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The video gamer’s dilemmas


The gamer’s dilemma offers three plausible but jointly inconsistent premises: (1) Virtual murder in video games is morally permissible. (2) Virtual paedophelia in video games is not morally permissible. (3) There is no morally relevant difference between virtual murder and virtual paedophelia in video games. In this paper I argue that the gamer’s dilemma can be understood as one of three distinct dilemmas, depending on how we understand two key ideas in Morgan Luck’s (2009) original formulation. The two ideas are those of (1) occurring in a video game and (2) being a virtual instance of murder or paedophelia. Depending on the weight placed on the gaming context, the dilemma is either about in-game acts or virtual acts. And depending on the type of virtual acts we have in mind, the dilemma is either about virtual representations or virtual partial reproductions of murder and paedophelia. This gives us three dilemmas worth resolving: a gaming dilemma, a representation dilemma, and a simulation dilemma. I argue that these dilemmas are about different issues, apply to different cases, and are susceptible to different solutions. I also consider how different participants in the debate have interpreted the dilemma in one or more of these three ways.

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  1. Throughout I stick to the formulation offered in Luck (2009), only relabelling ‘computer games’ as ‘video games’.

  2. For instance, see Ostritch (2017).

  3. For instance, see Luck (2018).

  4. This is not meant as an exhaustive division. The gamer’s dilemma might bifurcate in other ways.

  5. I treat ‘computer game’ and ‘video game’ interchangeably, but use the latter throughout.

  6. Luck (2009) writes “Popular movies, such as Pulp Fiction, or television series, such as Dexter, involve multiple representations of murder. Given this, if we prohibit virtual paedophilia, we may find ourselves also prohibiting a sizable portion of popular entertainment. […] [V]iewers, unlike players, do not choose to commit the acts they see. This distinction does seem to be morally relevant, but it is interesting to question to what extent.” p. 35.

  7. A more realistic example is Archipelago, where the board game’s focus is on the more controversial issue of colonialism.

  8. Here I am excluding the possibility that the player is harmed in performing the act, or at least more harmed when performing one of the two acts.

  9. One may be hesitant to accept this. The idea of acts being ‘in a video game’ can be taken in two ways. On a weaker understanding, the target acts happen in a video game. On a stronger understanding, the target acts are ones performed when one is playing a video game, rather than interacting with it in some non-ludic manner.⁠ As a result, one may argue that though VRchat is not a video game it does involve ludic engagement. But even if this is the case sometimes, not all virtual murder and molestation occur in gaming contexts. A developer can design an avatar and place it into the Unity game engine’s scene space to test it. They can perform acts like virtual murder and molestation.⁠ As can scientists using a physics simulator, perhaps to test out the realism of human physics in the simulation. Maybe these cases involve switching between designing the world and playing it sometimes, but this will not always be the case. Sometimes the developer or scientist might engage only to see if e.g. a given glitch occurs. They can perform the acts to check the glitch, or simply because the option is available as they wait to collect other information. These engagements are not plausibly ludic, but may still elicit the dilemma’s intuitions, since one could think the developer and scientist do more wrong in performing the virtual pedophelic act.

  10. It may be that there is a more general resolution that addresses both types of acts, for instance, focusing on acts that are ‘not real’. My point is just that there are ways of resolving one dilemma without resolving the other, since the dilemmas focus on different virtual instances. Thanks to anonymous reviewers for helping me clarify this.

  11. See e.g. Patridge (2010) and Ostritch (2017).

  12. See e.g. Nozick (1974).

  13. Another related issue is about what contents are permissible in jokes. Here the joking context may bracket moral concerns or not, just as the gaming context might or might not.

  14. See e.g. Tavinor (2009).

  15. For the focus on virtual reality, see e.g. David Chalmers (2017).

  16. For instance, if one thinks the virtual is not real because it is fictional, then one may think virtual acts are fictional acts, and have whatever value we assign to fictions. See Chalmers (2017) for more.

  17. It is worth noting here that I use ‘simulation’ in a way that is different from the authors I discuss in the following section. So these different uses of ‘simulation’ should be kept apart.

  18. For instance, see Philip Brey (2014) and Chalmers (2017).

  19. See e.g. Brey (2014)

  20. For one view on this, see Brey (2014).

  21. I discuss this in more detail in Ali (in progress).

  22. For instance, see Ostritch (2017).

  23. Here I stick to the story in the original 1973 movie’s premise, and the more recent show’s first season (since later seasons change the nature of Westworld).

  24. Two additional examples might be Chalmers’ (2017) Terraform reality, and Jurassic Park.

  25. This is not to say that the representation and simulation dilemmas are entirely dissimilar. Since both representations and simulations only include some of the original’s properties, both are selective in the properties they represent or reproduce, and so evaluable for partiality. For example, sexist video game imagery may virtually represent or reproduce properties of women that are all properties of some women, so there is nothing wrong with including the properties. Instead, the problem is in what properties are selected for inclusion and exclusion. Virtual representations and simulations may fail to offer e.g. some body types, or skin colors and in so doing be partial. (Cf. Brey 1999; Ford 2001).

  26. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for prompting me to clarify this.

  27. Consider a simulation of the movement of physical bodies.

  28. Simulations in Ali’s (2015) sense lack a ludic goal because although they can feature in a user’s games, they neither instate a goal, nor require the user to pursue this goal. Instead they offer a place to engage in one’s virtual freedom, neither demanding that the user do so, nor rewarding them for doing so. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pressing me to clarify this point.

  29. For instance, Ostritch writes “The roots of this amoralist challenge to computer games lie in the in the general characteristics of all forms of play [….] Play is “not ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life” (8). Rather, it consists in temporarily stepping outside of the ordinary into some sort of conceptually (and sometimes also spatially) demarcated “magic circle” (10) wherein “the laws and customs of ordinary life no longer count” (12).” (p.118).

  30. For instance, Bartel gives an example of burning a photograph that, though it does not harm the subject of the photograph directly, is still experienced as morally significant.

  31. Thanks to anonymous reviewers for highlighting the possibility of an overarching dilemma and resolution.


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Ali, R. The video gamer’s dilemmas. Ethics Inf Technol 24, 18 (2022).

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  • Gamer's dilemma
  • Virtual ethics
  • Video games
  • Virtual acts
  • Game acts
  • Applied ethics