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Teaching ethics with game-based learning

Matthew Farber

Matthew Farber teaches social studies at Valleyview Middle School, in Denville, New Jersey. He is also an adjunct instructor for the New Jersey City University (NJCU) Educational Technology Department. Mr. Farber holds a Master's Degree in Educational Technology from NJCU, where he is currently is pursuing a Doctorate in Educational Technology Leadership. He is also on the board of directors for the New Jersey Council for the Social Studies (NJCSS). He also blogs regularly for Edutopia. His book, Gamify Your Classroom: A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning, is out now via Peter Lang Publishing.

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How can teachers use games to teach complex issues? New Jersey social studies teacher Matthew Farber discusses how the latest games can be used to help students learn about the principles of ethics.

Game designers use cause and effect loops to reward players when they advance in a game. Conversely, penalties exist if a task is a mission is failed. For example, when Batman defeats thugs in an Arkham game, the player -- who takes agency over the character -- may earn a digital badge or a power up. The “fail state” is a setback penalty to the most recent save point. Designers use causal loops with the intention of affecting player behavior; intrinsic satisfaction is typically rewarded right away. Of course, decisions in real life are much harder to define.

Every day we are faced with decisions that do not have an immediate payoff. Because video games are much more robust than ever, I wondered if simulations could also effectively teach ethics?

When one thinks about ethics, the terms “right” and “wrong” come to mind. Of course, there are many shades of gray in between. At the 11th Annual Games for Change Festival, in New York City, designer Nick Fortugno compared the ethical decisions presented in the award-winning Papers, Please to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. According to Fortugno, moral dilemmas are “not a mathematical system of good and evil.” In other words, doing “good” does not have an immediate payoff. The mechanic of a delayed reward led Papers, Please to win both Most Innovative Game and Best Game Play at the Games for Change Festival. It also won a BAFTA Award for Best Strategy and Sim.

Papers, Please is set in 1982 and the visual aesthetics reflect games from that era. In the game, you assume the role of immigration officer at the border of a fictional communist country: Arstotzka. Rules for immigration -- including entrance tickets that accompany passports -- constantly change, or level up, until mastery is reached. Player decisions in Papers, Please are not “black or white;” rather, ethical quandaries are front and center. You can accept bribes or let in less desirable immigrants. When I first played, my character was repeatedly penalized for allowing immigrants with falsified documents to enter. Penalties led to me not being able to cover my rent or heating bill, which resulted in my wife, son, uncle, and mother-in-law getting sick. I was eventually jailed for unpaid debts and my family was sent away. Because of the variety of moral dilemmas presented, Fortugno called it “one of the best serious games ever made.”

Threaded stories, like those found in interactive fiction, involve more than the arc of storytelling. Game writers steer people in branches, like a tree. Interactive fiction can have several possible endings and outcomes based on the reader’s choices. The challenge in this style of game is to make the choices seem that like they matter. Mission US is an example of a threaded story (there is an overlay of accompanying interactive graphics). Unlike the game Civilization, which remixes historical events, Mission US games have a rule that what has happened cannot be changed. Therefore, choices involve the character’s personal interests. These include emotional decisions and romantic involvements.

Mission US has causal loops designed to reward positive ethical decisions -- and punishments for poor choices. For example, angering a character can result in a round where the penalty is to scrub an outhouse. In the most recent mission, A Cheyenne Odyssey, several ethical decisions are presented (Mission 3 won Most Impactful Game at the 11th Annual Games for Change Festival). The payoff for taking chances is delayed. You can choose whether or not to be brave. For authenticity, the reward system was based on the virtues of the Cheyenne people, like bravery and generosity. In the Battle of Little Big Horn, survival is heavily dependent on if you are wise, brave, or generous.

Quandary is another ethical decision-making game. It is a free, online game that engages players in the process of colonizing a new planet. Quandary won a Game of the Year Award at the 10th Annual Games for Change Festival. Essentially a trading card game mechanic on a digital platform, each virtual character possesses different abilities and traits. Students must make choices to benefit their colony on the fictional world of Braxos. Teachers can access Quandary in the Classroom to access lesson plans.

When students play video games, they make game decisions with particular notions. Players project themselves onto characters. The teacher must “unpack” experiences when students are exercising agency. The teacher’s role is contextualization and facilitation on content and game decisions. One approach is to assign games like Papers, Please, Mission US, and Quandary for homework and then have students play in teams in class. In the face-to-face classroom, students can discuss the other choices they made. (While Papers, Please, is marketed as an indie (independent), commercial title, “mature content” can be toggled off to make the game appropriate for school settings.)

For a deeper understanding of the interplay of ethics and video games, I highly recommend viewing Nick Fortugno’s Well Played talk about Papers, Please. After viewing it with your class, then facilitate a discussion about morals and dilemmas.

Have you used games-based learning to discuss ethics? If so, let us know how it went in the comments.

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