Videogames and Philosophy

Author: Alex Fisher
Category: Ethics, Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art, Metaphysics
Word Count: 999

Videogames allow people to live out their sporting dreams, explore other worlds, complete puzzles for hours on end, and more.

But videogames aren’t just fun: they raise serious philosophical and ethical issues, some of which are reviewed here.

Videogame controllers and screen.
Videogame controllers and screen.

1. The Ethics of Videogames

The typical concern for ethics is how we treat other people. Harming other people is wrong and most videogames don’t involve harming any real people. Yet they raise ethical issues nonetheless.

For example, many videogames contain extreme violence, such as brutal killings, that would clearly be wrong if done in reality. While some people find killing in videogames morally problematic, most people don’t.

Most people would, however, find virtual child abuse and other sadistic crimes to be wrong. But if virtual murder is OK since nobody is actually harmed, why isn’t virtual child abuse also OK, since nobody is actually harmed? Conversely, if virtual child abuse is unacceptable despite harming nobody, why isn’t virtual murder also unacceptable?

Most people don’t want to say that virtual child abuse is benign, or that virtual murder is as bad as virtual child abuse.[1] But how can these judgments be justified?

First, we may note a difference in the typical motivations behind the two actions.[2] Players usually want to kill in videogames not because they want to actually murder anyone. The desire to virtually commit child abuse, however, very might likely be due to wanting to actually commit child abuse, making this action morally bad in ways that virtual killings are not.[3]

Distinguishing the moral status of these actions by their motivations, however, does suggest that it would be OK if someone committed virtual child abuse without any desire to commit actual child abuse—a consequence many would find unappealing.[4]

We can avoid this consequence by identifying the moral difference not in motivation, but instead within the actions themselves.

For instance, virtual abuse targets individuals using the same criteria for which actual individuals are targeted and harmed: victimizing a child because they are a child (or a woman because she’s a woman, animals because they are animals, and so on). Virtual murder, however, is often represented very differently from actual murder: the “victims” are usually just random and non-descript; they aren’t killed because of anything in particular about them.[5]

So our actual moral standards may only condemn virtual child abuse, but not virtual murder. But perhaps, contrary to common intuitions, both are indeed wrong or even neither are?

2. The Aesthetics of Videogames

Another topic is the aesthetics of videogames, which concern philosophical issues related to art. One core question here is whether videogames can be artworks.[6] Some argue that videogames are interactive films and so, like films, are art.[7]

Whether videogames are art or not, we do engage with them very differently to traditional artworks in that we are involved in the experience of the game being played: we often play as a player-character;[8] we imagine that we are the player-character we control.[9] Alternatively, instead of imagining ourselves to be the player-character, perhaps the player has a “proxy” in the game-world—a person (or object)—who acts on behalf of the player.[10]

Whichever view is correct, we clearly are involved in playing a videogame in ways we usually aren’t for experiencing other artworks.

Another difference from other art forms is videogames’ lack of directives. Philosophers of music ask what it means to perform a piece of music—whether, if I make a few mistakes, I am really playing the piece I claim to play.[11] Videogames, however, often have no explicit directive for how to play.

One question, then, is whether we can ever fail to play a videogame. Some argue that we can fail to play a videogame by “speedrunning” it, that is, trying to complete it as quickly as possible.[12] All artworks have a “prescriptive frame”—a way they are meant to be encountered—and videogames are (usually) not intended to be speedrun.[13]

So, when a player speedruns a videogame, she arguably isn’t playing the game she claims to be playing. But if she isn’t playing the game, then what is she playing?

3. The Metaphysics of Videogames

A final issue is the metaphysics of videogames. There are questions about what makes something the same videogame, despite significant changes, and whether virtual objects exist. Copyright questions, involving legal claims to the game, often depend on these metaphysical issues.[14]

One position, called formalism, holds that games are identified by their rules—if you changed the rules of chess, it wouldn’t be chess.[15] We can similarly identify videogames by their rules—their algorithms and code.[16]

The trouble is that code frequently changes, with “patches” fixing bugs and altering the power of weapons and characters. Intuitively, it doesn’t seem that each patch produces a new game, just as football wasn’t a distinct sport prior to the offside law.

