PK_srodek_gry5What does it mean to be moral in a virtual environment? Can moral questions and dilemmas be applicable to virtual reality? We shall see in the following essay. In the first few paragraphs I will point at a problem in solving moral dilemmas. I will be looking at them from a standpoint of two different moral theories, Deontology and Utilitarianism, in order to show that it is not as straightforward as just the simple matter of doing ‘what is right’.

In the next paragraphs I will focus on a  possible solution to the question of: how can we approach video games from the moral perspective? I will make a distinction between the game as an idea-of-experience and the game as an experience, so we can identify the moral object, subject in question. After analyzing both concepts I will conclude that  it is the contextualized value that we are to be taking into consideration when talking about video games in ethical terms. I will then argue that because of the properties of the latter concepts it is highly dubious to call on players ‘-in game’ behavior when outside the game- experience, as well as for a narrow moral responsibility of  game creators.

This work is but a fraction of what is needed in the research area of the subject but I believe it is a good introduction to the subject. When approaching the topic I took on some analytical, philosophical tools since it is arguably the best way to deal with the subject of ethics.

Firstly we should ask “what is morality?”. That deceivingly simple question spurs up a debate by the end of which we are able to conclude, that seemingly unambiguous premises  result in contradictory answers. Consider this as an example of such a contradictory answer. A guy knocks on our door to ask us the whereabouts of our neighbor,  after a prompt and brief explanation that his business with him is to murder him and his family, including their pet cat. What would  we do? Or rather, what should we do? “Should” in this case having a moral implication. For the sake of argument lets assume we have only two options:- tell the truth or lie.

According to some ethical theories, Deontology[1] for example; where the moral emphasis lies on the action, lying is considered to be a highly immoral act, therefore we should categorically refrain from lying. Why is that? Because deontology falls within a framework of normative theories which is interested only in what is permissible or forbidden. So to speak, we grind our teeth but we do our duty. What else could we do? It would appear that we have to sacrifice the well being of our neighbor in order to be at peace with our conscious selves, or even, to have any moral worth as  people To put it in logical terms If in situation P we must always act A, unless we are immoral. Many of us would disagree with such a statement and argue that our action would bring about a ”greater evil”, namely the death of our dearly beloved neighbor. Instead, many would be inclined to say, that it is precisely the consequence of our honesty in this situation that really matters, not the action itself.  This moral theory is called; and rightly so, Consequentialism. As you probably figured out already this theory focuses on outcomes. That is to say: if the outcome of an action  A brings about P or a greater number of P than action B we consider action A a better one. Whereas P can stand for any ethically positive value, happiness, good, etc. If  P stands for a negative value, say, less pain or suffering, then of course it would be the action that brings ~P[2] or less of P that we would consider right.

At first glance that seems intuitive enough for us not to question Consequentialism. Nonetheless, as with any theory, it’s not without its flaws. Because, how exactly should we measure the outcome? In our example,  we may be so fixated on not telling lies that lying would have far greater consequence than the death of our neighbor. Thus we need a scale of some sort, but what sort of scale? Most of us would agree that some actions have more value than others in a positive sense. Yet the question remains: where should we get our values from and how are we to compare them? Is it going to be a simple equation the type of  If P (A) >  P (B) therefore A?  It may as well be that for one individual, action A brings about more of the desired outcome than for another, and speaking in ethical terms we hardly want to be Relativists. That is to say, we would allow others’ unethical behavior on the basis of an a priori difference between them and us. This is a theory which is often used when arguing for Religious Pluralism; in which one claims that sets of beliefs in different religions can be mutually exclusive nonetheless not one of them is sensu stricto wrong.

In moral debate, such an approach takes away our validity to criticize others’ unethical behavior.

For now then, let us agree that the negative approach is most plausible. Which would mean we are avoiding actions which bring about the most: pain, suffering, uneasiness. We have become Utilitarians. We also agree that no amount of dishonesty can equal that of someone loosing his or her life. It would seem our puzzle is solved. We would lie to protect our neighbor from harm. Even though, on the face of it, we ourselves would not be physically harmed in any way. This can be called The Harm Principle[3] and it states that our actions are right as long as they do not cause anyone harm. Our honesty would cause our neighbor harm, therefore the right cause of action would be to lie.

