The Gamer's Dilemma (guest post by Henry Shevlin)

guest post by Henry Shevlin

As an avid gamer, I’m pleased to find that philosophers are increasingly engaging with the rich aesthetic and ethical issues presented by videogames, including questions about whether videogames can be a form of art and the moral complexities of virtual violence.

One of the most disturbing ethical questions I’ve encountered in relation to videogames, though, is Morgan Luck’s so-called “Gamer’s Dilemma”. The puzzle it poses is roughly as follows. On the one hand, we don’t tend to regard people committing virtual murders as particularly ethically problematic: whether I’m leading a Mongol horde and slaughtering European peasants or assassinating clients as a killer for hire, it seems that, since no-one really gets hurt, my actions are not particularly morally troubling (there are exceptions to this of course). On the other hand, however, there are still some actions that I could perform in a videogame that we’re much less sanguine about: if we found out that a friend enjoyed playing games involving virtual child abuse or torture of animals, for example, we would doubtless judge them harshly for it.

The gamer’s dilemma concerns how we can explain or rationalize this disparity in our responses. After all, the disparity doesn’t seem to track any actual harm – there’s no obvious harm done in either case – or even the quantity of simulated harm (nuclear war simulations in which players virtually incinerate billions don’t strike me as unusually repugnant, for example). And while it might be that some forms of simulated violence can lead to actual violence, this remains controversial, and again, it’s unlikely that any such causal connections between simulated harm and actual harm would appropriately track our different intuitions about the different kinds of potentially problematic actions we might take in video games.

However, while the Gamer’s Dilemma is an interesting puzzle in itself, I think we can broaden the focus to include other artforms besides videogames. Many of us have passions for genres like murder mystery stories, serial killer movies, or apocalyptic novels, all of which involve extreme violence but fall well within the bounds of ordinary taste. However, someone who had a particular penchant for stories about incest, necrophilia, or animal abuse might strike us as, well, more than a little disturbed. Note that this is true even when we focus just on obsessive cases: someone with an obsession for serial killer movies might strike us as eccentric, but we’d probably be far more disturbed by someone whose entire library consisted of books about animal abuse.

Call this the puzzle of disturbing aesthetic tastes. What makes it the case that some tastes are disturbing and others not, even when both involve fictional harm? Is our tendency to form negative moral judgments about those with disturbing tastes rationally justified? While I’m not entirely sure what to think about this case, I am inclined to think that disturbing aesthetic tastes might reasonably guide our moral judgment of a person insofar as they suggest that that person’s broader moral emotions may be, well, a little out of the ordinary. Most of us feel revulsion rather than fascination with even the fictional torture of animals, for example, and if someone doesn’t share this revulsion in fictional cases, it might provide evidence that they might be ethically deviant in other ways. Crucially, this doesn’t apply to depictions of things like fictional murder, since almost all of us have enjoyed a crime drama at some point in our lives, and it's well within the boundaries of normal taste.

Note that there’s a parallel here with one possible response to Bernard William’s famous example of the truck driver who – through no fault of his own – kills a child who runs into the road, and subsequently feels no regret or remorse. As Williams points out, there’s no rational reason for the driver to feel regret – ex hypothesi, he did everything he could – yet we’d think poorly of him were he just to shrug the incident off (interestingly paralleled by the recent public outcry in the UK following a similar incident involving a unremorseful cyclist). I think what’s partly driving our intuition in such cases is the fact that a certain amount of irrational guilt and regret even for actions outside our control is to be expected as part of normal human moral psychology. When such regret is absent, it’s an indicator that a person is lacking at least some typical moral emotions. In much the same way, even if there is nothing intrinsically wrong about enjoying videogames or movies about animal torture, the fact that it constitutes a deviance from normal human moral attitudes might make us reasonably suspicious of such people’s broader moral emotions in such cases.

I think this is a promising line to take in regards to both the gamer’s dilemma and the puzzle of disturbing tastes. One consequence of this, however, would be that as society’s norms and standards change, certain tastes may no longer come to be indicative of more general moral deviancy. For example, in a society with a long history of cannibal fiction, people in general might lack the same intense disgust reactions that we ourselves display despite their being in all respects morally upstanding. In such a society, then, the fact that someone was fascinated with cannibalism might not be a useful indicator as to their broader moral attitudes. I’m inclined to regard this as a reasonable rather than counterintuitive consequence of the view, reflecting the rich diversity in societal taboos and fascinations. Nonetheless, no matter what culture I was visiting, I doubt I’d trust anyone who enjoyed fictional animal torture with watching my dog for the weekend.

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