Young players and their contexts

“there’s an enormous gap between youth culture, which is steeped in social networking and videogames, and adult culture, which is far from these things. Adults don’t understand these things much and yet, paradoxically, they’re even greater victims of them than the kids are”. Quote from an interview with an educator. EI09.

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During the project, the issue of children’s gameplay at home was raised by a number of participants. This scenario is concerned with the ‘soft’ regulation of gameplay in the home and other personal contexts. Video games can be problematic where young children are concerned. Some games may not be appropriate for young players, either due to their content or the connectivity they afford to other unknown players via the internet. While a child’s unmediated access to gameplay therefore potentially has its dangers, a blanket ban on gameplay at home also has the potential to miss out on a whole range of benefits that can come from age-appropriate gameplay. A number of interviewees also saw  games as contributing to the generation gap, suggesting that parents have scarce awareness or understanding of game contents and age limits. Consequently, children and teens often have access to games with unsuitably explicit (especially violent) content, and both parental and legal regulation is considered inadequate.

Meet Freya (aged 9) and Jessica, her mum

Freya has expressed an interest in playing a new video game on her tablet device. Her mother, Jessica, is uncertain whether the game contains suitable content for her daughter. She has recently read an article about the potentially damaging effects of gameplay in relation to addiction and children being exposed to inappropriate content. Rather than saying no, however, she decides to do some of her own research to educate herself about the game.  Jessica does an internet search for the game and finds some reviews that appear to suggest that the game would be suitable for her daughter, but might be a little complicated in places. She downloads the game herself and plays through the first level. She finds that there’s an interesting backstory to the game and the interaction with other characters involves some words which Freya might struggle with on her own, even though the content is seemingly age appropriate.

As a result, Jessica suggests that they play the game together. Freya takes the lead, taking control of the tablet device whilst seated on the sofa next to her mother. They play together, discussing their progress, talking through the tricky puzzles and solving problems together. This joint, shared activity spans across a number of sessions. Even when not playing they often discuss the game, anticipating the next session or reviewing sections of gameplay that they particularly enjoyed. Jessica notices that, as well as enjoying the social aspect of gameplay with her daughter, Freya has also – unprompted – used the game as a stimulus for a number of other activities. Her drawings and writing have featured adapted versions of characters from the game, and she also sees her daughter role-playing scenarios from the game when playing off-screen with her friends from school.

By getting involved in her daughter’s game play, Jessica has gained insight into the kind of content that is available to her daughter. Although there is not always time for them to play together in this way, from this point onwards Jessica always takes an active interest in the games that her daughter is playing, due to the safeguarding issues but also because of her first hand experience of the wider benefits of engaging with this activity collaboratively, rather than leaving Freya pursuing her interest independently.


In a nutshell

Video games can bring ethical and moral complications with them, particularly where children are involved. However, there are also multiple benefits of playing video games.

While the idea of banning video games belongs in the past, moderation in usage and age- appropriateness of content are important. The need for ‘soft regulation’ at home (actively and positively involving parents and guardians) is important and should be discussed more.

Game literacy in the curriculum

“I feel like our school system […] is not very game friendly in any way, shape or form. I think that’s a big problem. I think they really need to start – because there’s so much tremendous opportunity there.”- Quote from an interview with an educatorPE02

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Many of those who took part in our interviews enthusiastically described the ways in which video games could be employed for educational purposes, but it was clear that these are often talked about as opportunities that are not yet being fully realised. In part, these ideas of what we are calling ‘game literacy’ involve enabling students to understand games; how they are conceived and constructed, the lives and stories that they represent, the cultural and global context in which they are created, even giving young children hands-on opportunities to develop their own games. In addition, interview participants talked about games as multimodal texts that can be actively read but also ‘lived’ and experienced by players, as a cultural and empathy-building experience.

Drawing on our interviews and workshops, these ideas are framed in relation to particular understandings of literacy, rather than necessarily being aligned with the computing or information technology aspects of the school curriculum. As such, these perspectives focus on multimodality and cultural enrichment, underpinned by the need to develop an alternative understanding of literacy. This involves the educator valuing (and being enabled or even permitted to value) multiple modes of meaning making, moving beyond common conceptions of school-based literacy that involve only written texts and rigidly defined outcomes.

