How have the questions concerning action type and concerning the possibility of moral evaluation of actions in virtual environments been addressed in the debate? While the debate offers a rich variety of very differentiated answers, most can be matched to two general models, the analogical model and the representational model. The first model, the analogical model, is characterized by assigning a type to the user’s action on the basis of an analogy to the content of the medium in question, in the case of computer games in analogy to what is depicted on the screen. In a nutshell it says: There is at least one morally salient type virtual-φ to be assigned to events in a virtual worlds on the basis of similarity of these events to non-virtual behavior of type φ.Footnote 4 The moral valence of events of type φ extends to the event of type virtual-φ or to the user’s bringing them about.
I use valence and value/degree to be terms applicable across ethical theories. The moral valence of an action is the general direction of the final moral judgment. These valences typically come in polar opposite options of moral praise- or blameworthiness such as according to duty vs. counter to duty, virtuous vs. vicious or of positive utility vs. of negative utility, more generally: permitted vs. forbidden or most blatantly good vs. bad. Typically, such polar opposite options allow for degrees of praise- or blameworthiness. Even the Kantian distinction between actions according to or counter to duty for which such graduations are often denied allows for degrees of moral praiseworthiness, namely acting from duty and acting according to duty but from a different motive (Baron 2002).
The analogical model captures a very plausible intuition, which has been worked out repeatedly in the literature, namely that what a user of virtual worlds does and how it is to be evaluated must be closely related to the events presented in the medium. It clearly isn’t possible to say what a user of a virtual environment is doing without first registering what is depicted on the screen—or rather what happens in the diverse media constituting the environment in question. Repeated pressing of the space button can for example be a case of producing Morse code, of making a simulated spacecraft accelerate, of making an avatar jump, with in turn nearly unlimited different types of semantic content in multiplayer games. What is contested between the analogical model and its alternatives is how the information about the events depicted on screen is to be interpreted, which other information is required to assign an action type, and whether and how this assignment shapes its moral evaluation. In the following, I will outline the analogical model and some challenges before pointing out how the alternative, representational model can handle some of its weaknesses. This alternative model in a nutshell claims that bringing about an event in a virtual world that represents events of type φ in in the non-virtual world is of the type representing φ. The moral valence of creating such a representation of φ is in principle independent of that of actions of type φ.
In an early contribution to the debate, Matt McCormick tested whether any of the established theory families in ethics had the resources to cover the intuition that playing violent video games is morally objectionable (McCormick 2001). McCormick looks to virtue theory for a possible answer and seems to think that a person can build his character and its constitutive habits by playing such games without these habits necessarily being action guiding beyond the gaming environment. His description of actions in video games is ambiguous throughout most of the article. While in some passages he refers to specific examples such as “[b]lasting someone into bloody pieces with a rocket launcher” (McCormick 2001, p. 283) most of the time he talks about “pulling the joystick trigger” (McCormick 2001, p. e.g. 285) or quite explicitly “playing a game” (throughout). However, when establishing his core thesis, that such actions are morally problematic from a virtue ethical perspective, he suddenly employs a different description. He introduces—seemingly as a thought experiment—improved gaming-devices at the level of the fictional holodeck from Star Trek and then goes on to talk about holo-crimes and about the perpetrators as e.g. holo-pedophiles or holo-murderers (McCormick 2001, p. 285). Although McCormick does not use an analogical model himself, his re-description of gaming actions as ‘holo-crimes’ paved the way. This style of action description invents an action type virtual-φ in analogy to real-world events and assigns it to visually similar events depicted in the hardware of the virtual environment (holodeck, screen). This is the core of the analogical model.
One of the most-cited contributions to the debate cemented this way of describing action in virtual environments in its very title, Morgan Luck’s ‘The gamer’s dilemma: An analysis of the arguments for the moral distinction between virtual murder and virtual pedophilia’ (Luck 2009). Luck chose these examples because of the supposedly consensual moral evaluation by gamers and many non-gamers alike, namely the acceptability of virtual murder and the blameworthiness of virtual pedophilia and virtual rape. No empirical evidence is, however, presented for this.Footnote 5 Luck devises the following dilemma (actually a trilemma): Virtual murder is not immoral. There is no morally salient difference between virtual murder and virtual pedophilia. Virtual pedophilia is immoral.
For present purposes, the way of describing the actions in question is decisive: “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.” (Luck 2009, p. 31) And “A player commits an act of virtual pedophilia in those cases where she directs her character to molest another in circumstances such, were the game environment actual, her character would be deemed a paedophile.” (Luck 2009, p. 32) Luck already points out one consequence of describing actions in virtual environments this way: it applies to other media and their content as well: “this dilemma could be adapted to other types of virtual worlds, such as films, paintings and books” (Luck 2009, p. 35). While he distinguishes the active role played by gamers and the passive role of readers and movie goers, this distinction does not save the writers of novels, directors and actors of movies from moral blame for literary or cinematic murder. Luck seems to be the first to insinuate that there might be a transfer of moral evaluations between virtual and non-virtual versions of an action insofar as he sees this transfer not just for video games but across the media landscape.
