The amoralist challenge to gaming and the gamer’s moral obligation


According to the amoralist, computer games cannot be subject to moral evaluation because morality applies to reality only, and games are not real but “just games”. This challenges our everyday moralist intuition that some games are to be met with moral criticism. I discuss and reject the two most common answers to the amoralist challenge and argue that the amoralist is right in claiming that there is nothing intrinsically wrong in simply playing a game. I go on to argue for the so-called “endorsement view” according to which there is nevertheless a sense in which games themselves can be morally problematic, viz. when they do not only represent immoral actions but endorse a morally problematic worldview. Based on the endorsement view, I argue against full blown amoralism by claiming that gamers do have a moral obligation when playing certain games even if their moral obligation is not categorically different from that of readers and moviegoers.

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  1. 1.

    In the following, I use “games” and “computer games” interchangeably. None of the arguments in this paper rely on an exact definition of “computer games”. An ordinary understanding of the term is sufficient.

  2. 2.

    A critical analysis of the media hysteria about games can be found in Ferguson (2010).

  3. 3.

    RapeLay is discussed in Patridge (2011).

  4. 4.

    In turn, Huizinga’s thoughts about play can be traced back to Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schiller (even if Huizinga is eager to critically distance himself from Schiller). For the relation between Kant, Schiller and Huizinga see Sdun (1966). It is worth mentioning that despite the claim that play is beyond the categories of good and evil, Huizinga (1949, 11) acknowledges that it is of a “certain ethical value in so far as it means a testing of the player’s prowess: his courage, tenacity, resources and, last but not least, his spiritual powers—‘his fairness’; because, despite his ardent desire to win, he must still stick to the rules of the game.” This ethical value is, however certainly interesting, clearly not at the heart of the question about the morality or amorality of games that this paper is concerned with. I thank an anonymous referee for encouraging me to mention the relation between the amoralist challenge to computer games and Huizinga’s groundbreaking theory of play.

  5. 5.

    Tavinor (2009) and Feige (2016) have convincingly argued that computer games are or at least can be art. I believe that they are correct. However, none of my arguments depend on this claim. In the last section of this paper, I am concerned with a difference in moral obligation between gamers on the one hand and people who watch movies or read literature on the other hand. Whether one takes games, movies, and literature to all be art, is irrelevant to my point.

  6. 6.

    There is also a Humean approach adopted by Wonderly (2007) and criticized by Schulzke (2010, p. 132 f.), and the line of thought used by Kant within the field of animal ethics which has been applied to games (see McCormick 2001, p. 283 f.). Both are consequentialist in the sense that they argue that playing certain games is bad when it has a negative effect on ourselves (our moral sensibility or our capacity for respecting ourselves and others). The arguments in this section apply to all versions of the consequentialist answer to the amoralist challenge.

  7. 7.

    For a survey and discussion of several meta-studies on games and real life violence see Ferguson (2010). The strongest causal connection between gaming and violence that serious studies will look at is one between gaming and aggression, not between gaming and actual criminally violent behavior. Ferguson (2010, p. 74) sums up the research as follows: “Taken together these meta-analyses range from those which argue against meaningful effects (Sherry, 2001, 2007; Ferguson 2007a; 2007b; Ferguson and Kilburn, 2009) to those which find weak effects (e.g., Anderson, 2004; Anderson et al. 2010). Thus the debate on video game violence has been reduced to whether video game violence produces no effects or almost no effects.”

  8. 8.

    McCormick’s basic virtue ethical claim is shared by Coeckelbergh (2007).

  9. 9.

    Coeckelbergh (2007) and Schulzke (2010) have pointed out that a virtue ethical approach must also pay attention to the possibility that gaming can have a positive effect on one’s character. In addition, Schulzke (2010, p. 130) has argued that neither simulated nor real violence does need to be a morally bad thing for Aristotelian virtue ethics: “The best way to assess the morality of video games from an Aristotelian perspective is on a case-by-case basis. Games are good or bad to the extent that they provide players with meaningful moral simulations that can improve their decision making. Not all games are moral by Aristotle’s standards, but none are objectionable simply because they are violent. On the contrary, games are a potentially valuable source of moral training, even when they are violent, as long as scenarios are constructed in a way that allows players to practice working through moral dilemmas that are analogous to the ones that may be faced in real life.”

