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An Experiential, Game-Theoretic Pedagogy for Sustainability Ethics


The wicked problems that constitute sustainability require students to learn a different set of ethical skills than is ordinarily required by professional ethics. The focus for sustainability ethics must be redirected towards: (1) reasoning rather than rules, and (2) groups rather than individuals. This need for a different skill set presents several pedagogical challenges to traditional programs of ethics education that emphasize abstraction and reflection at the expense of experimentation and experience. This paper describes a novel pedagogy of sustainability ethics that is based on noncooperative, game-theoretic problems that cause students to confront two salient questions: “What are my obligations to others?” and “What am I willing to risk in my own well-being to meet those obligations?” In comparison to traditional professional ethics education, the game-based pedagogy moves the learning experience from: passive to active, apathetic to emotionally invested, narratively closed to experimentally open, and from predictable to surprising. In the context of game play, where players must make decisions that can adversely impact classmates, students typically discover a significant gap between their moral aspirations and their moral actions. When the games are delivered sequentially as part of a full course in Sustainability Ethics, students may experience a moral identity crisis as they reflect upon the incongruity of their self-understanding and their behavior. Repeated play allows students to reconcile this discrepancy through group deliberation that coordinates individual decisions to achieve collective outcomes. It is our experience that students gradually progress through increased levels of group tacit knowledge as they encounter increasingly complex game situations.

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  1. Norton boils down Rittel and Webber’s (1973) ten specific characteristics of wicked problems into five essential categories: (1) Difficulties of problem definition; (2) Multiple but incompatible solutions; (3) open-ended timeframes; (4) novelty (or uniqueness); and (5) competing value systems or objectives (2005). As a consequence of the novelty and complexity of wicked problems, it is impossible to conduct experiments in isolation that yield generalizable results. Each wicked resolution must be tested in the real word, where the consequences of failure may be irrevocable.

  2. They have also been piloted as separate games at Arizona State University, Michigan State University, Northeastern University, University Colorado, Boulder, and Mesa Community College.

  3. This phenomenon was also observed during The Externalities Game at Arizona State University in an undergraduate “Engineering Business Practices” class consisting entirely of civil engineering majors. In this case, the students created a Security Council charged with negotiating agreement and enforcing compliance among players from the three different classes: luxury, intermediate and subsistence.


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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1134943. The Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University also provided support. For fruitful conversation we thank: Andrew Berardy, Ben Hale, Amy Befeld, Bert Cohen, Bill Guschwan, Jackie Isaacs, Larry Nies, and Liz Martin. Two anonymous reviewers also gave valuable comments.

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Correspondence to Jathan Sadowski.

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Sadowski, J., Seager, T.P., Selinger, E. et al. An Experiential, Game-Theoretic Pedagogy for Sustainability Ethics. Sci Eng Ethics 19, 1323–1339 (2013).

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  • Wicked problems
  • Professional ethics
  • Group tacit knowledge
  • Experiential pedagogy
  • Sustainability
  • Ethics
  • Game theory