This past Summer, we were asked to produce an engagement component for a Business Law and Ethics course launching in the Fall. An engagement component is an element added to an online course to increase learner engagement. These are created by adapting university-level course material into engaging multimedia formats to augment the course offering. These components can allow students the opportunity to explore course concepts through a perspective not offered by traditional learning methods.
We decided to focus on business ethics for our first engagement component for this course, and upon examining the existing course material, it was determined that international business ethics, that is, the conduct of Canadian companies while working in other countries, was ripe for development. We landed on the idea of a branching narrative in which learners are given the option between ethical and unethical actions when dealing with business scenarios abroad, particularly ones which can offer clear benefits for companies choosing not to do the right thing. We have built interactive scenarios before, but the scope and ambition of this engagement component, which explores the hefty subject matter of right versus wrong (and all that lies in between), saw us using a lot of exciting and unique features, some of which were specially developed for the project.
Choose-your-own-Adventure style participation
As this engagement component takes the form of an interactive branching scenario, the learner is empowered to make choices on behalf of a learner-avatar, a character in the narrative they have taken on the role of for the duration of the activity. In this case, they are taking on the role of the director of a fictional company with factories overseas, and the choices they make are ethical ones pertaining to the activities of this company while on foreign soil. Active participation in this story makes the presented cases more vivid and memorable, almost as if the learner has lived through them.
By making these ethical choices through a fictional character, we hoped learners would be less guarded about discussing or reflecting on potentially taboo and uncomfortable topics. Their choices are not recorded outside of the confines of their own playthrough, so they can feel free to make decisions they know are unethical should they wish to explore the consequences without judgment.
A fictional country where bad things can happen
One of the points we hope learners take away from this experience is the difference between law and ethics; that is, just because something is not illegal, it does not mean it is correct. For this reason, we wanted to set this interactive story in a country where laws on the issues of human rights, labour, and the environment are not particularly stringent. Not wanting to single out any real country for having lax legislation in these areas, we opted to create the fictional country of Quorumia, which is run by an extremely corrupt government that allows terrible things to happen in their territory as long as it makes them money. The scenarios in a culture where immoral business practices are acceptable and even the leaders set a bad example can lead our learners into temptation, especially where choices exist in moral grey areas.
A series of moral dilemmas
The course material we developed for this engagement component was centred on the 10 principles of the United Nations Global Compact, a set of principles intended to guide business policy and conduct. It is important to note that the 10 principles are not encoded in law; rather, they are intended to encourage companies and corporations to uphold their basic responsibilities to their fellow people (though, as revealed to learners elsewhere in this course, corporations are legal people!) and the planet.
Using these principles as a framework, we designed five unique scenarios in which the learner is presented with a unique moral dilemma relating to their company’s business practices on foreign soil. The 10 principles cover subjects related to human rights, labour rights, the environment, and anti-corruption, so we were sure to have at least one scenario cover each area.
The five scenarios cover the following subjects: modern slavery in a diamond mine, the unionization of an exploited workforce, child labour, the dumping of toxic chemicals, and the corruption of a public official.
Tough and meaningful decisions
Sometimes, the correct moral path is very clear in these scenarios; other times, things are not so black and white. Some of the choices exist in a grey area, where doing the right thing according to conventional ethics and the 10 principles can actually have unintended negative repercussions for reasons beyond your control. For example, in the scenario which explores the issue of child labour, there is an argument that employing Myrtle’s daughter could actually be the lesser of two evils.
Another layer of difficulty is added to the choice-making because, at the outset of the learning experience, the learner is encouraged to consider that they are obligated to make their shareholders money. Sometimes, doing the right thing might not be the best business decision as it can cost more money. In some cases, there are very clear business advantages to doing the wrong thing or at least choosing an option that straddles the line between right and wrong. If they are fully embodying the role of the director of COMM Corp., the learner will feel pressured to perform a balancing act between what is good for the company and the greater good.
To aid them in making these tough decisions, we created a cheat sheet detailing the 10 principles of the UNGC. This can be accessed via a call-to-action button which is available on every screen where the learner is asked to input a choice. Having this aide memoire to hand at these crucial junctures is a very useful feature for the learner, as the engagement component will be introduced to them before the 10 principles have even been explored in the course proper.
The learner is left with no doubt whether they violated the UNGC’s 10 principles, as they are given detailed feedback for every choice. This feedback explains why the choice was ethical or unethical in clear language and according to the particulars of the situation. In doing so, the feedback also highlights some of the grey areas between the ethical and unethical choices, explaining why a conventionally ethical choice might not be best for the greater good due to compounding factors revealed in the scenario or how an ethical choice could have been made for self-serving reasons.
Though they are not shown this as they play through the interactive story, the learner earns a point for the successful completion of each moral dilemma that will go in one of two buckets: Ethical and Unethical. These points will be tallied up at the end of the learner’s playthrough, and they will directly affect the next two features, the multiple consequential endings and the Moral Report Card.
