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Thought Experiment: Teaching Normative Ethics with Digital Games by Sherry Jones (Aug. 2, 2018)


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Aug. 2, 2018 - This is a presentation for the 2018 Colorado Learning and Teaching with Technology Conference (COLTT). The presentation showcased my method of using digital games to teach philosophy and ethics. One of the featured games is the survival simulation game, Fallout Shelter.

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Thought Experiment: Teaching Normative Ethics with Digital Games by Sherry Jones (Aug. 2, 2018)

  1. 1. Sherry Jones, Philosophy & Game Studies, Twitter @autnes Thought Experiment: Teaching Normative Ethics with Digital Games
  2. 2. Hello! I am . . . Sherry Jones Philosophy & Game Studies SME & Lecturer, Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design. Animated Slides: About Me: Twitter: @autnes Email:
  3. 3. Welcome to This Workshop! This workshop will simulate the workflow of my assignment design: 1. Consider how games are thought experiments. (~5 min) 2. Explore real historical issues that inspired a game’s design. (~10 min) 3. Play a game! (~20 min) 4. Discuss social norms and problems in the game! (~10 min) 5. Present design of my ethical analysis assignment. (~5 min)
  4. 4. Part 1: Games as Thought Experiments (~5 Min)
  5. 5. Thought Experiments and Normative Ethics? In philosophy . . . Thought experiment is a mental device or conceptual tool for imagining possible scenarios for investigating the nature of the world. Thought experiments often are presented in the narrative form. Normative ethics is a discipline that considers and defines moral standards that determine whether an act is right or wrong.
  6. 6. Why Use Games to Teach Ethics? ❖ Games are “thought experiments” or interactive narratives that allow us to experience hypothetical scenarios. ❖ Games call on us to “physically interact” and “think through” the logic and ethics of the hypothetical scenarios expressed by the games. ❖ The nature of games is that they are “normative ethical machines,” imposing certain ethical rules through game mechanics. ❖ Learners can arrive at certain conclusions about a game’s implied ethics by analyzing their own gameplay experience.
  7. 7. The Ethics and Games Series See my Youtube live series on teaching ethics with games! ❖ Observer (August 2018). ❖ Detention (July 2018). ❖ To the Moon (May 2018). ❖ The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (April 2018). ❖ Life Is Strange (March 2018). ❖ The Talos Principle (February 2018). ❖ Fallout Shelter (January 2018).
  8. 8. Part 2: What is Fallout Shelter? (~10 Min)
  9. 9. Mobile Game Based on the Fallout Series ❖ Fallout Shelter (2015) is a free-to-play simulation mobile game by Bethesda Game Studios and Behaviour Interactive, a spin-off based on Fallout game series. ❖ Released on Android, iOS, Microsoft Windows, XBox One. ❖ Simulation of a post-nuclear apocalyptic America. ❖ Gameplay involves building and maintaining a fallout shelter, growing population size, and completing quests to obtain resources for sustaining the population.
  10. 10. Story of the Fallout Series ❖ Set in alternate history of U.S. 1950s atomic age when technologies were powered by nuclear energy. ❖ 13 commonwealths ruled U.S. until capitalism and plutocracy corrupted U.S. into a fascist police state. ❖ Surveillance, torture, experimentation, and public execution became du jour citizen control methods. ❖ Great War (2077) led to global nuclear apocalypse (U.S., China, USSR, and other nuclear capable nations launched weapons for 2 hours).
  11. 11. Story of the Fallout Series (Cont.) ❖ 1000 survivors lived in 122 Vaults built by govt. contractor Vault Tec. ❖ Vaults conducted unethical social and scientific experiments, e.g. mutating residents via psychopathic drugs, virus, or radiation. ❖ Surface, aka The Wasteland, became completely irradiated. Surface survivors became irradiated “ghouls.” ❖ Vaults were not opened until the year 2097 and later. ❖ It is not clear exactly when Fallout Shelter falls on the timeline.
  12. 12. Game Design Inspired by the 1950s
  13. 13. 1950s Culture of Fear ❖ U.S. Sentiments During 1950s Post WWII (1939-1945) Era: National and racial destiny, national solidarity, fear of degenerates, fear of outsiders, paranoia, expansion of military power, infallible/ unquestionable leaders, authoritarianism, racism, sexism. ❖ Red Scare: Campaign to identify secret communist traitors in U.S. ❖ McCarthyism: Launch accusations of treason without evidence. ❖ Fear of Atomic Bomb: Creation of U.S. Nuclear Fallout Survival Guide.
