Inflationary assumptions can be subtle. To actually engage with the gamer's dilemma in the form it is conventionally presented, one has to implicitly accept some inflationary premises, and they are hard to spot in retrospect. We have already seen one hint, where Luck writes:
A player commits an act of virtual murder in those cases where he directs his character to kill another in circumstances such that, were the game environment actual, the actions of his character would constitute actual murder. (2009, p. 31)
In a footnote, Luck claims agnosticism about the metaphysics of virtuality and virtual environments, citing Brey (1999) 'if a narrow focus is required' (2009, p. 31), but the phrasing here is not as innocent as he takes it to be. Games have 'environments', and there is some sense in which these environments could be 'actual'. I take 'actual' here as an antonym of 'virtual', without the further implication that the virtual is a subcategory of the logically or physically possible.
From this, it seems that 'killing' is a kind which has both actual and virtual instances, such that virtual killing stands to virtual environments as actual killing to actual environments. This is reinforced by Luck's affirmation that features of the virtual environment moderate the ethical status of this killing-in-the-virtual-environmentFootnote 4 in just the same way as real environmental factors moderate real killing:
Note that our focus is upon murder, rather than killing in general. The difference being that, whilst the act of killing a person may be morally permissible, murder is not… Presumably a player directing his character, an Allied soldier, to kill an Axis soldier within the context of such a [game of WWII] battle, is not committing an act of virtual murder. This is because, were the game environment actual, we would not, by most reasonable accounts, consider the soldier to be a murderer. (2009, p. 32)
This is the clearest example of the central assumption of the inflationary view, that things that happen in games belong, virtually, to exactly the actual ethical kinds they appear to. A 'virtual murder' involves an act that genuinely belongs to the category 'murder' occurring in a virtual environment, and is of interest to us whenever it occurs, in some sense, at the player's behest. I leave aside the long-contested question of the relationship between battlefield killing and murder.
From here, it is easy to generate the gamer's dilemma. What determines whether a virtual act—that is, a set of instructions delivered by the player to a character through the game's interface—is wrong is simply whether the resulting action of the character belongs to a morally bad kind. 'Murder' is a morally bad kind, and so is 'child sexual abuse', so directing a game character to do either is bad, unless the boundary of the virtual is sufficiently impermeable that no moral weight carries over from either act. This naturally invites the question of why so many people seem to believe that virtual murder as Luck defines it is morally unproblematic, but that virtual child sexual abuse is clearly wrong.
Another way to characterise this is to say that on inflationary accounts, the appearance or presentation of the act makes no difference to how it is to be classified or assessed. One of the first deflationary responses to Luck was Christopher Bartel's argument (2011) that what differentiates virtual child sex abuse from virtual murder is that virtual child sex abuse necessarily involves real child pornography. In his original statement of this claim, Bartel does not clarify whether he thinks that virtual child sex abuse should be counted as producing or consuming child pornography. Instead, he says:
the graphic depiction of a character—who is clearly depicted as an adult—engaging in sexual acts with another character—who is clearly depicted as a child—would count as an instance of child pornography. While these may be virtual instances of paedophilia, they are still actual instances of child pornography. (2011, p. 13)
To this, Luck, writing with Nathan Ellerby, responds:
Bartel states that virtual paedophilia "necessarily involves the depiction of sexual acts involving children". But this need not be the case. Suppose a computer game were created in which acts of virtual paedophilia were not depicted on screen, but nevertheless the game suggested (in such a way as to leave little doubt) that such an act had occurred… Such a game might count as one in which players commit the act of virtual paedophilia, despite the fact the act itself is never depicted… We take it that many gamers would want to prohibit games that allowed players to commit non-depicted acts of virtual paedophilia. (2013, p. 231)
Luck and Ellerby clearly take the same to go for virtual murder. Referring back to Luck's original paper, they say:
Luck does not limit the dilemma to cases where virtual murder is graphically depicted. Luck does state that he is focusing "on those computer games, such as Grand Theft Auto, where clear instances of virtual murder are apparent." … Clearness in this context picks out our ability to say that the act of virtual murder has occurred; it does not pick out the depiction of such acts. (2013, p. 231)
Neither Luck and Ellerby nor Bartel should be taken as using 'depiction' to refer only to visual depiction. Prose, narration and audio might also depict with or without visual images and still count for either argument. Instead, the disagreement is over how events in game environments are to be (ethically) classified. We can illustrate it by example of a couple of hypothetical games. Game A is an adventure game which starts with a prologue in which the main character trains his martial skills under his father's guidance. The prologue ends and the game's story skips forward a few years to a scene in which the main character confronts the local king and accuses "You murdered my father!", to which the king responds "So I did."
Game B is a cartoony side-scrolling platform game in the spirit of the Super Mario games. In it, the 'enemy' creatures are blobs of alien goop with eyes. When the main character jumps on them, they burst, splattering goo over the terrain, their eyes falling to the ground and going blank. However, if left on-screen long enough, the blobs eventually pull themselves back together and start chasing after the protagonist again.