Multiple consequential endings
At the end of the experience, the learner will receive one of four endings where they reap the consequences of their cumulative actions in the preceding scenarios.
Most of these endings are based on the type of points the learner has accumulated while progressing through the interactive story. There is one perfect ending, only awarded when the learner has made an ethical choice in every round. There is another ending where the learner’s avatar” gets away with it,” this is awarded when the learner has earned some unethical points but, on the whole, made more ethical decisions. Finally, for the endings based on the points at least, there is an outcome where the learner-avatar gets punished after their immoral practices abroad are reported in the Canadian press; this is awarded when the learner’s unethical points outweigh their ethical ones.
The idea to have multiple possible endings that result from learner input was inspired by narrative video games. This mechanic means the student either receives a “reward” in the form of a pat on the back for being so morally upstanding or getting away with being occasionally unethical, or “punishment” through either facing legal repercussions for breaking an actual law in the final round or a loss of reputation for having committed too many transgressions.
The fact that they can still be “rewarded” for doing the bad thing part of the time is significant because it is easier to perform unethical actions in an environment where there are no direct punishments. In such cases, people’s hedonistic impulses can outweigh any utilitarian concerns for their fellow man. However, we have designed it so that if they are just a little bit more unethical, they will be punished through a loss of reputation, reminding the learner that they do have an obligation to the people we share this planet with and that not considering the rest of society can cause them to turn against them and their business.
This brings us to the fourth and final consequential ending, where the ethical/unethical score check is skipped, and the consequence is solely based upon the learner’s choice in the final moral dilemma in which a corrupt minister tempts them in the Quorumian government. This is because two of the decisions in this scenario violate an actual Canadian law, The Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act. The lesson here is that even if the country in which you are performing your unethical business decisions does not have a law against what you are doing, you can still be punished at home for doing bad things abroad. In these cases, it does not matter whether the learner had been mostly bad or mostly good in the run-up to this scenario; all that matters is whether they were tempted to break an actual law this time. We are very guilty of lulling the learners into a false sense of security regarding the fact that they would not get legally punished for being unethical in Quorumia, but the end (in the form of a memorable lesson well learned) justifies the means (in the form of a harsh surprise).
Another advantage of having multiple endings is that they add a “replayability” factor to the learning experience. Getting “punished” can drive some learners to play through the interactive story again and experiment until they get a successful outcome. Furthermore, some will be driven by curiosity to try to chase down all the possible outcomes.
Moral Report Card
The final interesting feature employed in this interactive story is a personalized Moral Report Card, an adaptation of the snapshot mechanic we have used in other engagement components to record the learner’s personal journey through the branching narrative. In the past, the snapshot has been tied to an assignment where the learner has been asked to justify their choices; in this case, however, the Moral Report Card serves to enrich the experience through gamification. The report card not only records the learner’s choices in each scenario, but it also utilizes the points system to give them a final score of “Ethical” or “Unethical.” Both these results can serve as a “reward” or “punishment” in the mind of the learner, depending on their intention as they play through the experience.
Like with the multiple endings, getting an unsatisfactory final score can make the learners want to repeat the story to try and get a better one. To encourage this behaviour, the learner is informed directly after viewing their report card that if they are not content with the conclusion they received, they may replay the interactive story from the start to try and get a different result. It should be noted that we do not only expect this behaviour to stem from the learner wanting a perfect report card, but we also fully expect that some will be driven by their curiosity to try and get a “perfectly bad” report card. This impulse is one of the reasons why we have prepared this safe space in which they can play and experiment with ethics without any real-world repercussions for their wrongdoings.
The Moral Report Card is downloadable and can act in a similar way as a badge in a video game as it is a visual representation of their “achievement,” be that how they acted as a moral paragon, a complete heel, or something in between. As we stated before, the learner’s journey is not recorded outside of the closed system of the learner’s own playthrough, but should they feel the need to show off how they did to their peers, this mechanic can provide them with solid evidence of how they performed while in Quorumia.
Through some unique features cribbed from the narrative video game designer’s playbook, we were able to create an immersive and engaging interactive story in which learners could play and experiment while navigating moral dilemmas that could have very serious consequences in the real world. The fact that one of the endings sees the learner-avatar imprisoned for violating international law shows how serious the results of unethical behaviour can be!
We have deployed features like the Choose-your-own-Adventure style participation, engaging storytelling, challenging and meaningful decisions, and immediate feedback in our branching scenarios and interactive business cases before, and they always bring value to the experience. For this engagement component, we also adopted a tried-and-true feature, the snapshot, which records the player’s journey by marrying it to the points system to produce the badge-like Moral Report Card. We also added a new feature, the cheat sheet, which the player can review at their leisure while making the tough decisions. Finally, we developed the multiple endings mechanics into something that added real weight to the user decisions as the ultimate consequences for their character are mostly generated from their cumulative decisions up to that point.
This case study is an example of how interactive branching scenarios and innovative features can really bring course concepts to life in a way that makes the learning not only engaging but also memorable and meaningful.