  14. 14. Source: “Facts about Fallout” (1955), document released by National Archives
  15. 15. Source: "Two-story wood frame house at 5,500 feet (from blast site), May 5, 1955," released by National Archives
  16. 16. Source: "A few minutes after detonation the atomic blast in Operation Cue looked like this, May 5, 1955," released by National Archives
  17. 17. Source: "Two-story wood frame house at 5,500 feet after the blast, May 5, 1955," released by National Archives
  18. 18. Source: "Photograph of the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization exhibit at a local civil defense fair. ca. 1960", released by National Archives
  19. 19. Source: "Photograph of a display of survival supplies for the well-stocked fallout shelter, ca.1961." released by National Archives
  20. 20. Source: "Photograph of a basement family fallout shelter" (1957) (with 14 days food supply), released by National Archives
  21. 21. "About Global Fallout" by Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2018)
  22. 22. "How Global Fallout Can Affect Your Health" by Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2018)
  23. 23. “KI (potassium iodide) blocks radioactive iodine from entering the thyroid. When a person takes KI, the stable iodine in the medicine gets absorbed by the thyroid. Because KI contains so much stable iodine, the thyroid gland becomes ‘full’ and cannot absorb any more iodine—either stable or radioactive—for the next 24 hours.” -- Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2018)
  24. 24. "Chernobyl: New Tomb Will Make Site Safe for 100 Years" by Claire Corkhill, The Conversation (2016)
  25. 25. Vault-Tec Commercial from Fallout 3
  26. 26. Part 3: Let’s Play Fallout Shelter ! (~20 Min)
  27. 27. Two Ways to Play the Game Play with Complicity ❖ As Overseer with absolute power over the lives of Vault dwellers, the player can perform ethical or unethical acts at will. ❖ Fallout Shelter enables us to experience what it is like to be complicit in performing unethical acts. ex. Evict dwellers for the sake of caps (money). Play with Resistance ❖ As Overseer with absolute power over the lives of Vault dwellers, the player can consciously avoid performing unethical acts. ❖ However, game rules encourage unethical play, and punish ethical play. ex. Player sacrifice chances to earn caps (money) by refusing to evict dwellers.
  28. 28. Let’s Play Video of Fallout Shelter by Blitz
  29. 29. Part 4: Identify Social Norms & Problems (~10 Min)
  30. 30. Discussion Questions ❖ What social norms are present in the game? What actions are the player required to perform? ❖ What possible problems can arise from the game’s social norms? (Try comparing the hypothetical social norms to real world social norms.)
  31. 31. Part 5: My Design of an Ethical Analysis Assignment with Fallout Shelter (5 min)
  32. 32. Step 1: Play Fallout Shelter
  33. 33. Step 2: Take Screenshots of Fallout Shelter
  34. 34. Step 3: Upload Screenshots of Fallout Shelter to a Mindmap + Annotate Inferences of Themes, Issues
  35. 35. Step 4: Identify the Rhetoric of Fallout Shelter About the Themes, Issues
  36. 36. Game Rhetoric: Job, Productivity, Efficiency
  37. 37. Vault Conversations: Working = Happiness
  38. 38. Vault Conversations: Hard Work is Happy Work
  39. 39. Vault Conversations: G.O.A.T.
  40. 40. Vault Conversations: Production
  41. 41. Vault Conversations: Maximum Efficiency
  42. 42. Vault Conversations: Humans Are Inefficient
  43. 43. Game Rhetoric: Omniscient Overseer Deserves Praise
  44. 44. Vault Conversations: Who is the Overseer?
  45. 45. Vault Conversations: Overseer is Smart
  46. 46. Vault Conversations: Overseer is Great
  47. 47. Vault Conversations: Overseer Will Protect Us
  48. 48. Game Rhetoric: Surveillance
  49. 49. The Vault: Armory Room with Surveillance Camera
  50. 50. The Vault: Weapons Room with Monitors
  51. 51. Vault Conversations: Overseer is Listening
  52. 52. Vault Conversations: Overseer and Double Shift
  53. 53. Vault Conversations: Overseer is Watching Us
  54. 54. Game Rhetoric: Authoritarianism & Hive Mind
  55. 55. Vault Conversations: Follow Authority
  56. 56. Vault Conversations: Honeycomb (Hive Mind)
  57. 57. The Vault as a “Honeycomb” or “Ant Farm”
  58. 58. Game Rhetoric: Death and Meaninglessness
  59. 59. Wasteland Conversations: Death Everywhere
  60. 60. Wasteland Conversations: Way to Die
  61. 61. Wasteland Conversations: Countless Human Deaths
  62. 62. Wasteland Conversations: Losing Track of Time
  63. 63. Game Rhetoric: Eviction and Resistance
  64. 64. Wasteland Conversations: Leaving on Free Will
  65. 65. Wasteland Conversations: Skepticism of Future
  66. 66. Wasteland Conversations: Rue the Day
  67. 67. Game Ethics: Values that the Game Espouses
  68. 68. Game Values: Capitalism and Authoritarianism ❖ Maximizing profit is the raison d’etre. ❖ Profit should be valued over social good. ❖ Providing social good is justified if and only if the act enables humans to provide labor that increases profit. ❖ A human life is good insofar as it can perform efficient labor for increasing profit. ❖ Human value is measured by the profit it can generate. ❖ Authoritarianism is good because it maximizes profit. ❖ Authoritarianism requires surveillance and oppression of the citizens.
