A Case for Ethics Education supported by Serious Games

Why is ethics important?

To answer this apparently simple question we must first attempt at understanding the concept of ethics. Based on Wikipedia’s definition I summarize it as the systematization of recommendations (through cultures and habits) of what is right or wrong with the ulterior aim to guide humans on the best way to live both their personal and social lives.

However, only by applying this definition closer to our daily lives can we formulate an answer. The reality is that we as individuals or as part of institutions make many daily decisions that should carry ethical considerations.

As individuals we may easily find examples of ethical dilemmas between honesty and personal gain. Let’s not forget the impact that honest/dishonest behaviors may have on trust, and then the impact that trust may have, ranging from friendship to social structures, international relations and financing[1]. As for institutional impact, we may easily find them in recent history [2]. For instance, take the last financial crisis and the dilemma between financing restrictions experienced in several European countries and healthcare accessibility [3]. Another example in many businesses relates to the need to cut expenses and the conditions they provide for their workers [4] or the selection of materials/processes used for manufacturing and their cost versus environmental impact [5].

As we can see, our societies and we ourselves are nowadays frequently faced with several decisions that should contain many ethical considerations. However, the failure to address these considerations where they are due has frequently led us to situations of weakened social relations and continued harm to our environment and several populations worldwide [2][6][7]. The importance of promoting change with regard to ethical capabilities is, from my perspective, a very important issue in all aspects of our lives.

How can (serious) games help?

Ethics can be taught not only as a philosophical subject but also in applied domains such as ethics for healthcare, politics or business. A fundamental process for teaching ethics relates to empowering learners with ethical analysis competences by exposing them to ethical dilemmas and discussing them in the frames of the ethics theories to be taught. Based on this, serious games can facilitate the presentation of ethically challenging scenarios and promote ethical behavior by providing learners with elements of thought helpful to address and rationalize the presented ethical issues. One should note that this is substantially different from exposing the user to a moral message in which the moral thought is already formulated. Instead, ethical problems should emerge according to contextual game interactions and discussed accordingly.

Despite questions raised previously [8] regarding the ability to teach ethics with games, the fact is that games may at least be used as a valuable teaching tool to present ethical dilemmas in an engaging way and foster the discussion of the underlying ethical challenges. A good example of this is Tobias Staaby, a Norwegian high school teacher who teaches an ethics class using well known games like “The Walking Dead”, “Journey”, “The Last of Us” and “GTA V” [9]. It seems that these games are “a good catalyst for discussions about ethical theories or ethical dilemmas” [10] and according to Staaby it has been a very effective tool because students become very motivated and engaged in the subject, which results in better learning.

What we see in this case is that existing commercial games are re-purposed based on the situations and decisions they present the players to stem analysis and discussion of the ethical issues behind them. However, we can do better. With serious games we are not limited to a range of topics and situations existing in those games but we can actually create the adequate situations for teaching ethics in any domain we intend. Furthermore, and beyond these commercial games, we can include curricular content in game as guidance and supporting material. Despite a current gap [11] in the development of games for ethics and (a possibly more serious gap in) their uptake for effectively teaching ethics, there are already some good examples:

–        Global Conflicts: The series allows students to explore and learn about different conflicts throughout the world and the underlying themes of democracy, human rights, globalization, terrorism, climate and poverty. The game series is easy to use for teachers and is developed with close attention to curriculum requirements and ease of use in classroom teaching [12]. One of especial interest is the Sweatshops title that, among other issues, exposes Bangladesh child labor in hazardous conditions as an underlying condition for having cheap goods in the Western countries.

–        Business Ethics Challenge: it is game that enables employees in sales situations to learn about ethics in business by balancing sales targets and company reputation in decisions. The game was developed as part of the Novo Nordisk approach to business ethics and responsible business practices.

Now what?

The goal of this post is to share my view over the importance of upholding ethical behavior and their positive effects in our societies and how we have barely explored the potential of using serious games to better teach ethics. Despite its typical abstract context, considering the range of topics it covers and the possibility or hypothesis of teaching ethics with games, I believe that serious games may offer a significant help in teaching ethics by presenting people with ethical dilemma situations that originate the discussion of the ethical problems, helping develop ethical analysis capabilities.

When compared to already existing games, serious games have the disadvantage that they require investment in game design to ensure similar levels of engagement. However, they have the advantages of better framing and integrating specific class subjects/material and, in this way, providing class specific ethical dilemmas as case studies.

In the end on key barriers to the adoption of serious games for educating in ethics is the knowledge about the importance of ethics and how these games may help. In order to generate such awareness and subsequent uptake, we must advocate for ethical behavior and disseminate the motivating factors for ethics education and serious games as a possibly valuable teaching tool to help achieve it.