One suggestion is that we instead see games like chess and Call of Duty as family resemblance concepts—they have many different instantiations in different mediums, but with no set of rules common to all instances.[17]

Another metaphysical issue is the existence of virtual objects. The Supreme Court of the Netherlands ruled that a robbery took place when two boys coerced a third into relinquishing virtual objects in RuneScape.[18] The court reasoned that these objects were of value to the assailants, and hence stealable.

But this is puzzling: How can we steal virtual objects which don’t really exist?

One answer is that virtual objects depend upon certain “props”—physical objects like bits and bytes on silicon chips.[19] So virtual objects can be stolen, as domain and control of these props can be removed unlawfully, which is theft.[20]

Alternatively, others argue that virtual objects do exist as digital objects, which can themselves be stolen, rather than their props.[21]

4. Conclusion

The ethics of virtual actions are becoming more pressing with the development of virtual and augmented reality technologies. The philosophy of videogames can help answer these ethical questions and the aesthetic and metaphysical issues on which they depend.

Again, videogames aren’t just fun; they’re philosophical!

Notes

[1] These two options, which result from a moral equivalence between virtual murder and virtual child abuse, constitute the “Gamer’s Dilemma” (Luck 2009).

[2] For various responses to the Gamer’s Dilemma, see Bartel (2012: 13-15 and 2020 ch. 5-6), Patridge (2011 and 2013), Young (2013 and 2016), Ali (2015), Bourne and Caddick Bourne (2019), Ramirez (2020), and Kjeldgaard-Christiansen (2020). See Luck and Ellerby (2013), Luck (2018 and 2019) for responses to Bartel, Ali and Young.

[3] Bartel (2020 ch. 5-6).

[4] Young (2013), however, simply accepts this conclusion, arguing that there is no moral difference between the actions of virtual murder and virtual child abuse, so when the motivations are the same, the actions are in fact morally on a par.

[5] Patridge 2011 and 2013. This has the consequence that realistic virtual murder, where we target groups that are actually targeted, is subject to our actual moral standards and is unacceptable, just as virtual child abuse is. Thus, this view allows that some instances of virtual murder are OK, while others are not. See Bartel (2012: 13-15) for another view of this kind, which draws a distinction between the acts of virtual murder and virtual child abuse.

[6] One approach to defining art is a Cluster Account, according to which various properties common to many art forms give evidence that something is a work of art (Davies 2004). Hence, we need to consider the similarities and differences between videogames and other art forms, some of which are addressed in this section.

[7] See Smuts (2005: §5) and Gaut (2010: 13-14). Alternatively, Dominic McIver Lopes suggests that videogames are part of a wider category of “computer art” (2009: 113-120). See Preston (2014: 270-272) for criticism of Lopes on computer art, and Tavinor (2009: ch. 9) and Nguyen (2020: ch. 6-7) for further arguments that videogames constitute a form of art. Rough (2018a, 2018b) objects that videogames cannot be artworks, as being a game is incompatible with being an artwork – different attitudes are required for engaging with each.

[8] We also play as characters in other forms of “interactive” fiction. Wildman and Woodward (2018) offer an account of the interactivity in interactive fiction: the player is forced to resolve fictional incompleteness, whereby it is initially neither fictionally true that p nor that not-p, with the player forced to decide which option becomes true.

[9] Robson and Meskin 2016. This captures our first-personal discourse about our characters’ actions: ‘I beat the raid’, or ‘I fought the dragon’. Arguably, our identification with our character and involvement in shaping the narrative gives us a greater emotional investment in what happens (Van de Mosselaer 2019 and 2020). Some videogames also contain no player-character—many racing games, for instance, do not depict drivers in their cars. In such games, we can posit an “implied” driver, whom we imagine ourselves to be (Robson and Meskin 2016: 168).

[10] Carlson and Taylor 2019.

[11] Goodman (1968: 186) famously argues not. A related question is whether the player “performs” a videogame in any sense. See Kania (2018) for an argument against gamers as performers.

[12] Nguyen 2020: 128. Another plausible way to fail to play might be by cheating in a videogame, for instance using console commands or external programs to play in the “wrong” way.

[13] Irvin 2005. Some videogames are designed with speedruns in mind, for instance designers will avoid unskippable cutscenes and random elements which make speedrunning less enjoyable. In such cases, speedruns are intended in some sense. An interesting series which touches on these issues is IGN’s “Devs React to Speedruns”.

