From the get-go, students at the MCTS dive deep into lots of interesting topics. They are learning about and contributing to Science and Technology Studies (STS) and STS-related discourses such as ethics in AI, biomedical controversies, responsible innovation, and more. As part of their curriculum they often are required to write papers, essays, reports, or even create content in the form of podcasts and blog posts. In order to do so, students work hard, do thorough research, and as a result produce highly informative contributions to the field of STS. However, Student Voices believes these contributions should not only be read by teachers and end up in the deep ends of their digital archives, but should be shared with a larger community.

Publications

Within both master’s programs of RESET and STS, students participate in core and elective courses on topics across a range of philosophy, policy, and storytelling. Like at most universities, students often write papers and other written formats to express their ideas and understanding of new topics. But since these programs are within a new and interdisciplinary institute, MCTS lecturers and professors push the bound of “typical” essays and encourage students to also write in the forms of memos, reflections, vignettes, along with more traditional scientific writing. Some courses even leave traditional assignments behind, challenging students to write blog posts or create podcasts to share their learnings. 

Whatever the format of content, Student Voices was created as a space to highlight the work that is created at the MCTS by its students. Any student is free to submit their work to the editing team and is considered for publication after a double-blind peer review process. Published anonymously or not, authors consent to the final version shown here for the public on the site. 

So dive in! We are proud to showcase the many talented students of the MCTS through this blog and hope their work gives you a taste of the world of the MCTS and greater field of STS.

Podcasts

Podcasts today are omnipresent; for many, they have become the preferred, on-demand radio for a morning or afternoon commute. They are everywhere and for good reason – listening to ideas in the form of interviews and stories can be an effective way to learn and understand a new topic. 

For the first time at the MCTS, Professor Ruth Mueller’s seminar “Telling Responsible Stories – Telling Stories Responsibly” drove students to understand the ins and outs of storytelling practices from an STS perspective. By studying storytelling practices, students dove deeper into understanding how sustainable and responsible solutions are presented and constructed in contemporary society. The study of these grand narratives, inspired by work from STS scholars such as Donna Haraway, challenges how stories of solutions can be political, economic, or technological in nature.  In the seminar, students were encouraged to rethink practices of storytelling and to tell the “story otherwise” in the narrative genre of podcasts. As the final project for the seminar, students produced their own podcasts, which are available to you here at Student Voices.

Exploring Ethical Decision Making in Video Games

As a group of STS students we have created a video game around the emerging theme of sex robots. Our motivation is that games offer virtual and interactive spaces where moral awareness can be raised through the storytelling and the players’ decision making. This makes a game an appropriate place to embed ethical and sociological perspectives. Adopting robotics for sexual interaction as a case study builds on an emerging social controversy that skirts the notion of sexuality: e.g. the human and non-human boundary, dehumanization and legalization. Employing the method of research-creation, this project proposes responsible storytelling through video games as an STS practice.

Unfortunately we can’t provide a web-browser version of our video game. We will provide a video walk-through in the near future.

1 STS through Create: Video Game

1.1 Storytelling & Media-Specificity

1.2 Situating STS

2 Ethics is the Name of the Game

2.1 Ethics in Games and Game Design

2.2 Sexrobots and Ethics

Research Creation is a methodology that is situated at the intersection of practice and theory. In our project we conduct research through the process of creation — creation-as-research. It has been an explorative, thought-provoking journey in which we build a video game (prototype) and produce insights on the situatedness of STS in Game Design processes.

1 STS through Create: Video Game

As the student group Create we want to combine our non-STS academic backgrounds (among others Aerospace Engineering, Philosophy, Bioinformatics & -engineering, Cultural Studies and Industrial Engineering), with an STS-perspective to produce something in a non-academic shape. As our first project, we settled on the production of video games, building on the insights of our members in (fiction) storytelling and coding. We saw the opportunity to adapt several roles ourselves: creatives, techies and STS students. The ability to experience the foundations of game-production as STS-students helped us to better understand and reflexively shape the role of STS in game design and storytelling.

