Skip to main content
Log in

Violent video games and morality: a meta-ethical approach

  • Original Paper
  • Published:
Ethics and Information Technology Aims and scope Submit manuscript

Abstract

This paper considers what it is about violent video games that leads one reasonably minded person to declare “That is immoral” while another denies it. Three interpretations of video game content are discussed: reductionist, narrow, and broad. It is argued that a broad interpretation is required for a moral objection to be justified. It is further argued that understanding the meaning of moral utterances—like “x is immoral”—is important to an understanding of why there is a lack of moral consensus when it comes to the content of violent video games. Constructive ecumenical expressivism is presented as a means of explaining what it is that we are doing when we make moral pronouncements and why, when it comes to video game content, differing moral attitudes abound. Constructive ecumenical expressivism is also presented as a means of illuminating what would be required for moral consensus to be achieved.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others

Notes

  1. I acknowledge that some content depicting virtual violence may be available to age-appropriate adolescents: M rating permits 17+ years of age, for example [based on the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB)]. Nevertheless, I wish to establish, first and foremost, an ethical position relevant to adults exposed to video game simulated violence (even in the case of games with an M rating), before considering what such a position would have to say about the exposure of such virtual violence to age-appropriate adolescents.

  2. Within the game, the ‘children’ are in fact creatures called Little Sisters. They do, however, resemble young girls.

  3. See http://uk.askmen.com/top_10/videogame/top-10-most-violent-video-games_1.html. Accessed 15 April 2014.

  4. Of course, Hume [(1739) 1978] would argue that no objects (whether representations or otherwise) have inherent (im)moral properties (See “Constructive sentimentalism” section).

  5. One may object to the claim that there is nothing inherently immoral in representing murder or other POTAs. As evidence for this rebuttal, one might cite examples of ‘gore porn’ (Tait 2008)—that is, reality Internet sites which show graphic real-life footage of crime scenes, road traffic accidents, executions or suicides (etc.)—or even art exhibitions such as Body World which present for viewing the skinned dead bodies of consenting adults in various ‘artistic’ poses (Moore and Brown 2007). In response to such an objection, I would still argue that the moral objection is not based on any inherent immoral property of the representation but on the broader context: in this case, the purpose of the site or presentation. Is it to satisfy ghoulish delight or is its purpose educational? The former is vulnerable to a charge of immorality, the latter less so (if at all). A similar argument (regarding purpose) has been made in the case of ‘dark tourism’ (Lennon and Foley 1996); Stone 2006): namely, the marketing of sites of death/atrocities as tourist destinations (e.g., Auschwitz-Birkenau, the former site of the twin towers in New York, the killing fields of Cambodia). In addition, any broader context should also include the age of the viewer (minor or adult).

  6. Di Muzio’s argument was originally directed against ‘slasher’ films such as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. However, it seems clear to me that the same argument can be applied to video games like Postal 2.

  7. Although my interest in this paper is directed at adult engagement with video games, one may nevertheless wish to contrast any alleged risks associated with playing violent video games, particularly for children in the US, with the comparatively increased risk associated with playing (American) football (I thank the anonymous reviewer for drawing my attention to this point). Boden et al. (2013) recorded the number of reported child fatalities associated with playing (American) football during the period 1990–2010. They found around 12 fatalities occurred per year during this period. In addition, see Shankar et al. (2007) for a report on the number of school and collegiate fractures and concussions reported during the 2005–06 season.

  8. An anaphoric reference occurs when a word in a text refers to a previous idea in the text for its meaning. In the sentence “Fred always looked unkempt but this never seemed to bother him”, the word ‘him’ clearly refers to Fred and therefore makes anaphoric reference to Fred.

  9. In a slightly more complex version of the original ecumenical expressivism, (see Ridge 2006), S’s moral approval or disapproval is said to coincide with that of an ideal advisor. Where S disapproves of x, S’s belief that x realizes P is a belief that x realizes some property that the ideal advisor disapproves of. What counts as an ideal advisor can vary. Where one’s ideal advisor is a staunch advocate of God’s law, S may disapprove of x because S believes that P, which is realized by x, amounts to a violation of God’s law and so would be disapproved of by the ideal advisor. Alternatively, where S’s ideal advisor adheres to utilitarian principles, S may disapprove of P because it equates to negative utility, as disapproved of by the ideal advisor. This more complex version of ecumenical expressivism should not affect the argument for constructive ecumenical expressivism presented here.

  10. I thank the anonymous reviewer for drawing my attention to the need for terminological clarification here.

  11. Again, I thank the anonymous reviewer for drawing my attention to this distinction.

  12. This position is able to provide the ideal advisor noted in the more complex version of ecumenical expressivism (see footnote 9) with a culturally shaped and socially endorsed status.

