The Gamer’s Dilemma challenges us to find a distinction between virtual murder and virtual pedophilia. Without such a distinction, we are forced to conclude that either both actions are morally acceptable or that both should be morally illicit. This paper argues that the best way to solve the dilemma is, in one sense, to dissolve it. The Gamer’s Dilemma rests on a misunderstanding in the sense that it does not distinguish between the effects that the form of a simulation can have on moral judgment apart from its surface content. A greater appreciation of the way structural features of a simulation affect subject experience will help us see why only simulations of murder and pedophilia generating virtually real experiences are likely to be seen as wrong. I argue that a simulation’s structural elements powerfully affect how subjects experience simulated content and hence is an important, and previously neglected, variable necessary to dissolve the Gamer’s Dilemma. Properly understood, virtually real simulations of murder and pedophilia are both likely to be treated by players as morally wrong. Similarly, virtually unreal murder and pedophilia will be less likely to be judged as wrong. Subject judgments are thus consistent once a simulation’s structural variables are accounted for. The Gamer’s Dilemma dissolves as a dilemma once we acknowledge these structural features of simulations and how they affect experience and moral judgment.
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Despite the alleged strength of this intuition, some philosophers have also argued that virtual murder is morally wrong (see Tillson 2018; McCormack 2001). I use the term subject here, and throughout the paper, to refer to the individual who is the experiencing subject of some simulation’s content. In some cases, this might be the player of a game, in other cases it might be a test subject in an experiment, in yet other cases it might be the designer of the simulation. What matters, for our and for Luck’s purposes, are the moral judgments such subjects make about their experiences of simulated wrongdoing. I thank an anonymous reviewer for asking me to be clearer about my use of this term.
A third possibility, of course, is that we are irrational with respect to these moral responses. While there exists a large psychological literature on this kind of social intuitionist response (Haidt 2001; Haidt 2003), I will sidestep this response to the dilemma in this paper. I thank Philip Cori for pushing me on this line of argument.
In Rami Ali’s (2015) case, he focuses his analysis on the narrative contexts that acts of simulated violence and pedophilia take place in to argue that some virtual murders may be wrong in certain contexts, those taking place in what Ali calls a ‘simulation’ game, while virtual pedophilia may be morally benign in others depending on whether it is possible to appropriately engage with a simulation’s narrative. He too offers a dissolution argument, one I believe compatible with my own. While Ali’s narrative analysis helps to show one way in which the Gamer’s Dilemma oversimplifies moral contexts, the approach I develop here focuses less on the normative features of a virtual narrative and instead on the psychological, behavioral, and phenomenological features of virtual experience.
Davis (2012) for example, argues quite forcefully that we should take phrases like “were the game environment actual” seriously (many game environments, he would argue, are impossible to actualize) and hence many instances of putative virtual murder might be impossible to actualize.
Historically, the term “virtual reality” was coined by Antonin Artaud to describe the phenomenology of playacting (Artaud 1958). Actors and audiences were said to share a “virtual reality” where a story’s events take place. Much as we said with respect to an actor playing Hamlet, the same can be said of actors playing the roles of Aaron or Demetrius in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. They would be guilty of committing virtual rape and battery as a result of playing these roles. That Titus Andronicus is still in production (and does not seem to generate the kind of controversy that games involving murder, sexual assault, or pedophilia generate) attests to the fact that Luck’s definition is too inclusive to generate the Gamer’s Dilemma. If these definitions are meant to generate conflicting intuitions about simulated murder and simulated pedophilia (or simulated sexual assault), then they appear to fail for theatrical simulations of sexual assault. In order to explain why gamers face seemingly conflicting intuition, we need to more clearly specify what it is about the experiences these simulations generate that makes the Gamer’s Dilemma a dilemma for gamers. Luck’s definitions, as they stand, can’t do this.
Cogburn and Silcox (2012) distinguish between passive-VR (wherein a subject lacks any agency or control), semi-passive VR (wherein a subject makes choices but wherein the simulation does not physically engage the subject), and active VR (which requires agents to physically move-about a virtual space in order to interact with it) in recognition of the importance of embodiment to experience. These useful distinctions are in the spirit of moving from PVM to PBVM. The more modalities a simulation engages in a subject, the more likely they are to see their simulated experiences as like their real experiences. I expand on this point below when I discuss virtually real experiences.
