Books: 101 Ethical Dilemmas
101 Ethical Dilemmas, by Martin Cohen
On of the things I love about doing research in game design is that it cuts across so many disciplines. I work as a computer scientist, but get to collaborate with people from media, creative writing, architecture, medicene and even philosophy. I am currently co-supervising a philosophy student doing research in the use of video games in moral pedagogy (ie, teaching ethics) and so we spend a lot of time thinking about the moral content of games. You can read some of his work in the book Ethics and Game Design, but if you’d prefer a lighter introduction to ethical thinking, I recommend Martin Cohen’s book above.
Traditionally games have been pretty morally unambiguous. You are the hero. You defeat the bad guys and save the world. Any amount of killing and destruction is justified because you are Good and they are Evil. End of story. And hey, sometimes that’s all the story you need. Not every game needs to be a maze of moral complexity, but sometimes it can be fun to explore a work that makes you think. I take issue less with the morally unaware games and more with those that purport to have some kind of real moral choice.
When we say “moral choice” in modern CRPGs (and it is usually in CRPGs that this kind of freedom is touted) we usually mean the choice between doing the heroically Right Thing (rescuing the old lady’s cat from the tree) and villanous Wrong Thing (shooting the cat, burning down the tree and stealing the old lady’s pension money). This kind of choice hardly invites any kind of thought. If I am playing Good I do the Right Thing and I can expect positive Karma and appropriate rewards. If I am playing Evil, then I do the opposite, I can negative Karma and win the approval of other Bad Guys like me. We are very reluctant to allow either decision to have any real impact on the overall progress of the game. Oh, the names and faces may change but the same rewards and obstacles keep cropping up.
What is lacking is any kind of real moral dilemma, a situation where a person must think carefully to decide what is right or wrong, a situation that doesn’t have a pat Good or Bad outcome, which may leave the player uncertain whether he made the right decision. As desginers we shy away from such choices, knowing that they can frustrate players, but sometimes that frustration is what it is all about. Ethics is not a simple matter and we need art that lets us explore that complexity. Games, as interactive media, are ideally suited to allow us to face these choices for ourselves and live out the consequences.
I haven’t spoken much about the book. As advertised, it contains 101 different ethical questions, on a wider variety of topics. The reader is encouraged to think each one through for herself before look at the “answers” offered by different moral philosophers. The book emphasises the variety of different points of view available on each question. If it has a weakness, it is that the questions are all posed as hypotheticals, to be considered in the abstract and divorced from any repercussions for the reader. As a textbook, it could hardly work any other way. However as game designers we have the ability to weave these dilemmas into wider worlds, getting the player engaged with the people that will be affected by her decisions and forcing her to live out the consequences. Lets use that ability well.