References

  • Adachi, P. J. C., & Willoughby, T. (2011). The effect of video game competition and violence on aggressive behavior: Which characteristic has the greatest influence? Psychology of Violence, 1(4), 259–274.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Anderson, C. A. (2004). An update on the effects of violent video games. Journal of Adolescence, 27, 113–122.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Anderson, C. A., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E. L., Bushman, B. J., Sakamoto, A., et al. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in eastern and western countries: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 136(2), 151–173.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bensley, L., & Van Eenwyk, J. (2001). Video games and real-life aggression: Review of the literature. Journal of Adolescent Health, 29, 244–257.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Boden, B. P., Breit, I., Beachler, J. A., Williams, A., & Mueller, F. O. (2013). Fatalities in high school and college football players. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 41(5), 1108–1116.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bushman, B. J., Gollwitzer, M., & Cruz, C. (2015). There is broad consensus: Media researchers agree that violent media increase aggression in children, and pediatricians and parents concur. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 4(3), 200–214.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bushman, B. J., & Huesmann, L. R. (2014). Twenty-five years of research on violence in digital games and aggression revisited: A reply to Elson and Ferguson (2013). European Psychologist, 19(1), 47–55.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bushman, B. J., Rothstein, H. R., & Anderson, C. A. (2010). Much ado about something: Violent video game effects and a school of red herring: Reply to Ferguson and Kilburn (2010). Psychological Bulletin, 136(2), 182–187.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Collier, J. E., Liddell, P, Jr, & Liddell, G. J. (2008). Exposure of violent video games to children and public policy implications. Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, 27(1), 107–112.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Copenhaver, A. (2015). Violent video game legislation as pseudo-agenda. Criminal Justice Studies A Critical Journal of Crime Law and Society, 28(2), 170–185.

    Google Scholar 

  • Copp, D. (2001). Realist-expressivism: A neglected option for moral realism. Social Philosophy and Policy, 18, 1–43.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Copp, D. (2011). Jesse Prinz, The emotional construction of morals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007): Prinz’s subjectivist moral realism. Noûs, 45(3), 577–594.

    Google Scholar 

  • Di Muzio, G. (2006). The immorality of Horror films. International Journal of Applied Philosophy, 20(2), 277–294.

    Article  MathSciNet  Google Scholar 

  • Dretske, F. (1995). Naturalizing the mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ferguson, C. J. (2007a). Evidence for publication bias in video game violence effects literature: A meta-analytic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 12, 470–482.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ferguson, C. J. (2007b). The good, the bad and the ugly: A meta-analytic review of positive and negative effects of violent video games. Psychiatric Quarterly, 78(4), 309–316.

    Article  MathSciNet  Google Scholar 

  • Ferguson, C. J. (2008). The school shooting/violent video game link: Causal relationship or moral panic? Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, 5, 25–37.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ferguson, C. J. (2010). Blazing angels or resident evil? can violent video games be a force for good? Review of General Psychology, 14(2), 68–81.

    Article  MathSciNet  Google Scholar 

  • Ferguson, C. J. (2011). Video games and youth violence: A prospective analysis in adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40, 377–391.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ferguson, C. J. (2013). Violent video games and the supreme court: Lessons for the scientific community in the wake of brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. American Psychologist, 68(2), 57–74.

    Article  MathSciNet  Google Scholar 

  • Ferguson, C. J., & Kilburn, J. (2010). Much ado about nothing: The misestimation and overinterpretation of violent video game effects in eastern and western nations: Comment on Anderson et al. (2010). Psychological Bulletin, 136(2), 174–178.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gibbard, A. (1990). Wise choices, apt feelings: A theory of normative judgment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Greitemeyer, T., & Mügge, O. (2014). Video games do affect social outcomes: A meta-analytic review of the effects of violent and prosocial video game play. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(5), 578–589.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Huesmann, L. R. (2010). Nailing the coffin shut on doubts that violent video games stimulate aggression: Comment on Anderson et al. (2010). Psychological Bulletin, 136(2), 179–181.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hume, D. (1978). A treatise of human nature. In L. A. Selby-Bigge (Ed.), 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Originally published 1739).

  • Klimmt, C., Schmid, H., Nosper, A., Hartmann, T., & Vorderer, P. (2006). How players manage moral concerns to make video game violence enjoyable. Communications, 31, 309–328.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Krahé, B. (2014). Restoring the spirit of fair play in the debate about violent video games: A comment on Elson and Ferguson (2013). European Psychologist, 19(1), 56–59.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kreider, S. E. (2008). The virtue of horror films: A response to Di Muzio. International Journal of Applied Philosophy, 22, 149–157.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lennon, J., & Foley, M. (1996). JFK and dark tourism: A fascination With assassination. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 2(4), 198–211.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • MailOnline (2007). Violent Manhunt computer game banned in UK for its ‘casual sadism’. MailOnline, 20 June, 2007. Retrieved April 15, 2014, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-463117/Violent-Manhunt-game-banned-UK-casual-sadism.html.