These understandings of literacy already exist and are established in the field of new literacies and multiliteracies, through the work of James Gee, Brian Street, The New London Group etc. However, they are not the dominant conceptualisations of literacy that are currently being drawn upon by policy makers, who tend to favour a skills based approach that generates measurable outcomes.

In the first dimensions of this scenario, therefore, we envisage a classroom that is open to the use of video games as educational resources and experiences, working around existing curricular restraints through a generous interpretation of the curriculum. In the second dimension, we strive to imagine an educational system bolstered by policy which actively acknowledges the cultural value of video games and even encourages their use, drawing on the extensive research around new literacies as a basis for creating this shift.

Meet Simon, a primary school teacher

Simon is a primary school teacher in the UK, in his fourth full year of teaching. He is currently responsible for a class of 27 ten-year-old children, as well as coordinating Literacy across the school. He enjoys his job and has developed a positive rapport with his class. In part, he attributes this positive relationship to the fact that he values the interests of the children and strives to make his teaching relevant and interesting for them. He is aware that many (but not all) of the children in his class are regular users of technology at home and feels that his classroom, and the school more widely, should reflect and take account of this ‘real world’ situation.

Faced with a Literacy curriculum that makes no mention of using technology – let alone games – in lessons, Simon has nevertheless made his classroom a place where videogames are valued as a relevant cultural resource alongside other media such as films, books, and other print media. He has used games on various occasions, thinking of them as ‘texts’  that contain and generate meaning, in similar ways to more traditional print based texts. He has used video games as a stimulus for descriptive writing (using the visually intriguing exploration game ‘Myst’), explored the idea of personification (using the independent, narrative puzzle game ‘Thomas was Alone’) and helped children to create their own text based games (using the free game creation software called ‘Twine’). He has also run a club at lunchtimes where children play ‘Minecraft’ on the school iPads, working together in small groups to create virtual play spaces. He is always enthused by the social interactions that this generates during the club.


Many other teachers in the school are less confident with using games in their classroom. However, through a series of staff meetings, Simon has introduced them to some possible ways in which video games could be brought into their classrooms often with little technical knowledge on the part of the teacher. This often involves the use of paratexts – print based and video texts that refer to video games – rather than directly using the games themselves. So, in other classes, teachers have been encouraged to supplement their existing resources with ‘how to’ guides for popular video games such as ‘Assassins Creed’, and even use video trailers for games in lessons as a means of discussing issues around critical literacy. As a result, the literacy curriculum experienced by the children is one enriched by a mixture of traditional texts with video games and other media from popular culture.

All of this has only been possible with the support of the headteacher, who believes that teachers should be encouraged to innovate in order to provide exciting, relevant learning opportunities for pupils.


Meet Andrea, Educational Policy Maker and Curriculum designer

Andrea has a role in designing the literacy curriculum for primary school children in the UK. As part of a new government assembled team, Andrea has listened to teachers, educational professionals and researchers. They have expressed concerns that the existing curriculum is limiting the opportunities for teachers to deliver exciting, relevant and innovative literacy lessons that reflect the way in which literacies (as social practices) are lived and experienced in the 21st Century. Having grown up playing video games herself, Andrea also has a good sense of the cultural significance of the form and understands that video games have a potentially significant role to play in the lives of children, at home and in school. At school, this involves educating children about video games, as well as using video games as a educational resource, all the while encouraging and promoting a critical approach – just as learning in school traditionally involves teaching about books, and using books.

With this in mind, rather than being driven purely by outdated notions of literacy simply as a pre-defined set of skills to be taken on by children, Andrea and her team develop a curriculum that takes a broader view of literacy. Amongst other things, this supports teachers in understanding and using video games as multimodal texts with multiple affordances. This refined curriculum includes examples of the ways in which specific video games could be used by teachers as rich, multimodal texts that allow children to explore ideas of narrative and character; to consider issues of representation and motive in games; to explore the ways in which different game environments and settings influence or interact with the player. Suggestions on how some games can be used in social contexts can encourage teachers to look beyond outdated and limiting notions of video game play as a purely solitary pursuit; instead, teachers can consider how collaborative play experiences offer their own educational potential. There is also suggestion that paratexts around video games can provide excellent resources for prompting creative responses, written, spoken and performed by children alongside, of course, more established and traditional print based texts.

