What is the common denominator of prosocial games, migrants, and advanced trainings for government ministers? They share the same ethical dilemmas.


What is the common denominator of prosocial games, migrants, and advanced trainings for government ministers? They share the same ethical dilemmas.

—Video games are an essential part of contemporary culture. Ignoring them in outreach programmes would be odd. It is an internationally recognized practice: for instance, Games for Change is an empowering community for games that engage social issues. Their directory includes hundreds of games addressing a variety of subjects ranging from hunger crisis in Africa to marine pollution. In Russia, we are just taking the first steps. There was the excellent case of Spring in Bishkek, a mobile game developed in Kyrgyzstan that focuses on the widespread abduction of girls and women for forced marriage.

Moreover, games are a big part of today’s ethical debate. Most developers, both high- and low-budget, strive to conform to the latest ethical guidelines, proposing complex narratives and relevant dilemmas, as for instance The Last of Us, a game that claims anyone is free to love anyone else, regardless of their gender, and revenge is bad for you. The Assassin’s Creed series is an excellent way of learning about the history of Ancient Greece. With some allowances, for sure, but players are able to explore ancient worlds at their leisure. Following a recent remake, even Mafia became a beautiful story of betrayal, the freedom to make one’s choices, and the lack of it.

Video games challenge xenophobia and hate speech inasmuch as they allow players to choose characters of any gender, skin colour, or sexual preferences, although a while ago the only available protagonists were white men or extremely sexualised women. Today, developers tend to depart from conventions and stereotypes, and this is also about values.

Speaking of xenophobia, Red Dead Redemption 2 deserves a special mention: it focuses on racial issues in the US and the massacre of indigenous peoples that used to be omitted from game narratives. The game promotes freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and all the other freedoms protected by the American Constitution. On the face of it, Red Dead Redemption seems a Western adventure with bandits, but actually it is a complex, multi-level work with a tragic end. So games are didactic as well.

Life is Strange is another good case in point: a 3D graphic adventure that focuses on an ordinary student girl who becomes a student boy in the last part of the gameplay. The protagonist learns what it means to be different, to accept oneself, which is a precondition of being accepted by others. There are many games along the same lines, and they help people get useful skills.

Clearly, the hardcore gaming community also exists, and the ethics they share are quite conservative, but their influence is limited because they represent just a small part of the audience. They can be vocal all they like, but others vote with their roubles, dollars, and other currencies, and this is much more important.

We realised that the most important thing was to disseminate new values and help young people embrace them. The grown-ups can manage, so we must focus on youth. Help teachers experiment, use all kinds of new tools, merge languages with history, invent complex synthetic programmes based on creativity and meaning-making. That was when we laid the groundwork for many of the programmes that were later taken up by lots of other institutions. The culmination was the Institute of Tolerance at the Library of Foreign Literature. It represented a major track of our debate over alternative points of view and alternative positions: the initiative was called Other — Another — Alien. We discussed inclusive programmes, different cultures, subcultures, and countercultures. We looked into ways of accepting different views and attitudes. And that was the peak of our freedom-centred debates.

ICOM Russia has just published a book on migrations, a collection of global best practices of working with migration backgrounds, and it focuses on the very same issues: acceptance (or non-acceptance) of the experience of others, and the inner freedom that such acceptance requires. A person who is not free is inevitably narrow-minded, their world view black and white, and they only know two kinds of opinions: their own, and the wrong one. We had a completely different approach built on dialogue and discussion. We delved deeper. We held an amazing graffiti show and interviewed street artists, who are notoriously hard to get to speak publicly. We discussed anti-social cultures and their relations with the rest of the society. Should society tolerate its underground, eradicate it, or transform into an upperground of sorts? But in the last scenario, the underground will inevitably die: there will be no air left for it to breathe.

Over the last years these activities migrated to RANEPA, the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration that initiates training programmes for regional and local culture ministers. The message for them has always been this: try asking yourselves if you are ministers of culture or propaganda? If it is about culture, let us discuss principles, and if it is about propaganda, let us discuss the political situation. But they are two completely different things. At first, the students normally seem shocked, but inclined to choose culture over propaganda because of their field of work. So eventually they arrive at the value of diversity and the nature of the multiple actors on the scene. The ministers are far from the only players: society and culture exist regardless of the ministry.

Culture is a sphere of free fulfilment for everyone that can go on without any ministries or institutions whatsoever. Ancient Greece had a vibrant culture, but no ministries. The United States has no Ministry of Culture to this day. Ministers must realise that they are responsible only for the cultural sector where the institutions they manage can rise (or fail to rise) to expectations, become of use, promote collective memory, and make people feel better. But the cultural sphere is beyond their reach. For most of them, it is a revelation.

The differences in approach with other colleagues are fundamental. The ethical divides are evident from the smallest things, like following guidelines or instructions. In the reality we live in, we are expected to receive a lot of information from the top. And the way every museum or institution works with their parent organisations and reacts to their requests is a criterion of shared values (or a lack thereof). We are trained to react consistently and uniformly to all the incoming requests, but people still take them differently. Some are celebrating Peter and Fevronia Day, and others make special programming for the anniversary of Saint Sergius of Radonezh in a memorial museum of a 20th century writer. This is what our cultural agenda boils down to.

Ethical dilemmas like tracing the origins of the money used for cultural projects or breaking with sponsors that caused major ecological disasters are unusual for the Russian scene. But we do not often discuss environmental issues. No one actually bothers. Perhaps our society is not ready yet, but eventually it will grow up and develop a new conscience.
—At the first workshop, everyone was afraid. Before, no one had bothered about the thirty people sitting there, except for the occasional tax inspector that wondered if the activities were worth closer attention. And then, out of the blue, we invited them for an ethical discussion. It seemed like a mind-opener. But on day three, when we thought everyone was already quite relaxed, and started asking about their economies, we heard doors being slammed at us. "Have you come to take an inventory?" It was only six months later that we were able to hold a straightforward conversation about the way even the most thriving projects worked. That was when we discovered that devotion and principles came before money.

What do you think? We would like to engage in further dialogue. Please feel free to add your comments here.

graffiti show titled Other — Another — Alien was held by the Institute of Tolerance at the Library of Foreign Literature in 2004.
A screenshot of 'Mafia':
In June, 2022 the rector of RANEPA, Vladimir Mau, an acclaimed economist, was held up on accusations of fraud. The investigation against him is part of an umbrella case involving the Shanin School of Social and Economic Sciences, and several Sberbank top managers. The entire ruthless inquiry would allegedly be a result of infighting between a number of corrupt actors, exacerbated by the wartime crackdown on liberal thinking and teaching.
Saint Peter and Fevronia of Murom were a Russian Orthodox model power couple. Since 2008, their feast day on the 8 of July is celebrated as the Day of Love and Fidelity, one of the so-called ‘traditional values' promoted by the authorities.