The first game we developed demonstrates the problem of environmental externalities. The students play the role of industrialists. They are assigned to groups that produce luxury (cars), intermediate (appliances), and subsistence (food) goods. Each student must decide how much to produce, knowing that the more she produces, the more profit she can make, which will be reflected in her grade. Luxury players can make the most profit; subsistence player can make the least. But, of course, production also results in pollution. Whereas the profits improve grades of individual players, the pollution, which is calibrated to mirror the exponential damage found in the real world, subtracts from the grades of all players. Each student has an individual incentive to overproduce, while the best outcome socially is to curb production. The other games pose similar problems of cooperation and collective action. After students select their decisions or instructions, we model the outcome of the simulation.
In the first five years of testing our instructional games, a predictable pattern occurred repeatedly. The unchecked greed of a few precipitated class-wide moral questioning and was followed by redemptive behavioral changes that occurred after we granted their tormented requests to be given replay opportunities. We call this the identity crisis, and we hope that it, like the catastrophes that incited Occupy Wall Street, will help students better align their values and actions.
This term, we have observed something remarkable and new. Students are far more willing than their immediate predecessors to work collectively for the success of the class in their first attempt. Even greedy players, who are fewer in number this year, fail to precipitate the “everyone for themselves” mentality that results in tragedy. In fact, the 2011 students are more willing to forgive betrayal, negotiate with unscrupulous actors in ways that create remorse, and prompt remedial actions to correct the injustice.
To determine whether our students’ change was an outlier, we duplicated the game experience at several other colleges, where play took place within the classroom. We further recruited instructors to use EthicsCORE, a collaborative online resource environment, to offer blended learning (played partly in class and partly online) and wholly online versions of our games. These formats enable students from different universities to play together, without being in the same class. The students took part in a game called Pisces, in which they join simulated fishing groups and have to make decisions related to investment and consumption. Game play scores get converted into real quiz grades, and quiz grades are determined by how students interact with an extended class containing members known only online. Emotions can run so high that students check their smartphones throughout the day to get updates on how game play and the discussion surrounding it are going.
At first, we weren’t sure if students could set aside the incentive to lie, cheat, and steal from one another, and work collectively online. While such technology can allow for meaningful connections, the conversations it permits are different from face-to-face interactions. As anyone who has ever left an angry comment on a website knows, people speak more freely and with less concern for consequences while online. EthicsCORE allows students to communicate anonymously as well as though unique identifiers, and we presumed the anonymous function would be used to cause trouble. We also speculated that tribalism associated with university pride would incline students to give preferential moral treatment to fellow classmates, partially due to their immediate presence, and expected that on a larger scale, the apparent improvements in moral behavior we had seen would revert to the baseline of previous years.
The results have been uniform. Today’s college students exhibit a greater disposition to work collectively than students did just last year, or in the previous five years. They may not be camping out to protest publicly, but the forces that gave rise to Occupy Wall Street surely have influenced their ethical sensibilities.
We view both the Occupy Wall Street and the change of behavior in our classrooms as resulting from the shared experience of the Great Recession. However, we also anticipate that so long as catastrophic conditions persist and create large-scale, personally experienced effects, new movements are likely to emerge. This should give us profound pause. Collective action can be nonviolent or violent (as in the case of the London riots), benevolent or malevolent, constructive or destructive. The future of political action in the United States may not be as benign as the recent past or present.
Evan Selinger is an associate professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology. Thomas Seager is an associate professor at the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment and a Lincoln fellow of ethics and sustainability at Arizona State University.
The views expressed in this paper are the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.