As well as being framed as texts to be read, video games are also positioned as artefacts to be remixed and created by children, alongside other visual and audio media. This ranges from early stages of design, through to hands-on video game creation, afforded by pre-existing and specially commissioned software designed to scaffold the game creation process for younger users. This curriculum is published online, featuring a significant  interactive repository section that enables teachers and educational professionals to upload and link their own resources and ideas, making this a truly collaborative vision for an innovative and exciting curriculum that can finally be considered ‘game friendly’.


In a nutshell

There is a significant and relatively untapped potential for using video games in educational contexts, often held back by the restrictions posed by standardised curriculum requirements.

This has been a recurring theme throughout the project, with the overarching recommendation being that we all need to move beyond the realm of ‘serious games’ to include what might otherwise be considered ‘entertainment’ games into the classroom. This process of inclusion has more to do with literacy, than with the computing or information technology aspects of the school curriculum.

The discourse around games

“We have this silly word ‘game’ and it just sort of encompasses everything […] in a sense there isn’t necessarily a lot similar, you know, if you have to actually make parallels between ‘Uncharted 313’ and ‘Candy Crush 14’, it is a completely different kind of experience, […] the interactions are completely different and the experience is completely different, and where you might play that is completely different”. Quote from an interview with a researcher. R03.

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During the project, participants talked of the need to understand games as complex and multiple, rather than acting as if there is anything like a ‘generic’ video game. One participant even suggested that it was the responsibility of researchers and other professionals to re-write the canon by turning the focus of their gaze towards games that were less commercial or less readily written about.

The view of gaming as a complex medium assumes that under the broad umbrella of gaming there is a multitude of different themes, mechanics and content, in the same way as ‘film’ is a medium that incorporates anything from video art, to documentary, to Hollywood blockbuster.  This view is  increasingly accepted but still faces some resistance which, perhaps unwittingly, seems to originate in the so-called ‘gamer’ cultures. Here, rather arbitrary distinctions seem to exist between real games, usually focusing on player mastery, competition and clearly defined win/lose states,  and ‘non-games’ or ‘artistic games’ which experiment with and sometimes subvert those categories.    

The identities and professional profiles of those who make games are also changing, reflecting a diverse range of personal, educational and technical backgrounds, and different design priorities are not necessarily aligned with those of large commercial publishers and the so-called ‘mainstream’ industry.  

Meet Steven, a journalist and Daisy, a game developer

Daisy is an independent game developer. Her trajectory started while she was still at university, studying in a game development course. She put her studies on hold when she got a job in a large development studio as a junior animator.  Nonetheless, Daisy thinks her university experience is a valuable source of inspiration and cultural diversity. She fondly remembers attending extracurricular seminars in the sociology department, meeting and conversing with students and lecturers about different topics and interests.  Over the past five years Daisy has worked on many games, but always felt that the focus on specific tasks within large projects was too narrow.  This year, Daisy decided to ‘go indie’, setting up a small studio with a couple of trusted friends. Her first project is based on a personal exploration of issues that matter to her personally – she wants to create an interactive experience that challenges expectations of what a game can do. They are conscious that such a game wouldn’t necessarily have mass appeal, and they are ok with it. With her friends and colleagues, she decides that crowdfunding offers the best chance to ensure creative independence and a direct connection with their intended audience. They hope to make a small profit to support their livelihoods and continue doing what really interests them. Days starts by tapping into her networks to do some marketing and raise the profile of the studio and the first game. After some time she lands an interview with Steven, a freelance journalist who writes about technology and games for a number of online and printed outlets. Steven is a keen technology enthusiast and a gamer. Immediately, the interview takes a slightly disappointing turn for Daisy…

 A more mature approach towards gaming, coupled with an acknowledgment of the complexity and multifaceted nature of this medium, could boost efforts to develop, understand, research and use video games in new, innovative, exciting and relevant ways. Dominant ways of understanding video games, and what they are, need challenging at all levels in order to generate more generous and nuanced understandings of the medium and its possibilities, in relation to education, culture and society.

In a nutshell

Although we often talk about video games as a singular entity, they are, in reality, diverse and complex. As a medium they offer a range of different features, experiences and opportunities to players in a varied range of contexts.

