Graduate Thesis

Elin Rosedalen

MSc in International Management

Thesis title: Morals of The Global Age: A Comparative Study of Consumer Ethics in 18th-Century Christianity and the 21st-Century Video Game Industry

In my undergraduate studies I majored in marketing and minored in economics. It was in advanced marketing classes, looking into examples of poor and misleading communication, that I became concerned with the question of ethics. I was reading a lot of tech news about planned obsolescence at the time, mostly related to smartphones. I wondered how this impacted other industries, and so focused my bachelor's thesis on planned obsolescence in the fashion industry.

When I graduated, I knew I had only scratched the surface of ethical concerns in business; I wanted to ask further questions about global ethical misdemeanors. I knew AUP by its reputation, specifically by the quality of its communications programs. The MSc in International Management was new at the time. It had smaller classes and was highly selective, attracting people from all over the world. To me this meant greater flexibility, a wider range of perspectives, and the opportunity to pursue the questions I wanted answered – under the close guidance of academics and professionals.

During my master’s, I realized the video game industry was barely discussed in business schools, which seemed odd, given that it is the largest entertainment industry by revenue. At the same time, in a business ethics class, I was struck by the fact that when we looked at historical cases they were all from the last 30 years. I had read about one much older case involving misconduct in a religious context – the serious kind, involving suicide, murder and eternal damnation. I decided to connect these two examples: video games and religion. By comparing these incredibly different industries using an ethical framework, I hoped to draw conclusions about the changing course of ethics throughout history, and what that meant for future study in the field.

My thesis is an in-depth investigation of the changes in consumer behavior in response to unethical actions. It employs a case study methodology to compare two scandals, one in 18th-century Europe, and the other in modern times. In 18th-century Germany a rare crime was prominent: suicide-by-proxy, wherein a suicidal person would not kill themselves (considered a mortal sin), but would instead target an innocent. By confessing to the crime, which always resulted in capital punishment, the perpetrators received what they desired (death) but with absolution (having confessed). I compared the exploitation of this loophole in religious doctrine to a recent case of ethical misdemeanor by one of the largest video game publishers, Electronic Arts (EA). When the company’s highly anticipated Star Wars title was revealed to contain a microtransaction mechanic that many customers felt was exploitative, it resulted in one of the largest social media boycotts of a digital product in history. Microtransactions are in-game purchases, costing real money, that unlock additional content such as costumes, accessories or new skills for playable characters. With theoretical analysis, I show that, although these two cases have wildly different contexts, the human reaction toward unethical behavior is similar. How we react is, however, dictated by the times.

Zygmunt Bauman’s theories of “solid” and “liquid” modernity are key to my investigation. He defined what constituted the past not by century or governing philosophy, but by how individuals communicated and developed, both in small social circles and as larger societies. Solid modernity is characterized by belonging: to a brotherhood, state, nation or way of life. Liquid modernity is nomadic, characterized by short-term relationships, shifting values, increasing individualization and the degradation of previously valued networks and structures. In short, communication and cultural contexts have changed our philosophy and, as such, how we deal with ethical problems.

The case of EA pushing a poor product on consumers took place in a liquid modernity; there were fewer social laws to be broken, but the social media reaction was near immediate. The outcry, however, barely lasted a few months, whereas the suicide-by-proxy scandal – taking place in a solid modernity, uniting individuals under the strong social norm of religious belief – was spread out over centuries. My comparison shows that uncovering unethical behavior and protesting unfairness has become easier in a liquid modernity, but the cost is that these movements are short-lived. Even if we live in a time of heightened awareness of what is right and wrong, it is mitigated by the lack of long-term effectiveness. This suggests that that we need new mechanisms to make sure that the lessons we learn from unethical behavior, misdemeanor and scandals are not forgotten. 

In the future, I want to do a PhD to continue my research. I think the role of ethics in our lives, in businesses, and in our digital society will be a huge question in the future. But first I've decided to gain valuable professional experience before returning to academia. After all, there's no developing new theory without discovering new phenomena or cases to develop theory about.