Recently, Yogscast Games and Read Graves released Trolley Problem, Inc. on PC. As the name implies, the game puts the player in a series of moral and ethical questions with simple "A or B" responses. Not only is it a great experience in its own right, it doesn't just pull these questions and issues completely out of thin air. The developers' pool of reference for this game is astounding, pulling genuine dilemmas of conscience not just from modern life but from across history, all of which keep various ethics professors up at night to this day. So to celebrate the accomplishment of Trolley Problem, Inc., here is our list of the game's most thought-provoking dilemmas.
5. Trolley Problem, Inc. - The Trolley Problem
At the very bottom of the list is the classic problem connected to this game's namesake. Published in the Oxford Review in 1967 by English philosopher Philippa Foot, it's a problem that is deceptively simple at first glance. You are on a train trolley barreling towards two tracks. On one track there is someone working on the tracks. On the other track, five people are working on the tracks. If you do nothing, the trolley will go on the track where the five workers are, killing them. However, you can pull a lever and switch the tracks, causing the trolley to kill the one worker.
There's a good reason why this particular dilemma has endured for so long. The popular reading, one even echoed by Foot in her publication, is in observance of utilitarianism -- the idea that doing good is a matter of inducing the least amount of suffering and loss as possible -- and how the simple choice of action or inaction can be in opposition to one's deeply held beliefs or moral integrity. In simpler terms, a utilitarian would choose to pull the lever, causing only one person to die instead of five. More people are alive, which means more law-abiding citizens contributing to the overall improvement of society, which means it is a net positive.
Meanwhile, someone with a strong moral or ethical code against willingly taking a life -- like conscientious objectors, pacifists, or medical practitioners -- would simply let the trolley continue on its intended path and let five people die. Because willingly taking a life, even if it's to save others, is still actively engaging in another person's suffering.
The trolley problem is everywhere in pop culture and has been remixed, reinterpreted, and explored multiple times. Everything from the philosophical comedy The Good Place to Cyanide and Happiness' Trial By Trolley card game. It has no clear correct answer. Everyone has heard about it at least once. There's a reason why it's the framework for Trolley Problem, Inc.'s entire style.
4. Trolley Problem, Inc. - The Euthanasia Problem
To summarize, The Euthanasia Problem goes something like this. You are a doctor in a hospital and a patient on life support is in terrible suffering. The patient begs you to be euthanized. However, the act of euthanasia is illegal. Doing so could get you fired and your medical license revoked. Do you let this patient suffer or give them a release, damn the consequences?
This kind of debate pops up all over the place in medical fields. In fact, this moral quandary is the basis for theologian Joseph Fletcher in a paper published in a 1973 volume of The American Journal For Nursing. To quote Fletcher's paper directly, "Every day in a hundred hospitals across the land decisions are made clinically that the line has been crossed from prolonging genuinely human life to only prolonging subhuman dying."
Not only is it the backbone of hospice and palliative care for those with a terminal illness, but it's also a moral quandary packed with multiple outlying circumstances. These include issues regarding informed consent by the suffering patient and their power of attorney in extenuating circumstances.
But Trolley Problem, Inc. directly cites South African President Nelson Mandela and his speech given in 1990 after getting out of a 27-year prison sentence. The speech itself is strong and calls for civil rights reform, but it only appears to be there to contrast with the passing of Mandela which involved him being kept on life support. It's a situation that many professionals hotly debate to this day, some saying the act robbed Mandela of his dignity and tarnished an otherwise notable legacy. It is also a haunting current event to bring into parallel with this issue since it is a very real scenario anyone can face, both recognizable world leaders and simple office workers alike.
3. Trolley Problem, Inc. - The Development Problem
Leaping now into more technological issues, The Development Problem concerns the ethics around AI development and self-driving cars. As presented in Trolley Problem, Inc., you are the CEO of a massive tech corporation that is developing self-driving car AI, but the programmers are running into a snag on what to prioritize. Do you want the AI to save as many lives as possible, even if that means actively hurting or killing the people who bought your car in the first place? Or do you have it prioritize the passengers in the car above all else?
