New ethics center to teach via gaming

The newly launched Cincinnati Ethics Center is partnering with the region’s library system to teach kids about ethics through gaming.

The ethics center, based at the University of Cincinnati, and the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County are launching the effort by reimagining the traditional tabletop role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons, to emphasize critical thinking, community and creativity.

D&D has had a resurgence in popularity, especially in a younger audience, thanks to its incorporation into the popular Netflix series “Stranger Things.”

“Dungeons & Dragons is an amazing way to strengthen the social and emotional skills of young people in a way that is both fun and creative,” said Lisa Soper, the library’s youth services and programming coordinator.

L to R: Zachary Srivastava, UC Philosophy Department graduate student; Alexa Justice, GEI Coordinator with UC’s EI Title IX Office; and Jonathan McKinney, UC Philosophy Department researcher.  

A pilot program, to be held for several Thursdays from 1-3 p.m., begins June 16 at the Westwood Public Library.

Graduate students from UC’s Department of Philosophy and staff from UC’s EI Title IX Office will act as “game masters” and guide children through the gaming. For example, the children will be tasked with resolving moral dilemmas and philosophical puzzles through teamwork and group storytelling.

There is no cost to participate and children attending at least three sessions will receive their own D&D die. A child can participate in a single session or return for as many as they want.

Over the course of several sessions, each child will develop an individual character to explore and collectively shape a unique world. In this process, the children will create both individual and group projects in response to weekly prompts with philosophical and ethical themes.

D&D is a remarkable way to give kids practice discussing moral dilemmas because they can be woven into the fabric of the adventure created for them, said Andrew Cullison, the center’s executive director. He said the stakes are low because they’re not debating hot button political issues or ethical issues that hit close to home. He said it’s a great way to practice talking about ethical issues in a way that is less stressful and a lot of fun. 

Dr. Andrew “Andy” Cullison

UC officially started the new ethics center in January, a project over three years in the making. Cullison was hired last November as its first executive director, coming to UC from the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University, where he had been its director for over seven years.

The idea for an ethics center began almost three years ago when several conversations about how best to accomplish goals in the university’s “The Next Lives Here” strategic plan around research and ethics. It was determined that UC should create an ethics center to ensure that ethics always plays a central role in research. While the center had its origin in those conversations about research, it became clear that there was a significant role for an ethics center in other areas of the UC community, including community engagement.

“What excited me most about the position,” said Cullison, “was that they didn’t want this to be a traditional academic center. They wanted it to be a center for the entire Cincinnati community, to be a space for Cincinnatians to discuss and solve the critical issues that Cincinnati faces. I’ve always thought that a good institution of higher learning ought to blur the boundaries between itself and the community. It stood out to me that they call it the Cincinnait Ethics Center rather than the Univerity of Cincinnati Ethics Center. To me, that sends a clear message that this is a genuinely a resource for all Cincinnatians.”

Cullison was also excited by the role ethics can plan in “Next Lives Here” strategic direction.

“Almost everything UC is aiming for can be amplified by ethics related programming,” Cullison said, “and it feels good to know that every core goal of the strategic direction can be enhanced by the work of an ethics center.”

In addition to the D&D program, the center is working with Clifton Area Neighborhood School (CANS) on Mondays in June offering “Philosophy for Children” workshops with third and fourth graders.

In July, it will be conducting an ethics competition with the cadets from the Cincinnati Police Department’s summer police cadet program.

Venus Kent, hired last June as the center’s full-time program manager, said the center is committed to increasing the participation of area high schools in the National High School Ethics Bowl (NHSEB) program.

Venus Kent

NHSEB it is a competitive yet collaborative event, founded in 2012, in which students discuss real-life ethical issues. In each round of competition, teams take turns analyzing cases about complex ethical dilemmas and responding to questions and comments from the other team and from a panel of judges.

Data from NHSEB surveys shows that this event teaches and promotes ethical awareness, critical thinking, civil discourse, civic engagement, and an appreciation for multiple points of view.

Cullison was instrumental in launching a high school “ethics bowl” competition in the state of Indiana. Under his guidance, participation grew from five teams and five schools to 22 teams from a dozen schools.

Based on early interest from an event the center hosted in April, it plans to begin a “Cincinnati Ethics Bowl Regional” competition in January 2023.

“We have a lofty goal of getting a minimum of 15 schools/organizations registered to increase our chances of obtaining an at-large bid guaranteeing a Cincinnati team competing in the national competition at the University of North Carolina next spring,” said Kent.


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