By considering games as singular, however, we are potentially simplifying debates and maybe even lowering our expectations. Funders, researchers, educators and developers are all responsible for advocating a more diverse and multifaceted notion of what a game can be or do. Funding Social Science and Humanities (SSH) research projects that survey the representation of cultural themes would allow the development of video games studies in curriculums at all educational levels, and increase their future relevance.


Research on technology, education and games: disciplinary divisions and their discontents

“Unlike some of the games research that I tend to come across, where researchers are really interested in ‘does a game increase this, does a game lead to more motivation or better outcomes’, what I’m more interested in (…) is really looking more closely at the role of interactions, social interactions that are happening around games” – quote from an interview with a researcher. R13.

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In our own research, we found that academic researchers and game developers rarely communicate with each other. However, it soon became clear that deep divisions also exist within the academic world itself, in particular between:

  • a psychological or social scientific perspective still vigorously seeking to confirm or debunk the causation argument (‘video games cause x‘), focusing mainly on commercial, off-the-shelf games;
  • an outcome-oriented, engineering and computer-science perspective working mainly with applied or serious games, often with an educational focus;
  • An emerging, fluid ‘game studies’ perspective interested in a variety of issues, ranging from the technical aspects of game design to the cultural practices, identities and politics associated with games.  

These distinctions are leading to bodies of knowledge that do not interact; the respective proponents often treat each other with suspicion due to ingrained theoretical and methodological differences. This problem runs deep in the entire academic world and is compounded by the fact that small and large scholarly communities tend to gravitate around highly selective journals and specialised conferences. In a field so practically (and commercially) oriented like game development, this is particularly confusing and unhelpful. How are developers – established or aspiring – hungry for knowledge and advice about the cultural and educational ramifications of this medium supposed to engage with such a fractured landscape?

Meet Jane and Deka, two researchers

Jane is an internationally established psychologist and computer scientist who published extensively about video games and human behaviour. She is an affirmed university professor and the editor in chief of a top-ranking scientific journal that often features research involving video games. Recently, Jane’s university launched a new, experimental undergraduate course in video game design. The course was designed through consultations with industry veterans and most of the staff have little academic experience, but plenty in game development. One faculty member is Deka, who shifted to academia after several years working as level designer for a successful game studio. She is now trying to develop her own original research agenda, drawing on her professional experience and her personal views as a woman of African descent. During the time spent in the industry, she came to realise that game development is influenced by a multitude of cultural factors. In particular, she grew increasingly dissatisfied with the high-powered, ‘macho’ culture that dominates the sector and with the unhealthy working practices (the so-called ‘crunch’) that burn out many talented developers. She is finding it very difficult to secure funding to do some research. So far, she has only managed to publish a conceptual article in a cultural studies journal that examines how her personal trajectory in the industry, and her personal heritage, influenced her professional output as a level designer.

One day, Deka and Jane meet at an internal networking event, which is part of a mentoring scheme that connects early career academics with more senior colleagues. Although they have been paired as ‘video game researchers’ at different career stages, it quickly becomes apparent that Deka and Jane have rather different views on this medium, the type of  research needed, and who should be the audience for such research. From Jane’s perspective as a psychologist, research on effects, influences and risk factors is relevant and highly valued in the scholarly community. From Deka’s industry-centric perspective, research should focus on how to make gaming a better medium: more responsible, accepting, diverse, deep, complex, culturally relevant and so on.  Jane and Deka meet several times after their first meeting and, gradually, what began as a traditional mentor-mentee relationship evolves into a mutual learning experience. Thanks to Jane’s guidance, Deka becomes more familiar with the complexities of funding applications and peer review. Jane, on the other hand, gains a valuable insight into the changing cultures and values of video games and game development, beyond the confines of her academic community. After some time, they decide to write an article together, focused on the need for more interdisciplinary research that reflects the changing nature of video games and their growing cultural relevance.

In a nutshell

The tendency of academic research to operate in ‘silos’ has been accused many times before of being counterproductive and not conducive to the sort of social impacts funders increasingly seek. The situation is unlikely to change until the current system of specialised journals and conferences is challenged. This state of affairs is particularly unhelpful in emerging multidisciplinary fields such as ‘gaming research’.  

Universities, journal editors and conference organising committees in the area of gaming research should focus more on establishing mechanisms and platforms for researchers from different backgrounds and with different research interests to collaborate.