  10. 10.

    See the discussion of the empirical data in Tavinor (2009, p. 153–159), Ferguson (2010, p. 72–74), and Schulzke (2010, p. 131–135).

  11. 11.

    This very difference between what is morally good or bad (evil), and what is still ethically relevant in a broader sense seems to be what Huizinga (1949, p. 11) has in mind when he claims that play is beyond good and evil while nevertheless being of a certain ethical value. See footnote 4 above. I thank an anonymous reviewer whose comment has helped me clarify my stance on the virtue ethical approach.

  12. 12.

    Of course, the utilitarian might respond that he as well believes that playing certain games is in itself morally wrong and that this intrinsic moral wrongness is due to it having bad consequences in reality. Such a response, however, misses the main point: We do not need to think about the possible real consequences of playing games like RapeLay to find its merely virtual gameplay morally offensive.

  13. 13.

    Ironically, this observation could serve as the basis for an argument that attributes moral praise to games with immoral content because they serve an important moral function, namely to help us identify people with morally degenerate character without them causing any actual harm. I will not try to defend such an argument here.

  14. 14.

    Another great example would be the anti-war game This War of Mine (11 Studios 2014) in which the player takes over the roles of several civilians during wartime.

  15. 15.

    Of course, this double sense of “to enjoy” is not limited to gaming but is also applicable to other art forms such as movies or literature. Does anyone really enjoy the holocaust drama “Schindler’s List” in the strong sense of the word? Hopefully not, because whoever did that would have fundamentally mistaken the representational content of the movie. It’s simply not a fun movie. But it is a very interesting and captivating movie that millions of people have watched in their leisure time. If they had not enjoyed it in the minimal sense, they would not have done so.

  16. 16.

    See Haneke (2009): “Look, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film ‘Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom,’ which deals with sexual perversion in fascist Italy, scared me so much that I was sick for 14 days. Completely wiped out. To this day, I haven’t drummed up the courage to watch it again. Never again did I look into such a deep abyss and rarely have I learned so much.”

  17. 17.

    The point being made here does not rely on the extremeness of Pasolini’s Salò. It works just as well with examples of classical Western literature. We are fascinated by the patricidal and incestuous deeds of king Oedipus and we are captured by Achilles’ maniacal killing spree in the battle of Troy. We therefore must enjoy Oedipus Rex and the Iliad in the minimal sense.

  18. 18.

    Tavinor refers to Carroll (1998a, b).

  19. 19.

    Nussbaum (1990) has defended such a claim about moral learning with respect to literature.

  20. 20.

    I am thus not attacking an expressivist argument along the following lines: (1) Mr. X enjoys playing RapeLay in the strong sense of “to enjoy”. (2) Enjoying (in the strong sense) immoral representations such as the acts of sexual assault in RapeLay reveals an immoral character. (3) Mr. X has an immoral character.

  21. 21.

    I thank an anonymous reviewer for pressing me to clarify this point.

  22. 22.

    In the debate about moralism and amoralism in aesthetics, Berys Gaut (2002) has argued for this point. While this paper is only concerned with the ethical question how to meet the amoralist challenge towards gaming, the moralism/amoralism debate in aesthetics focuses on the predominantly aesthetic question whether and how the moral qualities of a piece of art can influence its aesthetic values. See, e.g., Carroll (1996).

  23. 23.

    Thus, if one were to call Bartel’s account an “endorsement view”, it would be an endorsement view of a different kind than the one I am driving at. While Bartel is concerned with what the player endorses, my point is about games themselves being endorsements.

  24. 24.

    Tavinor (2009, p. 163 f.) uses the word “expression” instead of “endorsement” to make this or at least a similar point.

  25. 25.

    For a critical analysis see Simon Wiesenthal Center (2009, p. 7).

  26. 26.

    See Patridge (2011, p. 308): “The meaning is incorrigible in that it is exceedingly difficult to overturn, and it is social in that this difficulty is explained by facts about a particular social reality.”

  27. 27.

    I am aware that this example from the Witcher 3, which I take to be fairly uncontroversial, could in principle be rejected due to a different reading of how the game contextualizes racist remarks and other representations of racism within the game world, or rather how it fails to do so. Games, just as other forms of art, are always open to interpretation, which of course does not mean that all interpretations are equally plausible. But even if someone were to reject my example, the point it is supposed to illustrate, i.e., that representation and endorsement need to be kept apart, would still be valid as long as the critic would agree that there is some example for the case in point (even if it might be difficult to generate universal agreement on any example in particular). I thank an anonymous referee whose comments helped me on this point.

  28. 28.

    Tavinor (2009, p. 164 f.) has used this argument against cognitive moralism, i.e., the view that “finds the mere content of a representation to be the kind of thing that is rightfully amenable to moral criticism” (ibid., p. 159).

  29. 29.

    This characterization of a fictional game world being the representation of an immoral world is different from what Miguel Sicart (2009, p. 48) seems have in mind when he describes computer games as potential “moral objects” because “they can have ethical values hardwired in their design, which condition and affect the player’s experience”. Sicart’s talk about “hard wired values” seems to be about values that are (more or less implicitly) embedded in the basic gameplay mechanics of a game (ibid., p. 49). A game like Monopoly, e.g., could be said to have the value of unbridled capitalism hard wired to its design because it is only through adhering to the principle of gaining a monopoly that can one hope to win the game. See Flanagan (2009, p. 85–88) for an interesting discussion of how the original version of Monopoly, called The Landlord’s Game, was actually infused by the anti-monopolistic value of regulated capitalism, as was the little known alternative successor to Monopoly, Anti-Monopoly, which was created in 1974. I thank an anonymous referee for adverting me to this difference between Sicart’s approach and my own. As I have noted above (p. 4), the focus of Sicart’s ethical account of games is different from the one that I am concerned with in this paper.

  30. 30.

    E.g., it is obvious that the Federal Investigation Bureau (FIB), the International Affairs Agency (IAA), and the private security firm Merryweather allude to the FBI, the CIA, and Blackwater.

  31. 31.

    For an enlightening analysis of the torture scene in GTA V from an ethical point of view see Chick (2013).

  32. 32.

    This or at least a very similar insight seems to be in play in Rami Ali’s newly proposed solution to the gamer’s dilemma. According to Ali (2015) we should not approve of the general moral claim that all virtual murder is acceptable whereas all acts of virtual pedophilia are wrong. Rather, we should pay attention to the context that a specific game provides for an individual virtual act. For the dilemma itself see Luck (2009). I thank an anonymous reviewer for pressing me to state more clearly what I mean by “meaning of a game”.

  33. 33.

    The German and Japanese versions of the game have actually altered the original version. If the player shoots at the civilians, he loses the game and has to restart the level.

  34. 34.

    A game which has received (well deserved) praise for providing exactly this victim’s perspective is Spec Ops: The Line (Yager 2012).

  35. 35.

    Tavinor (2009, p. 163) mentions the idea that the player has an “active role in generating the fictionally violent or immoral content”. However, as I have argued here, the problem is not co-creating the content as such but co-creating games that endorse certain immoral content.

  36. 36.

    In many RPGs, the player can even choose his moral alignment at the beginning of the game or determine it through his actions. In Fallout 3 (Bethesda 2008) attacking and killing the innocent will result in a deterioration of the player character’s “karma”, which in turn leads non-player characters to react differently to one’s character.

  37. 37.

    Bartel (2015) argues that games are deterministic and that therefore players do not have freedom of choice.

  38. 38.

    Whether there really are special moral obligations that stem from a screenwriter’s creative freedom (and what such obligations would look like), would have to be the topic of a separate paper.


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For their valuable comments on an earlier version of this paper, I want to thank Tim Henning and the participants of his colloquium at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Stuttgart, especially Hauke Behrendt, Anja Berninger, Wulf Loh and Jakob Steinbrenner.

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Ostritsch, S. The amoralist challenge to gaming and the gamer’s moral obligation. Ethics Inf Technol 19, 117–128 (2017).

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  • Computer Game
  • Moral Obligation
  • Moralist Intuition
  • Game World
  • Video Game Violence