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?