Intentionality and virtual objects: the case of Qiu Chengwei’s dragon sabre


This article offers an analysis of intentionality for virtual objects and explores some of the ethical implications of this analysis. The main example which serves as a motivation for the article is the case of a Chinese gamer who, in 2005, committed murder in retaliation for the theft of a virtual object, the theft of his virtual dragon sabre. The intentional analysis reveals that the way in which we experience virtual objects shares a structural similarity with the way in which we experience physical objects. Both virtual and physical objects are accessible through action and intersubjectively available. The final part of the article introduces three ethical points based on the intentional analysis. First, virtual objects can have the same ethical significance as physical objects. Second, it will be important to consider empirical results on the factors which influence one’s subjective level of immersion in the virtual world. Finally, the intentional analysis of virtual objects suggests specific questions for future research.

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  1. 1.

    See "Chinese gamer sentenced to life" BBC, 8 June 2005.

  2. 2.

    One option, explored and rejected by Crane, is to deny that relations entail the existence of their relata. For a critical discussion of this move, see Crane (2001: 24 and 25).

  3. 3.

    Though I should mention that others have developed treatments of the ontological status of virtual objects. See Heim (1994) and Koepsell (2000).

  4. 4.

    Adolf Reinach, an early follower of Husserl, develops this theme even further. He argues that non-physical objects, such as obligations, have the same ontological status as physical objects. See his (Reinach 1983) and DuBois and Smith (2008).

  5. 5.

    Here I am assuming a particular level of sophistication in the virtual environment. One can imagine rudimentary virtual environments in which exploration is not possible. The virtual environments widely used today allow for the kind of exploration I am discussing. Obvious examples include World of Warcraft and Second Life.

  6. 6.

    Although I will not pursue it here, there is an interesting question as to whether other players experience the object itself, or merely a representation of the object. Similarly, one could argue that all players involved only experience a representation of the object. I thank an anonymous referee for raising this issue.

  7. 7.

    For an example of virtual events with real-world impact that is less extreme than the case of Qiu Chengwei, consider what is known as the Battle of B-R5RB, which occurred in the MMORPG Eve Online. The battle occurred in late January 2014 and is estimated to have destroyed between $300,000 and $500,000 in virtual starships. See I thank Yann Wilhelm for drawing my attention to this virtual battle.

  8. 8.

    I thank an anonymous referee for raising this point.

  9. 9.

    "Link" is the hero, the player's character, in the game. The review appeared in The Guardian on 11 November 2011.

  10. 10.

    Issues become more complex when we consider that many virtual environments are places in which games are played. For a discussion of this issue, see Lastowka (2010: chapter 6).


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This research has been supported by the EC Project VERE, funded under the EU 7th Framework Program, Future and Emerging Technologies (Grant 257695).

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Correspondence to Michael Madary.

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Madary, M. Intentionality and virtual objects: the case of Qiu Chengwei’s dragon sabre. Ethics Inf Technol 16, 219–225 (2014).

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  • Intentionality
  • Virtual objects
  • Phenomenology
  • Intersubjectivity
  • Virtual reality
  • Ethics