  • Markey, P. M., & Markey, C. N. (2010). Vulnerability to violent video games: A review and integration of personality research. Review of General Psychology, 14(2), 82–91.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Markey, P. M., Markey, C. N., & French, J. E. (2014). Violent video games and real-world violence: Rhetoric versus data. Psychology of Popular Media Culture,. doi:10.1037/ppm0000030.

    Google Scholar 

  • McCormick, M. (2001). Is it wrong to play violent video games? Ethics and Information Technology, 3(4), 277–287.

    Article  MathSciNet  Google Scholar 

  • Moore, C. M., & Brown, M. (2007). Experiencing body worlds: Voyeurism, education, or enlightenment? Journal of Medical Humanities, 28, 231–254.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Nauroth, P., Gollwitzer, M., Bender, J., & Rothmund, T. (2014). Gamers against science: The case of the violent video games debate. European Journal of Social Psychology, 44, 104–116.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Nichols, S. (2008). Sentimentalism naturalized. In W. Sinnott-Armstrong (Ed.), Moral psychology: The evolution of morality (Vol. 2, pp. 255–274). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nys, T. (2010). Virtual ethics. Ethical Perspectives, 17(1), 79–93.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Poole, H. (1982). Obscenity and censorship. Ethics, 93, 39–44.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Powers, T. M. (2003). Real wrongs in virtual communities. Ethics in Information Technology, 5, 191–198.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Prinz, J. J. (2007). The emotional construction of morals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ridge, M. (2006). Ecumenical expressivism: Finessing frege. Ethics, 116(2), 302–336.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rothmund, T., Bender, J., Nauroth, P., & Gollwitzer, M. (in press). Public concerns about violent video games are moral concerns—How moral threat can make pacifists susceptible to scientific and political claims against violent video games. European Journal of Social Psychology, Available online at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/doi/10.1002/ejsp.2125/epdf.

  • Schulzke, M. (2010). Defending the morality of violent video games. Ethics in Information Technology, 12(2), 127–138.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Shankar, P. R., Fields, S. K., Collins, C. L., Dick, R. W., & Comstock, D. R. (2007). Epidemiology of high school and collegiate football injuries in the United States, 2005–2006. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 35(8), 1295–1303.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Shoard, C. (2011). The Human Centipede sequel just too horrible to show, says BBFC. Guardian.co.uk, 6 June 2011. Retrieved May 19, 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/jun/06/human-centipede-sequel-bbfc.

  • Singer, P. (2007). “Video crime peril vs. virtual pedophilia”. The Japanese Times 22 July 2007. Retrieved May 19, 2015, from http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2007/07/22/commentary/world-commentary/video-crime-peril-vs-virtual-pedophilia/#.VVsxbt7bI5t.

  • Sjöström, A., Sowka, A., Gollwitzer, M., Klimmt, C., & Rothmund, T. (2013). Exploring audience judgments of social science in media discourse: The case of the violent video games debate. Journal of Media Psychology, 25(1), 27–38.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Smith, B. K. (2006). Fight over video game violence: Recent developments in politics, social science, and law. Law and Psychology Review, 30, 185–199.

    Google Scholar 

  • Staiger, J. (2005). Media reception studies. New York: New York University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Stone, P. R. (2006). A dark tourism spectrum: Towards a typology of death and macabre related tourist sites, attractions and exhibitions. Tourism An International Interdisciplinary Journal, 54(2), 145–160.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tait, S. (2008). Pornographies of violence? internet spectatorship on body horror. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 25(1), 91–111.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Waddington, D. I. (2007). Locating the wrongness in ultra-violent video games. Ethics and Information Technology, 9(2), 121–128.

    Article  MathSciNet  Google Scholar 

  • Whitty, M. T., Young, G., & Goodings, L. (2011). What I won’t do in pixels: Examining the limits of taboo violation in MMORPGs. Computers in Human Behavior, 27(1), 268–275.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Young, G. (2013). Ethics in the virtual world: The morality and psychology of gaming. Durham: Acumen.

    Google Scholar 

  • Young, G. (2014). A meta-ethical approach to single-player gamespace: introducing constructive ecumenical expressivism as a means of explaining why moral consensus is not forthcoming. Ethics and Information Technology, 16(2), 91–102.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Young, G., & Whitty, M. T. (2012). Transcending taboos: A moral and psychological examination of cyberspace. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Garry Young.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Young, G. Violent video games and morality: a meta-ethical approach. Ethics Inf Technol 17, 311–321 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-016-9386-0

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-016-9386-0

Keywords

Navigation