Consider this though. You’ve been caught up in a rebellion and one of the rebels, particularly keen on testing thought experiments, places you in front of a group of a hundred loyalists from the old tyrannical regime and  gives you a choice : Nod “yes” one of them dies and the rest goes free, nod “no” and all hundred die.  Now ,this is fairly less straightforward. How are we to consider harm here? Whose harm? The immediate harm of the loyalist hundred or the potential harm their release could bring about? Or maybe the harm done to that one unlucky individual? And what about me, with my lefties pacifistic ideology?

I’m not going to ask you which one of you would kill the one person.  I’m going to leave that up to you. Nonetheless we are entering shaky grounds here, since if sometimes it would be right to kill one to save a hundred, can it be right to kill a hundred to save one?

At this point I am getting closer to the main topic of this essay yet no closer to answering the first question I asked  at the beginning of it. Nonetheless I feel that I have proven what I implicitly intended to prove, namely, to show that it is very difficult to pinpoint what we understand by ethical and moral. Such a debate is far beyond this work. Yet by now we should have a gist of what kind of reasoning our moral choices consist of and that it is far more complicated that simply “doing what is right” So now I will focus on the possibility of moral choices in interactive entertainment, mostly video games.

I will now argue that in order to see a game as an ethical entity we need to distinguish between two types of experience when approaching the topic. The in-game experience; also called ludic experience, and the game as an idea experience. First of all we should try to define a computer game, for what is it exactly ? Well, we can say it is a system of behavior guiding rules developed in such a way that it rewards certain behaviors and punishes us for others. A very crude definition indeed. But it touches at something very fundamental, namely that the core of computer gaming is to manipulate a person to follow a certain pattern of behavior, to work within a framework of what a player is capable to do. Trying to omit such behavior is often equivalent to  lack of progress and not being able to play and partake in the game itself.

Imagine trying to play a character with pacifistic tendencies in games like Call of Duty or Halo[4]. Or leaving the first vault in Fallout and rebelling against the idea of being the ”chosen one”, I want to be a lumberjack instead. Of course we can try. And we will fail. Why? Because people responsible for level design, and development, created those limits. Are they being nasty towards us? Those limits are there precisely to guide us towards our goals. Games are imitating the world, but we can say that our experience lies only in a fraction of the world created by it. Never in any game will we encounter the framework that would allow us total freedom of action.  Of course we can imagine such a game in which we are free to do all. Nonetheless I am inclined to think that we would either cease to call such an entity a game or redefine our definition of it. For it would have to be that for us  as players, performing some pre-determined tasks in order to achieve some overarching goal would become meaningless. We would simply  go for the prize from the get go skipping the obstacles that leads to it. And it would not be strictly speaking cheating. Could we still be players, then? Or would we simply become users?

Of course you could say my definition is wrong because it doesn’t say anything about the phenomenological experiences of playing a game, and that so far I’m only discussing the ontology of a game-like object. But we do need the metaphorical bones to put all the flesh on it. That is to say we need the physics and mechanics for the story to be working with. And if the bones are radically different from what we were expecting it may be that we are looking at a totally different species.

Therefore an idea of game experience is often different from the actual experience on the level of design. What I understand here when I say this, is that a game as an idea of experience is what is being created in the process of production, from the perspective of  the person who works on it. The developers, coders, level designers, screenwriter etc. Those are the people responsible for what we are experiencing in the final product. I want to say that they are involved in a different sort of moral reasoning from ours, as players. In some sense they are the Sartre’s Absolute, a blind watchman who creates the rules to follow and the world to discover. Above all they are the value-givers. Once we start a game, we enter a deterministic environment which will not yield to our input unless we recognize it as such. To put it in a philosophical framework, we can only see the shadow of what it could have been.

