Can one really teach Ethics with games?

As is customary in most articles on the use of games outside entertainment, let’s start by saying that games are worth € 1 Gazillion per year and Trillions of people play them at all times, even when they are asleep. As if that really establishes something new.

As a practitioner in the use of games as a mechanism to engage audiences with difficult topics, I’m somewhat disillusioned with the gap that exists in research between the player experiencing the ‘game experience’ and their behaviour in ‘real-life’ – as it relates to ethics. I’m starting to think there is a very good reason its missing, and it’s not because no one has spotted it.

For the multitude of research which exists in trying to map the ‘effects of video games violence on real life violence’ ( for instance see http://lol.medieraadet.dk/upload/mulige_aasager_social_hensynsloeshed.pdf ) – there are almost no experiments I could find showing the effects of game experience to real-life for promoting more ethical behaviour.

What makes this topic even more difficult is that one’s ethics, much like one’s belief about how the world came to being (whether you believe in god, a white tea-pot that controls the universe or big bang), is a very personal affair. It’s dependent on social norms, the specific situation, upbringing of the individual and it can even be affected by genes (in so far as there is evidence to suggest that certain ‘ethical’ precepts can be affected by a person’s genes, although its generally agreed that these genes would need to be activated through some life experience – for instance certain genes are more likely to lead a person to become a psychopath but only if they have particular episodes in their lives – see http://psych.colorado.edu/~willcutt/pdfs/Rutter_2006b.pdf ).

The dependency doesn’t actually stop there – how hot the weather is – changes the ethical perspective of individuals. (seehttp://pss.sagepub.com/content/22/4/423.abstract )

But most alarming, on issues of serious ethical concern – for instance the willingness of an individual to engage in inappropriate or unethical sexual activity – the state of arousal makes such an incredible amount of difference that in experiments subject who would ordinarily always condemn such behaviour and were for all intends and purposes decent people, when aroused, completely lost their ethical outlook and reported that they would engage in deviant activity. SHOCKING!

Take theft for instance, in the book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely shows that even though we all know that stealing is unethical,  by simply swapping hard cash for tokens (which were still worth the same monetary value) the great majority of people steal! Even you! (but don’t tell me you never took a pen from the office) Essentially proving that we are all unethical (or rather we have ways with which we reationalize our unethical behaviour and we can always say ‘but everyone does it’ as if to absolve ourselves from responsibilities.

So as a challenge to any researcher interested in ethics and games – specifically in teaching ethics with games, I’d like to propose the following hypothesis “it is not possible to teach ethics using games”, feel free to comment below if you agree or disagree and why…

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