Skip to content
Published December 12, 2023

Papers, Please by Lucas Pope is possibly the most widely studied morally-significant game in the literature with work examining its connections to moral psychology, sociology, and philosophy. This is possibly because it neatly distills a number of different ethical scenarios down to one simple process: the act of deciding whether or not to admit a traveler into the country. The rules change from day to day, as do the plights of the people who enter your booth, but the question remains whether to pragmatically apply the rules of the regime or to bend or even break those rules to make your own moral decisions.

In this post, I want to review one of the latest papers in this collection which examines the potential for games as tools for moral education, using Papers, Please as the test bed. They recognise that previous studies have indicated spontaneous use of the game resulted in “pernicious effects” including “more negative attitudes towards immigrants”. In order to address this issue, they propose that the game be played in pairs with players discussing joint decisions “to promote explicitness and reflection on the implicit activity”. Curiously, the philosophical grounding of this is expressed in terms of Haidt’s social intuitionist theory of moral psychology which denies the validity of explicit moral reflection, claiming that moral reasoning is just post-hoc rationalisation of innate moral emotion. The authors resist this idea, claiming that explicit moral reasoning “can help to modify someone else’ moral intuition”. It would seem that the authors would be more comfortable couching their work into a dual-process model of moral cognition, such as that of Rest and Narvaez, which recognises the back-and-forth between explicit moral reasoning and implicit moral intuition. Indeed the need for explicit moral reflection is part of the Integrative Ethical Education (IEE) framework that is at the heart of our Morality Play model.

To test the hypothesis that pair-play leads to “more moral cognition” dialogues between 12 pairs of players were recorded while they player days 5, 6, and 7 of the game. Dialogues transcribed and coded, focusing on four key moral decisions involving murder, political asylum, sexual exploitation and smuggling. The coding scheme was based on the Moral Foundations Theory and sought to find evidence of players discussion the moral concepts of Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity as well as other evidence of empathy and moral reasoning. Results were mixed, with evidence of both moral and pragmatic intentions involved in decision-making. Morality appears to win out on the decisions around murder and sexual exploitation, whereas pragmatism was favoured in regard to the asylum and smuggling cases. The authors identify one principal difference between the two cases is the role of the in-game rules and the corresponding penalty. While in each case the “moral” choice is against the explicit rules the player is supposed to be applying, in the cases of the murderer and the pimp the option to arrest and detain the offender allows a morally satisfactory conclusion without breaking the rules or receiving a penalty. This is not the case in the other two scenarios. It is not surprising that it is easier for players to be moral when there is no penalty.

On the whole, I feel this paper could be grounded in a stronger framework of moral cognition. The idea that dialogue invites “more moral cognition” is nebulous. A model like the Four Component Theory could be helpful here. Under that model, the coding technique employed could be considered evidence of moral sensitivity: the ability to recognise the morally salient features of the situation as well as moral judgement, the ability to decide on a course of action based on moral evidence. It is also difficult to say whether the dialogue promoted moral cognition or merely revealed it, when the dialogue itself is used as evidence. It would be interesting to compare participants who played singly or in pairs with a post-game survey assessing their ability to recognise moral themes at play in each scenario. This would provide more evidence of whether the dialogue improves this ability. In the end, I think this kind of pair-play is a promising approach to drive more explicit moral reasoning but this study falls short of providing the evidence we need to conclude one way or another.
Leave a Reply