Admittedly, Luck’s whole trilemma presupposes that virtual murder and murder require different evaluations, the former being morally neutral, the latter obviously blameworthy. Thus, initially Luck suggests that there is no analogy in evaluation for this case. However, he seems to imply that there is something wrong with the neutral evaluation of virtual murder and one obvious solution to the dilemma—only hinted at in Luck’s text—is that what he calls virtual murder has the same moral valence as the non-virtual action, if not to the same degree.
This way of describing the actions of players and users in virtual environments has become quite common, especially because a number of authors reacted to Luck’s article and tried to solve the gamer’s dilemma. Jeff Dunn for example makes this type of analogical thinking his core thesis, when he asks whether actions performed by a player via his or her virtual character are wrong if the same action would be wrong if the virtual world were real (Dunn 2012).
Rami Ali (Ali 2015) affirms the core strategy of the analogical model in a surprising way. Starting with the accurate observation that the individuation of an act is based on its context, he distinguishes between in-game context and gamer’s context. What makes an act of killing into a murder is the context, motive, means of manslaughter etc. Then he goes on to explain how the in-game context is relevant but not sufficient for act individuation of virtual murder. It is relevant whether the killing depicted on screen was embedded in the same context and motive, e.g. if it happened in depicted warfare against legitimate military targets or in depicted stealth killings for gain of virtual money. In addition to this game context, Ali thinks the gamer’s motive for making a certain in-game move is defining of the action. Did the gamer fantasize about cruel bloodshed on a battlefield or did he merely try to beat the game and reach a maximal game score? The surprise in his analysis is that he does accept that in-game context and gamer’s context are relevant for the decision whether a virtual killing is a virtual murder, but he does not consider which context makes the act in question a virtual killing in the first place. He calls a depiction of killing on the computer hardware a case of virtual killing without checking any criterion. Thus, Ali accepts a part of the analogical model, namely the description of a player’s action as virtual killing at the outset of his discussion.Footnote 6 He does not however, employ the analogical model for moral evaluation.
Indeed, Ali introduces another important element, namely the intent and style of the gamer’s action.Footnote 7 He suggests that whether a virtual killing is virtual murder depends on the style of the player’s engagement with the game context. It makes a difference whether he or she plays the game without following the narrative at all, with the intent of acting out his or her murderous desires or with the intent of beating a complex video game.Footnote 8
To summarize, the analogical model consists of two parts, which are complementary but of which the first can—and sometimes does—stand without the second.
First, it claims that there is at least one non-trivial type virtual-φ to be assigned to events in a virtual worlds on the basis of similarity of the behavior described or depicted in the medium to non-virtual behavior φ (cf. Sheng 2020). This can be, but rarely is, employed for purely taxonomic reasons. Even then, taxonomy is not fully innocent. The taxonomy presupposes that actions of type φ and virtual-φ share something that licenses the taxonomic decision. Normal speakers would be perplexed by a claim such as: “This is a case of virtual-φ and it is structurally, morally, aesthetically etc. completely different from cases of φ”. One would wonder why to call it virtual-φ then, and not something completely different and unrelated. Because the analogical model is employed in ethical texts predominantly, the first claim is usually made stronger, namely that the non-trivial type to be assigned to the event in the virtual environment is one, which is relevant for the moral evaluation of the real-world behavior φ.
The second part of the analogical model claims that the valence of the moral evaluation of actions of type φ extends to the event of type virtual-φ in the virtual world or to the user’s bringing about this event. This does not include the value, i.e. the full force of the moral evaluation. Nobody would claim that murder and its virtual counterpart are morally blameworthy to the same degree.
This second claim presupposes the first, taxonomic claim. The straightforward transfer of the evaluation typically associated with type φ to actions of type virtual-φ finds fewer explicit supporters but plays a relevant role because after adopting the first, taxonomic claim of the analogical model it has become the new fallback option. Here is why: Without assigning an action type analogous to some morally salient real-world behavior, the cultural default option for the evaluation of actions in virtual environments is moral neutrality.Footnote 9 Our standard reaction to actions in virtual environments is just like our default attitude toward games, which is expressed by the phrase: “It’s just a game”. This changes with employing the first, taxonomic part of the analogical model. The intuitive fallback option for the evaluation of the type virtual-φ is not that of ‘virtual’ but that of φ. Several of the authors discussed above provide alternative modes of evaluation for actions in virtual environments, such as McCormick’s use of virtue ethical methods. But even for those authors, the background of the evaluative landscape has changed significantly. If it turns out that the virtue ethical mode of evaluation comes up empty for a specific action—e.g. that a case of virtual burglary does not result in habituation of vicious behaviors or similar detrimental developments of character—it does not immediately follow anymore that the action is morally neutral. As a case of virtual-φ it might well have the same moral valence as φ.
