The Gamer's Dilemma

The idea of virtual rape provokes universal disgust. So why are we comfortable with children having killed an average of 100,000 people in video games by the age of 18?

Imagine you are introduced to a new colleague. They inform you that they are an avid ‘gamer’ and enjoy playing violent videogames in which they can enact all kinds of physical violence, such as assault and murder: not an uncommon past-time. Now imagine that they start talking about other videogames they play in which they enact rape and paedophilia, or other taboos such as incest, bestiality and necrophilia. They describe how, instead of playing a serial killer or a zombie cannibal (a kind of undead Hannibal Lecter), they get to play the part of Nero the Necro in a game entitled Cold Pleasures or engage in bestiality in Fun at the Zoo, or how they have just ordered a game featuring the character Sylvester the Molester.

On hearing about these games – featuring less conventional enactments of taboos than assault and murder – would your attitude towards this person change? Do you think that these games are less moral than games featuring virtual murder, for example, and therefore that there is something “not quite right” about someone who plays these games?

You may be pleased (or possibly disappointed) to learn that the videogames mentioned above are nothing but the product of my imagination. That said, videogames involving the enactment of rape are available (e.g., RapeLay and Battle Raper), although not in the UK and US (for example). Nevertheless, when I present students with the scenario above, it is not uncommon for many of them to show quite visible signs of disgust and discomfort at the thought of games involving the enactment of rape and paedophilia (or such like), yet be quite unmoved by the idea of someone playing a game in which they take on the role of a brutal serial killer (although some dislike them all). Others claim to be untroubled by the idea of any of these games.

A common response among such students is: “What’s the difference? After all, it’s just a game.” Yet for the majority, there does seem to be a difference between enacting more conventional taboos (e.g., murder) and these other taboos (e.g., rape). The metaphorical line individuals will not cross varies, of course, but it is there. Of interest to me, however, is this question: irrespective of what people are prepared to enact within videogames, is there a limit to what they should be allowed to enact? This is a normative question about selective prohibition.


"It is precisely because killing is prohibited that one is attracted to its enactment within the videogame."

In essence, selective prohibition takes the following form: although all the content we are discussing amounts to the enactment of activities that are prohibited in the real-world, only some of these enactments should be prohibited in the gaming world. Murder, for example, is prohibited in the real-world, but virtual murder is not, nor should it be, proponents of selective prohibition would argue. On the other hand, as well as being prohibited for real, enacting rape and paedophilia (and such like) within videogames should also be prohibited. What justification is there for selective prohibition?

A number of arguments have been advanced in favour of selective prohibition. For example, the increased likelihood of harm (particularly towards women and children) or the significance of certain enactments in terms of what they might be (mis)construed as promoting (i.e., the trivialization of sexual assault and abuse). Elsewhere, I have argued that none of these arguments is convincing (see Young, 2013, 2016; Young & Whitty, 2012). Here, however, I shall focus on player motivation.

The argument from player motivation stems from the incredulity with which someone might ask: why would anyone want to do that? In this case, ‘that’ refers to virtual rape or paedophilia. Underlying this is the intuition that someone who wishes to play a videogame involving virtual rape or paedophilia must do so because they crave the real thing. The enactment is therefore a substitute for what they really desire. Of course, one could respond by asking why the person who plays at being a brutal serial killer does not likewise crave the real thing. If playing a serial killer in a videogame does not necessitate that one wishes to kill for real or that one delights in the idea of actual murder (a not unreasonable supposition) then, equally, and despite what our intuition may be telling us, playing a rapist or paedophile does not necessitate that one wishes to do either of these prohibited acts for real or that one delights in the idea of them.

In the case of enacting murder, this may be done for strategic reasons. It amounts to a means to an end – a way of gaining extra points, for example – and stems from a sense of competition rather than from one’s delight at the idea of actual murder. Or, it may be that one enjoys enacting murder, irrespective of any sense of competition, precisely because it is prohibited (these two motivations are not mutually exclusive, of course). What one is thrilled by is the fact that one is enacting a taboo. It is therefore precisely because causing carnage is prohibited that one is attracted to its enactment within the videogame. Arguably, then, these motivations could apply to those who would enact rape or paedophilia.

To illustrate (and borrowing from Morgan Luck), suppose within a game the most effective way of achieving one’s goal of stealing the Crown Jewels is to sleep with the Beefeaters 15 year-old daughter then, for strategic reasons, should (in a pragmatic rather than moral sense) one do just that? On the other hand, one may enjoy the thrill of enacting this taboo in addition to or irrespective of stealing the Crown Jewels. One may enjoy enacting this character’s vileness precisely because it is not real and one knows this to be the case. Theorists refer to this as moral management (Klimmt et al., 2008).

These motivations do not negate the possibility that someone would seek to enact paedophilia (for example) as a substitute for what they really desire (to engage in actual paedophilia). Importantly, though, such a person would not seek to enact paedophilia because it is taboo (unlike the gamer motivated by the thrill of enacting a taboo because it is taboo); instead, they would be motivated to enact what they desire which just so happens to be taboo. A paedophile does not seek to engage in paedophilia because it is taboo. What they desire (broadly construed) is to have sex with children - something that happens to be taboo.

By the same token, the previous motivations do not negate the gamer who virtually murders because they crave to murder for real. But if conventional violent video games are not magnets for those who seek to commit actual murder or delight in the idea of it (certainly, there is no evidence for this) then why should we assume that videogames like RapeLay or, say, Stephanie Patridge’s fictitious Child Sexual Abuse should be magnet’s for rapist and paedophiles?

