Free will, the self, and video game actions


In this paper, I raise several concerns for what I call the willing endorsement view of moral responsibility in videogames. Briefly, the willing endorsement view holds that players are appropriate targets of moral judgments when their actions reflect their true, real-world selves. In the first section of the paper, I argue that core features of the willing endorsement view are widely implicitly accepted among philosophers engaging in discussions of morality in games. I then focus on a particularly clear recent version of the view defended by Christopher Bartel. In the second and third sections, I raise several worries for Bartel’s version of the willing endorsement view. In the fourth section, I argue that these worries are not unique to Bartel’s view, but instead result from the view of identity implicit in the willing endorsement view. I conclude by suggesting a path forward by rejecting this view of identity.

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  1. 1.

    Pereira (2018).

  2. 2.

    Goerger (2017)

  3. 3.

    American Psychological Association (2015).

  4. 4.

    Dunn (2012)

  5. 5.

    Luck (2009, 2018); Bartel (2012); Ali (2015); Young (2016); Ramirez (2020).

  6. 6.

    I say “may” here because the willing endorsement view only holds that Anupam is a candidate for moral praise and blame. It requires a further argument to establish what the proper judgment of Anupam is in this particular case.

  7. 7.

    Versions of the willing endorsement view are defended for videogames in Bartel (2015) and implicit in Patridge (2011), Ostritsch (2017), and Ali (2015), as well as for a variety of other media, including music Smuts (2013) and pornography Cooke (2014); Bartel and Cremaldi (2018).

  8. 8.

    Bartel (2015, p. 292).

  9. 9.

    Ostritsch (2017, p. 125). It is important to note that Ostritsch’s primary aim is to argue that certain games endorse morally repugnant worldviews, not just players. However, insofar as players are criticizable to the extent that they also endorse those worldviews, including endorsing the actions of the character they control, it is appropriate to include him among the willing endorsement views.

  10. 10.

    Patridge (2011, pp. 306–307).

  11. 11.

    Frankfurt (1969, 1971).

  12. 12.

    If the reader is not moved by the example of Anupam, then consider an example due to Stephanie Patridge, who points out that many of us would have a greatly diminished view of a friend who comes out of a virtual reality simulation saying, “I just had a great time in there. You can even have sex with virtual children. But hey, no worries, they aren’t real.” Patridge (2011, p. 305). The player who steps out of the VR rig extolling the joys of virtual pedophilia likely identifies with their in-game actions, and so is an appropriate target of moral judgment in virtue of that endorsement.

  13. 13.

    I do not mean to insinuate that on Bartel’s view, real-world desires are never relevant to moral attributions. A sociopath with a real-world desire to torture might nevertheless act on that desire in virtual contexts. On Bartel’s view, this sociopath would be a candidate for moral responsibility. Rather, the worry is that for the many everyday players who do have desires concerning strictly virtual actions, Bartel’s account gets the apparently wrong result. Thank you to an anonymous reviewer for pressing me on this point.

  14. 14.

    I assume here, with Bartel, that being morally responsible requires freedom of the will.

  15. 15.

    Frankfurt (1988).

  16. 16.

    Schechtman (2014).

  17. 17.

    Bartel (2015, p. 292).

  18. 18.

    For a delightful example of a person role-playing as themselves, see Suits (1978, Chs. 10–11).

  19. 19.

    We can even imagine Dramatus becoming his own script-writer going forward. He thinks of compelling behaviors for the character of Dramatus to act out, and then acts them out accordingly.

  20. 20.

    Bartel (2015, p. 286).

  21. 21.

    This point has been pressed as a reason to reject wholehearted endorsement as a requirement of free agency altogether. For a recent example, see Coates (2017).

  22. 22.

    For prominent examples see Goffman (1956) and Schechtman (1996).

  23. 23.

    Recent discussions include Schroer and Schroer (2014), Schechtman (1996), and Taylor (1989)

  24. 24.

    Schechtman (2012), for example, argues that this occurs for some players in the game Second Life.


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Thank you to the organizers and participants at the Southeastern Ethics and Philosophy of Technology Workshop as well as the Southwest Popular/ American Culture Association Conference for helpful feedback. Thanks also to Christopher Bartel, Dylan Wittkower, Teresa Kouri Kissel, Justin Remhof, Yvette Pearson, Chad Wiener, and two anonymous referees for helpful discussion and input on earlier drafts of this paper.

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Kissel, A. Free will, the self, and video game actions. Ethics Inf Technol (2020).

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  • Video games
  • Free will
  • Moral responsibility
  • Personal identity
  • Harry Frankfurt