During their first year of study, doctoral students undergo a process of acculturation in a lab or research group. As they transition into the role of researchers it can be challenging for students to navigate the ethical quandaries associated with academic collaboration, writing, and publishing. It is therefore important to create opportunities for doctoral students to not only learn about the factors influencing ethical deliberation in theory, but to actually experience them in active, hands-on settings.
Studies have shown that games can be uniquely advantageous for ethics education, for example when it comes to motivation and interest for ethics, but also to foster empathy. As part of the Future Learning Initiative's (FLI) Ethics Education research program, we are currently developing a digital game that models the fictional journey of a doctoral student over 4 years. The game leads students through a number of complex narrative scenarios surrounding questions of originality, honesty and authorship in scientific research, allowing them to make active hands-on experience in the realm of ethical decision-making. The game can be played as part of any ethics course at ETH and is accompanied by carefully crafted teaching materials that encourage reflection on the game experiences.
Research Gaps in Ethics Education
The rapid advance of technology and science is increasing the gap between what we can do, and our understanding of the ethical ramifications of our actions. Therefore, ethics education – particular in higher education STEM degree – is more important than ever. At the same time, it is challenging to teach ethics in effective and adequate ways: Useful tools for student assessment are lacking and the complexity of educational objectives for ethics education – spanning from conceptual knowledge and critical thinking to empathy – make it difficult to evaluate teaching methods. Courses often rely on traditional teaching arrangements that are focused on group discussion and case-study work. There is, however, no sound empirical evidence of the impact of these ethics classes on learner’s actions and real-life decision-making. Furthermore, the field lacks research on transfer between ethics classes and other degree courses of the curriculum, let alone real-life decision-making.
Benefits of Game-based Learning in Ethics Education
There is a growing body of research on the benefits of games for the learning and teaching of ethics, suggesting that a game-based approach to ethics education has the potential to «be an important improvement over traditional content-delivery methods.» (Briggle et al. 2015, 239) Whereas in discussion-based teaching formats, opinions can be withheld or misrepresented to others, the game ‘forces’ students to weigh in on ethical problems. This creates a unique, experiential basis for in-class instruction and self-directed learning of content that cannot be afforded by traditional teaching methods. Moreover, research shows that ethical game-play in educational settings may increase empathy and responsibility of the player, motivate players to experiment with ethical decisions, identify with different perspectives, and make the significance of ethics more tangible in professional contexts.
Affordances of our Game
Classroom discussions based on case-studies rather than actual experience are hypothetical and detached from students› lives. It is the aim of our game to enrich in-class activities by offering students a preparatory learning environment for ethical experience and experimentation. We are creating a virtual environment allowing students to practice hands-on decision-making in ethically challenging situations that they are likely to encounter in their biographies as researchers. The connection between game-play and consecutive classroom activities is embodied in the design of the game in two specific ways. Firstly, the game is accompanied by purposefully curated in-class discussion and instruction modules, making it a valuable asset for ethics courses across ETH, at all levels and in all disciplines. Secondly, after playing, students are presented with a summary of the decisions they made throughout the game which they bring to class. This summary provides the basis for reflection on how different aspects of ethical dilemmas interact and how personal factors and social dynamics play into ethical deliberation.
Based on existing learning research we hypothesize that the implementation of a game-based learning element into ethics teaching has a measurable positive effect on student motivation, interest and their ability to connect ethical principles they learned to their own research practice.
To act most ethically in ‹real life›, for example, does not necessarily make one a successful researcher, which is an aspect of research ethics our game wants to model. We aim to bring questions such as «What constitutes legitimate authorship?» or «What does ‹original work› mean?» to the forefront of players› awareness, with the purpose of making the discussion of these questions in class based on experience.
- What's the aim of the game?
- The aim of the game is to raise players' awareness of the factors that influence ethical deliberation in research such as peer-pressures, time-pressures, personal values, academic cultures in labs, etc.
- What expectations do you have in terms of the learning gains the game will foster?
- We expect that our game will enrich the quality of discussion in class. Preliminary results of the current play-tests show that even with the game still being in development, after playing the game students share experiences from their own labs in the discussion, even without being prompted. This is a promising sign for the value of the game as a preparatory activity.
- How could I use the game in my ethics course?
- The game is played as a preparatory activity before class (it can also be played as part of the class, before instruction). By playing the game before being instructed on the content, students acquire relevant experiences that will help them in benefiting more from the instruction.
The game can be implemented as part of any course flexibly. It can be played various times, with different goals (for example with the aim to publish as many papers as possible, without consideration of mental and social well-being, or with the aim of maintaining a good reputation in the lab group, etc.). After each game, the player is presented with data on the game-play which can be used to discuss how different factors influence ethical decision-making. The game is accompanied by teaching materials, such as discussion pointers, tasks for group work, and activities involving the game. These teaching materials allow for different thematic foci and the pursuit of a variety of educational objectives.
- How are you evaluating the game?
- Making a game from scratch presents a unique set of challenges including the design of an aesthetic concept and graphic assets, the engineering of the game system, as well as the development of story, narrative branches and dialogue. For an educational game, a second layer of complexity is added by the need to integrate a theory of learning, develop curriculum and a didactic concept for the game (Plass et al. 2016). In the context of ethics, a third layer of difficulty is presented by the lack of assessment tools for student performance and established research designs to evaluate the efficiency of the game.
To ensure the merit of the game as a learning tool for all students at ETH, we are working in close collaboration with the Chair for Bioethics, who develop the game content, and the ETH Game Technology Center, who advise and support the technical development. Furthermore, the implementation of the game - and its educational effectiveness – is monitored closely by an extensive research program which is funded by the Future Learning Initiative (FLI).