MMORPGs have four main features: they are massively multiplayer, they are online, they involve roleplay, and they are games.Footnote 3 This section discusses how each of these features makes MMORPGs morally evaluable.
“To the extent that our game play puts us in contact with agents who are either rational or sentient, it is the proper subject of moral evaluation” (Patridge 2011, p. 303).
In the above quotation, Stephanie Patridge pinpoints the very simple reason why the ‘massively multiplayer’ element of MMORPGs makes them morally evaluable; other people are involved in the game. When we use our avatars to interact with other avatars in a MMORPG, we are typically interacting with other real people—the other gamers controlling the avatars. As we generally accept that other real people are moral agents, it seems feasible to suppose that our virtual interactions with other real people are, at least in principle, morally evaluable.
Yet, if the ‘magic circle’ arguments of the introduction are correct, Patridge’s claim is false. On the magic circle view, all agents involved in game play are within the magic circle, and beyond moral evaluation. In other words, the presence of other people does not automatically make a game morally evaluable. This is because the other people are game players and actions performed towards these other game players are game actions. On the magic circle view, games exist in their own world with independent rules and norms, so game actions cannot be evaluated from external (real-world) moral vantage points.
To argue against the above, and show that the ‘massively multiplayer’ element of MMORPGs is morally evaluable, we need to extend Patridge’s claim to explain how game actions performed against other players can transcend the magic circle. One way of doing this is to argue that, when other real people are involved, virtual actions have a necessary and systematic connection with the real world. Regardless of how fantastical or fictionalised the action or text of the virtual interaction is, the underlying nature of the interaction [(typically) real-time communication between persons] is real. For this reason, we can classify MMORPGs as what Dunn (2012), drawing on the arguments of Edward Castronova, calls ‘open game worlds’. On Dunn’s definition, open game worlds are extensions of the real world and, consequently, actions performed within open game worlds matter, both psychologically and morally (Dunn 2012, p. 256). MMORPGs are open game worlds because the presence of other real people means that virtual actions, such as virtual murder, can go beyond the game world to have a moral and psychological impact on real people (the other gamers).Footnote 4
At this point my opponent might object that Dunn’s ‘open game worlds’ does not do enough to avoid the magic circle arguments. This is because we have yet to explain how virtual actions have a moral impact on real people (the other gamers). One option would be to accept a consequentialist view, whereby virtual actions impact real people (the other gamers) if they have real-world consequences, such as causing psychological distress (Dunn 2012; Wolfendale 2009). This view, however, does not avoid the magic circle arguments. A defender of the magic circle view could argue that all the consequentialist argument shows is that the player experiencing psychological distress is playing the game in the wrong way; they are overinvested and/or are poor losers.Footnote 5 This is not enough to show that the game action (virtual murder) is wrong.
For the remainder of this article I will argue that virtual murder is wrong when it exploits the player controlling the virtual murder victim.Footnote 6 In the “How virtual murder can be exploitative” section, I will argue that virtual murder is exploitative if the victim player has no opportunity to consent to the act.Footnote 7 This will happen when the virtual murder is a supposedly forbidden action, is of ambiguous permissibility, and/or is purposefully performed on players who do not (yet) know the rules of the game.Footnote 8 In these cases, I argue that such virtual murders are wrong both within the magic circle (as they typically violate game norms) and outside the magic circle (as, because the victim player has no opportunity to consent to the act, a real person (the victim player) is being treated as a mere means). The remainder of this section will explain how the other features of MMORPGS- being online, involving roleplay, and being games—enable such exploitation, allowing some virtual murders to be wrong.Footnote 9
The online nature of MMORPGs will necessarily affect how we understand this moral wronging claim. On the one hand, moral wronging seems to be made easier in the online world than in the real world. This is at least partially due to the anonymity found in online spaces [see McCormick (2001) and Danielson (1992)]. For example, when I interact with you in a MMORPG, you encounter me as a fictionalised avatar; my actual identity remains hidden. As McCormick (2001, pp. 282–283) explains, this anonymity can sometimes encourage users to act in ways that they would not condone in the real world. In MMORPG settings, this can range from using insulting, discriminatory slurs to simulating immoral actions, such as virtual rape.
On the other hand, there is ongoing debate regarding how seriously we should take these online wrongs. At least in the case of game actions, it seems clear that online wrongs are not as wrong as their real-world counterparts. In saying that virtual murder is wrong, we are not saying that it has the same moral (or legal) status as real-world murder. And yet, as the last subsection indicated, there does seem to be something wrong with some virtual murders.
This difficulty with determining the moral status of online actions has been well discussed by Young (2015). Young begins by stating that moral judgements “…form the basis for rules which have their own objective status within the socially constructed space they occupy” (p. 318). For example, we know that actual murder is wrong because, in the real-world, there is general consensus that murder possesses various wrong-making properties. Conversely, Young argues that it is less clear-cut that virtual murder is wrong because virtual murder takes place in a new socially constructed space (the online world) whose moral rules are open to debate. Young thus seems to claim that, in order to say that virtual murder is wrong, we would need to agree what wrong-making property virtual murder has, and that the presence of this wrong-making property justifies taking a disapproving attitude towards virtual murder. If we can get consensus on this disapproval, then we can create a moral norm or code for virtual murder (pp. 318–319).
In what follows I will argue that virtual murder is wrong because it violates a genuine moral requirement. I will agree with Immanuel Kant that there is something intrinsically wrong with treating a person as a mere means, as happens in cases of exploitation where we treat a person in a way that they have no opportunity to consent to. In other words, I accept that there is a certain code of conduct (never treat persons as mere means) that ought to be followed; if this code is violated, one has acted immorally.
From this I will argue that, when virtual murder does violate a moral code in this way, the correct response is to morally condemn these virtual murders. In this sense, I am adopting the strong response to online wrongness promoted by Waddington (2007). Waddington argues that, when a virtual game action violates a moral code, we must condemn the action because, to fail to do so would be “… to devalue…the very idea of wrongness.” (Waddington 2007, p. 128). In accepting this view, I am suggesting that, whilst virtual murder is not as wrong as actual murder, it is nevertheless really wrong in the sense of violating a real-world moral code in an online space.
At this point, some might object that the roleplaying nature of MMORPGs prevents the gamer from actually ever violating a moral code when they perform a virtual murder. A specific variant of this objection will be considered in “The social roles objection” section. For now, though, we can present the objection more generally as follows. Gamers play certain roles in MMORPGs and, on the basis of these roles, certain game actions, such as trash-talking, violence, or perhaps even virtual murder, become permissible (at least within the world of the game). This is because the game role somehow justifies the performance of otherwise immoral acts. For example, suppose that our gamer is playing an apocalyptic fantasy MMORPG. Her avatar is a bounty hunter tasked with killing members of a rebel group who are committed to the destruction of civilisation. In this case, it does not seem like the gamer violates a moral code when she virtually murders avatars who belong to members of the rebel group. Her role as bounty hunter seems to give a morally exempting reason for performing virtual murder.
The above objection thus depends on the idea that, by taking on a certain character, the gamer’s actions are mitigated by some narrative element of the game’s storyline. In this sense, gamers are viewed as analogous to actors; both the actor and the gamer are not morally responsible for actions performed when in-character [see Ostritsch (2017) and McCormick (2001)] and so they never commit a wrong (within these roleplay spaces).
This claim—that roleplaying neutralises moral responsibility—has, however, recently been challenged by expressivist arguments. The basic expressivist claim, here explained in terms of Bartel’s (2015) arguments, is that a violent act in a video game can sometimes be morally wrong (even if it is scripted and determined) if it reflects the will of the player (i.e. what they actually desire to do). In these cases of willing participation, an otherwise permissible virtual murder becomes wrong because it expresses an immoral attitude on the part of the player. To see this, we can consider an example presented by Patridge (2013) in which “a game might invite us to virtually hunt down and lynch characters that appear to be of African descent” (p. 33). Unlike the previous bounty-hunting example, this lynching example does not provide a justifying reason to perform virtual murder. This is because, as Patridge explains, there seems to be something morally wrong about a gamer willingly adopting the role of a lyncher. This is because, in adopting this role, the gamer must engage with the game in a way that supports immoral viewpoints, i.e. that racism and genocide are ‘fun’ (ibid). In these cases, the virtual game action seems to transcend the amoral realm of the magic circle because the game action itself violates a real-world moral code (promoting racism, genocide, etc.)
The remainder of this article will focus on virtual murders which also transcend the magic circle by violating real-world moral codes. Using the arguments of Ali (2015) and McCormick (2001) as a touchstone, I will explain how some virtual murders in MMORPGs involve, respectively, inappropriate engagement and bad sportsmanship. I then develop these arguments to argue that such cases do not simply show bad gaming practice, they involve a form of exploitation that violates real-world moral codes (in this case Kant’s formula of humanity).
To argue for the above, I will be accepting that the ‘games’ element of MMORPGs is itself morally evaluable. To do this, I draw on Ostritsch’s (2017) claim that “games themselves can be morally problematic, viz. when they do not only represent immoral actions but endorse a morally problematic viewpoint” (p. 117). In other words, I am claiming that MMORPGs are not morally evaluable simply because they allow for virtual murder, but because they are the sort of game that allows for virtual murder to be performed in morally objectionable ways (in this case, as a form of exploitation) [see Goerger (2017) and Ostritsch (2017)].
To reiterate the above arguments, I will claim that some virtual murders in MMORPGS are morally evaluable because they can wrong other real persons and, in doing so, violate real-world moral codes. In the next section I will provide the foundations for this argument by considering Ali’s (2015) and McCormick’s (2001) moral evaluations of virtual murder. The “How virtual murder can be exploitative” section will expand on these arguments to show how both can be used to support the claim that virtual murder is wrong on Kantian grounds of exploitation.