Ethics Quest


The Challenge: Ethics are a thorny topic for interdisciplinary teams to discuss. This is particularly true for designers and teams leveraging the power of design. In the design world, there is no common language, structure, or understanding as a professional community of our own ethical boundaries.

Designers make products, services, and experiences that affect our health, wealth, happiness, and sustainability. As design project teams, we need to be able to talk about ethics as a group creating products that can change the world. We must collectively understand the effects our collaborative efforts will have on the people and environment that we design for.

Inspired by this, we designed a game to facilitate these conversations within design project teams. We debuted this game, Ethics Quest, at a workshop at Interaction Design 2016 in Helsinki, Finland. Ethics Quest is a role playing game (or RPG) that brings teams together to understand, explore, and harness multiple ethical perspectives to improve collaboration and guide project outcomes towards the common good.

The Team: Me & 1 Managing Director of Behavior Change

My Role: Thought Leadership, Playful Design, Workshop Design, Workshop Facilitation, Visual Design, Public Speaking, Content Writing


Why a design a game to talk about ethics?

Through play people are able to approach serious subjects with light hearts. This mindset helps us overcome barriers when discussing “serious” topics such as ethics. Gameplay creates a safe space with low risks that allows people to try new things and foster deep empathy. By playing a game, players are able to experience and build empathy for ethical viewpoints beyond their IRL (in real life) selves. Role-playing through difficult conversation in gameplay also helps players define their own ethical stance in the context of a team and allows them to develop strategies and tools for discussing ethics in real life professional situations.


Developing Empathy with Player’s Characters

Drawing on our experiences, we looked to traditional product teams as inspiration for creating our cast of characters that players could role-play as in Ethics Quest. Each character represents a team member who collaborates frequently when designing products: the designer, the project manager, the intern, and more! We dove deep into these characters’ motives, personality traits, perspectives, and super powers to inspire players to really dig into the characters and develop empathy. The first step towards empathy is understanding, so crafting these characters was essential in helping our players  connect with their in-game roles.


Progression of in-game events

Ethics Quest gets more collaborative as the game goes on. This eases players into the character that they select to role-play as and helps them get comfortable acting as that character in in-game situations. The situations that players encounter progress as follows:

Round 1 is solo – helping players understand their character through tackling a situation on their own.

Round 2 is co-operative – giving players a chance to embody their character by working with one other person to tackle a situation together.

Round 3 is collaborative– having all players work together, as their characters, in a project team to define the ethics of the project everyone is going to embark on together.


Leveling Up and Reflection

At the end of each situation, players are given the chance to reflect on their experience. A reflection card prompts them to consider how their character may have leveled up their abilities as a result of the previous situation. At this point of reflection, players also have the opportunity to unlock a superpower specific to their character. Mechanics like these provide moments of juicy, positive feedback. Not only does this encourage players and motivate them to continue, but it also facilitates their reflecting upon decisions their characters made, and how that may have positively or negatively affected their development on a larger scale.


Bringing Ethics Quest to Interaction Design 2016

We brought Ethics Quest to a group of design-minded people in Helsinki, Finland attending Interaction Design 2016. They played Ethics Quest for two hours with us facilitating. By taking on the mantle of characters in this RPG game, players were able to understand, explore, and harness ethical perspectives to improve collaboration and guide project outcomes towards the common good within their project teams. By building empathy for ethical viewpoints beyond their IRL selves, players learned to define their own ethical stance, developed strategies for discussing ethics in a professional situation, and completed their quest by collaboratively defining a code of ethics as a team!


What we learned

During the workshop, it was clear that all the players were having a grand old time. We were able to observe participants transition into their characters, take on a new role, and carefully play through the situations presented to them in gameplay. By taking on a role that was different from their IRL role, participants listened more actively and carefully when other players were speaking that we observed them do before the game. This attentiveness is different than what we’ve observed in typical conversations around ethics.