We agreed that as digital natives we gather gaming experiences and knowledges through playing video games over the past three decades as well as through pop culture. Partly being gamers ourselves we have a broad insight into gaming and video game culture, which creative potential — the variety of mechanics, aesthetics and narratives — we want to highlight for STS.

After settling on the theme of ethics in video games and design, we decided on the specific topic of robotics for sexual interaction. This offered us the opportunity to discuss an emerging, techno-social issue situated in the future, but which is in-the-making in the present through ongoing negotiations of sexuality and robotics. We were specifically intrigued by the bodily, material intimacy these robots provide and how normative ideas on sexuality and gender are intertwined with their possible futures. On a personal level we also wanted to thematize a topic that is close to our own lived experiences. This excluded e.g. robots for elderly care; that way we could reflect on and draw from our own hopes and fears.

1.1 Storytelling & Media-specificity

The initial focus on ethics through decision-making of the player that changes the storyline shifted towards responsible storytelling. In her work on storytelling, Haraway invites scholars to re-think, re-imagine the existing narratives ― how could we tell and disseminate stories differently that challenge the existing normative ideas? This turned into a game which story has a linear proceeding through monologue, dialogue and interactions of the characters played out in an artificial environment — all crafted through thinking with STS concepts and storying otherwise.

Science-Fiction movies, series and literature serve as a great inspiration to map the kind of (fiction) stories we want to tell. Not only those embedding sex-robots (e.g. Better than Us), but also the imaginations of sexuality and undeniably gender (e.g. Demolition ManA.I. Artificial IntelligenceEx Machina) as well as other takes on human-robot interactions (e.g. Robot and FrankA.I. Artificial Intelligence). The speculative character of Sci-Fi situates the story in a future or an alternative world. Near future as the setting intrigued us as it offers a sense of familiarity where the divergence from our present stands out.

The media-specificity of games creates an abstraction-by-design and enables the players to invest bodily movement and time in order to proceed the story. What stories can be told through different technical design approaches became clearer through abstractions of human entities (e.g. Thomas was Alone and Tacoma), situated perspectives and (unreliable) narrators (e.g. Hotline Miami and Stanley Parable) and overall unexpected storytelling through simple game aesthetics and mechanics (e.g. To the Moon and Beginners Guide).

1.2 Situating STS

The collaborative character of video game production became clear when the technical requirements quickly started to be rather sophisticated and labour intensive as well as when the content creation asked for complexity, creativity and extensive detailed work.

While the technical team mapped out the options of game mechanics and aesthetics as well as the feasibility, the content team mapped the (media-specific) storytelling techniques and provided an overview of what stories have been told and how. Together we evaluated the feasibility of the game concept and found workarounds through both, the technology and storytelling.

The STS perspective guided first what topic we want to depict, namely one concerning a socio-technical issue. Being aware of the relevance of whose stories are told (by whom), we decided to provide a bottom-up perspective, showing a story that revolves around the quotidian experience of potential users like us. This way we dramatize the intimacies created through the use of the robots, placing them in the private space of the home. By playing the protagonist, one gets insights into intimate motivations, impressions and experiences. By creating a story-world we implemented the notion of actors and stakeholders that are part of the societal net of the story. The player is offered a variety of voices (NPCs: characters that are not controlled by the player), an alternative world (story world) and even though abstract, a curated materialized environment. The game becomes the reflexive space in which an ethical topic is presented with the variety of involved subjects and objects.

We suggest these elements as corner stones for responsible storytelling through video games as an STS practice.

2 Ethics is the Name of the Game

Over the last decades, ethics has experienced growing consideration in many countries as the framework of choice for governing their socio-technical future.

After its successful implementation as a normative framework for science and technology in the late twentieth century, ethical perspectives have been more and more embedded into the daily routines and practices of European research and innovation (Hilgartner et al. 2017). This “ethical turn” (Jasanoff 2011) has opened the opportunity for ethics to be not only a mode of reflection on societal aspects of science and technology, but also as a potential governance framework for the technology-driven future.

In this brave new ethical-technological framework, ethics shall serve as a touchstone for possible solutions to many challenges posed by the increasingly digitized future. Especially regarding information and communication technologies (ICT), scholars, policy-makers and industrial actors deem ethics well-equipped to serve as a panacea for discriminatory algorithms (Mittelstadt et al. 2016), a managerial framework for Big Tech representatives (Metcalf et al. 2019) and a complementary part of engineering education (Grosz et al. 2019).