Per Luck, the father in Game A is clearly murdered but it is not clear that the enemies in Game B are even killed—Luck's own example of a lack of clarity is the ghosts in Pac-Man, who always return after Pac-Man eats them (2009, p. 33). Bartel, on the other hand, would be more against Game B than Game A, because Game B is more ‘graphic’ (this is because Bartel's approach is deflationary—he focusses on the ethical significance of the image that exists in our world rather than the gamer's relationship to an act that occurs in a virtual world).
So the nature of a virtual act, for Luck, is not secured by what the images on-screen are like. Similarly, Luck denies that the nature of a virtual act is determined by whether the player recognises what is being represented. This denial appears in his response to Rami Ali's attempt to dissolve the dilemma.
Ali acknowledges Luck's differentiation of wartime killing from murder, then goes on:
With virtual acts, however, a further complication arises. This is because virtual acts have two different contexts. There is the in-game context of the act, which is the context of the game character in its virtual world, and there is the gamer's context, which is the context of the gamer performing the in-game acts. (2015, p. 269)
Here, Ali breaks the link between the act in a virtual world and the virtual act (between what happens in the game and the player's involvement in bringing it about). According to Ali, the gamer can only be held accountable for what they take themselves to be doing, irrespective of how matters stand in the virtual world and from the perspective of its occupants. A gamer might play a particular game as an esport or in some other format where they mostly ignore the game's narrative content. To such a gamer, overcoming the game's enemies is a matter of navigating and removing obstacles rather than jumping on or shooting living creatures, and so holding them accountable for 'virtual murder' is unjust.
For Luck, though, this picture is incorrect. The nature of the player's actions is fixed by the nature of the acts occurring in the virtual world, irrespective of the player's interpretation of them. This is implicit in Luck's assertion that 'a "clear instance" [of virtual murder] is simply an instance where it is apparent that the act of virtual murder has occurred' (2013, p. 231). It is made more explicit when Luck, responding to Ali, posits a game in which 'one plays a convicted sex offender, with the ability to drag children into your car, grope them, and then throw them out', and a player of said game, Cathy, who 'is quite an innocent-minded person [to whom] it never occurs… that this is what is going on'. Cathy interprets the on-screen actions as something other than child sexual assault, but Luck insists: 'This is an instance of virtual child molestation. Why? Because the circumstances of the game… are such that, where the game world actual, the act would be actual child molestation." (2018, p. 158).
The obvious way to interpret this is inflationary—that is, to say that Luck takes the game to be an accurate but incomplete representation of a virtual world. This representation is uniquely authoritative in the sense that even where there is sufficient ambiguity that a player could form a different interpretation of the on-screen events, a player who did so would simply be mistaken, as Cathy is, about what is actually going on.
One problem with this is that, since Luck has insisted that the presentation of the game's events does not matter, no game can ever really exercise this authority. No game's fiction is complete enough. Imagine a game in which the player controls the actions of a nurse. The nurse enters a hospital room and gives a patient an injection, after which the patient dies. It would be possible for the player (at least, without further context), to interpret this in two different ways. The player can interpret the nurse as a medical professional with unfortunate timing, whose injection did not have the desired effect of prolonging the patient's life. Or the player can interpret the nurse as a disguised assassin, injecting the patient with poison.
Either interpretation seems equally valid. Nor can more information actually settle the question. Say the game has a later scene in which an autopsy reveals that the syringe was loaded with poison. The nurse's guilt is still not secure—the poison might have been put there by someone else. But perhaps the nurse was negligent in checking for contaminants in the syringe? Perhaps the autopsy report has been falsified, because the pathologist is the actual murderer and is covering his tracks. Perhaps the nurse did indeed intend to poison the patient, and deliberately administered the poison, but the patient died of some other cause before the poison could take effect.
All of these interpretations and more besides are compatible with the actual content conveyed by the game. There is the temptation to write at least some of them off as ridiculous, as 'unreasonable' interpretations, but to do so is to deny the ultimate authority of events in the virtual world, subordinating them to what is 'reasonable' for a human in our world to interpret from a piece of fiction.
This is a significant problem if the ethics of the virtual are to be a matter of what real ethical categories events in virtual environments belong to. It also raises the spectre of another objection to inflationary views, by attaching to games the same concerns about interpretive authority over the content of fictions that have arisen in relation to other fictive media. Inflationary views require that there is an ontological novelty to the virtual, which sets it apart from all other forms, to prevent objections to video game violence spilling over onto violent classics of literature, drama and cinema.
The gamer's dilemma, at least in Luck's original form, requires that 'virtual acts'—directing a character in a virtual world to do something—relate to the resulting actions in virtual worlds in systematic, consistent ways, such that the relative moral weights of virtual acts are proportional to the relative moral weights of their real counterparts. This, clearly, is not the case for any other fictive medium—whether reading about an act of murder or child sex abuse is bad depends on a great deal more than the wrongness of the act described. I turn now to the question of whether games can be clearly and rigidly separated from all other fictive media.