[14] For instance, copyright depends on our being able to identify a particular game that others are not allowed to reproduce without permission.

[15] Suits 1978.

[16] Declos 2020: §2.4. Holt (2016) argues that due to such rules, some competitive multiplayer videogames constitute sports, rather than being a separate category of “Esports”.

[17] Ridge 2020: §5. For instance, we could play queenless chess, and whilst this would not be allowed in an official tournament, it would still be a version of chess. Similarly, this allows for a game of football to be played in a videogame, where the rules might be different to a real game of football. This position is notably distinct from Wittgenstein’s (1953: §66) famous suggestion that the term “game” is a family resemblance concept, where there is no single feature that all games have, notably disputed by Suits (1978), who offers a definition of a game.

[18] “Teen Steals Virtual Items, Gets Real Punishment”, CBS News, 31 January 2012. A similar case is the EVE Online heist where $10,000 worth of virtual items were “stolen” from one of the largest alliances in the game.

[19]  Wildman and McDonnell 2020. This terminology derives from Walton’s (1990) theory of fiction as prop-oriented make-believe – certain representational objects function as “props”, where we are prescribed to imagine various things of them, just as we do of teddies and dolls in children’s games of make-believe.

[20] Similar issues arise for NFTs. Unlike buying traditional artworks, however, buying an NFT does not endow domain and control. The images in Beeple’s collection “Everydays”, which recently sold for $69 million, are all freely available on the artist’s website. This generates interesting legal questions regarding whether NFTs can be stolen. For further philosophical issues thrown up by NFTs, see “Beeple and Nothingness: Philosophy and NFTs”.

[21] Chalmers 2017, Ludlow 2019.

References

Ali, Rami. 2015. ‘A New Solution to the Gamer’s Dilemma’. Ethics and Information Technology 17 (4): 267–74.

Bartel, Christopher. 2012. ‘Resolving the Gamer’s Dilemma’. Ethics and Information Technology 14 (1): 11–16.

Bartel, Christopher. 2020. Video Games, Violence, and the Ethics of Fantasy: Killing Time. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Bourne, Craig, and Emily Caddick Bourne. 2019. ‘Players, Characters, and the Gamer’s Dilemma’. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 77 (2): 133–43.

Carlson, Matt, and Logan Taylor. 2019. ‘Me and My Avatar: Player-Character as Fictional Proxy’. Journal of the Philosophy of Games 1.

Chalmers, David J. 2017. ‘The Virtual and the Real’. Disputatio 9 (46): 309–52.

Davies, S. 2004. ‘The Cluster Theory of Art.’ British Journal of Aesthetics, 44 (3), 297-300.

Declos, Alexandre. 2020. ‘Fact, Fiction and Virtual Worlds’. In Epistemology of Aesthetics, edited by R. Pouivet and V. Granata, 195–219. Presses Universitaires de Rennes.

Gaut, Berys. 2010. A Philosophy of Cinematic Art. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Goodman, Nelson. 1968. Languages of Art. Bobbs-Merrill.

Holt, Jason. 2016. ‘Virtual Domains for Sports and Games’. Sport, Ethics and Philosophy 10 (1): 5–13.

Irvin, Sherri. 2005. ‘The Artist’s Sanction in Contemporary Art’. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 63 (4): 315–26.

Kania, Andrew. 2018. ‘Why Gamers Are Not Performers’. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 76 (2): 187–99.

Kjeldgaard-Christiansen, Jens. 2020. ‘Splintering the Gamer’s Dilemma: Moral Intuitions, Motivational Assumptions, and Action Prototypes’. Ethics and Information Technology 22 (1): 93–102.

Lopes, Dominic. 2009. A Philosophy of Computer Art. London: Routledge.

Luck, Morgan. 2009. ‘The Gamer’s Dilemma: An Analysis of the Arguments for the Moral Distinction between Virtual Murder and Virtual Paedophilia’. Ethics and Information Technology 11 (1): 31–36.

———. 2018. ‘Has Ali Dissolved the Gamer’s Dilemma?’ Ethics and Information Technology 20 (3): 157–62.

———. 2019. ‘Can Young’s Constructive Ecumenical Expressivism Resolve the Gamer’s Dilemma?’ Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society.

