Life Is Strange: Video Games and Moral Imagination (Spoilers!)

I’ve spent a little too much time, in the past week or so, playing a game on my computer.

The game in question, with the deceptively trite title Life Is Strange, is an example of what may be an emerging genre in video games: a graphic adventure game that amounts to an especially rich and engaging interactive story, with a particular game-play mechanic, some mild puzzle solving, some free exploration of the setting of each scene, an overarching mystery to investigate, and a series of tough choices that affect future (and past!) parts of the story.

In this case, the narrative device and game-play mechanic is the ability to rewind. The main character is Maxine “Max” Caulfield, an 18-year-old photography student at a high school for the arts, who suddenly finds herself able to manipulate time by undoing some decisions and trying other options. Important elements of the plot and a number of the puzzles that need to be solved depend on this ability.

SPOILER ALERT! I will not reveal any particular details of the plot, especially from the later chapters, but I will be discussing the general outlines of the game and the general outlines of its ending. If you have an interest in video games that might lead you to play¬†Life Is Strange, and if you really don’t like to know too much about the trajectory of a story before you start it, you might not want to read on.
Continue reading

Theoretical Commitments

I have long thought of myself as something of an agnostic on matters of moral theory.

From the beginning I have concerned myself with practical decision-making, first with environmental ethics and policy and more recently with engineering ethics. I am now mainly concerned with how best to teach ethics to undergraduate students in engineering degree programs. In those efforts, I have come to think of moral theories as resources for ordinary practical decision-making, lenses through which to see ordinary basic values of one kind or another.

I could, I have thought, go on using these frameworks, playing them one against the other in expanding and enriching the variety of values taken into account in any decision, without committing myself to any one of them. As a teacher, I have thought I could offer the frameworks to students with complete neutrality, allowing them to figure out for themselves how to balance one kind of value against another. It is not for me to indoctrinate them, after all.

As I am, after a quarter century, re-reading MacIntyre’s After Virtue, I begin to see that such a neutral perspectivism is untenable. In fact, telling myself I am neutral among perspectives is simply false: everything I do has a frame and a direction, based on a particular – though still developing – understanding of human cognition and of the ends of human life in the world. Continue reading

Scaffolding: The Virtue Template, revised

Some months ago, I posted a template I provided to students in my engineering ethics class, to assist them in thinking about virtues and vices in considering various options for responding to a complex problem situation. This, I explained, is an example of scaffolding, which is a crucial element in problem-based learning: it is an external and somewhat artificial version of a thinking process that is usually carried out internally. The idea is to direct students’ attention from the outside until they learn to direct their own attention themselves, from the inside.

In using the template during the Spring and Summer terms, I learned a great deal about its meaning and its limits, on the basis of which I have revised the template itself and refined the instruction I give for using it.

Continue reading

Integrity Test

I take ‘integrity’ to mean a kind of wholeness or consistency of character: someone with integrity can be counted on to behave with the same kind of self-control or courage or respect or honesty or fairness in any circumstances, even if no one is looking.

An old test of integrity is the Ring of Gyges, from Plato’s Republic: a shepherd finds a ring that makes him invisible, which enables him to get away with all sorts of bad behavior. In the story, it could be said the shepherd lacked integrity: he was one person in one circumstance but, as soon as those circumstances changed, his behavior changed abruptly.

The challenge of the Ring of Gyges is this: If you had the ring, would you follow the shepherds example and become someone else when you cannot be seen? Or would you remain constant in whatever degree of virtue you happen to have?

It occurred to me this morning that it might be possible to develop a new integrity test that might appeal to the current generation of students.

You are posting anonymously to an online discussion, and you disagree strongly with a comment someone else has posted. You quickly type another comment in reply. Before you click on the button to post it, consider: All else being equal, would you post the same comment under your own name?

If there are things you would post anonymously – insults and threats, for example – that you would be ashamed to have connected with you by name, does this suggest a division or inconsistency in your character?

I say “all else being equal” because I understand that there are many circumstances in which people have good reason to post anonymously – when there’s a power imbalance, for example.

As I write this, I have some doubts about the usefulness of this test. It may introduce too many extraneous factors.

How about it, though? Could this be a useful way of getting at the idea of integrity? Is the analogy with the Ring of Gyges – the possibility of getting away with conduct one would never consider under other circumstances – sufficiently strong?

I’d be interested in a discussion of the idea.

Thinking about Virtue: A Bit of Scaffolding

I have been reading back in some literature on problem-based learning (PBL), and related matters, in preparation for writing a paper on my ongoing course-design process. Along the way, I made a discovery – or a re-discovery – that was immediately and urgently useful in the classes I’m teaching this semester.

One of the basic ideas behind PBL is that teaching and learning can be modeled as a cognitive apprenticeship (Collins 1987, Newstetter 2005). The challenge of course design is to create a learning environment in which students, working on their own but with guidance, develop a particular set of cognitive capacities.

Part of the knack of course design is to make a realistic assessment of how far students will be able to go in this development within the limits of a semester; another part of it is providing just those kinds of support students need to go that far.

(I could get into some of the theory behind this, some of which is derived from Vygotsky’s work on human cognition, especially his notion of the “zone of proximal development” . . . but I’ll leave that deeper dive for another time.)

What I want to get at in this post is the idea of scaffolding, an artificial structure provided to students that can allow them to operate at a higher cognitive level than they could otherwise reach. The hope and the aim is for students to be less dependent on the scaffolding as they go, until they can work at that higher level on their own.

The key, and the thing I was missing, is that scaffolding can and should have a physical component to it, or at least a spatial and even tactile way of arranging cognitive elements that directs the students to make distinctions and connections among those elements. Continue reading

Reading Aristotle with Engineers

Since I switched to problem-based learning in my ethics classes, I’ve been experimenting with different ways of introducing my students to ethical theory as such and helping them to develop a working knowledge of a small handful of particular theories.

Part of my struggle in the past has been with trying to have them start using three different theories at once, at least so far as to be able to make distinctions among the good, the right, and virtue. For this, I used Anthony Weston’s 21st Century Ethical Toolbox (Oxford), especially the chapters on families of moral values and subsequent chapters on theories.

Since the courses were arranged as a kind of spiral, and because ours was to be a practical engagement with theory, all they needed at first was a broad approximation, with further refinements coming along later as we dug more deeply into more complex problem situations. Continue reading