Featured Research: Immoral Acts in Virtual Worlds

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Immoral acts in virtual worlds

By Dr Rebecca Davnall

Is it wrong to play a violent video game? This is a distinct issue from the question of whether playing violent video games is harmful or socially pathological – that is, of whether playing violent video games makes people more likely to behave violently in other parts of their life (based on current research, the answer to this question seems to be ‘it does, but only very slightly’).

The standard approach to the question of whether it is immoral to play a violent video game takes in-game actions to be attenuated versions of the real-world actions they resemble. That is, killing someone in-game is like killing someone in real life, except that the consequences are reduced (no-one is really dead as a result). Killing someone is wrong, so killing someone in a game is wrong, unless there are mitigating factors like self-defence or, arguably, wartime.

This model has two main elements. First is the principle that virtual acts draw all their morally-relevant features from the real-world acts they resemble. In other words, in order to know whether a virtual action is wrong, we just need to ask whether it would be wrong if the player did it in real life. The second is less obvious, but involves the understanding that the player’s agency is (sometimes) independent of the game’s context. When a player goes on a wanton killing spree that accomplishes no specific in-game objective, as is common in Grand Theft Auto, for example, this is worse than when the player of a war game kills enemy soldiers to accomplish their mission.

Against the first of these elements, I argued at the recent Games Studies Triple Conference in Copenhagen that the context in which a game is played matters as much as the actions it represents. In particular, I think the social position (or identity) of the player is important. An avowed white supremacist playing a game about killing lots of people of colour does something much more obviously wrong than a person of colour who plays a game in which the enemies are WWII Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan, for example.

On the second point, I am developing an argument that connects this issue to my longest-standing philosophical interest: free will. In the analytic philosophy tradition, moral agency has generally been presented as one of the defining special characteristics of human beings. In the continental tradition, however, and especially within critical theory, there are a succession of attempts to decentre human beings. Examples include literary theorist Tadeusz Kantor’s theatrical ‘bio-object’, Karen Barad’s concept of ‘intra-action’ and James Ash’s ‘interface envelope’. All of these theories attribute agency to a hybrid structure encompassing not only the human but the objects they interact with.

This is probably best understood through an example. In the aforementioned Grand Theft Auto games, there are many ways for players to be violent, few consequences for violence and little else for players to do. All of these features exert pressures on what the player does in the game; they imbue the game’s design with values that players are sensitive to, even if only subconsciously. In this way, moral questions can’t focus solely on what the player does, but must examine the whole system of the production and consumption of games.