Ethical Choices in Videogames: Lessons from Moral Psychology

[NOTE: This is the full text of a paper we submitted to FDG’11. It was rejected for being too subjective and not citing enough other work. Fair enough. But poorly referenced subjective rants are just what blogs are for, right? So here it is.]

Ethical Choices in Videogames: Lessons from Moral Psychology

By Dan Staines and Malcolm Ryan


How do we create engaging ethical scenarios in games? This question has been taken up with seriousness by many designers, wanting to see their work grow beyond pure action and address deeper aspects of our lives. We are making progress, but existing designs are still too simplistic. They neither engage us as strategic gameplay nor as meaningful stories. To answer the question we must look deeper into moral reasoning itself to learn the skills it involves and how to engage them. In this paper we investigate the Four Component model of moral psychology to see what light it can shine on the problem. The result is a pattern for a holistic system of ethical gameplay, incorporating ethical identity, investigation, choices and challenges.

Published in: on May 6, 2011 at 8:17 am  Comments (21)  

Means and Ends

I’ve just read the Project Horseshoe report on Creating Ethical Dilemmas in Games and thinking about Kantian ethics and computer games. Now I don’t know a lot about Kant, but I understand one of the foundations of his theory of ethics was to treat people “never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end“. This seems to be in direct conflict with the usual attitude in games, which is to treat people (especially NPCs) and means, not ends. This makes me wonder about the viability of such games.

Published in: on July 29, 2010 at 7:08 am  Comments (2)  
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Books: 101 Ethical Dilemmas

101 Ethical Dilemmas101 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.

Published in: on May 11, 2010 at 1:50 am  Leave a Comment  

On moral detachment

I’ve been confronted recently with my moral detachment when playing video games. I’ve recently enjoyed playing Fallout 3 and I have tried to explain my reasons to my housemate, who is not a gamer. She was interested enough to watch me play for a minute, but was turned off at the first slow-motion decapitation (which seem to happen pretty often, come to think of it).

Fallout 3 screenshot

Published in: on February 2, 2009 at 8:20 am  Comments (11)  
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