Though see Tillson (2018) for an argument that virtual murder of virtual persons can harm real persons.
Indeed David Chalmers (2017) argues that, in some rare cases of lucid dreaming, that dream events can be real in much the same way that real events can be real and virtual events can be real. Though Chalmers does not use the terminology of perspectival fidelity, context-realism, or virtually real experience, he does appear to be speaking about lucid dreams having the potential, in rare instances, to be experienced as virtually real by dreamers. In other cases, however, lucid dreams may not be virtually real. If we know we are dreaming, then we don’t treat those experiences in the same way we sometimes do when we have dreams that feel real to us and for which we are delighted (or saddened or worried or confused) to wake up from.
For example, there is limited, though telling, evidence that a person’s relative possession of specific psychological and characterological dispositions can impact how they respond to virtual experiences. The degree to which a subject possesses the “Big Five” personality traits of narcissism, agreeableness, and openness to experience can affect the degree to which they are able to immerse themselves in an experience (de Raad and Perugini 2002; Weibel et al. 2010). Additionally, there is good evidence that the degree to which a person tends to dissociate from experience more generally can impact, sometimes radically, how they are affected by virtual experiences (Seligmann and Kirmayer 2008; Snodgrass 2004; Aardema et al. 2010). Data is still sparse, and subject to replication doubts, but if such results hold out, then it suggests that individual psychological dispositions must be a part of any argument that explains (or explains away) the Gamer’s Dilemma.
Much of what I say in this section draws from psychological and neuroscientific research on moral judgment and virtual reality experiments. All of the claims herein should be considered tentative and empirically falsifiable. It’s entirely possible that some features that I claim important to the generation of a virtually real experience (e.g., moderate reasons-responsiveness) may not end up being so critical in the first place. For example, many early researchers of presence were surprised at how small a role photo-realism plays in creation the illusion of presence for virtual environments. I thank an anonymous reviewer for pressing me on this matter.
I have in mind here something like Ritchie’s Plank Experience (Toast 2018) which simulates walking off of a tall highrise building onto a wooden plank. The illusion, at least in this author’s experience, can prove overwhelming and very convincing. In this sense, virtually real experiences are often differentiated from their real-life counterparts because these differences between cognitive and physiological responses are more apt to occur. They are not a defining feature of such experiences, however. David Chalmers (2017) offers examples of the sorts of utterances that experienced VR subjects may truly assent to (“there is a table in front of me”) despite the fact that their experiences are simulated.
As noted earlier, a subject’s psychological traits likely form a third axis if we want to explain why a particular subject experienced a simulation as virtually real. However, in the context of the Gamer’s Dilemma, I stress the two axes that simulation designers have control over. I do this in part because Luck frames the Gamer’s Dilemma in a general way. If the dilemmas only arose as a result of idiosyncratic features of user psychology, the Dilemma would not apply so widely.
By definition, individual perspectives are subjective. For example, subjects who are red-green colorblind have a different way of experiencing the world than those who are tetrachromats and both will see the world different than those who are neurotypical. That being said, this kind of subjectivity is limited by biology to a certain extent and, statistically speaking, neurotypical observers share a large overlapping mode of perceiving their world. The concept of perspectival fidelity does not assume neurotypicality. To say that a simulation is perspectivally faithful is always to say that it is perspectivally faithful to a particular observer given their modes of perceiving the world. When I speak here of the elements that make a simulation more or less perspectivally faithful, I speak in some sense to the overlapping general features of human perception that unite neurotypical modes of perceiving.
This seems true for highly present experiences as well (Sanchez-Vives & Slater 2005).
Heavy head-mounted displays can reduce perspectival fidelity, for example, if a subject becomes aware of them while in the middle of an experience. When hardware, or other perspectival elements, intrude on the nature of a virtual experience, perspectival fidelity is diminished. In doing so, they may also impact context-realism (if only in the sense that it forms an unusual aspect of our virtual experience unlike real experience).
This also makes context-realism somewhat subjective. Someone playing a game set in the middle of the zombie apocalypse will find that that setting reduces the context-realism of the simulation if they think that the zombie apocalypse is impossible. They will find it more context-real if they believe that the zombie apocalypse is a real possibility.