It is my contention that the argument from player motivation fails to justify selective prohibition for the reasons discussed. To further illustrate why not, I will leave you with one final example. Suppose you could play the (fictitious) videogame How Far Will You Go? In this game, your progression is determined by how far you will go. Initial progression requires that you engage in virtual theft, then physical assault, including torture, then murder (some are quite brutal and include children). As you continue, your progression requires that you engage in a range of other taboos, such as bestiality, necrophilia, incest, rape and paedophilia. Irrespective of whether you think it would make a very good game, how far would you go in order to progress? After all, it is just a game, isn’t it? And what about those who would not go as far as you or who would go further?  Is there a difference between these individuals and you that is in any way morally relevant?


Read more from this issue of IAI News here: Morality and Prejudice




Klimmt, C., Schmid, H., Nosper, A., Hartmann T., & Vorderer, P. (2008). Moral management: Dealing with moral concerns to maintain enjoyment of violent video games”. In A. Sudmann-Jahn, & R. Stockmann (eds.) Computer games as a sociocultural phenomenon: Games without frontiers – wars without tears (pp.108-118). Hampshire, UK: Palgrave.

Luck, M. (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, 31-36.

Patridge, S.L. (2013). Pornography, ethics, and video games. Ethics and Information Technology, 15(1), 25-34.

Young, G. (2013). Ethics in the virtual world: The morality and psychology of gaming. London: Routledge.

Young, G. (2016). Resolving the gamer’s dilemma: Examining the moral and psychological differences between virtual murder and virtual paedophilia. London: Palgrave Pivot.

Young, G. & Whitty, M.T. (2012). Transcending taboos: A moral and psychological examination of cyberspace. London: Routledge.

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Garry Young 21 May 2017

In response to T.T’s post:
You are correct insofar as the realism of the representation is something that I failed to consider in this article, although it is something I have discussed elsewhere. In terms of making a difference to whether an individual would wish to engage with the content and/or the extent to which they would enjoy it, realism has been reported as a factor (see Whitty, Young and Goodings, 2011). Graphic realism may account for why some people would be less willing to engage with certain content (or even why they would be more willing). It therefore contributes to our understanding of ‘gamer’ psychology. Whether graphic realism is pertinent to the question of what gamers ought to do (rather than what they do do) is a different, although potentially related, matter. If a causal relationship or correlation could be established between degree of realism and harm then that might give us pause for thought. To date, such evidence is not forthcoming.
You are also correct to point out that virtual child pornography is illegal in a number of countries. In the UK, the 2009 Coroners and Justice Act made illegal the possession of virtual (or pseudo) images judged to be paedophilic. In the US, in 2003, the PROTECT Act limited the permissibility of virtual representations of child sexuality/abuse to those representations that are not considered to be obscene or ‘hard-core’ based on community standards. However, this discussion concerns the morality of representations and enactments of taboos, not their legality. While we may be guided by legal argument, I am not convinced by a moral argument that concludes that x is immoral if and only if x is illegal.

You also state an assumption held about anyone playing a game that contains graphic representations of paedophilic activities: namely, that the person must be enjoying the representations and that is the motivation to play. Are they enjoying it because it represents a taboo and they enjoy enacting a taboo (because it is taboo) or are they enjoying it because it represents what they desire for real (sex with a child) that happens to be taboo? Should this difference in motivation be considered morally relevant? This is certainly a question I have explored elsewhere in more detail. A priori, the connection between engaging with virtual depictions of paedophilia and actual molestation is not a necessary one. A posteriori, there is insufficient evidence to support a direct connection. Certainly, this was the view held by the US Supreme Court when ruling on the legality of virtual child pornography.

In response to cooneyii:
What you touch on in your comment is something I have elsewhere referred to as “sanctioned equivalence” (Young & Whitty, 2011). You mention murder in relation to war and conquest. Of course, if murder is defined as illegitimate killing and a war is considered legitimate, and the killing that occurs therein satisfies the rules of engagement, then it (the killing) is not murder. The principle of sanctioned equivalence recognizes that an act of killing can be legitimate or illegitimate, depending on context. Gamers are often more comfortable (feel more morally secure) if the killing depicted is considered legitimate (fighting the enemy during a conflict) or self-defence, or perhaps outside of the remit of legitimacy (killing aliens or the undead). Sanctioned equivalence can therefore be used to explain why certain types of virtual killing are more acceptable to many. Compare this to virtual rape (for which there is no sanctioned equivalence) or virtual paedophilia (although this may vary depending on time and place – i.e., consider the Ancient Greek custom of paiderastia (meaning boy love)). That said, sanctioned equivalence does have difficulty explaining the popularity of video games where one murders without justification and often at random, although these types of games do have more critics. I guess what we need to consider is how much we should let convention shape our moral judgements.

T. T. 20 May 2017

one point you seem to ignore is that the enactment of a taboo in a game requires it's depiction (in modern games, often in photorealistic way).
i would assume that a game that merily features the concept of rape or (especially) pedophilia would be much more acceptable than a game entailing graphic depictions of such acts.
such depictions are (especially for pedophilia) illegal just in itself in many jurisdictions, and anybody playing such a game would be assumed to be playing the game for enjoying those depiction. (and even i would say, rightfully so.)
ofcourse it is a different question why watching graphic depictions of general violance and murder is accepted, without assuming that the viewer especially enjoys those, or even considering the morality of such enjoyment.

cooneyii 20 May 2017

Murder may be taboo in that it is unacceptable and punished harshly, but it is far from a cultural taboo. Murder is at the center of war and conquest, which is often romanticized or glorified in history or patriotism. Murder is often the full extension of violent masculinity in film and video games. Murder is indirectly valuable when it is associated with patriotism, masculinity, or vengeance. Sexual taboos contain no associational value--not to mention sex itself is almost taboo in some social groups.