At the same time, the media landscape that engages with ethics and questions of morality has diversified substantially, with video games as its most recent uptake (Schrier & Gibson 2010). Scholars start to recognize the moral significance of video games as an immersive experience, where players make virtual decisions that are not that different from decisions in real life. Some even suggest further that game shall be a tool of elaborating moral consciousness and knowledge (Sicart 2010, Schrier 2019). Also, more and more parts of our daily life are “gamified”, leaving decisions not only to the rational mind and the interplay of choices and consequences, but also to an entertaining experience where “nudging” is a frame increasingly used to manipulate individuals’ decision-making (Thaler and Sunstein 2009).

Taken all these into account, the significance of investigating ethics embodied in games appears salient. We chose sex robots as the topic of the game to instantiate this idea. In the past, the sex robot was merely “science-fiction”; today, through technological progress it becomes a growing industry. Although offering the “real sex” is much beyond, it has already given rise to an increasing disputation on nearly all the aspects of sexuality: the human non-human boundary, dehumanization of certain groups of people, rights of sex workers, etc. Therefore we consider it a proper case study of making a game driven by ethics, while looking at the human-technology from an STS-perspective.

2.1 Ethics in games and game design

“Every choice implies responsibility. Responsibility implies ethical values imprinted in those choices. Computer games have been considered “a series of interesting choices”. Is it possible to think of games as moral objects? Or, more precisely: is the design of computer games morally accountable?” (Sicart 2005)

For the first question, it has been a long time since people noticed that a lot of games contain ethical aspects. The stories of and scenarios in games are increasingly being studied by social scientists(see Corliss 2011). Moral issues are not only raised in situations in which players need to make some decisions with ethical consequences. They are also raised in more simple forms of human-computer interactions: for instance, Coanda and Aupers (2020) showed that players often humanize non-player characters (NPCs), and the ways of interaction affects their human relationships in real life.

Besides the storylines and characters of games, ethics are also embedded in the mechanism of games. Game mechanisms endow players the freedom of decision making, which validates the statement that “all games are (moral) systems” (Sicart 2010, p. 3). Some researchers have taken concrete steps in evaluating or measuring morality in playing games. Christen et. al (2019) surveyed 20 game mechanisms which are responsible for moral sensitivity or blindness, and evaluated them as positive or negative with respect to (ethical) learning outcomes. To the end of measuring the morality of game players in a meaningful way, Ryan et. Al (2019) took into considerations some standard psychometric instruments of moral psychology for their possible application.

As for the second, more precise and enterprising question, since ethics in game design first came into focus (Takahashi, D. 2004, Sicart 2005), various studies from different perspectives were conducted. Sicart (2009, 2010) analyzed the moral value assignment in the game design process. For more details of reflection on other perspectives with respect to game design, see (Schrier and Gibson eds. 2010).

Moreover, ethics are not only reflected in existing games, but can further initiate game designing. Schrier (2019) proposed to make games a tool to learn moral knowledge, which was later realized in the project “Social Aspects of Immersive Learning.” This Harvard projectused games as a simulation tool of learning empathy by means of “walking in another person’s shoes”.

2.2 Sexrobots and Ethics

Sex robots, an idea that once seemed to be a mere fantasy is gradually turning into reality with the help of advanced technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI). Whether it is TrueCompanion’s Roxxxy/Rocky or Realbotix’s Henry, sex robots are available on the market with the promise to fulfil humans’ sexual needs (González, 2019). These sex robots are not just advanced, sophisticated mechanical versions of sex toys. Instead, they have been designed in a human-like (humanoid) manner in order to mimic a human-to-human sexual relationship. Their human-like appearance, movements, emotions and limited level of intelligence sets sex robots apart from all the other forms of sex toys (Danaher 2017).