I said that the people engaged in the process of developing a game are using a different sort of moral reasoning to ours. What do I mean by that? Am I suggesting that people in Rockstar North makers of Grand Theft Auto IV are moral monsters or that they do not abide to our sense of morality? No, I simply mean that they have the power to create a code. One that bears resemblance to our moral code. With one  difference – It applies only to a specific environment. In other words it is not and cannot be universal.

One crucial prerequisite of any moral rule, say, “do not kill”, is that it can be universalized. As I stated at the beginning we would not like to be moral relativists (no one likes a moral relativist).

Such a rule as “do not kill” is universal, in other words, it applies or should apply to everyone.

The rules we are confronted with when playing a game apply only to this game alone.

Some could object and say that such a statement is missing the point because it is not the game it should be applying to, but to the players. But it does involve the player, and the game itself.  How are we to treat games within which there is a clear meter of our ‘morality’ [5]? And where in the spectrum of morality do abstract games such as Snake or Tetris lie? We need both the game and the player to have a meaningful experience.  The only one rule that comes close to a universal rule for all computer games is that in order to have a fruitful experience with them we need to follow the in-game rules. But even this one is not categorical, since we can imagine playing a game in which the rules can be broken yet it does not impede on our experience of it. For example in multiplayer games in which a group of players artificially add a rule that overrides the one put there by the developers. Even winning a game is not a universal rule or goal, since there aren’t any coded winning conditions in Masive Multiplayer Online Role Playing games the likes of World of Warcraft. And what  if I cannot shoot a Non-Player Character in some games; like in for example Half-Life2. Is that a universal rule? I can do it in others; The Elder Scrolls series, thus playing one game can teach me one set of rules by which I interact with it but it wont apply to the other. Is the fact that the rules of the game are universal in within one game enough? But we are confronted with here is the relativist approach to each game as a single out entity. And so far as rules are involved, we best avoid such approach.

This is precisely the sort of moral reasoning I have in mind when I say it is different for the makers of a game. They are morally responsible not for what they let us do within a game, but for what is forbidden. If I play a stone cold killer, and it is my wish to shoot a puppy point blank in a snout and the game will not let me do it, it is as if the divine hand of developer was hanging over my head waving ‘no, this is not ok’. Can I be angry with him? Is there something wrong with virtually shooting non existent puppies with virtual gun?  Is there something wrong with shooting any non existing thing with a non existing gun? We are not really shooting are we? Well…slowly now. I just said that game makers are not morally responsible for what they let us do in a game, but for what is forbidden. What I’m hinting at, is that within the framework of rules there are some actions that although they could be permitted by the physics of the game they are nonetheless forbidden. Like finishing Call of Duty without killing a single soldier, or shooting Non Player Character’s in Half Life 2 . It needs clarification. Those are not as a result of the way system works, but that of a contextualized whole where the added value provides a path for us to follow. What I mean by contextualizing is  transcribing value to some behaviors and leaving out others. This is crucial for this work, since I claim it is precisely the context that lifts our moral standards to a different level. And how exactly is it doing it ? Precisely by adding value to certain actions in the overall game as the idea of experience. And how is it possible to lift our moral standards. Well, they are standards aren’t they?

To answer the latter question, it is not too difficult to lift or suspend a moral standard. For J. Locke, and R.Nozick people have what they call Natural Rights. Those Natural Rights are the right we have by virtue of being alive and they list such rights as a right to freedom, property, a negative freedom from being obstructed, and a crucial right to live. But as we see around us, those rights can be suspended. Because for example, what we have done violates someone else’s right or breaks some law. I am not saying that what I said is right, or even that we are in acquisition of such Natural Rights. I am trying to illustrate that our sense of what is moral can shift drastically when in certain situations.

So how does it happen in computer games? It is specific to the nature of computer games that they are abstracted from our normal sense of reality.  Any Idealist could question my approach at this point, saying: ‘have you not seen The Matrix?’, “what is reality? What do you mean when you say normal?” I did see The Matrix and I don’t want to delve too deeply into philosophy of mind. But as you all remember Neo took the blue pill and went to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

And as it happens,  Neo can provide us with a great insight into what it is to be a player. When he learns what the Matrix is, he can literary plug in into it. In the scene where he goes to rescue Morpheus, he does not look too concerned about the lives of all those poor guards, he exterminates. He knows the world in which he wreaks havoc is not real. It is the dystopian world of machines that is for him the Desert of the Real. . In a sense he plays the Matrix and it is a very serious game, since if you die in it, you die for real. I find this parallel with the Matrix extremely useful, although it needs to be noticed that we would consider Neo as an example of a cheater. Since when we play computer games we so to speak dab in the Matrix.

I said before that games are at their core, systems of rules that guide our in-game behavior. It seems similar to a rather different sort of monster. One which uses behavior rules to guide our action in the midst of the world, namely, morality.  So can it be that computer games are by definition correlated to ethics? But we noted that those rules cannot be universalized. Is that it or are we missing something crucial?  I also said that by engaging in the process of production, game developers use a different standard of morality, mainly because they are approaching it from the game as an idea of experience perspective. And that they are morally responsible only for what is forbidden in the game within its contextualized whole; by transcribing and adding value to certain actions, be it getting the best score or getting the story to the end.  They are standing in a position of power over our actions. In order for us to have a fruitful ludic experience we need to allow that, despite the fact that some of our real world values may be in conflict with some of the values in the game. I see that as the crucial and only position by which we can treat games as moral objects.

 So, did I just justify all those extremely violent and often vulgar games, by claiming its not the content but a value that matters? Where value can be something as trivial a high score. And that the only unethical thing about a game can be the fact that we lack certain options of behavior that were not foreseen or not added by developers?  Not quite. It will become clearer once we take a closer look at the person who is acting as the trigger, the player.

Whereas Neo had to be ‘freed’ to see the nature of the environment he was in, we can use our reason. It is a powerful tool against both ‘creationist bible-bashers’ and  those who say computer games cause violent behavior. So far as we are rational, we can see the difference between what is real and simulated. I think I’m right to claim, that none rational, after playing Grand Theft Auto, think it would be reasonable to climb the highest building in town, jump from the top of it and then load from an earlier save, or not load and just wake up in hospital feeling fine.

There are no saves in real life, and we are constantly reminded of that by philosophers, moralizers, mothers, friends etc. There is a mode of being that allows us to save our progress and start from there if needed. This mode of being is that of a video game player. It is not specific to video games only, since we can ‘save our progress while reading a book. But I want to take a player into consideration because of her status as a moral agent.

Players look at computer games from the in-game experiences perspective. That is to say, they are actualizing the content of what was designed at the stage of the games creation. They are the trigger by which the game’s mechanics manifests itself but also by which the game itself becomes more than just a game-object a moral object. Thus, it is a circle of mutual dependency, the player cannot exist without a game and a game is just an unactualized idea without the player. To paraphrase Descartes : ‘I play therefore I am a player’. Only if those two are interacting with each other can we speak of the possibility of ethical choices within a game environment.

We are all facing moral dilemmas in our lives. I mentioned at the beginning what sort of dilemmas they are, and that it is extremely difficult to come to any concrete conclusions while discussing them. It is perhaps a little less difficult when we narrow our scope to include only the in-game experience. We are moral beings outside the game world. We enter the game world as creatures of some ethical understanding, stemming from our upbringing, culture, education etc. How is it then, that when we voluntarily involve ourselves with games, we turn into blood thirsty monsters? And do we suddenly become immoral creatures with a death toll even John Rambo could be envious of? I think not. And the justification for that I find in the games themselves, and the fact that they are using a specific context in order to promote certain values.

That is to say, those values presented within in- game experience are different from those we are usually thinking of in our everyday lives. But we still using our values even when we exist in the mode of being a player. They will never impose themselves on us so much so that we would replace our values. That is not to say that we would not prefer playing the new Elder Scrolls: Skyrim game instead of socializing with friends. But the moral values we have the value we give to being immersed in the virtual game world and the values of this world, or the in-game experience are not to be misunderstood.

Now I want to take a little break from computer games. I was talking a lot about values yet I never really said what I meant by it. So it is perhaps time to explain a little what I have in mind when I say we have values and where do those values come from? In a somewhat philosophical context we value what we desire[6]. Some of our desires come to us by means of reflection our system of beliefs, our world view. Those we would call internal values and they can be correlated with basic desires: to live, to be happy, to be healthy etc. And external values, that are the result of us living in a society. Those external values don’t just float in the air, but they are created by culture, upbringing, people we meet etc. If some of those external values correspond to or reinforce our internal values, we often internalize them and make them our own.

For example I value peace and order because of my desire to be a stand up citizen, but I also value equal opportunity for all. My friend asks me to join the Occupy Sosnowiec movement, one that makes a point showing inequality by picketing outside the city halls. I could go to the march promoting equal opportunity for all but then I would stop being a stand up citizen, since my actions would distort the general peace. My desires are in conflict, so it is a matter of what I value more. Now I am stuck on the tragic horns of a dilemma. My moral compass is tingling. I then check the internet and see that the Occupy movement is a peaceful organization so I choose to go. During demonstration someone shouts that we should storm the city halls and terrorize the mayor. I have a strong feeling that the wealth distribution in the society has to change, and that the movement could bring about such change. Nonetheless acts of terror are directly against what I consider moral. Therefore, I withdraw from it. What happened is, that by engaging with the group I have internalized some of their values, yet, as it turned out, not all of them were with accordance to my moral values. More so, they were in direct opposition to it.  Therefore in that instance I realized that what goes against my moral values cannot trump that what stands with it.

Now having a gist of what a value is we can move forward a little. Few paragraphs above I said that the value we give to playing a game is not to be misunderstood with our values as players. Similarly the in-game values are not to be misunderstood with ones outside the game experience. This statement is probably best explained within a framework of a game itself.

When I play Red Dead Redemption, a game in which I control and ‘outlaw turn good’, I have power over most of the actions of the character John Marston. Nonetheless in the cut-scenes of the game the dialog is scripted and I have no direct input on what the protagonist will do or say. He simply wants to get revenge on his former gang friends and get home to his kids, and wife. The story of the game tells of a ‘no matter the means’ sort of character. Yet while we listen to what John has to say we have an inkling to what exactly drives him, and we sympathize with him, he becomes a ‘cool-hero’ type of a character. But the moment we take over as players, we can directly contradict his earlier proclamations of him ‘turning his life around’ even in the story driven missions we play the part of the savior and the crook interchangeably. He is not as tragic a character as say Nico Belic from the game ‘Grand Theft Auto IV‘ who just wants to start anew, but is pushed into crime -a destiny he cannot escape. We get the feeling that Marston knows those are the things he needs to do. He had set his values straight, so to speak. But why then does he roam about wild west shooting coyotes for their pelts? Why ? Because I, the player, want to get the achievement for that sort of thing. Do I not treat John’s troubled story the way I should, and get to the end as quick as possible?  Am I being cruel and outright immoral in my actions. Shouldn’t we really care about what we make him do despite the that fact he’s not a real character.  It would have to be that we would  equate John Marston’s values with values the game creators promote (achievements, the joy of seeing a beautiful open world game) and that would be a mistake.

Equating our values as moral-agents with in-game values put there by the developers would be doing precisely the same thing. Wait a minute, someone would say, don’t we value achievements and fulfilling our goals in real lives? Yes, but besides them being simply what we like they are also the product of our own evaluation and reasoning, often influenced by society and culture, but nonetheless individual. Most importantly my values are (or at least should be) taken within ethical boundaries, whereas when engaging in the game world I enter the mode of being a player. That is not to say though, that those boundaries do not come into play at all. When in a computer game in which I am rewarded with an achievement for exterminating pigeons, I can reason that despite the fact that what I’m doing does not harm any pigeons in any way, it is an ethically dubious thing to do. Therefore I compare the value of the achievement for that task I’m about to do and my internal values for executing such an action. If  they are in conflict, and that task does not stand in my way to progressing through the game, I can always refrain from it. Thus, concluding that my ethical values are at odds with what the game asks me to do. It suffices to say that, this does not make the content of the game itself, immoral. For what has been established in the game as an idea of experience process, puts those actions within the background of the contextualized whole. It just means that my values are at odds with the ones that the game is trying to enforce on me.

Although I had said that the developers stand in a position of power over the player, enforcing on her a system of rules and values, it would be wrong to assume that that system of values extend beyond the in-game experience. There is no correlation between what I am enacting during my time as a player, and outside of it. There would be no grounds for arguing that after killing pigeons in my mode of being a player I will necessarily do so after I stop being engaged in it. It would be as wrong as claiming that playing games such as ‘Guitar Hero’ improve my actual skills with the instrument. Because after all, all I do is press buttons with accordance to a rhythm.

To sum up then. Can computer games be immoral or unethical then? By themselves, no. There is nothing immoral about shooting virtual puppies with virtual guns if there is no one actually there to do it. The possibility of action does not enforce my actions. What about when I murder countless virtual people in order to achieve a goal. Is that unethical? Looking at it from a person outside of the game it could be, since it ‘s promoting violence. Looking at it from the perspective of a reasonable player it is a mean to a goal and the massacre is a part of the background context. The values in the game are different and distinct from the ones outside the in-game experience and  through that, we can lift our moral standards for the period we are immersed in the world. But as I mentioned this does not exclude our own values, and they often interfere, when we play (thus the creator of the game Fable, realized a majority of players will choose to be good rather than bad, despite the fact that what we do while questing definitely wouldn’t gain us good karma). Our values can impose on those of the games but the games values cannot impose themselves on us. Can they make us act immorally or unethically? Yes, if we steal one instead of buying one. But apart from that if we wanted to argue that games make us immoral based on their content and value promotion we would be committing a fallacy of equivocation, failing to notice the ambiguity of a concept such as a value when applied to the game as an idea-experience and an in-game experience. As it has been said before there is no valid reason for treating the in game values as the same as ours. The only moral responsibility we can draw here is that of the game creators for failing to allow more value based behavior guiding rules that would make the experience much more varied.

That is all very well, but how about when we take a different look, not the value? I have been basing the whole of my argument on one concept. I intended to prove that when we look at video games from the perspective a philosopher would, we will find one of the ways of solving our ethical dilemma in this respect. Concluding that video games themselves can not be immoral. Yet I have not used any ethical theory to apply to mine. I have not even begun to analyze various concepts besides value, and one could say even there I have done pretty poorly. Since what makes a goal so valuable? Isn’t it the road that leads to it so much more enthralling? Why did I not include being unethical towards other players in Massive multiplayer Online games? For that of course I had no time.


[1] Deontology as used by E.Kant in “Groundworks of Metaphysics and Morals”.

[2] (~) symbol meaning -not in logical therminology.

[3] As developed by J.S. Mill in his “Utilitarianism”.

[4] Both games belong to the colled First Person Shooter genre in which the player sees the world through the protagonist eyes. Both rely on the player’s involvment in erradicating ‘enemies’.

[5] Such games as Knights of the Old Republic or  Mass Effect.

[6] Although in need to be noticed that we can sometimes value things that we do not desire in a moral sense..where we can have first and second order desires.

References and Bibliography:

Kant E., Groundworks of Metaphysics and Morals, Translation A.Wood, 2002, Ernst Cassirer Publications Fund, Yale University.

Locke J. on Natural Law from, 4.02.2014.

Mill J.S., Utilitarianism, Second Edition, 2001 Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

Nozick R. on Rights from, 4.02.2014.

Sicart M., Ethics of Computer Games, 2009, MIT Press.


On the notion of Desire from, 4.02.2014.

Moral Relativism, 4.02.2014.

Mateusz Jakub Orzeszyna – absolwent Uniwersytetu Glasgow na wydziale Filozofii. Propagator filozofii analitycznej i logiki. Zagorzały fan gier RPG oraz gier in toto et in genere. W czasie wolnym pisze krótkie opowiadania oraz scenariusze do gier (tych potencjalnych).