Designing role-playing video games for ethical thinking

Abstract

How can we better design games, such as role-playing video games (RPGs), to support the practice of ethical thinking? Ethical thinking is a critical component of twenty-first century citizenship and we need to design ways to creatively support its practice. This study investigates how male participants, ages 18–34, make ethical decisions in three in-game scenarios in Fable III, an RPG, and one additional scenario. The decision-making processes of thirty participants were analyzed; twenty were randomly assigned to play Fable III and ten were assigned to a control condition of written ethical scenarios. Results suggested that participants practiced a variety of ethical thinking skills and thought processes in both conditions, including reasoning-, empathy-, reflection-, and information gathering-related skills and thought processes. Three hypotheses were investigated and detailed, and any significant differences or similarities that emerged between conditions and across game scenarios were explored. Based on this analysis, four preliminary design principles were described.

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Acknowledgments

Special thanks to David Shaenfield, Alyssa Shaenfield, Noah Shaenfield, Charles Kinzer, Sandra Okita, and Joey Lee, as well as to the reviewers of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Karen Schrier.

Appendices

Appendix 1: Sample journal entry (game condition)

JOURNAL ONE

This journal will cover:

From the very beginning of the game until you reach the beginning of the quest named “The Bowerstone Resistance.” NOTE: This is the point in the game when you first get to Bowerstone Industrial, right after you killed Lieutenant Simmons, and first meet Page, the leader of the Bowerstone Resistance. It is when you first need to earn 100 guild points.

If you just do the Main Quest part, this journal will cover about 3 ½ hours of game play, so you may want to take notes as you go along. You do not need to complete this whole part in one sitting. You can take as long as you want to reach each point, and do not have to do it in one sitting. Just fill out a journal after you reach the end of the portion of the game. You only need to complete the Main Quest story line (top quest in the list of quests), but you can

do any other side quests too.

Fill out these questions and send it to XXXXXXX@gmail.com.

  1. 1.

    Your ID Number (given in the instructions email): ______________________________

  2. 2.

    (optional) Date/time of day played the game: ________________________

  3. 3.

    (optional) Approximate length of time playing the game: ______hours________minutes

  4. 4.

    What are the quests or activities you participated in today? (If you do not know the name, just describe the goal(s) or choice(s) involved.)

  5. 5.

    Name one, two or three ethical decisions you made as part of the quests or activities. Use your judgment as to what was an ethical decision. Explain why you think these were ethical decisions.

  6. 6.

    Choose one of the ethical decisions you had to make. Be as detailed as possible. Describe the options you had, the setting and people that were involved, the context, dialogue, situation, and what types of action or behaviors you chose.

  7. 7.

    Why did you make this decision? What aspects of the game or game play (characters, scenarios, art, dialogue, points, mission, etc.) helped you make those decisions? Was there anything outside of the game you used to help you make a decision (e.g., other people, other resources)? What did you think about? How did you feel? Be as detailed as possible in describing how you made the decision.

  8. 8.

    If you were going to walk through this scenario with another person, who hasn’t played the game yet, what would you tell him/her? What strategies and tips would you share with him/her?

  9. 9.

    On a scale from 1 to 10(most satisfied), how satisfied are you with your decision? Optional questions:

  10. 10.

    Did you think about this decision later, after you already made the decision and acted?

  11. 11.

    Did you take into account other character’s feelings when making your decision? What about other character’s motivations? What about other character’s perspectives? If so, how did you use this in your decision-making process?

  12. 12.

    Did you gather any information when making your decision? If so, what did you use? What else would you have liked to know?

  13. 13.

    Did you discuss the decision with others (other characters or other people) before making it? If so, who? Did you ask questions?

  14. 14.

    Did you think about the consequences of your decision before you made it? Were you surprised by the consequences when you did experience them?

  15. 15.

    Did you think about any prior experiences to make your decision? If so, how did they factor in?

Appendix 2: Sample control scenario

Imagine you are living in a time of wizards and dragons, princesses and princes, castles and moats, set in the Middle Ages in an imaginary European city. You are the prince or princess of the land called Albion. You are living in a castle in a kingdom. Your parents have been killed, and your older brother, Logan, is the ruler of the land. You have never gotten along with your brother, and you start to notice some suspicious activity. One day, Logan has the guards capture you. He also has captured your very close friend—a childhood friend whom you have grown up with.

