Any new entertainment technology worth its salt is greeted as a portent of impending doom. In the 18th and 19th centuries, moralists fretted that novels would leave readers (especially women) sexually inflamed, disconnected from reality, and prone to vice, family desertion, and even suicide. The advent of radio was feared as a distraction from wholesome reading; in turn, movies were decried as a distraction from wholesome family radio listening. Television was such an object of instant cultural anxiety that Bela Lugosi starred in a thriller, Murder by Television, in 1935 – only ten years after John Logie Baird’s first demonstration of the technology and a year before the BBC launched the world’s first broadcast service.

Most of these worries subsided in time, though plenty of folks will still tell you TV rots your brain. Yet video games remain a perennial object of suspicion. Maybe it’s simply the shock of the new, maybe games are just a good fit for a certain stripe of self-righteous contrarianism. It may seem easy to dismiss these worries: we’re now well into gaming’s fifth decade and the sky doesn’t appear to have fallen in, just as a near-century of television hasn’t, in fact, given us square eyes.

Yet gaming does raise some uncomfortable ethical questions. These questions arise not so much from the technology as from the immersion in an imaginary universe – and as such these are problems not just for electronic games but for everything from Paintball to children playing ‘Cowboys and Indians’. It’s a problem for any sort of play that recruits Just a game? us into another world as active, willing participants.

The Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series has been a constant site of outrage for its depictions of violence and murder. GTA V, for instance, involves scenes in which the player can hire a sex worker, and then kill her – and is incentivised by the game mechanics to do so as this lets the player take their money back. That’s just one of many murders the game invites its player to commit. In another scene, the player viciously tortures a man with electrodes, then ‘redeems’ himself with a speech on the inefficacy of torture. Such games reward us for doing things that would be illegal, vicious, or utterly evil if we did them in real life. But does this matter morally?

Or consider online sex games, which can be understood as an interactive form of pornography. There’s no violence involved here, but is playing a game where the object is to ‘pleasure’ an onscreen cartoon person potentially an act of infidelity, or is the action simply too remote from real sex to have that sort of implication?

Reflexively, most of us would probably answer “no”. We don’t really do these things; we’re not actually torturing or murdering anyone, nor are we actually having sex with anyone. We can’t hurt fictional characters, nor be intimate with them. Nor do we owe anything to them. They can’t rightly expect our mercy or resent us for withholding it. To borrow the framework of the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, fictional beings such as we encounter in games fall outside the moral community of rational agents, and it is only within that community that rights and responsibilities are owed.

For Kant, nonhuman animals likewise aren’t part of our moral community and so are not proper objects of moral duty. But even Kant seemed troubled enough by that thought to concede that we might have indirect duties to treat animals well, simply because being cruel to them might predispose us to be cruel to humans. Something similar might well apply to games: if we spend so much time looking through digital gun sights or running over virtual pedestrians, might we end up damaging our characters in ways that will, eventually, have negative ‘real world’ consequences?

There’s some suggestion that modern soldiers, having been raised on first-person-shooter video games, find the battlefield uncannily familiar and find killing all the easier for it. Yet there’s been no observed correlation between the rise of violent video games and violence more broadly. My generation, raised on the now primitive first-person-shooters Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, seems no more prone to violence than our pinball playing forebears.

What’s more troubling is not how games change the society they come into, as how they reinforce and reproduce how society already is. Despite its often satirical tone, GTA V still invites you to treat sex workers as disposable objects. At some point, satirical intent might not be strong enough – or serious enough – to subvert those messages. (Remember that Monopoly was originally meant as a critique of landlord capitalism, yet it’s played by people all non-ironically wanting to get rich and bankrupt their neighbours).

Austrian philosopher Sebastian Ostritsch has recently argued that “a game can rightly be called immoral if it prompts us to transfer the abhorrent worldview of a fictional setting to the real world”. That’s not specific to video games. It’s not hard to imagine how someone might take Paintball to be normalising and glamourising warfare, or kids playing ‘Cowboys and Indians’ to be trivialising racist dispossession and violence. None of that, of course, is in the kids’ heads when they play. There may be no malice in their hearts, but the meanings they are immersed in can still be utterly toxic. And the game can be seen as a sort of training in those meanings – as, to use a perhaps dangerous word, an indoctrination.

OK, but don’t we read books or watch movies that are set in morally troubling worlds all the time? Are we doing something unethical by reading American Psycho or watching Game of Thrones? Here we need to mark an important difference. Reading a book doesn’t require you to endorse the morality of the world you’re immersing yourself in; you can appreciate a book even while being a horrified observer. But games require something more. There’s an interesting analogy here with pornography. Porn is designed to be titillating, and as such it implicitly Just a game? “Yes, I’m afraid it means your Second Life too.” endorses what it depicts. The viewer is meant to ‘get into’ what’s on screen, to see it as good and wish it to continue. In a similar but much more interactive way, a game requires you to get into the action if you’re to succeed. Sure, you don’t have to kill the sex worker in GTA V, or you can do so reluctantly – but then you wouldn’t really be winning, would you?

Should that stop you from playing? Maybe, maybe not. But sometimes it’s worth at least asking yourself if you are, in fact, having too much fun.

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