A new solution to the gamer’s dilemma


Luck (2009) argues that gamers face a dilemma when it comes to performing certain virtual acts. Most gamers regularly commit acts of virtual murder, and take these acts to be morally permissible. They are permissible because unlike real murder, no one is harmed in performing them; their only victims are computer-controlled characters, and such characters are not moral patients. What Luck points out is that this justification equally applies to virtual pedophelia, but gamers intuitively think that such acts are not morally permissible. The result is a dilemma: either gamers must reject the intuition that virtual pedophelic acts are impermissible and so accept partaking in such acts, or they must reject the intuition that virtual murder acts are permissible, and so abstain from many (if not most) extant games. While the prevailing solution to this dilemma has been to try and find a morally relevant feature to distinguish the two cases, I argue that a different route should be pursued. It is neither the case that all acts of virtual murder are morally permissible, nor are all acts of virtual pedophelia impermissible. Our intuitions falter and produce this dilemma because they are not sensitive to the different contexts in which games present virtual acts.

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  1. 1.

    Sometimes videogames are referred to as computer games, but throughout I will use the term videogames which is the term commonly used by gamers. In some cases, I will omit the word ‘video’ and use ‘game’.

  2. 2.

    Where moral patients are objects of moral consideration, though not morally responsible themselves e.g. babies and in some cases, animals.

  3. 3.

    I add the term ‘direct’ to exclude the possibility of indirect harm. One might think that either act produces indirect harms, for instance, to society as a whole, or the player. For instance McCormick (2001) argues that Aristotelians can plausibly argue against playing certain types of games. This seems to be the idea that some critics of videogames have, that e.g. playing games normalizes violence, or is a form of idleness, or anti-social behavior.

  4. 4.

    Perhaps empirical evidence can show otherwise, but in the absence of such evidence it is hard to see why one should default on accepting this asymmetry.

  5. 5.

    For instance, see Bartel (2012).

  6. 6.

    For instance see Patridge (2013) and Luck and Ellerby (2013).

  7. 7.

    However I am sympathetic to the idea that some instances of virtual pedophilia can be differentiated from virtual murder. Specifically, I think that Bartel’s argument does show that some instances of virtual pedophilia (those that depict the act in a certain way) are instances of child pornography, and thus can be distinguished from virtual murder on those grounds.

  8. 8.

    Patridge (2013, p. 33).

  9. 9.

    Game observers have always been existed; in many cases one or two people will play a game while their friend or friends watch them play. But more recently, with the advances in the cinematic quality of games, and the rise and integration of services like Twitch, game observers are an increasingly large part of videogaming.

  10. 10.

    While it is hard and maybe impossible to given necessary and sufficient conditions for when something counts as a videogame, it is plausible to think that games must minimally allow the gamer the capacity to interact with the virtual world through virtual acts.

  11. 11.

    In addition, it is plausibly the case that the gamer’s acts are justified differently depending on the in-game context. When Drake attacks an enemy, he is justified because he is acting in self-defense. But similarly, the gamer too is justified in performing the virtual killing, since her act counts as an act of virtual self-defense.

  12. 12.

    For two informative discussions of issues arising from what designers choose to depict, see Brey (1999), and Patridge (2011).

  13. 13.

    Young’s (2013) paper explores this strategy of individuating acts exclusively by the gamer’s context (in Young’s paper, the ‘gamer’s motivations’). Unsurprisingly, the conclusion is that we cannot justify the differential treatment of virtual murder and virtual pedophilia by focusing solely on such motivations.

  14. 14.

    This way of understanding simulation games should be distinguished from a narrower use of ‘simulation’, in which a simulation is in some sense realistic, presenting the player with real or realistic events or actions. As I use the term, simulations can be realistic, but they can also be entirely fantastical in the events and actions they provide. This is because I define these games as (focusing on) providing a simulation of our lived freedom, not a simulation of some particular content. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for helping me clarify this point.

  15. 15.

    Tavinor (2009, p. 164).

  16. 16.

    See Luck and Ellerby (2013).

  17. 17.

    Of course one might think that no representation of pedophilia, not even textual representation is acceptable. This however would be a radical position, requiring much more than the banning of certain virtual acts.

  18. 18.

    Of course one important difference is that in the one case but not the other, this violence is visually depicted. However it seems to me that one might envision a movie that portrays as much violence as God of War whilst still being morally acceptable. Alternatively, one can imagine a visually toned down version of the game and compare that to The Odyssey.

  19. 19.

    A potential example of a murder simulator is the game Manhunt (2003). While the game is not a pure murder simulator, it does get close to being one. The game, in line with the intuitions I have, elicited a negative response, being banned in New Zealand, Germany, and Australia.

  20. 20.

    It should be said that few games depict any sex at all. Indeed videogame have only recently come to depict sexual contents comfortably, partly due to earlier societal perceptions that games cannot deal with mature topics like sexuality. Killing, by contrast, has always had a place in games since such acts are a convenient way of challenging the gamer, and have the symbolic meaning in sporting cases. For instance, a game like chess has pawns being eliminated which is a highly symbolized killing, and many early games use jumping on a computer-controlled character as a symbolic way of killing it.

  21. 21.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for suggesting this alternative formulation of P1.

  22. 22.

    For skepticism about using the concept of the virtual in this way, to explain the significance and difference between videogame and real life contexts, see Seddon (2013).


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Correspondence to Rami Ali.

Additional information

This paper emerged out of the University of Miami’s 2014 summer ethics grant, and benefitted from two presentations I gave after joining the Lebanese American University, one in the Philosophy and Computer Gamers 2014 conference in Istanbul, Turkey, and the other in the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. The paper also benefitted from the feedback I received on the paper from three gamers (Majd Akar, Hosni Auji, and Nael Taher), and four philosophers (Bradford Cokelet, Bashshar Haidar, and two anonymous reviewers).

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Ali, R. A new solution to the gamer’s dilemma. Ethics Inf Technol 17, 267–274 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-015-9381-x

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  • Gamer’s dilemma
  • Videogames
  • Virtual acts
  • Computer games
  • Virtual murder
  • Virtual pedophilia
  • Applied ethics