The moral and ethical issues are quite obvious. No one would buy a car that would immediately kill or harm their family of four to save a group of five who are stuck on the road. Alternatively, the sheer amount of lawsuits, bad press, and untold collateral damage on the former could set a dark precedent for the future production of these vehicles.
This is an actual problem being faced in AI development. It's not as easy as "just teach the AI common sense" since there are plenty of biases both personal and societal that would influence the development. Case in point, a lot of commonly used face-recognition technology struggles to properly recognize the faces of black people.
Despite what sci-fi media will tell you, an AI is just an elaborate learning program trained to recognize and execute functions repeatably and reliably. It's a more sophisticated version of the old adage, "a computer only does exactly what it is told." You would have a much easier time trying to cram for a master's thesis in ethical philosophy in under a month than trying to express hard rules of traffic safety with millions of extended caveats and outliers to a computer program.
In fact, those very complexities are cited by Trolley Problem, Inc. referencing the work of Timnit Gebru. Gebru wrote an entire dissertation for Stanford University titled Visual Computational Sociology: Computer Vision Methods and Challenges that lays out a lot of these issues out. Gebru ultimately got her doctorate in philosophy and is now the founder and executive director for the Distributed Artificial Intelligence Research (DAIR) Institute.
2. Trolley Problem, Inc. - The Cave Problem
Next up on the list is The Cave Problem. The setup is you have been put in jail, but you have the means to escape. You have the opportunity to bring several inmates with you to freedom. They are clearly miserable and in bad condition but are scared to join you in your escape attempt. Do you leave them to their fate or do you bring them with you, confident that their lives will be richer for it?
This problem's inspiration might be the most recognizable allegory in philosophy ever: Plato's story of The Cave. The set-up is not too far off either. There is a cave with several people chained inside. There's a fire and shadow puppets on the cave wall which the prisoners believe to be real. However, one prisoner is freed, sees the illusions for what they are, and escapes the cave, seeing the world for what it really is, and is blinded by the natural sunlight. When he returns to free his fellow prisoners, they see only his blindness and prefer to stay in the world they know.
Admittedly, the story is meant to discuss the ideas of perception and the idea of a higher reality, and it is very ubiquitous in pop culture. But in Trolley Problem, Inc., it is turned on its head and used to address institutionalized prisoners, that the very act of long-term imprisonment has a tangible effect on one's own personal psychology and well-being.
1. Trolley Problem, Inc. - The Society Problem
This contains spoilers for Trolley Problem, Inc.. Read at your own discretion.
Trolley Problem, Inc. draws a very wide net when it comes to its moral questions. The game keeps track of the damage your choices have wrought. How many people have died, how much collateral damage you've caused, and how much damage to the societal infrastructure you cause. No matter your intentions or reasoning, reaching the end of this game will give you a body count. At the end of it all, it asks one last question: Do you feel like society pressures you to choose certain things, or are your choices entirely your own free will? Unlike every other question in the game, there is no time limit on this question. There is no professional citation attached to the question, either. More importantly, you don't see what everyone else picked. The game just cuts to credits.
This is where the entire experience of Trolley Problem, Inc. examines its own framework and does so with one of the oldest debates ever: free will vs. determinism. Free will is just that. You are capable of independent thought and are able to make informed decisions about what you do. You chose to go to work in a bunny costume for example. Determinism meanwhile states that free will is an illusion and all of your decisions are based on outside forces beyond your control. You get up and go to work because you are in a capitalist society that demands you work in order to live. You wear a suit and tie so you don't get fired.
This question reinforces every other choice in the game. Did you choose to save one over five in the first question because you believe that fewer people dead is a moral good, or did you elect for five to die due to some ongoing pressure regarding overpopulation? Did you choose to take the prisoners with you on the firm belief that they will thank you for it or leave them in jail because the very system itself will just welcome them back?
This list could not cover every single great choice and piece of research done by Trolley Problem, Inc., but I hope it helps showcase the kind of thoughtfulness it invokes throughout its runtime.