Videogames and the Ethics of Care

Videogames and the Ethics of Care

John Murphy (DePaul University, USA) and José Zagal (DePaul University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/jgcms.2011070105
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Videogames have the potential to create ethical experiences and encourage ethical reflection. Usually, this potential is understood in the context of the dominant moral theories: utilitarianism and Kantianism. However, it has been argued that a complete moral theory must also include the concept of an ethics of care. This paper utilizes the ethics of care as an alternative lens for examining the ethical frameworks and experiences offered by videogames. The authors illustrate how this perspective can provide insights by examining Little King’s Story and Animal Crossing: City Folk. Little King’s Story’s fictive context, gameplay, and asymmetrical power relationships encourage the player to care for the citizens of his or her kingdom. In Animal Crossing: City Folk, the player is a member of a community that encourages him or her to care for his or her neighbors as part of a larger interconnected social ecosystem. Both games encourage players feeling an emotional attachment to the game’s characters, and the value placed in these relationships becomes the motivation for further ethical player behavior. The conclusion outlines future research questions and discusses some challenges and limitations of a care ethics perspective.
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The Ethics Of Care

Utilitarian and Kantian moral models represent the traditional and dominant moral philosophy points of view (Held, 2010). It has also been argued that they are distinctively masculine concepts of morality (Noddings, 2008). Feminist moral philosophers have criticized these traditional models as not taking into account a female point of view (Noddings, 2008; Held, 2010). When moral philosophers developed the currently dominant models of morality, men dominated the public sphere. Models of moral philosophy came to emphasize aspects of public life, such as duty, bargaining, contractual obligations, and calculations of costs and benefits. There was also an emphasis on impersonal relationships, rational thought, and decision making that had to take into account the needs of large numbers of people. As a result, it is argued, moral theory reflects this rational, impersonal point of view (Held, 2010).

Feminist moral philosophers have proposed alternative moral models which include an ethic of care (Noddings, 2008). Noddings (2008) argues that we all have fond, early memories of experiencing care, both in being cared for and caring for others. This creates a natural need to care for and be cared for. As a result of this natural urge for care, people feel a need to care ethically. This ethical care is said to require more effort than natural caring. In some cases, the urge to care ethically is not strong enough to cause initial action, but in cases like these, according to Noddings (2008), we are obliged to act out of the value that we place in the relatedness between people. As such, this relatedness is at the core of an ethic of care. From this perspective, building and maintaining relationships is the motivator of ethical behavior instead of the optimization of pain and pleasure or the adherence to abstract moral rules. The focus on specific relationships also means that an ethic of care lends itself to a focus on specific, concrete situations rather than on formulating a more general set of principles. The focus of ethical reasoning from a care ethics perspective is on the individual’s reflection upon the goodness inherent in concrete caring situations.

Some have agreed with Noddings on the necessity of an ethic of care in moral philosophy, but have disagreed with some aspects of the way that she has conceptualized it (Held, 2010). Though Noddings asserts that the possibility of relation rather than concrete relation is all that is necessary to apply an ethic of care, she also argues that an ethic of care does not apply in situations where there is no potential for dynamic, reciprocal growth in relation. This is a problematic formulation of care ethics because it allows a feminist ethic of care to be turned on itself (Held, 2010). According to Noddings (2008), an individual is not obligated to care for people who that individual will never meet, regardless of their suffering. Noddings' (2008) view on care ethics also indicates that one is not obligated to care for animals or nature because neither can reciprocate in a caring relationship. Curtin rejects this assertion and adds that an ethic of care must be politicized to avoid these problems (Curtin, 1991). She argues that one should care for individual people, animals, or plants, but that one must also think of these specific situations in a political context that allows them to care about larger-scale issues, thereby allowing them to care for other specific people, plants, or animals with which they may never relate. Held also insists that, due to the lack of a universal moral theory, a feminist ethic of care should be but one tool that should be reconciled with other moral models and that different moral models ought to be applied to different domains (Held, 2010).

The ethics of care differ from traditional moral theory in that there is a greater focus on personal, partial, and emotional experience. At the heart of the ethics of care is the assertion that rational thought and decision-making is not the only valid moral motivation. Subjective factors, especially the value placed in specific interpersonal relationships, are considered to be valid motivators for moral decisions and behavior.

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