Civic Education on a Spaceship

Math Blaster counts as an educational game, right? So does Oregon Trail, and probably Foldit, that shockingly addictive protein folding game. These games foster a particular type of narrow learning, emphasizing isolated details and contexts. Some game developers, however, are working on creating civic learning games, an entirely different class of educational game, one that fosters civic involvement and ethical thinking. According to a conceptual framework put forward by Chad Raphael, Christine Bachen, Kathleen-M. Lynn, Jessica Baldwin-Philippi, and Kristen McKee, Bioware might be on the forefront of educational game designer. This is why — with well over two million sales in its opening week — Mass Effect 2 is one of the most successful educational games of all time.

There are actually a plethora of educational games. “Unfortunately,” as the aforementioned researchers state, “most educational games have been designed to train players in knowledge and skills rather than to engage them in normative reflection on their individual choices or society” (Chad Raphael, et al. “Games for Civic Learning: A Conceptual Framework and Agenda for Research and Design” Games and Culture 5 (2010): 199). When fashioning a good democratic citizen, how do we foster the creation of a critical and ethical approach to political and civil involvement? According to Raphael and his team, the “most effect games for civic learning” help players understand the repercussions of individual action and social structure.

The world of Mass Effect is a fictional one but, nonetheless, constructs an elaborate social structure that in many ways mirrors our own. Racial prejudices shape intergalactic politics, scientific discoverers shatter social norms, inequalities confine large populations to destitute living conditions, and conflict leaves millions in exile. Like numerous contributions to science-fiction before it, Mass Effect 2 illuminates, criticizes, and explores our reality while simultaneously providing a testing ground for ideologies, concepts, and conflicts.

Commander Shepard exists within this fabricated social structure, exerting a level of influence above and beyond any that most of us can hope to achieve in the real world. Her decisions, and thus the player’s decisions, irreparably alter the universe around her. Yet even on a small scale, Shepard faces numerous ethical and moral decisions that the player must also confront.

Raphael and his team praise games for their ability “to provide interactive models of social life that reveal consequences of players’ decisions for multiple actors and for society,” which in turn allow players to “explore ethical principles in more complex and systematic ways than other media have in the past.” Key decision making moments of Mass Effect 2 achieve just that by demanding that players discern the consequences of their actions for society and the fictional characters around them.

Tali’s loyalty question, which brings Shepard to the Quarian flotilla, brings up two different — albeit important — ethical decisions. First, by interacting with the Quarian politicians, it becomes clear there is a rift between those who want to invade Rannoch, the Geth infested homeworld of their race, and those who want to find a peaceful resolution to the problem. Commander Shepard has the opportunity to share her opinion on the matter, which may become influential to the conflict’s depiction in Mass Effect 3. Secondly, Commander Shepard must decide whether or not to reveal negative information about Tali’s father to the Quarian council or keep it hidden as Tali requests. Bioware offers no easy answers, they do not indicate an optimal decision. Players must contemplate their actions independently, weighing their choice’s potential repercussions on Shepard’s relationship with Tali, the Quarian council, and even the long term prospects of the Quarian people.

Mass Effect 2 is equally demanding of players during Legion’s loyalty quest when Shepard must decide whether to kill millions of the violent faction of Geth or reprogram them, keeping their number intact but invasively altering their minds. Again, players must make a difficult ethical decision, weighing the consequences and dangers of leaving millions of Geth alive. They must also consider the political repercussions, as keeping the Geth alive may earn the ire of the Quarian flotilla. Time and again, Shepard (and by extension the player) is confronted with an ethical dilemma that demands what Raphael believes civic education games should demand, a “thoroughgoing assessment of the ethical dimensions of the social self and the public world it inhabits.”

Critics might argue that Mass Effect 2 succumbs to the same thing that many educational games succumb to — what Ian Bogost calls “arithmetic logic,” the tendency to depict actions as “inherently good or bad and morality always at a fixed point along the linear progression between the two” (Ian Bogost. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007.). The Paragon and Renegade system of Mass Effect is a binary system after all. Yet the design of the Paragon/Renegade dichotomy is different enough from a black and white morality system to warrant a more sympathetic look. Paragon is not the equivalent of an objective good, and Renegade is not the equivalent of an objective bad. Rather, each “moral” binary reflects an affirmation or rejection of social and lawful norms in the Mass Effect universe. A “Paragon” Shepard may choose to take “Renegade” actions when dealing with Krogan because she inhabits a different social sphere with different normative behaviors. The binary “morality” system of Mass Effect 2 fits well with Raphael, et al.’s conception of a civic education game, as it asks players to contemplate right and wrong from a more personal and removed perspective.

Ethical decisions, as Raphael, et al. further suggest, are most instructive when they “offer complex feedback in ethical terms on the consequences of players’ decisions for other entities and the social structure of the game.” In this light, Mass Effect 2 is a partially fulfilled promise. Players do not yet know the consequences of their actions. Those who have played the first and second entry into the franchise are familiar with Bioware’s commitment to meaningful choices. If players decided to free the Racchni queen in Mass Effect 1, their decision is acknowledge briefly in the game’s sequel. It is likely, particularly considering the game’s success, that actions taken in Mass Effect 2 will dramatically change the context of Mass Effect 3.

Those players who experienced the game believing that their decisions mattered, who made ethical decisions with the long-term social structure of the game in mind, have unknowingly partaken in a grand experiment. Bioware is teaching ethics and civic education on a spaceship — intentionally or otherwise — and might be making the world a better place in the process.