Syrious Games (part 2)

Over the last couple of months, it’s been fascinating (and a little scary) to see how the entire world can be changed by one person’s actions. Now, I typically avoid crediting individuals with realizing important changes: whatever his or her political party, reputation, or skill, I think the world is just too complicated for one person to be responsible for ruining a country or for making the price of gas go down. In fact, I think that an important part of political maturity is to recognize that no matter how stellar or awful one candidate is, he or she is just a single cog in a giant, complicated political machine.

That being said, there’s no getting around the fact that some cogs are more equal than others. It may be disheartening to realize that one’s politician of choice doesn’t really have *that* much influence in the world, but once one does, it becomes scary to realize just how much influence he or she *does* have. After all, even in a democracy like the United States, the single person with access to the nuclear football has the potential to change the lives of millions. Of course, this isn’t entirely true, since the actual button has to be pushed by someone else, but that person still feels the weight of the burden of being the biggest cog in the world’s machine.

So, it turns out that Syria is still a good metaphor for explaining why I think games have tremendous potential in ethical learning. Just like past crises have been resolved or exacerbated by the actions of just a handful of high-level players, it took just one player to set a red line, one player to cross that red line, one player to (inadvertently) suggest a diplomatic solution, and one player to twist all of that to his own advantage. This is still a slight exaggeration, but not so much that the scariness factor disappears. One person really can change the world.

Now, why does that matter for ethical learning? When a significant event hinges on a single figure, I don’t think we can judge that person’s actions without putting ourselves in his or her shoes. After all, it’s easy to trash Truman for making the wrong choice if you don’t understand just how complicated of a choice it was for him, and it’s easy to praise Truman for making the right call if you don’t know just how much destruction was unleashed by that order. Could you make that decision? Could you press (or refrain from pressing) that button?

In a most literal sense, we can never really know what we’d do in the other person’s shoes, but as long as we’re going to use game metaphors to talk about the decisions that these high-level cogs make, why not use games to put ourselves in their shoes and better understand those decisions?

In my experience (which isn’t enough to prove anything, but enough to start a discussion, I think), a player who approaches games through a moral lens will usually find a tension between the scoreboard dictated by the game and the scoreboard dictated by his or her conscience. In fact, a deliberately ethical game might force you to wrestle with a couple of in-game scoreboards on top of your own moral scoreboard. Either way, by asking you to not only take a stance, but make a decision, a game asks you to be sure that you know what you believe before you press a button and have to deal with the consequences.

The decision and the consequences might be fake, but if players see games through a moral lens, the stance they take will, hopefully, be real. Maybe even more real, since they might otherwise never have the chance to experience the moral tensions that face heads of government, nuclear strategists, or immigration officers. Once they’ve spent some time in those shoes, maybe they’ll have a better idea of what to expect of those people and how to hold them accountable.

Now, I’m not so naïve as to believe that this will happen just by putting a game in front of a student – there’s more to it then that, and I’ll be writing about it in the future!

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