Luck, Morgan, and Nathan Ellerby. 2013. ‘Has Bartel Resolved the Gamer’s Dilemma?’ Ethics and Information Technology 15 (3): 229–33.

Ludlow, Peter. 2019. ‘The Social Furniture of Virtual Worlds’. Disputatio 11 (55): 345–69.

Nguyen, C. Thi. 2020. Games: Agency As Art. Oxford University Press.

Patridge, Stephanie. 2011. ‘The Incorrigible Social Meaning of Video Game Imagery’. Ethics and Information Technology 13 (4): 303–12.

———. 2013. ‘Pornography, Ethics, and Video Games’. Ethics and Information Technology 15 (1): 25–34.

Preston, Dominic. 2014. ‘Some Ontology of Interactive Art’. Philosophy & Technology 27 (2): 267–78.

Ramirez, Erick Jose. 2020. ‘How to (Dis)Solve the Gamer’s Dilemma’. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 23 (1): 141–61.

Ridge, Michael. 2020. ‘Individuating Games’. Synthese

Robson, Jon, and Aaron Meskin. 2016. ‘Video Games as Self-Involving Interactive Fictions’. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 74 (2): 165–77.

Rough, Brock. 2018a. ‘The Incompatibility of Games and Artworks’. Journal of the Philosophy of Games 1 (1).

———. 2018b. ‘Videogames as Neither Video nor Games: A Negative Ontology’. In The Aesthetics of Videogames, 24–41. Routledge.

Smuts, Aaron. 2005. ‘Are Video Games Art?’ Contemporary Aesthetics 3.

Suits, Bernard. 1978. The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. Broadview Press.

Tavinor, Grant. 2009. The Art of Videogames. Wiley-Blackwell.

Van de Mosselaer, Nele. 2019. ‘Only a Game? Player Misery across Game Boundaries’. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 46 (2): 191–207.

———. 2020. ‘Imaginative Desires and Interactive Fiction: On Wanting to Shoot Fictional Zombies’. The British Journal of Aesthetics 60 (3): 241–51.

Walton, Kendall L. 1990. Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Wildman, Nathan, and Neil McDonnell. 2020. ‘The Puzzle of Virtual Theft’. Analysis 80 (3): 493-99.

Wildman, Nathan, and Richard Woodward. 2018. ‘Interactivity, Fictionality, and Incompleteness’. In The Aesthetics of Videogames, edited by Grant Tavinor and Jon Robson, 112–27. Routledge.

Willis, Marissa D. 2019. ‘Choose Your Own Adventure: Examining the Fictional Content of Video Games as Interactive Fictions’. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 77 (1): 43–53.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophical Investigations. Edited by G. E. M. Anscombe, Rush Rhees, and G. H. von Wright. Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Young, Garry. 2013. ‘Enacting Taboos as a Means to an End; but What End? On the Morality of Motivations for Child Murder and Paedophilia within Gamespace’. Ethics and Information Technology 15 (1): 13–23.

———. 2016. Resolving the Gamer’s Dilemma. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

For Further Reading 

Bartel, Christopher. 2020. Video Games, Violence, and the Ethics of Fantasy: Killing Time. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Bartel, Christopher.  “Why Video Game Violence Isn’t Innocent”. Aesthetics for Birds.

Cohen, Eliya. “The House Never Loses: How Microtransactions Exploit Video Game Players”. Aesthetics for Birds.

Nguyen, C. Thi. 2020. Games: Agency As Art. Oxford University Press.

Pezlar, Ivo. “What Video Games to Play in a Philosophy Classroom”. Daily Nous.

Robson, Jon, and Grant Tavinor, eds. 2018. The Aesthetics of Videogames. Routledge.

Rough, Brock. “Why Video Games in Art Museums Still Aren’t Art”. Aesthetics for Birds.

Willis, Marissa D. “Is Commander Shepard Female? Determining Canon in Video Games”. Aesthetics for Birds.

Related Essays

Aesthetics vs. Art by Brock Rough

Definitions of Art by Brock Rough

Applied Ethics by Chelsea Haramia

About the Author

Alex is a PhD candidate at Robinson College, University of Cambridge. His research focuses on metaphilosophy, philosophy of language, and the philosophy of fiction and videogames. @AlexFisher32

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