Growing up in Pittsburgh, I’d work for neighbors, race down to CMU’s spring carnival, and blow my earnings on rides and games. Drawn to the creative energy that emanated from the place, I’d ride my skateboard down Baker’s central hall, play games on the mainframe, and be a general nuisance. Carnegie’s heart was in the work, but his university became my playground.
Decades later, I returned as a professor and found myself teaching Critical Thinking. The course wasn’t going well. It lacked the vitality I associated with CMU, so I decided, mid-semester to “Carnegie-Mellonize” it. I showed my students something I’d been working on: a model of rational discourse I called “the reason-giving game.” We spent the rest of the semester not working at critical thinking, but playing at it. A dynamic energy flooded the course, and the real learning began.
Then Connor Fallon (DC’12), a student in the course, asked an intriguing question: Why not build a computer game to teach critical thinking? He recruited three friends from CMU’s Game Creation Society—Valeria Reznitskaya (CS’11), Matthew Klingensmith (CS’11, ’12, ’14), and Jillian Goodwyn (CMU’13)—and we made it an independent study. Our concept was to develop a philosophical version of a popular game, Ace Attorney, in which you play a lawyer defending a client against a trumped-up murder charge. In Ace, you gather evidence, cross-examine witnesses, and shout “Objection!” when the opposing attorney crosses the line. The format’s pedagogical potential was palpable but less than fully realized.
So we created Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher—an online game designed to teach critical questioning. The game casts you as a novice Socrates and invites you to dialogue with history’s great moral philosophers. You encounter the pious Euthyphro and examine the idea that ethics has a religious foundation. You tangle with the irascible Thomas Hobbes and learn social contract theory. You match wits with the exacting Immanuel Kant and come to understand his categorical imperative. You meet the charming John Stuart Mill and together explore utilitarianism.
At each level, you converse with a famous philosopher and wrestle with his real, historical arguments. Your understanding deepens as you examine the ethical system. When you finally spot an argument’s flaw and pose the correct question, your avatar shouts “Nonsense!” and gleefully catches the philosopher in a contradiction. It’s great fun.
The students worked their tails off. They wove insight and humor into the script, created delightful animations, even composed an original musical score. I watched in amazement as they took these iconic philosophers and brought them to life.
For Connor and Val, the project became a labor of love. They graduated but continued fine-tuning the game. Last summer, they launched Socrates Jones on Kongregate, an online game-hosting site. Players started posting reviews like these:
• “[Socrates Jones] does a wonderful job of teaching critical thinking and philosophy.”
• “I love how it makes some of the most complicated theories in moral philosophy …easy to understand, while maintaining comical elements.”
• “I feel that, if the education system presented more material this way, people would absorb it a lot easier.”
More than 300,000 gameplays later, Socrates Jones is being translated into multiple languages. It’s an exceptional example of gaming’s educational potential and a tribute to a place where work and play become all but indistinguishable.
Andy Norman is a faculty member in CMU’s Department of Philosophy. His research interests include the Philosophy of Humanism, Epistemology, Moral Psychology, and Games for Learning.