Daniel Vargas

Could video games — often notorious for promoting bad behavior or violence — actually be used to teach others how to be good? Daniel Vargas, Jr. (M.A. ’18), a philosophy alumnus, presented a paper called “Video Games and Moral Formation: Becoming Good Through Pew Pew,” at the Evangelical Philosophical Society’s fall 2017 meeting (held in conjunction with the Evangelical Theological Society’s 69th annual meeting in San Diego).

In his paper, Vargas makes a case for video games — or more broadly, interactive digital media (IDM) — as a medium or tool to teach virtues or moral instruction, delving into an existing debate within ethics that deals with variant views on moral conduct and how to teach moral conduct.

“If we treat video games as a storytelling medium, then couldn’t those also be used to teach these kinds of moral lessons?” inquired Vargas.

In his research, he found that though many people treat IDM as a way to escape, when individuals are presented with choices that are explicitly moral, they’re not able to easily disengage because they are forced to see themselves as moral agents and are confronted with a choice to make an ethical decision.

Vargas was inspired to research this topic while taking a class on normative ethics with David Horner, Talbot professor of philosophy and biblical and theological studies. While studying ethical egoism and Ayn Rand, he read quotes that reminded him of a game he played called “BioShock,” which turned out to be a game that was a critique of Rand’s philosophy.

Vargas began to research live debates in philosophy and differences between situationism and virtue ethics. Situationism is a view that suggests that ethical judgment is influenced by non-moral environmental factors, or as Vargas explains in his paper, “that variances in human behavior are, primarily, a function of the situation an individual inhabits.” Virtue ethics is a theory of ethics that is character-based and prioritizes the notion of virtue. With its different views on moral conduct and how to morally instruct a person, Vargas explored the question of how video games could be used for either system.

As a child of the ’80s, Vargas has been an avid “gamer” since Nintendo first introduced Super Mario Bros. While his two elementary-aged sons now enjoy playing Super Mario Run on their iPads, Vargas continues to be fascinated by story-based role-playing games with strong narratives, but not without deep reflection and thoughts on the philosophy behind each one.