Trolley Problem, Inc review – a thrill ride into the world of ethical dilemmas | Puzzle games

Should a hospital introduce a mandatory vaccination programme to stop a breakout of infant disease when one of five children will become ill from the vaccine? Should an AI company programme a self-driving car to save its passengers at any cost? Should a government torture a prisoner to extract information that is certain to save many lives? In Trolley Problem, Inc – a game named after the well-known philosophical dilemma by which an onlooker can choose to divert a runaway trolley to kill one person instead of five – you have 40 seconds to answer these and scores of other ethical quandaries. As the timer drains, a well-spoken, gently sarcastic female commentator articulates the counterargument to your intended choice.

The game begins with decades-old dilemmas drawn from philosophical papers, and pleasingly includes references and a reading list for those who want to locate the sources. These scenarios are then escalated to comic effect. After each choice you’re presented with a growing receipt that details the cost of your choices: the cumulative number of people killed, jobs lost, innocents imprisoned, children infected, and so on. The game also indicates whether you have sided with most other players, or whether yours is a minority verdict.

The contextualising story – that you are a brilliant philosopher, hired by a series of companies and government agencies as a sort of moralist-in-chief – is unconvincing as either straight fiction or satire. But the game’s experimental substance has a novel quality. By presenting unsolvable yet feasible questions in rapid succession, under a time limit, it reveals the flaws and inconsistencies in every person’s moral scaffolding. Unless you cleave to an inflexible rule to, say, never intervene in a way that will threaten life, or to always minimise fatalities, you are likely to find yourself assuming contradictory positions. In this way, Trolley Problem, Inc succeeds in being both absurd and provocative.

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