Logan visits you and your childhood friend in captivity. He tells you that he has a few of the Albion townspeople held in a dungeon. Logan says he will release the townspeople if you trade your friend for the townspeople, but he won’t let you sacrifice yourself. What do you do?

Appendix 3: Chart of example ethical decisions made in Fable III

Name of scenario Choices in scenario Associated journal
“Surrender a Friend” a. Sacrifice friend
b. Sacrifice villagers
Journal 1
“Walter” a. Save walter
b. Leave walter behind
Journal 2
“Logan” a. Spare brother logan
b. Kill brother logan
Journal 3
“Donate the diamond” a. Donate a diamond
b. Keep a diamond
Journal 4
“Tax the Parents” a. Give benefits to parents
b. Stay the same
c. Raise taxes for parents
Journal 5
“Mine the lake” a. Drain a lake for money
b. Preserve the lake
Observation/talk aloud

Appendix 4: Chart of skills and thought processes (coding scheme)

Skills Category
Consider another’s character or values Empathy-related (also arguably reasoning-related)
Consider someone’s motivation Empathy-related
Perspective-taking/consider someone’s perspective Empathy-related
Consider another’s emotions/feelings Empathy-related
Consider/assess relationship with another character/person Empathy-related
Consider other’s opinions Empathy-related
Search for other’s opinions Information gathering-related
Gather information not included in scenario Information gathering-related
Choices depend on new information Information gathering-related
Discuss with real people Information gathering-related
Discuss with other characters Information gathering-related
Interpret information Reasoning-related
Use evidence to support choices Reasoning-related
Provide reasons for a decision Reasoning-related
Weigh different options Reasoning-related
Interpret rules Reasoning-related
Evaluate social standing or status Reasoning-related
Evaluate agreement or promise Reasoning-related
Consider one’s role or responsibility Reasoning-related
Consider longer-term effects Reasoning-related
Consider short-term effects Reasoning-related
Identify pros and cons Reasoning-related
Consider consequences Reasoning-related
Analysis of situation or context Reasoning-related
Prioritizing goals or factors Reasoning-related
Financial assessment Reasoning-related
Military resource assessment Reasoning-related
Consider own emotions Empathy-related
Consider past events in game/play experience Reflection-related
Consider past events outside game Reflection-related
Consider media (TV, film) outside of game Reflection-related
Reflect after decision Reflection-related
Conduct cost-benefit analysis Reasoning-related
Search for/seek more information Information gathering-related
Thought processes Category
Prioritization of other’s perspectives when making a decision Empathy-related
Prioritization of one’s personal ethics/morality when making a decision Reasoning-related; empathy-related
Prioritization of individual or self-interests Reasoning-related
Prioritization of safety and people’s lives over all other factors Empathy-related
Prioritization of financial/resource gain when making a decision Reasoning-related
Prioritization of greater good over individual interests Reasoning-related
Prioritization of feelings or emotions to help make decisions Empathy-related
Prioritization of relationships to help make decisions Empathy-related
Prioritization of agreements or promises to help make decisions Reasoning-related
Prioritization of one’s roles and responsibilities in making a decision Reasoning-related
Decision based on number of lives harmed Reasoning-related
Decision based on the evaluation of future value of a person or people as a resource Reasoning-related
Evaluation of long term results over short term results Reasoning-related
Assessment of past experiences within the game, and use it to predict the future Reflection-related
Analysis of prior choices to justify current choice Reflection-related
Prioritization of someone else’s feelings to make a decision Empathy-related
Will not make a decision without first gathering information to predict future outcomes Information gathering-related
Imagining what if scenarios and possible consequences to justify decision Reasoning-related
Liking a character/person as a reason for doing something Empathy-related
Judgment that someone is a friend/romantic partner influences decision Empathy-related
Problem solve from another’s perspective and use it to make one’s decision Empathy-related

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Schrier, K. Designing role-playing video games for ethical thinking. Education Tech Research Dev 65, 831–868 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11423-016-9489-7

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Keywords

  • Games
  • Ethics
  • Design
  • Learning
  • Education
  • Digital games