For example, non-diegetic voice-over can detract from both the perspectival fidelity of a simulation (it diminishes the degree to which that simulation presents the subject with an accurate representation of their own real-world experience) and also diminishes a simulation’s context-realism (by diminishing the degree to which the rules of the simulated world cohere with the rules of the real-world as the subject understands them).
There is another element here that seems to impact the degree to which a simulation can generate a virtually real experience in a subject that research seems to suggest is important. Specifically, I earlier mentioned subject-side elements that could be relevant to explaining a person’s reaction to simulated experience. Chief among these are a subject’s susceptibility to dissociate from experience more generally. Susceptibility to dissociation is a spectrum capacity, we all have it to some degree-rising to its highest expression for those with Dissociative Identity Disorder (APA 2013). I thank an anonymous reviewer and Miles Elliott for pushing me on this issue.
Though here too there is an element of individual subjectivity. Subjects who genuinely believed, for example, that they lived a past life in medieval England may find a simulation set during that time and place more context-real than someone who did not think this (or who thought it impossible). This is yet another subject-side feature that we believe ought to wash out if the Gamer’s Dilemma is meant to apply generally, to most subjects.
In other words, such agents behave according to what should be “an understandable pattern of (actual and hypothetical) reasons-receptivity” (Fischer and Ravizza 1998, 71). Understandable, in this context, implies that such behavior flows reasonably if one considers an agent’s end and the means available to them. It should be clear that, on this understanding, very few simulated non-player characters would score highly on this aspect of context-realism.
An additional element of my analysis, worth making explicit here, relates to dual-systems theories of moral judgment (Greene et al. 2001; Greene 2009). On these views, judgements about a moral dilemma track whether the dilemma itself takes on a “personal” or “impersonal” character. The classic cases here are the switch and bridge versions of the trolley problem. Although both present the subject with the option of saving five at the expense of killing one, the bridge version is a “personal” dilemma in the sense that it requires the subject to physically push someone onto the path of the train in order to save the five while the switch version is ‘impersonal’ in the sense that subjects must merely pull on a switch, from a distance, to achieve the same result. Sensitivity to the personal / impersonal distinction may also explain why moral judgments appear to conflict in cases of virtual murder and virtual pedophilia. Virtual murders are often impersonal in the sense that they are carried out in a mediated fashion (using guns or other distance weaponry) while virtual pedophilia is often highly personal in nature (though see Rami Ali’s example below for an impersonal example). Thus the Gamer’s Dilemma may often track the personal / impersonal nature of moral dilemmas instead of their simulated nature. I think such an analysis is only likely to strengthen the dissolution argument in the sense that our moral intuitions about virtual murder and virtual pedophilia are likely to be consistent once we hold a simulation’s propensity to produce virtually real experiences constant while also holding constnat the nature of the dilemma itself (personal v. impersonal). I thank audiences at the 2019 Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association for their productive discussion of this issue.
Importantly, we should note here that torture, especially the torture scenario subjects act out in the “By The Book” mission, is structured as a highly personal moral dilemma in Joshua Greene’s (2009) sense of the term. Subject reactions may very well have been different had they merely had to order the torture but not carry it out themselves (i.e., if it were constructed as an impersonal moral dilemma). As mentioned before, the personal / impersonal nature of a moral dilemma is likely to be an important variable in any analysis of moral judgment (actual or simulated). This dimension has yet to be given serious attention in the literature that has grown around the Gamer’s Dilemma though for the reasons I have laid out here, we cannot afford to continue this omission. We generate a Gamer’s Dilemma if and only if we hold the moral variables surrounding two simulated acts constant (e.g., virtual murder and virtual pedophilia) and examine whether our moral judgements about the cases diverge purely because of their simulated nature. Although my analysis focuses largely on the design elements of simulated dilemmas, it is worth paying serious attention to the personal / impersonal nature of a dilemma as well.
To be sure, there are elements to this simulation that keep it from being fully immersive (it is screen-bound and third-personal for example) and thus subjects avoid the sorts of extreme trauma some of Slater’s (2006) subjects experienced.
