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. 


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