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

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Jimm Smith 23 June 2021

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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.