Saturday, 28 May 2011

Essay: A critique of the morality of violent video games

What are the arguments that violent video games are immoral? Which arguments provide the strongest reasons for regulation? In recent times there has been a moral panic over violence in video games. Some media commentators have sought to link video game violence to the horrendous spate of school shootings which have become a sad reality in the USA and Europe. Whilst we should be concerned over the avid consumption of media which portrays violence and other immoral content, the arguments posed by such commentators tend to be overly emotive and simply based on rhetoric, rather than hard evidence of causation or real harm. This essay will discuss the questions first posed. This will be achieved by looking at the problem through the lens of three ethical approaches – consequentialist, deontological and virtue ethics. Ultimately, it will be shown that violent video games are immoral, not because of their effects, consequences, or failure of duty, but because of the impact they have on the virtue of the player.

The most vociferous argument from the moral panickers is that video games are immoral because exposure to so much simulated violence and death desensitises the player to violence and death; therefore, such exposure will make it easier to perpetrate real violence. It is within this context that violent video games are blamed by the media, or invoked in discussions about high school massacres (McCormick 2001, p. 277). To support this argument, empirical research which supposedly links violent video games and real world aggressive behaviour is raised in support of this position (Schulzke 2010, p. 127). The argument then follows that the distribution of these violent video games should be restricted through legislation (Sicart 2009, p. 3).

This is the most prevalent type of objection to violent video games, and comes from consequentialist moral reasoning. Such an approach is concerned with the way an ethical subject acts to produce the best consequences for all concerned. However, in taking the interests of others into account, a consequentialist must balance which consequences are considered and how much weight is applied to each. A utilitarian approach is often taken, which suggests the best course of action is that which maximises the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ (LaFollette 2002, p. 9). 

The act of playing computer games has many consequences, however, the moral implications of playing violent games is hard to determine (Reynolds 2002, p. 4). For example, whilst there are plenty of meta-studies of the literature which argue that simulated violence is harmful, there is also a significant amount of work on the contrary that shows bias among researchers critical of gaming (see Anderson and Dill 2000; Ferguson 2007). There may also be positive benefits which outweigh the potential harms of video games. These benefits include: entertainment value, increased dexterity and problem solving skills, economic advantages, and technological advancement (Schulzke 2010, p. 130; Reynolds 2002, p. 5). 

So, even if the empirical studies turned out to be true and there was a causal link between these games and violence, a consequentialist arguing for their immorality would have to prove that the costs outweigh the benefits. Furthermore, the cost of banning and/or censorship has to be considered as an imposition against free speech, which is essential to liberal democracy and carries a high priority as a right (Schulzke 2010, p. 135). If it is to be accepted that some games are banned (as some are in Australia), it follows that in order to be consistent, other media or activities which display similar or a greater amount of violence should also be restricted (Schulzke 2010:135; Fyfe 2011). This then, is the weakest of the moral positions that violent video games are immoral. 

The next argument comes from Kantian deontology, which is based on moral obligations to duties and rights, in which the rightness or wrongness of an act is judged according to its conformity with duty, and is to be considered removed from consequences (McCormick 2001, p. 282; LaFollette 2002, p. 10). From this perspective, the immorality of a violent video game should focus on how players act, with the morality of the act being determined by how others are treated within the game world (Schulzke 2010, p. 128). This approach starts with Kant’s (1996, p. 73, 80) second formulation of the categorical imperative which states:
  1. Act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature.
  2. So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.
It is clear that real violence against another human violates the first statement. However, given the fictional nature of violent video games, the player is not committing violence against another human; rather it is violence against a representation of a human (or alien, animal, etc) character. Therefore, violent video games do not violate the first statement (Waddington 2007, p. 124). In the second statement, a player could be said to be violating this maxim if they were to behave with bad sportsmanship in a game against another player. This is because the player gives their personal interest priority over that of an opponent and treats them poorly in the interest of gratification (Schulzke 2010, p. 128). 

In focusing on respect for others, the deontologist could argue that as the game encourages using others to progress through the game, it encourages the player to treat others as mere means to an end (Gotterbarn 2010, p. 375). In destroying an avatar, the act is immoral only when there is an intention to actually harm someone (Schulzke 2010, p. 129). Where the deontologist does have an argument, is that there is clear justification for regulation based on the duty of governments to protect its citizens from harm. It is the responsibility of governments to protect minors from harm and inform consumers through suitable systems of content classification (Reynolds 2002, p. 7-8). Here we have John Stuart Mill’s famous harm principle – ‘[t]hat the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others’ (Mill 1971, p. 15; my emphasis).