Sex robots emergence, as well as its accessibility, have sparked discussions around human-robot interactions, sexual norms, the status of human-robot sex, and on humanoid design. In their book “Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications” the scholars John Danaher and Neil McArthur question the very status of human-robots sex. According to them, human-robot interaction at a sexual level gives birth to a new,contested sexual territory, which eventually affects the socially and culturally embedded notions like sexual identity and virginity. The social and ethical debate around sex robots also exhibits the concerns of how human-robot interactions could re-inforce already existing issues like gender inequality (Headleand, 2020).Furthermore, qualitative studies like Scheutz (2017) indicate how human-robot interactions create a novel dynamic space of risks and benefits that demands a new level of scrutiny and ethical frameworks.

Team

Students of the TUM Master Programs Science and Technology Studies and Responsibility in Science, Engingeering and Technology

Coordination

Clara Valdés-Stauber, STS & B.A. Literature-Art-Media Studies

Matthias Gabriel, RESET & B.A. Social Science

Focus Tech

Maximilian Reiner, STS & M.Sc. Aerospace

Maximilian Braun, RESET & B.Eng. International Industrial Engineering

Focus Storytelling

Clara Valdés-Stauber

Xinghan Liu, STS & M.A. Philosophy

Preeti Sharma, STS & M.Sc. Bioinformatics and Biotechnology

Focus Ethics

Preeti Sharma

With additional help from

Sarah Eidam, RESET (Storytelling)

Franz Gillmeyer, RESET (Coordination, Website)

Saman Saghafi, RESET (Ethics)

Romy Rasper, STS (Ethics, Reviewer)

Oliver Zillig, STS (Website)

 

Contact: clara.valdes-stauber@tum.de

From the get-go, students at the MCTS dive deep into lots of interesting topics. They are learning about and contributing to Science and Technology Studies (STS) and STS-related discourses such as ethics in AI, biomedical controversies, responsible innovation, and more. As part of their curriculum they often are required to write papers, essays, reports, or even create content in the form of podcasts and blog posts. In order to do so, students work hard, do thorough research, and as a result produce highly informative contributions to the field of STS. However, Student Voices believes these contributions should not only be read by teachers and end up in the deep ends of their digital archives, but should be shared with a larger community.

Student Voices is a student-run digital space for various media content on Science and Technology Studies (STS) topics, use cases and life as a student at the MCTS. The platform is managed by a group of committed students from the MCTS M.A. RESET and STS programs to ultimately help students interested in publicizing their work to do so.

Inputs to Student Voices can take various forms such as essays written by students, interviews with STS professor or scholars, blog posts about technology and science related topics, and commentary about being an M.A. Science and Technology Studies or Responsibility in Science, Engineering and Technology student.

As students in interdisciplinary master’s programs in the relatively new field of STS, we are accustomed to questions like “what exactly is it that you study?” In publishing our work, we hope to ultimately show you – the STS community, current or future MCTS students, and greater public – what exactly we are up to during our studies.

How to Contribute to Student Voices

Awesome to see that you are interested in contributing to Student Voices! There are two ways to support the group. You can either submit your writing to the blog or, even better, become a member of the working group. 

Submit your Writing

Become a Member

You wrote this one assignment last semester that you think the world needs to read? You are visiting an event related to the MCTS/STS and want to report on it? Or there is this one topic that you have always wanted to write about? The format of Student Voices is quite open, so any type of writing is welcome! 

We have regular open calls, but you are always welcome to submit your pieces throughout the semester. To do so, please send an e-mail with the subject “Submit” to receive instructions on the required format as well as our submission form which you have to send along with your text file to studentvoices@mcts.tum.de

Are you a student from the MCTS, the TUM, or another institute around Munich? You are interested in STS related topics? You want to get active and involved with Student Voices? Great, so let’s get in touch then and see for what exactly you would like to take responsibility.

As part of the Student Voices working group, members participate in regular meetings every other week (usually Wednesdays). Tasks for the group include writing, editing, publishing, web design and more. If you are interested in joining, just drop us a message at studentvoices@mcts.tum.de or meet us in person during our info session. The next one will be on November 19th, 7:00 – 8:30 pm!

Please note: The student voices webpages are run and editorially supervised by STS and RESET master´s students only. Any content or views represented on these webpages are personal and belong solely to the authors. They do not represent those of the MCTS as a whole.