On the one hand, such games are marketed and sold as virtual erotica, providing some evidence as to their design purpose. Additionally, there is some evidence (though it is mixed) that such simulations are experienced as arousing by their players (Galbraith 2017). Neil Levy (2002), to provide another example, argues that while virtual child pornography (i.e., context-real and perspectivally faithful child pornography) does not harm existing children that it nonetheless contains many of the same problematic features (eroticization of inequality) as actual child pornography. Perspectivally unfaithful and context-unreal child pornography may very well lack this feature as well.
Kratos is the chief protagonist of the God of War series of games.
In Ali’s case, this is because the God of War series contains a narrative that can be “appropriately” engaged with. In other words, because Kratos’ journey is ultimately not distinctly or entirely immoral, a subject can engage with the game’s narrative, which includes immoral acts, without themselves doing something immoral. Where game narratives are distinctly immoral or where games lack any narrative at all (Ali refers to these as “simulation” games), virtual wrongs may arguably also be wrong for players to engage in.
The shift to off-screen pedophilia also, likely, changes the moral dilemma from a personal one (where the subject must directly engage in pedophilic action) to an impersonal one (because the actions take place off-screen). It’s partially an empirical question here whether the change from a personal to an impersonal dilemma or the other design features are primarily responsible for the shift in moral judgment in Ali’s example. A further complication in this case is that the very feature that shifts the dilemma from personal to an impersonal is intrinsically bound up with the simulation’s perspectival fidelity.
Partridge (2013) has argued that simulations involving pedophilia are more context-real than those involving murders, at least for most of us. She claims that “[a pedophilic] game like this does possess representational details that make it more reasonable to see it as a reflection of our lived moral reality and less like a bit of “harmless fun.” But, in what I am calling run-of-the-mill first person shooters, characters are not targeted in this kind of way, which makes it more reasonable to see run-of-the-mill first person shooters as a departure from rather than a reflection of real world moral concerns” (2013, 33). Indeed, it is likely because of the context-realism that grounds games like Hizashi and which are lacking in most gameplay in Grand Theft Auto that helps to explain why subjects respond differently to them. Indeed, Partridge goes on to say that “virtual murder too can be presented in such a way that reasonably connects it to our moral reality, it might also be subject to moral criticism” (ibid). I thank an anonymous reviewer for suggesting this connection with Patridge’s work.
I thank an anonymous reviewer for pushing me to clarify my position here with respect to the ethics of virtual wrongdoing. Insofar as I can, I wish to remain agnostic at the level of normative theory. TEP is a useful heuristic, however, for any normative theory that includes consistency as a value. If x is morally wrong at least in part for subject-affecting reasons under some normative theory y, then a virtually real experience of x is wrong in y for those same subject-affecting reasons. If there are purely victim-affecting reasons for thinking that x is morally wrong, then those are unlikely to translate to virtually real experiences of x except in very unusual circumstances (i.e., if the virtual victims are themselves artificially intelligent persons or other players capable of being affected by a subject’s actions).
This is even more true if we are careful to keep the nature of the dilemma (personal or impersonal) constant across cases.
In order to rescue the Gamer’s Dilemma, we would need evidence that players will have conflicting moral intuitions about virtual actions once we hold simulation design features like context-realism and perspectival fidelity constant. Such evidence would be a welcome addition to debates about virtual morality as they are likely to shed light on larger debates regarding the effects of virtual action on real-world behavior. Indeed, one reason why the literature on the effects of violent video games is mixed (Ferguson and Kilburn 2010; Huesmann 2010) may be that the effects of violent gaming will be different for context-real perspectivally faithful games than for games less likely to generate virtually real experiences.
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I would like to thank Phillip Cori, Miles Elliott, Jordan Wolf, Mohit Gandhi, Lia Petronio, Scott LaBarge, the journal's anonymous reviewers, and those in attendance at the Pacific Division meeting of the APA in Vancouver in 2019 for their helpful comments on this article, all of which improved it in countless ways.
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Ramirez, E.J. How to (dis)solve the Gamer’s Dilemma. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 23, 141–161 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-019-10049-z
- Applied ethics
- Ethics and technology
- Gamer’s dilemma
- Simulation ethics
- Simulated wrongs
- Virtual harm