  69. 69. Game Values: Efficiency Warrants Eugenics ❖ Eugenics (greek for “Good Birth”) is a social philosophy, originated from Plato, that contemplates on how to create better societies via selective breeding (for eliminating undesirable human traits). ❖ Most countries have ended eugenics-based policies. U.S. still implements some policies, such as the ban of incestual marriages. ❖ Fallout Shelter gameplay promotes eugenics based practices: ➢ Overseer (player) can selectively breed dwellers. ➢ Consequent children will carry the genetic traits of the parents. ➢ Children can inherit SPECIAL skills of the parents (when the parents are equipped with certain items).
  70. 70. Vault Breeding: One Man Fathers Several Children
  71. 71. Game Values: Capitalism Justifies Ageism ❖ Fallout Shelter gameplay promotes ageism based practices: ➢ Overseer (player) can evict any dweller from the Vault at will, without offering any justification to the dweller. ➢ Once a dweller reaches level 50 (max), the dweller can no longer generate any caps (profit) for the Overseer. ➢ To raise efficiency and profit, the Overseer can evict the level 50 dweller, and train a younger dweller to replace the older dweller. ➢ Upon eviction, the dweller is stripped of weapons and armor that could protect him/herself from the Wasteland. ➢ A dweller’s level could represent age. The eviction of the level 50 dwellers could be interpreted as an ageism-driven act.
  72. 72. Step 5: Identify Ethical Theories that Explain or Challenge the Rhetoric of Fallout Shelter
  73. 73. What is Egoism? ❖ In philosophy, Egoism (latin. “Ego” means “I”) is an ethical theory that presents either a descriptive or a normative position that an act can be moral or rational if the act maximizes one’s self-interest. ❖ 3 Types of Egoism: ➢ Psychological Egoism: A descriptive position (and a metaethics) that a person desires/is motivated to act only to maximize her own self-interest. ➢ Ethical Egoism: A normative position that actions are morally right if the actions maximize one’s self-interest. ➢ Rational Egoism: Claims that actions are rational if the actions maximize one’s self-interest.
  74. 74. Egoism vs. Altruism ❖ For the Psychological Egoist, Altruism (the belief that one would or should act for the sake of others) is unnatural for the individual, who desires to act solely for her own welfare. ❖ Example Scenario: A fireman rushes into a burning building to save a child, even though he knows that the building will likely explode within minutes due to a gas leak. The fireman was able to save the child’s life, but he dies soon after due to 3rd degree burns and carbon monoxide poisoning. How would an Altruist vs. an Egoist respond to the above scenario?
  75. 75. Egoist’s vs Altruist’s Response to a Scenario ❖ An Altruist would say that the fireman acted altruistically to save the child’s life, while foregoing his own. The fireman rushed into the burning building, knowing that it was about to explode, because he acted for the sake of the child. ❖ An Egoist would say that the fireman acted in self-interest when he saved the child’s life, because he only acted for the sake of upholding his own reputation. The fireman rushed into the burning building, knowing that it was about to explode, because he wanted to showcase his heroism. His death was unfortunate, but it preserved his honor as a fireman.
  76. 76. The Egoism of the Overseer ❖ In Fallout Shelter, the Overseer (the player) can make ethical or unethical acts at will, without any intervention from the dwellers. The Overseer has absolute power over the dwellers and the Vault. ❖ The Overseer asks the dwellers to perform various jobs, all for the purpose of maximizing his/her self-interest, which is to gain profit. ❖ The Overseer maintains the Vault to secure the dweller’s lives, because dwellers are needed to complete jobs and maximize production. He/She is motivated to protect the Vault and the dwellers to benefit his own welfare.
  77. 77. Question about the Dwellers ❖ Q. Through the lens of Egoism, how would we understand the motivation of the dwellers in working for the authoritative and oppressive Overseer?
  78. 78. Step 6: Write an Ethical Analysis Essay on Fallout Shelter
  79. 79. Thanks for Coming! Sherry Jones Philosophy & Game Studies SME & Lecturer, Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design. Animated Slides: About Me: Twitter: @autnes Email: