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The “digital animal intuition:” the ethics of violence against animals in video games

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Video game players sometimes give voice to an “intuition” that violently harming nonhuman animals in video games is particularly ethically troubling. However, the moral issue of violence against nonhuman animals in video games has received scant philosophical attention, especially compared to the ethics of violence against humans in video games. This paper argues that the seemingly counterintuitive belief that digital animal violence is in general more ethically problematic than digital human violence is likely to be correct. Much video game violence against animals has at least some potential, even if only a modest one, to contribute to moral indifference toward animals and to their routine mistreatment. These possible effects have ethical implications for animals, society, players, and video game designers.

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  1. Hereafter, “animals.”.

  2. Rare exceptions include Chittaro amd Sioni (2012), Sawers and Demetrios (2010), and Van Ooijen (2018). Unlike our paper, however, these are not primarily philosophical analyses. Animals have been discussed in ethical analyses of video game violence (e.g. Waddington 2007) and moral choices in games (Neely 2019), but the focus is usually not digital animal violence.

  3. Note, however, that there could still be genuine (e.g. Kantian-flavoured) moral concerns about the effects that performing digital animal violence might have on one’s attitudes or behaviour towards other human beings.

  4. We must note here that in some games that feature morality systems, acts of digital animal harm are sometimes considered immoral, while treating animals well can be considered moral (see Neely 2019). In Red Dead Redemption 2, for instance, wounding animals and letting them suffer without killing them results in a small loss of “honour,” while returning caught fish to the water results in a small gain in honour. In Fable 3, while players can kick chickens for fun and kill rabbits with little to no negative consequences, they also gain morality points for being a vegetarian. Indeed, there is much to be said about how animal harm is morally weighted against human harm in such games. However, it is not within the scope of this paper to explore this issue, and it is enough for our current purposes to acknowledge that the digital animal harm featured in many games is nevertheless prolific and problematic.

  5. For example, Stanley (2014) suggests that the shock of killing the last existing Bison in Red Dead Redemption 2 can ultimately give the player moral insight into the human domination of nature. This ecologically and morally edifying outcome could occur even if it was not a deliberate part of the game’s design.

  6. Recent research by, e.g., Gabbiadini et al. (2016, 2017), suggests an “indirect” link between playing violent-sexist video games and reduced empathy for women, which has been associated with increased male aggression to women.

  7. Once again, it is a separate question whether such games warrant censorship or other action (Cogburn and Silcox 2009).

  8. Although we say “portrayals”, we should not overlook a key difference between video games and, say, movies. As others have said, consumers of video games are players who exert their agency in peculiar ways (Cogburn and Silcox 2009; Jurgensen 2018; Nguyen 2017; Sageng 2012). Hence, video games may, at least in theory, have more pronounced effects than movies do on human attitudes and behaviour—including on overtly misogynistic and on subtly sexist behaviour.

  9. At the same time, we might think that digitally harming animals in ways that are impermissible outside of games, such as virtually torturing and killing them for fun, is more morally problematic still.


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Our thanks for Christopher Bartel for his helpful comments on a draft of this paper. Thanks also to an anonymous reviewer for useful comments.



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Correspondence to Simon Coghlan.

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Coghlan, S., Sparrow, L. The “digital animal intuition:” the ethics of violence against animals in video games. Ethics Inf Technol 23, 215–224 (2021).

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