Bridging the research-development gap

“I must admit I don’t read academic papers on games. To be honest, I’m not sure where I’d go to find them if I did”- Quote from an interview with a developer. LSD28830. 

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Game development and social sciences research on games seem to run on parallel tracks, and rarely inform each other. Our understanding of games is weakened by the disconnect that exists between the people who study games and those who create and sell them. While a perfect alignment of priorities between industry and academia may not always be possible, or even desirable, both worlds can benefit from sharing expertise and resources with each other.

In our own research, this disconnect was more acutely felt by developers, who overwhelmingly reported feeling very distant from academic social sciences research on games. They found it difficult to access findings because of unfamiliarity with both the dissemination channels (i.e. scientific papers and academic conferences) and for the technical language used in the contributions themselves. They also reported dissatisfaction with the pace of academic research, seen as too slow in the face of a constantly-changing industry. Lastly, they told us of a mismatch between their priorities and those of researchers: the kind of questions investigated by social research often focus on the educational outcomes of serious games and offer fewer insights that could be used for commercializing entertainment games. On the other hand, the developers interviewed wished for more psychological and humanities research on games, especially on the narrative aspects, and were keenly interested in the discussion of game-related findings in non-academic contexts.

In this scenario, we sketch some possibilities for fostering closer collaboration between academic researchers and entertainment game developers. These forms of collaboration should respect the differences in priorities between the different stakeholders: the goal is finding a way to adapt academic research to a particular context without compromising on its values, and possibly making it more efficient and incisive. On the other hand, the need for developers to gain clear and applicable findings should be understood and taken into consideration.

In the wake of the Open Science Movement, we propose a form of industry-academia collaboration that can generate benefits for both parties and push forward research on entertainment games by embracing the most challenging aspects of studying a widespread, rapidly-changing phenomenon.

Meet Emily, a researcher and Robert, a game developer

Emily is a social psychologist in the US, especially interested in studying factors related to discrimination of outside groups. She believes her studies have applicability to real-world problems, such as finding ways to dampen factors contributing to racial prejudice.

Her work is mainly based on lab experiments, in which participants are randomly assigned to groups that compete in tackling several tasks. In her studies, she explores how modifying different contextual variables (such as group size and composition, level of competition, difficulty and type of tasks to be completed) influences verbal aggression between different groups. However, she worries that the laboratory setting is negatively impacting the validity of her results. Her participants mainly comprise highly-educated psychology students, who tend to be self-conscious about their behaviour during social science experiments. Additionally, engagement in the tasks to be completed is sometimes low: some of the subjects participate as a personal favour, but find the activities boring and find it difficult to enter in a competitive mindset.

After discussing her concerns with some colleagues, Emily identifies multiplayer games as a possible way to obtain ecological data on group-based competition and discrimination. In a game, participants would be highly engaged in the activity itself. Furthermore, since many players conceptualize games as a ‘free space’ in which they can behave naturally, they are less likely to restrain themselves for social concerns. However, in order to obtain the data she needs, Emily has to have access to the game code itself.

Emily contacts Robert, who works for a game company that developed a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA), proposing a partnership between the company and her university. They are a large company and have some capacity for investigating new approaches to improving their game without interrupting their core business model and production cycles, a possibility that a smaller company is unlikely to have. While discussing the proposition with the developers, however, it becomes clear to Emily that Robert expects his company to get something in return for their collaboration. One possibility would be to directly pay for access to the data, but that would take up a significant proportion of Emily’s research budget . She proposes instead to offer her expertise and labour in return, by helping design a system for reducing in-game verbal aggression.

Robert is interested in her proposition, because it would help increase player retention in his game. However, he is worried about access to research results, and he informs Emily that the company will want exclusive access to findings obtained through the data. Emily’s priority, in contrast, is to disseminate her findings as widely as possible, by publishing them in Open Access papers and presenting them at international conferences.

In order to make the collaboration successful, Emily writes and proposes an agreement that goes into great detail about the issues she most cares about: what kind of data should be collected, which of the data and analyses should be made publicly accessible, which kind of findings will be her own intellectual property, and how players are to be informed of the research conducted on their behaviour (and be clearly given the option to opt-out at any time). Robert and his coworkers add their clauses to the agreement, specifying what kind of analyses they expect in return, the terms of Emily’s consulting tasks within the company, and what information about the game should be considered confidential.

