The Trolley Problem

The Trolley Problem is a famous ethical dilemma asking whether we should cause something bad to happen in order to prevent something worse. If a runaway trolley is about to run over 5 people, is it morally right to divert it to another track where it will kill only one person? Lots has been written on the trolley problem, including many books. And now there is also a computer game featuring this and many other classic ethical problems.

The entire game essentially consists of answering yes or no to a long string of knotty questions. These questions (or the issues underlying them) are sourced from many works of ancient and modern philosophy, science, politics, and religioon; but also from science fiction films, and even the works of Donald Trump. It is quite clever how they have all been strung together into a narrative. The game does play with your suspension of disbelief at times – it becomes self-referential and even glitchy at one point, which kind of messes with your head a bit, in a quite enjoyable way.

The game also keeps a running total of your progress – the number of innocent people you’ve killed, for example. That’s the thing about these sorts of problems – there is no right answer: you have to choose between two wrong answers and even if you choose the best answer, it’s still wrong. Life’s like that sometimes.

There is a narrator who reads out the questions and offers commentary on them and your answers. She is cynical, sarcastic and a bit nasty – whatever answer you choose, she will point out why it was a bad choice and cast aspersions on your intellectual capacity and moral worth. She adds a bit of lightness to the proceedings, albeit a dark kind of light.

Each problem has a footnote with a reference to the origin of the problem. And at the end of the game there is a reading list of all the works of philosophy and psychology and so on that supplied the problems. (There are also lots of less highbrow choices, including Trump’s The Art of the Deal.) That’s where I discovered the writing of Flannery O’Connor, although the problem she was cited in seemed to make very little sense, even after I tracked down and read Mystery & Manners, the book it supposedly came from.

Still, I appreciate the reading list idea – it felt like I was reading a philosophy paper, which I enjoy doing even more than playing computer games. But I did love this game — It packs a lot of thoughts and ideas into a unique and amusing package.

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