Ethical Reasoning and Reflection as Supported by Single-Player Videogames

Ethical Reasoning and Reflection as Supported by Single-Player Videogames

Jose P. Zagal
Copyright: © 2011 |Pages: 17
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-120-1.ch002
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Ethically notable games are those that provide opportunities for encouraging ethical reasoning and reflection. This chapter examines how games can encourage rational and emotional responses. By examining ethically notable videogames, it illustrates a few of the different design choices that can be used to encourage these responses and the effects they have on players. It also identifies five challenges toward creating ethically notable games and examines each in the context of commercially released videogames. Each of these analyses serves as a framework not only for reflecting upon and understanding ethics and morality in games but also for outlining the design space for ethically notable games.
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As recent work in moral psychology has shown, emotions (e.g. Greene, Sommerville, Nystrom, Darley & Cohen, 2001) as well as moral rules, each play a critical role in moral judgment (e.g. Nichols & Mallon, 2005). These findings echo, in some sense, the fundamental qualities of games: activities prescribed by rules to elicit and create emotionally meaningful experiences in their participants (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004). It would seem that games provide an ideal medium for providing players with experiences that make them reflect on their ethics and moral reasoning. In practice, this potential has been elusive.

Ethical reasoning is reasoning about right and wrong human conduct. It begins with the identification of a moral or ethical issue. A game that afforded ethical reflection would also, among other things, encourage players to assess their own ethical values, the social context of issues identified, and consider the ramifications of alternative actions. I call games that provide opportunities for encouraging ethical reasoning and reflection ethically notable. In this chapter, I aim to explore some of the ways in which games can be ethically notable as well as the challenges in achieving this.

In the first part of the chapter I discuss what I mean by games that encourage ethical reasoning and reflection. I focus principally on two aspects that I call the rationalized and emotional responses. Games that encourage rationalized responses typically engage players’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills in moral contexts or situations. Games that elicit emotional responses often encourage players’ investment in the narrative and fictive elements of a game while simultaneously facilitating their reflection on their in-game choices and decisions.

In the second part of the chapter, I closely examine three videogames I propose are ethically notable. First, I analyze the fantasy role-playing game Ultima IV (Garriott, 1985) and explore how it attempts to make the player feel personally invested or responsible for their in-game decisions. I also examine the ethical system it encodes and describe how it requires the player to learn and follow it in order to succeed. More specifically, I look at how it encourages rationalized responses by providing players with dilemmas or situations in which their understanding of the ethical system is challenged. Next, I analyze the controversial action/stealth game Manhunt (Rockstar North, 2003). I argue that different design elements in Manhunt create moral tension between the game’s rewards structure and the motivations of the characters as defined by the narrative. Via an emotional response, Manhunt’s design helps the player question the motivations behind their actions, especially when they run counter to the game’s narrative. Finally, I examine tactical role-playing game Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn (Intelligent Systems, 2007). In this game, by cleverly manipulating the way the narrative is presented and by forcing the player to control a variety of characters as its multi-faceted plot unfolds, the game helps create moral tension between the player’s goals and those posed by both the narrative and the gameplay. The analysis of each of these ethically notable games highlights some of the different ways that ethical reasoning and reflection can be encouraged through gaming environments.

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