In a nutshell

The general disconnect between academia and industry is real, and it is particularly acute between those who research video games, and those who develop and sell them.

Researchers and developers can find ways to establish meaningful and mutually beneficial industry-academia collaborations. A degree of negotiation and compromising may be needed, and the terms of the collaboration can be formalised in simple, easily drafted agreements inspired by the principles of Open Science.


  • The Open Science Framework provides free and open source project management support for researchers. As suggested in the scenarios, it can assist developers and academics in establishing  a common platform and collaboration.
  • Several video game publishers are interested in research, but this is exclusively (narrowly) marketing research.

Reframing ethics in gaming R&D: beyond compliance

“You can only do that if you go beyond compliance. So it is not just ticking the box […] but to think […] about how we can be responsible and mainstream Social Sciences and Humanities meaningfully, not just as a cherry (on the cake) or an add-on stuff” – quote from an interview with a policy maker.  P14


The notion of what is ethical in research and development is currently rather limited. Our own work focused on gaming and gamification in the European context, but the implications are broader. We talked to many experts and carried out an in-depth analysis of how research and development are framed as priorities in the European flagship funding programme: Horizon 2020. We found that ethics in R&D are almost exclusively focused on compliance, where compliance refers to the need to abide by ethical requirements and conditions. These requirements and conditions are concerned exclusively with the process of research, for instance in terms of ensuring informed consent or equal gender representation in R&D teams, rather than with its outcomes, or with the design principles that inform the process from the outset.

In this scenario, we describe a situation in which a more complex, nuanced and positive idea of ethics informs the design and development of video games.  Rather than being narrowly framed as a collection of requirements that may constrain innovation and creativity, ethics becomes a positive mindset that puts the entire R&D process in a different light. Ethics, in other words, becomes synonymous with aspirations for social and cultural relevance – something aligned with the humanistic, democratic and egalitarian values that underpin the European project. In this alternative scenario (and in its ‘child’ scenarios), policy makers, developers and researchers also begin to challenge strict accountability criteria that revolve exclusively around utilitarian goals and measurable outcomes. Alternative definitions of cultural and technological value, this time more negotiated and dialogic, begin to be explored.  

Meet Michel (an EU policy maker), Simone (a social researcher), and Rita (a game developer)

Michel, Simone and Rita have been invited to an international round table to discuss the future of the gaming industry in Europe. The event is sponsored by the EU Commission and the focus is, predominantly, on the role of institutional support and public funding. The EU Commission is worried that its R&D strategies are beginning to be out of touch with the concerns and priorities of the various EU publics. Games are viewed as a profoundly ‘social’ and pervasive technology and they receive a significant amount of funding. As such, they are an area where concerns for cultural relevance and impact are particularly pressing.

The event provides an interdisciplinary forum to discuss games ‘for good’, which therefore have a distinctly ethical dimension. The event also provides concrete opportunities to examine examples of best practice, focusing on the experiences of developers (and users too) whose games don’t fit into pre-existing categories such as ‘serious’ or ‘educational’ but still have recognisable cultural and educational value, and at the same time manage to operate in the market conditions of the leisure-oriented gaming industry. 

During the event, Michel, Simone, and Rita begin to outline a number of alternative cultural dimensions associated with games: narrative poignancy, appropriate representation, responsible usage, and so forth. They also begin to explore alternative ways to evaluate the cultural and social impact of games. One approach is forming citizen panels collectively recruited through social media; these examine, through a form of ‘crowd-sourced’ evaluation, the social of cultural impact of games developed under the patronage of the EU Commission.

In a nutshell

Ethics in research and development are often viewed as a restrictive set of requirements simply to be complied with. In our project, we often came across this limited interpretation, but we also saw signs of a different position where ethics are part of a more positive mindset, and where notions of what is good, decent, and worth pursuing are grounded in the priorities and concerns of society.  

Funders and key institutional actors like the EU Commission could make more efforts to establish platforms  (including face to face events and social media initiatives) to explore definitions of responsible research and innovation in a dialogic and democratic fashion.


Our own analysis of EU Funding offers a critical perspective on how ethics and social responsibility are accounted for in the flagship EU R&D programme: