The Gamer's Dilemma: Videogame Ethics

By Jack Walker - Philosophy Student @ Churchill College, Cambridge


Videogames have long been a source of ethical controversy. A popular argument asserts that violent videogames are wrong because of their liability to cause violent actions in real life. This argument caused widespread moral panic, especially in the US following the infamous 1999 Columbine massacre, since the shooters were reportedly obsessed with violent games like DOOM. Parents of several victims even attempted to sue manufacturers for the role their games played in causing the shooting. Evidence to support this argument is scant and nowadays ethical concern about videogames is more likely focus on players becoming addicted or encouraged to gamble through loot boxes, or the sexual objectification of female characters. Discussions of simulated murder have largely fallen out of the public consciousness.

After all, since nobody is actually hurt when you murder someone in a game, where is the harm?

Despite the initial appeal this principle, Morgan Luck argues that this kind of thinking quickly leads us to problems. Luck points out that if we accept this logic then it seems impossible to object to instances of virtual child abuse. Again, nobody is actually hurt. Yet, intuitively it seems much more difficult to accept that virtual child abuse is permissible than when thinking about virtual murder. Why is one wrong and not the other? Here Luck has identified what looks like a discrepancy in our own moral judgements. Specifically, we are in a dilemma because both options seem to be in some way unacceptable. Luck puts this nicely when he says that unless gamers “can identify a morally relevant distinction … they must either accept that committing virtual paedophilia is morally permissible, or that they themselves have often committed morally prohibited acts.” Personally, I think this dilemma is deeply challenging and I won’t offer any resolution to it here. Instead, I will note why some common responses fail to dissolve the puzzle.

Firstly, we might argue that there is a difference between the motivations that players typically have when they engage in each kind of act. Players don’t typically desire to kill in videogames because they actually want to murder anyone – rather it is often a requirement to complete the game. On the contrary we might think that wanting to commit acts of virtual child abuse is much more plausibly caused by the desire to actually commit child abuse. However, this appeal to motivation doesn’t seem to resolve our problems in the way we want. Alex Fisher points out that this would still imply that it could be permissible to commit virtual child abuse provided the player didn’t have the corresponding motivation. Yet, this still seems like a deeply uncomfortable and counterintuitive conclusion. Secondly, we could respond that we have good reason to believe that engaging in acts of virtual child abuse would raise the likelihood of actual child abuse in a way that is not analogous in the murder case. If this were true, we would then have better grounds to sustain a moral distinction between the two. Again, the empirical evidence on these topics are very sketchy and we would need a much better causal story to support a relevant difference here. Luck also points out that this argument might result in another uncomfortable conclusion – namely, that there could be cases where not engaging in acts of virtual child abuse are morally wrong. For example, someone with an overwhelming urge to commit paedophilia might instead satisfy their urges virtually.

We shouldn’t let the difficulty of solving this puzzle take away from the fact that when used in the right way, videogames can be a great tool for moral education. Indeed, we’re used to the idea that people can be morally influenced by books and films – why not games? Games might even enable us to reach deeper ethical insight since they’re immersive and respond to the player’s actions in real time. Some games relish the opportunity to present their players with difficult ethical problems to grapple with.

For example, Spec Ops: The Line features an infamous sequence where the player character is given the option to tackle a difficult fight by unlawfully using white phosphorus (a flammable and toxic chemical), explicitly going against the requests of their squad mates. If the player makes this decision, they are forced to face the destruction they created, coming to the realisation that they inadvertently and avoidably killed dozens of innocent civilians. Cameron Koch notes how unusual this kind of creative decision is in an industry that often seems to go out of its way to avoid ethical complexity. “An act like this in other military shooters would be completely par for the course. … We never get to see the carnage and collateral damage on the ground. We never get to see the toll it takes on the player characters either.” We should be hopeful that more games will seek to engage with the ethical complexities of their subject matter in the future.

Further reading:

  1. The gamer’s dilemma: An analysis of the arguments for the moral distinction between virtual murder and virtual paedophilia by Morgan Luck

  2. Videogames and philosophy by Alex Fisher in 1000-word philosophy,

  3. The Gamer’s Dilemma by Garry Young in iai news,

  4. Moments: “White Phosphorous” in Spec Ops: The Line by Cameron Koch in GameInformer,