The final ethical position is also the oldest and takes its cue from Aristotle, who defined ethics as ‘a practical science, as a practice of virtues oriented towards the achievement of a better life’ (cited in Sicart 2005, p. 15). This position is best explained by McCormick (2001, p. 284) who provides the example of holo-rape and holo-murder, in which a simulation allows a player to commit these heinous and grossly immoral acts in a virtual environment. He notes that there is something wrong with the activity without having to look outside for consequences or breaches of duty – ‘there is something wrong with the act solely with respect to the person who commits it’ (McCormick 2001, p. 285).

Returning to Aristotle, the question of a player’s character is ‘more fundamental and important than a person’s obedience to rules or conduct’ and exceeds the ‘implications of an act for other people’ (McCormick 2001, p. 285). Therefore, the virtue ethicist can provide a reasonable account for our strong moral intuition that games which involve extreme immorality such as holo-rape and holo-murder, and by extension, violent video games, are immoral. In participating in these ‘simulations of excessive, indulgent, and wrongful acts, we are cultivating the wrong sort of character’ (McCormick 2001, p. 285). In other words, the virtue of the player is eroded, and they are distanced from the chance to achieve eudaimonia – a deep and fulfilled happiness through the capacity to reason; that is, to be human (McCormick 2001, p. 285). 

However, whilst the virtue ethics approach provides the better insight into the immorality of violent video games, it can’t answer for their regulation. Simply being immoral is not reason enough to justify legislation for censorship or outright banning. To ban or restrict any type of media based on purely supposed immoral grounds is paternalistic and a form of legal moralism. In other words, it is the interference of the state with another person against their will, with the defence that they are being protected against harm; that is, ‘the idea that certain ways of acting are morally wrong or degraded and may be prohibited’ (Dworkin 2010).

In conclusion, this essay has sought to answer the questions first posed: What are the arguments that violent video games are immoral? Which arguments provide the strongest reasons for regulation? This was achieved by looking at the problem through the ethical approaches of consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics. It was found that the consequentialist position provides little support for regulation and is the weakest argument from a moral standpoint. The deontological response, whilst it struggled in condemning the immorality of violent video games, actually provides the strongest reason for regulation due to the duty of governments to inform consumers and protect minors from harm. Finally, the virtue ethics approach provided the strongest approach to understanding why such games could be considered immoral, but failed to provide an argument for regulation. 


Anderson, CA and Dill, KE 2000, ‘Video games and aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviour in the laboratory and in life’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 78, no. 4, pp: 772-790.

Dworkin, G 2010, ‘Paternalism’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 edition), viewed 17 May 2011, .

Ferguson, C 2007, ‘Evidence for publication bias in video game violence effects literature: a meta-analytic review’, Aggression and Violent Behaviour, vol. 12, no. 1, pp: 470-482.

Fyfe, M 2011, ‘Video games reform rebuffed over violent fears’, The Sydney Morning Herald, April 2, viewed 17 May 2011, .

Gotterbarn, D 2010, ‘The ethics of video games: mayhem, death, and the training of the next generation’, Information Systems Frontiers, vol. 12, pp. 369-377.

Kant, I 1996, ‘Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals’, in Practical Philosophy, trans. Mary Gregor (ed.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 42-108.

LaFollette, H 2002, ‘Theorizing about ethics’, in H LaFollette (ed.), Ethics in Practice: An Anthology (2nd edition), Blackwell Publishing, Cambridge, pp. 3-11.

McCormick, M 2001, ‘Is it wrong to play violent video games?’, Ethics and Information Technology, vol. 3, pp. 277-287.

Mill, JS 1971, On liberty, representative government, the subjection of women: three essays. Penguin Books, London.

Reynolds, R 2002, Playing a “good” game: a philosophical approach to understanding the morality of games, International Game Developers Association, viewed 15 May 2011, .

Schulzke, M 2010, ‘Defending the morality of violent video games’, Ethics and Information Technology, vol. 12, pp. 127-138.

Sicart, M 2005, ‘Game, player, ethics: a virtue ethics approach to computer games’, International Review of Information Ethics, vol. 4, pp. 13-18.

Sicart, M 2009, The ethics of computer games, MIT Press, Cambridge and London.