The analogical model does have its critics, however. Mark Coeckelbergh is probably the first to give an apt description of the analogical model and reject its suitability as a tool for moral evaluation: “A common approach to ethics of computer games considers the content of the games, and the relation between playing the game with that content and behavior in the real world. The content of the games is judged by generally accepted moral norms that forbid certain acts. The metaphor used may be that of contamination: if the content is bad, surely we must prevent it to spill over from the virtual world into the real world.” (Coeckelbergh 2007, p. 223). This description is to the point, but in his ethical analysis Coeckelbergh does not fully exhaust its critical potential. His main worry about immoral virtual actions is that they provide some kind of reinforcement or training for actions of an analogous type. He supports the case for such a training by spelling out the similarities between in-game action and off-game action in terms of immersion and interactivity of modern games. This emphasis on similarities brings him close to the analogical model, which he initially seemed to reject. The worry of immoral training is more than justified, but it can be developed without accepting the analogical model at all.
Schulzke (Schulzke 2010) points out the difference which has been covered up by the talk of virtual killing with a simple description of what gamers do: “Games involve simulated killings, but players do not intend to kill another person when they play. They only mean to destroy an avatar.” (Schulzke 2010, p. 129) Schulzke importantly makes philosophical theory of action available for the debate by drawing the attention towards the gamers’ intention as the central source of information about their action type. He drives a wedge between the action as depicted on the screen and the action of the user. One cannot describe one by analogy to the other.Footnote 10
In a similar vein, Seddon has worked out clearly what the analogical model does, or rather does not do, and in so doing identified the different events occurring during a so-called virtual murder: “Neither is playing a game understood as the creation of pictorial representations, even when the game provides feedback by means of images on a screen; on the contrary, virtual murder is what a screenshot of in-game killing is supposed to depict, not simply to be.” (Seddon 2013, p. 1) Following up on this short remark by Seddon, four different events need to be distinguished: the pictorial representation on screen, the digital events causing this depiction, the user’s activity with computer periphery, and the events depicted, which might as well be fully fictional events.Footnote 11 And as Seddon points out, “it is no minor terminological judgment to decide that gaming violence not merely resembles or depicts or represents or models murder, but is ‘virtual’ murder.” (Seddon 2013, p. 2).
Patridge puts more focus on the moral evaluation of actions in virtual environments and turns against the analogical thinking in this regard. She characterizes this model as “a mistaken moral assumption, namely that if our virtual activities are subject to non-harm based moral assessment then they must derive their moral status in a straight-forward way from the status that they would have in the real world.” (Patridge 2013, p. 33) Rather than deriving moral evaluation from what is depicted on the screen, ethical awareness should rest on “the nature of representational detail that we confront in-game and how reasonably it invokes thoughts of our actual moral reality” (Patridge 2013, p. 33). Patridge is probably the first in this debate to point out that the acts of creating on-screen representations are viable targets of moral evaluation themselves (Patridge 2010, 2013).Footnote 12 She calls out the enjoyment of game imagery with morally problematic moral meaning as at least insensitive and argues that it expresses or reveals a flaw in the character of the player. Her position has therefore been called expressivist.
Based on Patridge’s work, Sebastian Ostritsch has devised what he calls the endorsement view (Ostritsch 2017). The core thesis of the endorsement view is that certain pieces of fiction such as computer games may—under certain conditions—be “not merely fictional, because on a pragmatic level, [they] also endorse[…] a normative view about the real world” (Ostritsch 2017, p. 122). The main target of Ostritsch’s analysis is not the action of an individual within a virtual environment but the virtual environment itself. Thus, he recognizes that games, and derivatively the actions within games, are carriers of meaning, are predominantly representations together with a certain style and attitudes towards the represented.
Ostritsch remains silent about the relation between virtual actions and their non-virtual counterparts. For him, the metaphysical and moral status of individual action within the virtual environment is derivative to that of the game itself. Nevertheless, he asserts that games—and virtual environments as a whole—are ontologically incomplete without the user’s action, the user completes what is only potential in an unplayed game. Thus, if games are carriers of meaning so is the action of the player. According to Ostritsch, the gamer’s moral duty is not to enjoy—in a strong sense of having fun—but to have contempt for immoral games, even if he or she comes to play them. Consequently, few acceptable reasons for playing such games remain, among them are scientific or journalist investigation.