Topic: Science & Technology

Those Evil Videogames

Christmas is coming and the Ethics Scoreboard backlog is getting fat. Time to discuss an issue that has been on the agenda for a long time: “unethical” videogames.
There are many ways of looking at this topic. Is a videogame that encourages violent and anti-social acts within its boundaries itself unethical? Is designing or manufacturing such games unethical? Is playing such games unethical, or does playing such games warp one’s ethical senses?

Let us emulate Thoreau and simplify, shall we? This is a relatively new installment of a very old controversy that has been applied to dime novels, pulp fiction, westerns, comic books, horror movies, slasher movies, motorcycle movies, rock and roll, 60’s drug culture songs, heavy metal, punk rock, slam-dancing, rap music, hip-hop, television, role-playing board games, and You-Tube. The question boils down to this: do behavior and ethical attitudes follow entertainment and fantasy, or do they occupy separate domains?

This isn’t a behavioral science site. My less-than-exhaustive reading in the field indicates that the scientific answer lies somewhere between “we don’t know” and “it depends.” Ethics involves conduct and consequences. Thinking cannot be unethical, no matter how horrible the thoughts, even though thinking frequently leads to conduct. Indeed, being ethical is all about individuals stopping unethical motivations and thoughts from becoming or creating unethical conduct.

Fantasy and make-believe is a form of thought, and playing games that involve fantasies is carrying thoughts into conduct that has no real world consequences. A child who pretends to be a pirate and “kills” a friend playing a sea captain using plastic swords in the back yard is not acting unethically, even if he or she enjoys the fantasy. Is such a child who “kills” while pretending to be a pirate, a gangster, a soldier, Bill the Kid or Dracula likely to become a real killer? Clearly not. This is play. And the fact that there have been, are, and will always be a tiny population of disturbed individuals who cannot distinguish play from real life does not change the ethically neutral nature of the activity.

Poker involves tactical lying. So does a wonderful international negotiation board game called Diplomacy. Chess, though the pieces are wooden and representational, is warfare. Presumable the imaginary ships we sank in Battleship had sailors aboard. Monopoly makes cut-throat real estate dealings fun. A typical Dungeons and Dragons warrior may kill hundreds of people, creatures and monsters during an adventure. Are these games “bad,” or “bad” for children who play them? Is the unethical conduct within the game truly unethical conduct? The answers are, “There is no reason to think so,” and “Don’t be ridiculous.”

Undeniably, videogames are more vivid and interactive than most of their predecessors, and role playing websites, like Second Life, are more vivid still. Logically, there must be some point where fantasy conduct becomes so lifelike that it will grease the slippery slope to real conduct. But society has been remarkably poor at guessing where that point is. Crime magazines were supposed to create juvenile delinquents. Rock and roll was going to turn innocent teenagers into sexual perverts. When we have good, hard evidence that a form of entertainment actually, frequently and predictably leads its participants into actual misconduct, then the creators and the distributors of that entertainment become ethically obligated to act responsibly, and to stop making it available. But they are not so obligated now. That is because history shows that condemnation of new entertainment forms arises out of ignorance and fear of the new and strange, and that critics, in retrospect, invariably end up looking like old fogies, hysterics, or fools.

It is possible that, for the first time, the critics are right. But given their track record, the video game creators, manufacturers, distributors and players have to be given the benefit of the doubt. As long as they are ethical in the real world, let the players play. After all, taking fun, a precious commodity, away from someone without a really good reason is unethical.

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