As we humans navigate life, we are influenced by a wide range of social structures that shape and channel our thoughts and actions, including moral ones. We just finished reading two semi-recent books on such structures that we’d like to quickly explore.

Professor C. Thi Nguyen’s Games: Agency as Art (2020) delves into games (including basketball, skateboarding, and rock climbing, but focusing largely on computer games) primarily for how they influence human agency. A professor of philosophy at Utah Valley University, Nguyen’s essential message, he says, is that:

…games are works in the artistic medium of agency itself. Game designers create a world, but they also tell you who to be in that world. They tell you what your abilities are, and, most fascinatingly of all, they set your motivations by specifying the victory conditions. They shape an alternate self for you, and design obstacles for that alternate self – all to shape a particularly delicious struggle.

One key point of his book is that there are two primary types of game players—“achievement” players whose goal is to win, and “striving” players for whom the journey is the destination. Striving players immerse themselves in a game, accepting its rules and limitations, oftentimes for the primary purpose of having a pleasant social experience with friends.

A second key point, the one that interests us, is that Nguyen believes that games can be forms of social technology that produce moral transformation.  He claims that some games, especially complex, multiplayer computer games, “have an almost magical power. When the situation is right, they can transform competition into cooperation.” His most developed illustration involves not computer games but basketball and dodgeball:

Imagine that I have a belligerent work colleague. He viciously attacks my character and my work at every opportunity, but I am obliged to take lunch breaks with him. I come up with a clever plan: I suggest that we play some pick-up basketball during our lunch breaks. His aggression and hostility will then be transformed into something much more pleasant for me—not by his intention or agreement, but simply by the design of the game itself.


Compare the significant morally transformative powers of basketball with the rather paltry transformative powers of dodgeball. … At least on my playground, all the unpopular kids dreaded dodgeball because of the game design. The bullies would point out their targets, scream insults, and then bury us in a vicious hail of rubber. There’s no significant moral transformation here. It’s just as humiliating and painful to be hit in the head with a rubber ball inside the game as outside it. Compare this to how my vicious co-worker is forced to behave toward me in basketball. He must engage in movements of guarding, blocking, dodging, all of which are much more entertaining to me than what he would be doing if we left his viciousness unchanneled.

Nguyen prefers basketball to dodgeball because its rules provide a structure that “is a better game design for moral transformation.”

We learn similar but larger lessons from A. David Redish’s Changing How We Choose: The New Science of Morality (2022). Redish is a professor of neuroscience at the University of Minnesota. His book his too long and complex to do full justice to in this post. However, big picture, he notes that we can view the world as a big zero-sum game, or we can take former Senator Paul Wellstone’s view that “we all do better when we all do better.”

For much of human history, our ancestors wandered around in small groups competing for resources. Those groups that learned to work together cooperatively were more successful in this competition and were able to attract new members. Cultural, religious, and legal structures evolved to provide the framework to encourage that cooperation. Redish believes “that humans have developed structures that encourage cooperation, and that these structures are what we call  ‘morality.’”

Redish argues:

[W]hat we typically call morality are the technologies we have invented that make us more likely to find ourselves cooperating on the positive-sum side of the assurance game [where it is to our benefit to cooperate when others cooperate and to defect when others defect]. This prescriptive science allows us to escape the trap of moral relativism—some moral structures really are better than others because they do a better job of achieving the prescriptive goal of making us more likely to [engage in mutual cooperation and all do better by all doing better].

He reiterates:

The big statement of this book is that what humans call morality is a set of mechanisms that help us turn our interactions into an assurance game and to find our way into the cooperate-cooperate corner of that assurance game, where we can reap the benefits of its non-zero-sum nature and make things better for all of us, both as a community and as individuals. Fundamentally, humans have evolved to work together. Morality is a set of tools that make us better team players.

At Ethics Unwrapped we focus on behavioral ethics and spend a lot of time thinking about what influences cause good people to do bad things (and sometimes good things). We tend to focus on social and organizational pressures and cognitive heuristics and biases. For example, we know that people’s decisions and actions are often heavily influenced by those around them—the conformity bias. If our fellows are doing the right thing, it is more likely that we will do the right thing. If they are doing the wrong thing, however, we are more likely to do that wrong thing than if we did not have them as a model.

But these two books remind us that it is not just these psychological influences that can channel moral decision making. It is also the more formal structures that arise from our cultural, religious, and legal practices. People respond to incentives. People are more likely to behave if monitored. By properly structuring incentives and monitoring processes, businesses can also make it easier for their employees to do the right thing and harder to do the wrong thing. This can make all the difference.



Cara Biasucci & Robert Prentice, Behavioral Ethics in Practice: Why We Sometimes Make the Wrong Decisions (2020).

C. Thi Nguyen’s Games: Agency as Art (2020).

A. David Redish, Changing How We Choose: The New Science of Morality (2022).

Nina Seppala, Absolute Essentials of Business Behavioural Ethics (2020).

Christopher C. Yorke, “Nguyen Meets His Critics—Games: Agency as Art in a Philosophy of Sport, Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 48(3): 311-320 (2021).



Conformity Bias:

Intro to Behavioral Ethics: