Are video games a suitable and safe virtual space to acquire ethical skills by experimenting with moral dilemmas? Recent research has sought the answer to that question.
Video games can be a useful tool for teaching ethical skills in fields where people may face moral dilemmas. This is one of the principles behind the research carried out at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC) by Joan Casas Roma, Jordi Conesa and Santi Caballé, researchers from the SmartLearn group, from the Computer Science, Multimedia and Telecommunications Studies. Researchers are working on the use of digital games to improve the learning of ethical skills in teaching, specifically in technologists, but their research can also be extrapolated to other fields.
In the digital world, the debate about data analysts and their ability to manipulate data often arises. Casas Roma recalls that those who design the technology may be reproducing “a specific way of understanding the world”, for example, allowing certain interactions and not others. It is not a limitation imposed by the technology, but rather that those who have designed it have made a certain decision. Often these decisions can end up having an impact on society, positive or negative.
Casas Roma’s research is based on exploring to what extent the way engineers and data analysts work takes into account “the good or bad effects that technology” can cause. The UOC researcher orients his studies to “anticipate” these effects and invites them to “pull the thread” so that technologists have elements to reflect on the impact that the technology in which they work will have on the world.
As an example, Casas Roma talks about social networks, which were created at the time with a specific objective, but which have subsequently ended up being transformed by the use we give them. Instagram, Facebook or Twitter were born related to particular uses and users have appropriated them, sometimes, in a way that could have ended up causing damage. This is the case of Instagram and the effects on mental health in young adolescents and their image, as some reports have revealed. “This has meant the redesign of some of the mechanics that the social network implements,” says Casas Roma.
The UOC’s research is based on the idea that although it is positive that there is regulation of the use of artificial intelligence, especially useful in the field of data, there is another part that has to come out of the design of the technology. Technologists must have tools with which to try to figure out how the technology they work on can change the world. This is a difficult objective: it is not as easy as reducing everything to a set of rules, because many times we talk about technologies that have not existed until now, so it is not known how they will affect the world and require a great exercise of foresight .
The new study has investigated to what extent video games are a valid and safe space to acquire ethical skills by experimenting with moral dilemmas. (Image: Amazings/NCYT)
Learn ethics by codes or by playing?
Casas Roma believes that learning about ethical competencies through deontological codes “would not work”. In a technology design phase, “a holistic vision” of said technology and “of the users who will use it” is needed. This, she points out, can be through examples that allow the user to become a spectator, who can observe the complexities of the cases that are presented to them and have empathy about the decisions that are made.
However, Casas Roma goes one step further and proposes using interactivity to teach ethical skills to students, confronting them with a virtual adventure that turns them into protagonists. Interactivity, underlines the researcher, “opens the door to moral emotions, subjective elements, to genuine involvement, to feeling responsible.” The researcher has already designed a game prototype in this regard.
The project is based on the creation of a virtual narrative designed for engineering students to face situations that constitute moral dilemmas. For example, they might be invited to put themselves in the shoes of a developer who, at a certain point, discovers that a program his company has just released “may have unintended ethical consequences.” “The grace is that the narrative does not pretend to teach what is or is not correct; many times in the real world there is not enough information to decide. The game makes the player have to constantly choose between decisions that support ethical principles, or No, but it may be to the detriment of other requirements that it may have in that situation”, explains Casas Roma.
Video games can become a safe environment to face dilemmas and ethical decisions that can be difficult to resolve. Video games are transformed into “a space for each player/student to have a space to reflect, create a space to think about what the ethical consequences of a decision might be,” explains Casas Roma.
The research team has designed a prototype, adaptable to various professional fields where ethical dilemmas can be faced. Casas Roma cites, for example, the world of biomedicine. With this prototype, the participant has to make a series of decisions that affect the story and its characters in different ways. Decisions can affect the relationships that the protagonist has with other characters in the story, can affect the objectives of the story, and can be related to professional ethical principles drawn from codes of conduct.
The video game raises questions in which there is not always a correct solution or there is not all the information to discern, a priori, what will be the best decision. “We are not looking for participants to learn specific codes of conduct, but rather, in order to understand and try to anticipate the possible consequences of their decisions, they get used to considering the ethical dimension of their actions in different professional contexts,” says Casas Roma.
The UOC researchers’ prototype proposes spaces for reflection to develop participants’ ethical competencies with the aim of transferring them to their day-to-day decision-making in their professional practice. (Source: UOC)