The Continuum of Ethical Challenge: Why the Devil Isn’t Waiting in the Alleyway and The World is Harder than Bioshock.

This must be a record for a post title but I hope to keep the post itself shortish. Years ago, when I was still at school, a life counsellor (who was also a pastor) came to talk to us about life choices and ethics. He was talking about the usual teen cocktail: sex, drugs and rebellion.. However, he made an impression on me by talking about his early idea of temptation. Because of the fire and brimstone preaching he’d grown up with, he half expected temptation to take the form of the Devil, beckoning him into an alleyway to take an illicit drag on a cigarette. As he grew up, and grew wiser, he realised that living ethically was really a constant set of choices, interlocking or somewhat dependant, rather than an easy life periodically interrupted by strictly defined challenges that could be overcome with a quick burst of willpower.

A picture of an alley with green eyes floating, superimposed over it.

It’s still a creepy mental image, of course.

I recently started replaying the game Bioshock, which I have previously criticised elsewhere, and was struck by the facile nature of the much-vaunted ethical aspect to game play. For those who haven’t played it, you basically have a choice between slaughtering or saving little girls – apart from that, you have very little agency or ability to change the path you’re on. In fact, rather than provide you with the continual dilemma of whether you should observe, ignore or attack the inhabitants of the game world, you very quickly realise that there are no ‘good’ people in the world (or there are none that you are actually allowed to attack, they are all carefully shielded from you) so you can reduce your ‘choices’ when encountering a figure crouching over a pram to “should I bludgeon her to death, or set her on fire and shoot her in the head”. (It’s ok, if you try anything approaching engagement, she will try and kill you.) In fact, one of the few ‘innocents’ in the game is slaughtered in front of you while you watch impotently. So your ethical engagement is restricted, at very distinctly defined intervals, to either harvesting or rescuing the little girls who have been stolen from orphanages and turned into corpse scavenging monsters. This is as ridiculous as the intermittent Devil in the alleyway, in fact, probably more so!

I completely agree with that counsellor from (goodness) 30 years ago – it would be a nonsense to assume that tests of our ethics can be conveniently compartmentalised to a time when our resolve is strong and can be so easily predicted. The Bioshock model (or models like it, such as Call of Duty 4, where everyone is an enemy or can’t be shot in a way that affects our game beyond a waggled finger and being taken back to a previous save) is flawed because of the limited extent of the impact of the choices you make – in fact, Bioshock is particularly egregious because the ‘outcome’ of your moral choice has no serious game impact except to show you a different movie at the end. Before anyone says “it’s only a game”, I agree, but they were the ones who imposed the notion that this ethical choice made a difference. Games such as Deus Ex gave you very much un-cued opportunities to intervene or not – with changes to the game world depending on what happened. As a result, people playing Deus Ex had far more moral engagement with the game and everyone I’ve spoken to felt as if they were making the choices that led to the outcome: autonomy, mastery and purpose anyone? That was in 2000 – very few games actually see the world as one that you can influence (although some games are now coming up to par on this).

I think about this a lot for my learning design. While my students  may recognise ethical choices in the real world, I am always concerned that a learning design that reduces their activities to high stakes hurdle challenges will mimic the situation where we have, effectively, put the Devil in the alleyway and you can switch on your ‘ethical’ brain at this point. I posed a question to my students in their sample exam where I proposed that they had commissioned someone to write their software for an assignment – and them asked to think about the effect that this decision would have on their future self in terms of knowledge development, if we assumed that they would always be better prepared if they did the work themselves. This takes away the focus from the day or so leading up to an individual assignment and starts to encourage continuum thinking, where every action is take as part of a whole life of ethical actions. I’m a great believer that skills only develop with practice and knowledge only stays in your head when you reinforce it, so any opportunity to encourage further development of ethical thinking is to be encouraged!

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