The January 2016 issue of Ethics and Information Technology has an article by Christopher Bartel that examines the issue of free will in video games. Bartel basically argues that even if the constraints of a videogame limit your free will in certain ways, you can still be held morally responsible for your actions in the game, if you still wanted to do them. In other words, even if the game forces you to commit a certain action, that in itself does not excuse you, morally, at least in cases where you want to do the action anyway.
It’s an interesting distinction, and one that has me wondering where it does or does not apply. Consider the very controversial scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. In this scene, which can be skipped at no penalty to the player, you join Russian nationalists who are committing an act of terrorism at an international airport. It’s a gruesome scene, as the terrorists murder innocent people, and you must pretend to go along with this in order to pass the mission. Technically, you do not have to kill any of the civilians, but you also cannot stop the attack (without failing the mission).
Bartel discusses this scene in his paper, as an example of a no-win situation, morally speaking. Many players are uncomfortable with the mission because there is no way to make a morally good choice. However, since the game’s own parameters are what prevent the player from acting morally, one could argue that the player is not really responsible. If you simply stand there and do nothing, you will pass the mission without killing any innocents. This may make you uncomfortable, psychologically, but that was the point of the mission, according to the designers (see the link above). By not engaging in the brutal behavior, you’ve taken the best option you can in the context of the game (well, the best option might be to skip this level!).
But suppose you go along with the terrorists and murder the bystanders. They aren’t real people; they are video game representations. Still, if you feel a certain joy in partaking in a murder simulator, could you be said to be engaging in immoral behavior?
Following Harry Frankfurt’s view that there is a difference between being determined to act and being willing to act, Bartel suggests that the latter may be the important part, morally speaking. In other words, there may be situations where the outcome is pre-determined. There is nothing we can do to stop it. In the deterministic sense, we are not really responsible for such events. They happen regardless of what we actually do. But such acts could happen either with our will or against our will. As an obvious example, we will all die some day. This is determined. There are even cases where we know death is coming and cannot change it. However, how we react to this inevitability does say something about us. If someone we know is dying, and we are unhappy about it, this is different, at least psychologically, from being happy about it. The results are the same either way, but how we view it does say something about our character.
What it says exactly is a complex question, and depends greatly on the context. We might be happy that a loved one dies because we are glad that they are no longer suffering, or we might be happy because they were mean to us, or because they left us money. The first reason seems virtuous to some degree, while the other two are less so, and may even verge into vices if taken far enough.
Let’s take this back to video games now. In the Modern Warfare 2 example, you cannot stop the attack. But suppose you aid the terrorists and start shooting at the civilians. What does this say about you? Well, it depends on why you are doing it. Perhaps it’s just a game to you, and you think this is just how the game works. In other words, you’ve divorced yourself from seeing it as anything more than an active movie of sorts. You aren’t taking joy in murder as such, but rather in playing the game well. Maybe you are roleplaying. Your character is a spy, trying to infiltrate this group. Maybe you are trying to think of the greater good here, in some utilitarian way. I’m not a big fan of utilitarianism, but at least this would have some sort of morality behind the motive…I guess.
But suppose you just think it’s fun to murder people. Then your actions reflect something about your character here. And it’s not good (do I have to say that???).
The issue of whether video games cause violence or create bad habits is very complicated, much more than most people realize. Studies done on this are often flawed, and there really aren’t enough of them to make conclusions in either direction. But I think how people act in simulations can say something about who they are in real life. The problem is determining what it says exactly. I have no way of knowing why you are killing civilians in games like Modern Warfare 2, or GTAV. Even if you tell me, I can’t really get into the psychology of why you are doing something.
Still, I do think that there are ways that people can play video games that do expose them as being unvirtuous to some degree or another. The fact that some video gamers might be bad people won’t surprise anyone who has actually played any games online, especially if you have voice chat on. But Bartel’s article is more about the psychology behind our actions, as it manifests in relatively deterministic worlds. It’s an interesting question and one that will definitely have me rethinking my actions and motives as I play games in the future.