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Ethics in Video Games

I thought this was actually pretty kewl.

Using data to create moral complexity in video games has become a specialty for Telltale Games, a studio whose titles -- including adaptations of both "The Walking Dead" and "Game of Thrones" -- focus not on battering enemies with weapons, but on asking players to make difficult ethical choices. Their interactive stories are a sandbox of morality, one where we're able to glimpse not just how we might respond in life-or-death scenarios, but also how we stack up against everyone else. Are we braver? Less loyal? More pragmatic? And how do we feel when our moral decisions are measured by the yardstick of our peers?
That sort of moral complexity is exactly what prompted Tobias Staaby, a high school teacher in Norway, to integrate the "Walking Dead" video game into the curriculum for his ethics class. Before each significant decision, he discusses various ethical frameworks with his students -- including relational ethics, consequential ethics, and ethics of duty or virtue -- and asks them to debate each choice before voting as a class on which way to go.

"Depending on what kind of ethics you base your arguments on, there are no evil decisions in 'The Walking Dead,'" says Staaby. "Rather, are you making decisions [to create] the best consequences or making sure that the action itself is a good deed?"


In his classes, Staaby observed a tendency for students in the same session to lean in a similar ethical direction over the course of the game as they debated and observed the opinions of their peers. "There's a culture that solidifies during gameplay," says Staaby. "The voices that are the loudest or most outspoken are often the voices that most students lean towards."

Dr. Praveen R. Kambam, a psychiatrist who consults with the media analysis group Broadcast Thought, says this tendency to be influenced by social feedback is what's known as a conformity bias. "In other words, [people] tend to look to the actions of others in deciding how they should behave," said Kambam. "This bias is stronger when faced with questions that do not have absolute answers, like moral questions."

The layered nature of identity in video games can complicate matters as well, since players make different decisions depending on whether or not they're role-playing the characters they inhabit. This gets particularly complicated in the second season of "The Walking Dead," where you play as an 11-year-old girl named Clementine. When you're faced with horrifying situations, will you make the decisions that you would make, or the ones you think she would make?

(I confess i keep reading the teacher's name as "Stabby" and then mentally giggling a little.)

I think it's interesting that Telltale games are trying to make people see beyond the usual "I need to blow all this stuff up so that i can get to the boss" strategy of gaming. The comparison between your decisions and those made by other players after every chapter must help keep it on the players' minds, too. I know that when we play D&D, it's sometimes too easy to forget that hacking through a bunch of opponents just to get through the dungeon isn't always the best solution nor the one you should be making if you are truly role-playing your character. It's certainly easy to forget when you have party members with different moral compasses. These are your companions. You guys fight trolls together. Ofc you want to support their decisions. But wait - you just condoned a cold-blooded killing of an unarmed opponent who posed no threat. And you're supposed to be playing a lawful good character! So, yeah, conformity bias.

Now, how do i play these games without actually playing them, because, as we all know, i get nauseous sometimes playing 2-D scrolling games. And it's only been two years since i've been able to just sit in the same room as fnord while he was playing a first-person shooter without getting a splitting headache.

Actually, you know what? I take it back. I don't want to play these sorts of games because i'd constantly be worried that i made the "wrong" choice. I've been conditioned to expect questions to have "right" and "wrong" answers and my brain would prolly explode if i tried to make it understand there was no such thing in this case. I'd end up anxious and whiny and nobody wants to see that.

By min | March 31, 2015, 8:17 AM | Video Games