What is permitted vs. what is right: Games and ethical decision-making

Although I’m mostly a social media researcher right now, I applied to grad school as someone who was interested in the educational potential of games, and I’ve been fortunate enough to pull that hat out of the closet and wear it a little more frequently over the past couple of months. One of the projects I’ve been especially interested in moving forward is one that focuses on exploring when students/players adopt “ethical identities” (i.e., perceive their actions as ethically salient) within a game. My interest in this subject isn’t based on any personal hand-wringing about violent video games (though I will admit that I don’t play first-person shooters because they rub me the wrong way). Rather, I’ve long felt that games provide an interesting sandbox for trying out ethical reflection and decision-making, and I’m curious about the circumstances under which players recognize and take advantage of that potential.

Much of this stems back to an experience I had years ago. Once, in college, I spent a couple of hours one afternoon playing a tabletop wargame with my brother-in-law. There wasn’t much of a story behind the game: The Blue Nation and the Red Nation were simply fed up with sharing the same island and had decided to go to war. We each had some soldiers, tanks, and paratroopers to carry out our goal of taking over the enemy’s cities, and in case of emergency, we both had a small number of nuclear weapons we could use to regain the upper hand. I got off to a strong start in the game (it helped that I owned the game and my brother-in-law had never heard of it), and before long, I had invaded his capital city, which he wasn’t terribly happy about. He hemmed and hawed over what to do next, considering his options and consulting the rules. Finally, he pointed to one of my tanks, which was sitting right in the middle of his capital, and announced that he’d be using one of his nuclear missiles to wipe it right off the map.

I was flabbergasted. Here was my brother-in-law, proposing to nuke his own city just to get rid of one of my units. But I hemmed and hawed, considering his options and consulting the rules, and realized that it was a perfectly legal move. No rule in the game said that you couldn’t launch a missile against your own city, and the game didn’t even keep track of civilian lives, so there wasn’t even any penalty for such an action. I begrudgingly admitted that not only was this a permitted move—it was probably the best move he could have made in the moment.

In the years since, I have thought a lot about this moment (this anecdote even served as the basis of my personal statement for my grad school applications), and the news that Amazon would not be paying any federal taxes for 2018 has me thinking even more about it. To make the parallel here obvious, Amazon knows the rules of the game and knows what the right moves are to accomplish the “victory conditions” it has in mind. Yet, even if this is a permitted move, and even if it’s a smart move, I can’t help but feel that it’s not the right move.

This, then, is why I’m so interested in encouraging students and players to engage in ethical decision-making in games. Not because I’m afraid that violent actions within the context of a game will translate into violent actions in other contexts. Rather, because there are so many “real-life” situations where people have to wrestle with the tension between what is permitted and what is right, and I wonder if doing that first in a game could provide some needed practice.