Waddington, DI 2007, ‘Locating the wrongness in ultra-violent video games’, Ethics and Information 
Technology, vol. 9, pp. 121-128.

Monday, 2 May 2011

In search of an aetiology of evil - The Pandora Myth

Around the time I first started this blog I wrote a short piece regarding my desire to write on the Pandora and Eve myths, and how these narratives have worked to structure patriarchal views about women. At that time I was too busy to see the project through, but have now been fortunate to return to the idea as a serious research project for my Myth and Meaning in Ancient Worlds unit.

I thought I'd share my work in progress with you. Here is the first part of my essay. I will next move into a close reading of Genesis 1 and 3, and then return to look at how both these myths have worked to keep women subjected under patriarchy.

Essay (WIP)

The notion of an origin holds an important and powerful force in the human psyche. Such narratives can function to provide an explanation for where we have come from, where we currently are, and where we will be in the future. In particular, creation myths provide valuable ‘insights into a society’s ethos, its root beliefs, and provide the basis for many of its customs and even its legal system.’ This essay will seek to discuss the origin of evil. This will be achieved through an aetiological investigation and comparative analysis of two myths which describe the creation of the first woman: the Greek myth of Pandora and the Judeo-Christian myth of Eve. In examining these myths from a feminist perspective, it will be shown that blaming woman for the origin of evil is a patriarchal construction, which has had a negative and pervasive influence on Western society – in particular, on misogynist attitudes towards women, and their subjection and abjection as ‘second class creatures’.

Written towards the end of the eighth century, Hesiod chronicles the myth of Pandora across two poems, the first in the Theogony, and the second in Works and Days. In the Theogony, Hesiod characterises Pandora as a ‘beautiful evil’ – a ‘hopeless trap, deadly to men’. In another translation, she is a ‘lovely curse’, personified as ‘sheer guile, not to be withstood by men.’ Ordered by Zeus as a punishment for Prometheus’ trick of the sacrifice and subsequent theft of fire, Pandora is fashioned out of the earth in the ‘image of a girl’ and ‘a modest virgin’ by the craftsman of the gods, Hephaistos. She is then dressed by Athena in bridal ‘robes of silver’, with ‘a veil, and ‘a lovely wreath of blossoms’, and a ‘crown of gold’. Thus adorned, she is ‘an evil’ sent upon men as ‘a price…to pay for fire’. And ‘from her comes all the race of womankind, the deadly female race and tribe of wives who live with mortal men and bring them harm’.

Not only is Pandora the first woman, but she is also the first bride, and it is in marriage that the source of a second evil is to be found. Hesiod tells us that
if a man avoids marriage and the troubles women bring and never takes a wife, at last he comes to a miserable old age, and does not have anyone who will care for the old man. He has enough to live on, while he lives, but when he dies, his distant relatives divide his property.
The picture is also bleak for the man who marries a ‘good wife, suited to his taste’; this man gets ‘good and evil mixed’, and ‘lives all his life with never-ending pain inside his heart’.

The narrative of Pandora’s creation is repeated in Works and Days but this time with a more misogynist tone. It is also here that the full nature of the significance of her evil is revealed. In payment for the theft of fire she is ‘another gift to men, an evil thing for their delight, and all will love this ruin in their hearts.’ In the lines which document her creation, she is once again crafted by Hephaistos. This time she is given ‘a voice’ and ‘a face like an immortal goddess’, and the shape of a ‘lovely figure of a virgin girl.’ Athena teaches her to weave, and Aphrodite pours ‘charm upon her head, and painful, strong desire, and body-shattering cares. Hermes is ordered to give her ‘sly manners and the morals of a bitch’ and in her chest put ‘lies and persuasive words and cunning ways.’ It is in this passage that she is given her name Pandora – ‘all the gifts’ – and declared the ‘ruin of mankind’.

Thus adorned, ‘the deep and total trap was now complete’ and she is sent as a bride to Epimetheus who, although previously warned by his brother Prometheus (foresight) ‘to take no gift from Zeus’, in fulfilment of his name (hindsight), ‘he took the gift, and understood, too late.’ This is because Pandora ‘opened up the cask, and scattered pains and evils among men’, with only ‘hope’ remaining. We are also told that prior to the creation of Pandora, mankind lived ‘apart from sorrow and from painful work’ and were ‘free from disease’. Thus, not only do we have an aetiology of evil, but we also have the source of the human condition – that is, ‘bringing death and evil into the world along with laborious toil of human existence.’