) deadly downward spiral. It's very difficult to escape the downward spiral and actually live. UNICEFs help, even when small, can be the difference between life and death. Also, education is the only good way I could find to escape the cycle. School is very expensive though. It can be smarter to buy textbooks so that multiple children can benefit rather than saving up all the family's money to send only one to a school.

Those issues are pretty true in the real world. People really are dying, UNICEF really is a life-saving organization and education really is a necessary ingredient for developing countries. If you play this game and don't feel in your bones some ethical lessons, then I don't know what to tell you. Also this game gets bonus points for having a lesson be an emergent property from the rules.

Next up, A Tale In The Desert, another actual game, this time an MMO. In this game, players were told that a character named Trader Malachi would show up on a certain day with rare goods. He did show up, he did have rare goods and he traded with players one by one as they stood in line. When he reached female players, he told them that he doesn't trade with "property" and made other blatant, terrible, sexist remarks. The male characters then started to wonder if they should trade with Malachi or not. "It's just a game, and he has items I can't get anywhere else," said some. "No it's not just a game, sexual discrimination transcends this game and if you stand up to be counted with that kind of person, you're condoning that behavior" said others. This major event triggered a huge stir in the game and it got people really THINKING about virtual vs. real and about whether it's ok to associate with those who exhibit poor values.

To put it another way, if someone made an agreement with you over the phone, would you say it's not real? It happened in a virtual auditory space, so it doesn't count. Does sexism not count either, as it supposedly doens't count in the game world? Or what about Google going into China, a country known for gross civil rights violations and censorship. Is it ok for Google to enter the Chinese market with their search engine and go along with government mandates to censor searches for things like "tibet" and other civil rights issues? This is disturbingly similar to the situation players found themselves in when confronted with Trader Malachi.

Case closed on this one yet? Games can teach ethics.

January 14, 2009 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Sirlin, the reason why the ATITD example works that way is because there's an emotional connection between the various players in the game. ATITD has a very tightly knit player base and you've got an actual community there. It's very hard to not see the other players as human beings and thus worthy of respect. If you tried the same thing in a singleplayer game but you made those female character really unbelievable in terms of behaviors and dialogue, players would be much more likely not to care.

So again, yes, games can teach ethics, but they need to be well crafted narratively, or otherwise engage the player emotionally, for it to work. Such craftsmanship cannot be assumed, though; it's not easy to pull off, even though it is possible.

January 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEolirin

In several of the SimCity games, you could allow gambling in exchange for higher crime rates. This was a very small part of the game, though much of the system for adding Police Departments, Fire Stations, hospitals, power plants, and other buildings had potential for similar ethical issues. I wasn't a big fan of the game though, so I can't provide much insight here.

II do know that you (Sirlin) have presented several articles about how competitive and social gaming has taught people some ethical principles.

The whole concept of Playing to Win grew out of the ethical question of when, where, and how game breaking techniques should be controlled.

MMOs, FPSs, and other multi player games frequently present ethical issues of how to deal with griefers, trolls, team killers, and other disruptive forms of behavior.

This to me is much more interesting than life or death situations (I come upon these types of decisions very rarely) with no modeling of risk. In real life, death is associated with risk and is almost never as certain as in the train situation. Ayiti sounds more interesting and might be worth checking out.

Another ethical situations I would be interested in include distribution of resources (to businesses, non-profit organizations, research, private enterprise, government, ...) outside of the concrete reward of survival. If you're going to give money to someone, how do you decide who deserves it the most, can make the best use of it, and who will it help the most?

How about a legal simulator where you have to deal with legal issues similarly to those described in ?

I still think the biggest potential is in multiplayer games. The situations in these games happen very naturally. Ironically, I think they tend to make the game worse, not better. That's life though.

January 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChucklyFun

ChucklyFun wrote:
"I still think the biggest potential is in multiplayer games. The situations in these games happen very naturally. Ironically, I think they tend to make the game worse, not better. That's life though."

That's exactly my opinion. However, I think especially the part about "making the game worse" is important for teaching ethics. If you realize that "ignoring certain ethics" results in "bad consequences", you learned your lesson. A similar approach was made with the Stanford prison Experiment, except it was a little more than just an abstract game:

There's also a good German movie which is loosely based on that experiment (but with a few divergencies, and a dramatic ending) which is named "Das Experiment". In case you're interested, check the following link:

January 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterHëllRÆZØR

I've been thinking about the ideas discussed here inadvertently and would just like to share some of my thoughts.

Videogames have always been a huge part of my life. I've been playing them since I was around five. I always played them for fun of course until recently, but some careful thought on the subject revealed to me something I had never realized before. I am living life like I play games. That is, I always seek to maximize rewards and minimize drawbacks. I consider myself a moral person, but I'm not sure how moral I would be if society didnt force me to be that way. I think it's funny really. Recently I've been alerted of a few bad decisions I made and now I am very angry because I cant undo them, or in videogame terms, I can't load a saved game to correct my mistakes. I'm not sure whether this is a bad thing really though, as long as society forces me to do what is right.

In that sense, I think I would side with Frank, in that games cant teach ethics. It seems to me like they actually undo them as we are conditioned to always try to optimize our moves. If that means killing a few non-helpful NPCs, so be it. To create a situation where I wouldnt want to optimize my move seems unreal, or at least extremely difficult. You, Sirlin, write, "If you play this game and don't feel in your bones some ethical lessons, then I don't know what to tell you." The truth was that I didnt, and I believe that is because of my conditioned form. In regards to your Trader Malachi example, I think might approach the situation in one of two ways. One, trade with him. Two, dont trade with him, not because I want to boycott him because he's a sexist, but because it would be more beneficial to preserve my reputation.

How would you teach me ethics?

February 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTopWolf

i think about some quiz game, perhalfs they provide knownledge through questions and answer.
how about a fighting game can teach ethics? it is so strange

February 11, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterwestsounds

Only a certain kinds of players can learn ethics from a game like this. The player must suspend disbelief like they do when reading fiction novels or watching movies, they have to care about the NPC's opinions, take the game seriously (which is a tall order for some) and make the connection that the decisions they make in the game reflect their actual views on the world.

To help in suspending disbelief, the game's environment must, at least initially, be believeable. The game would need to be set in a recognizable place like a big American city. The Grand Theft Auto series utilizes this and helps the player in their attempt at immersion into the game's environment. State of the art graphics, rated-M script/events, and possibly even a removal of the interface (ie no health bar or minimaps) can also help the game feel more real.

As you say, everything else matters little if the player does not care about the NPCs opinions. There are many ways of achieving this, my proposal would be to make the main character a generic famous person or even make separate paths for different types, like comedian, actor, senator, etc. The point is to create an environment where the NPCs are realistically wanting to express their opinions about you and where the consequences for your actions are exaggerated in such way that the player catches on, like the way an animator exaggerates the movements of a cartoon.

Lastly, the game must convey the meaning or theme, the player must get the connection to their own life. This can be done the same way novels can. With subtlety and irony and the like.

It's silly to think the conditions required a game to teach ethics cannot be met, as other mediums can teach things. The ethics teacher must do these same things to get you learn it. Just imagine harder :)

February 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRyanHu
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