Roleplaying Game–Based Engineering Ethics Education: Lessons from the Art of Agency

Proceedings of the 2024 American Society for Engineering Education St. Lawrence Section Annual Conference (forthcoming)
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How do we prepare engineering students to make ethical and responsible decisions in their professional work? This paper presents an approach that enhances engineering students’ engagement with ethical reasoning by simulating decision-making in a complex scenario. The approach has two principal inspirations. The first is Anthony Weston’s scenario-based teaching. Weston’s concept of a scenario is a situation that changes in response to choices made by participants, according to an inner logic. Scenarios can dynamically explore open-ended complex problems without imposing predetermined results, allowing students to apply their ethical reasoning in a more realistic fashion. The second inspiration is Thi Nguyen’s theory of games. According to Nguyen, games are the “art of agency,” meaning that they provide a structure under which some result is agreed to be valuable, along with prescribed ways of achieving that result, in a relatively low-stakes and temporary social arrangement. By playing many games, Nguyen argues, we can develop a “library of agency,” that is to say, a set of values and means to achieving them that can inform how we make high-stakes decisions in real life. Engaging with carefully designed game scenarios, then, can enable students to practice making ethical decisions within a structured framework, which unfolds in response to their choices, while their decisions are driven by some defined goal. This roleplaying game–based approach thus allows students to build their own ethical libraries of agency, in preparation for professional decision-making. The approach is illustrated using a specific example recently deployed in a seminar on engineered living materials (building materials that incorporate living tissues). The scenario uses techniques from tabletop roleplaying games (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons) for outcome resolution, adventure design, and character creation. Through the game, students practice making difficult decisions in a humanitarian context.

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Trystan S. Goetze
Cornell University


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