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The incorrigible social meaning of video game imagery

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In this paper, I consider a particular amoralist challenge against those who would morally criticize our single-player video play, viz., “come on, it’s only a game!” The amoralist challenge with which I engage gains strength from two facts: the activities to which the amoralist lays claim are only those that do not involve interactions with other rational or sentient creatures, and the amoralist concedes that there may be extrinsic, consequentialist considerations that support legitimate moral criticisms. I argue that the amoralist is mistaken and that there are non-consequentialist resources for morally evaluating our single-player game play. On my view, some video games contain details that anyone who has a proper understanding of and is properly sensitive to features of a shared moral reality will see as having an incorrigible social meaning that targets groups of individuals, e.g., women and minorities. I offer arguments to support the claim that there are such incorrigible social meanings and that they constrain the imaginative world so that challenges like “it’s only a game” lose their credibility. I also argue that our responses to such meanings bear on evaluations of our character, and in light of this fact video game designers have a duty to understand and work against the meanings of such imagery.

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  1. Raiter and Warner (2005).

  2. Ibid.

  3. Hereafter, I shall refer to ‘single-player video game play’ by the less cumbersome ‘game play,’ though throughout I focus only on this narrow range of video game activities, unless I note otherwise.

  4. McCormick (2001).

  5. Coeckelbergh (2007).

  6. Wonderly (2008).

  7. Sicart (2009).

  8. See, for example, Rosalind Hursthouse’s seminal articulation and defense of virtue theory. Hursthouse (1999).

  9. If our judgments can be sustained in such a case, this suggests that there are resources for moral criticism of the virtual pedophile even if there is little reason to support the claim that such activities harm actual children as Neil Levy argues. See, Levy (2002). Further, it suggests that there are resources for moral criticism even if, contra Levy, virtual pedophilia harms virtually no one as Peter Singer argues. See, Singer (2007).

  10. Morgan Luck argues that in some cases virtual pedophilia might lead to a reduction in harm. I agree that in a case in which virtual pedophilia is a necessary means to preventing actual pedophilia, it seems that all-things-considered the pedophile ought to engage in virtual pedophilia. Nevertheless, I think that such an activity exposes a substantive flaw in the pedophile’s character. Virtuous agents would not need such cathartic experiences. See, Luck (2009).

  11. Custer's Revenge was released in 1982 for Atari by Mystique, a company that produced a number of video games with graphic sexual content.

  12. Phillip Brey argues that “[t]he principal moral importance of [representations that are biased] is that they may induce false or biased beliefs in users that may ultimately have undesirable practical consequences.” Brey (1999). While Brey may be right, the line of reasoning that I am pursuing here is a distinctly non-consequential one.

  13. Strictly speaking, in the actual game Custer simulates sexual intercourse with the native-American woman while she is still tied to the pole, though I doubt many will have difficultly conceiving of this as a depiction of rape.

  14. I do not mean to deny that there are legitimate consequential considerations that one might cite here. I only intend to set these matters aside in order to expose a different kind of moral evaluation that has been underexplored.

  15. For an argument that in-game activities are our activities see Vellemen (2008).

  16. See, for example, Gaut (2002) and Walton (1997).

  17. Gaut, ibid.

  18. For a more substantive argument against the Gautian line of argument, see Patridge (2008).

  19. Mia Consalvo makes a related point. She argues that we cannot simply bring our intuitions about what would be right and wrong in the actual world directly to bear on the world of games, though her focus is on a different phenomenon: in-game cheating. Consalvo (2005).

  20. Fears and Lydersen (2010).

  21. Wiggins (1998).

  22. Brophy-Warren (2009) and Jones (2009).

  23. Brophy-Warren, ibid.

  24. Mark Coeckelbergh, for example, argues that in assessing the representational content of single-player video games, we should ask ourselves if the activity would be justified in the actual world. See, Mark Coeckelbergh, ibid.


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Correspondence to Stephanie Patridge.

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Patridge, S. The incorrigible social meaning of video game imagery. Ethics Inf Technol 13, 303–312 (2011).

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