Tuesday, September 05, 2017

The Gamer's Dilemma (guest post by Henry Shevlin)

guest post by Henry Shevlin

As an avid gamer, I’m pleased to find that philosophers are increasingly engaging with the rich aesthetic and ethical issues presented by videogames, including questions about whether videogames can be a form of art and the moral complexities of virtual violence.

One of the most disturbing ethical questions I’ve encountered in relation to videogames, though, is Morgan Luck’s so-called “Gamer’s Dilemma”. The puzzle it poses is roughly as follows. On the one hand, we don’t tend to regard people committing virtual murders as particularly ethically problematic: whether I’m leading a Mongol horde and slaughtering European peasants or assassinating clients as a killer for hire, it seems that, since no-one really gets hurt, my actions are not particularly morally troubling (there are exceptions to this of course). On the other hand, however, there are still some actions that I could perform in a videogame that we’re much less sanguine about: if we found out that a friend enjoyed playing games involving virtual child abuse or torture of animals, for example, we would doubtless judge them harshly for it.

The gamer’s dilemma concerns how we can explain or rationalize this disparity in our responses. After all, the disparity doesn’t seem to track any actual harm – there’s no obvious harm done in either case – or even the quantity of simulated harm (nuclear war simulations in which players virtually incinerate billions don’t strike me as unusually repugnant, for example). And while it might be that some forms of simulated violence can lead to actual violence, this remains controversial, and again, it’s unlikely that any such causal connections between simulated harm and actual harm would appropriately track our different intuitions about the different kinds of potentially problematic actions we might take in video games.

However, while the Gamer’s Dilemma is an interesting puzzle in itself, I think we can broaden the focus to include other artforms besides videogames. Many of us have passions for genres like murder mystery stories, serial killer movies, or apocalyptic novels, all of which involve extreme violence but fall well within the bounds of ordinary taste. However, someone who had a particular penchant for stories about incest, necrophilia, or animal abuse might strike us as, well, more than a little disturbed. Note that this is true even when we focus just on obsessive cases: someone with an obsession for serial killer movies might strike us as eccentric, but we’d probably be far more disturbed by someone whose entire library consisted of books about animal abuse.

Call this the puzzle of disturbing aesthetic tastes. What makes it the case that some tastes are disturbing and others not, even when both involve fictional harm? Is our tendency to form negative moral judgments about those with disturbing tastes rationally justified? While I’m not entirely sure what to think about this case, I am inclined to think that disturbing aesthetic tastes might reasonably guide our moral judgment of a person insofar as they suggest that that person’s broader moral emotions may be, well, a little out of the ordinary. Most of us feel revulsion rather than fascination with even the fictional torture of animals, for example, and if someone doesn’t share this revulsion in fictional cases, it might provide evidence that they might be ethically deviant in other ways. Crucially, this doesn’t apply to depictions of things like fictional murder, since almost all of us have enjoyed a crime drama at some point in our lives, and it's well within the boundaries of normal taste.

Note that there’s a parallel here with one possible response to Bernard William’s famous example of the truck driver who – through no fault of his own – kills a child who runs into the road, and subsequently feels no regret or remorse. As Williams points out, there’s no rational reason for the driver to feel regret – ex hypothesi, he did everything he could – yet we’d think poorly of him were he just to shrug the incident off (interestingly paralleled by the recent public outcry in the UK following a similar incident involving a unremorseful cyclist). I think what’s partly driving our intuition in such cases is the fact that a certain amount of irrational guilt and regret even for actions outside our control is to be expected as part of normal human moral psychology. When such regret is absent, it’s an indicator that a person is lacking at least some typical moral emotions. In much the same way, even if there is nothing intrinsically wrong about enjoying videogames or movies about animal torture, the fact that it constitutes a deviance from normal human moral attitudes might make us reasonably suspicious of such people’s broader moral emotions in such cases.

I think this is a promising line to take in regards to both the gamer’s dilemma and the puzzle of disturbing tastes. One consequence of this, however, would be that as society’s norms and standards change, certain tastes may no longer come to be indicative of more general moral deviancy. For example, in a society with a long history of cannibal fiction, people in general might lack the same intense disgust reactions that we ourselves display despite their being in all respects morally upstanding. In such a society, then, the fact that someone was fascinated with cannibalism might not be a useful indicator as to their broader moral attitudes. I’m inclined to regard this as a reasonable rather than counterintuitive consequence of the view, reflecting the rich diversity in societal taboos and fascinations. Nonetheless, no matter what culture I was visiting, I doubt I’d trust anyone who enjoyed fictional animal torture with watching my dog for the weekend.

[image source]


Brandon Towl said...

I'm torn. On the one hand, your view - that certain reactions are just indicative of a "normal" moral psychology - sounds right. On the other hand, I can't help but feel that such reactions are heavily influenced by cultural norms. Some cultures might find video game violence more disturbing, say, but video-game bestiality less so. (Of course, there would need to be the appropriate cross-cultural work to verify this-- X-phiers, new project!) That said, if it turns out that culture does set these norms, the idea that there is some one "normal" moral psychology might be false - or, perhaps more charitably, a usual fiction. If so, it raises another interesting set of questions: Should we try, as a society, to modify those norms? Should we, for example, start a campaign to make video game violence as repugnant as video game bestiality? Or to make other "not normal" reactions culturally OK (perhaps they are a safe outlet for individuals who have those feelings, but should not act them out - an argument similar to one I've heard in defense of video gane violence).

Callan S. said...

I think it's an indicator of how we are driven by things that we don't actually know why that drive is there.

Consider that violent games are often of the 'invading force' pattern (it's there in the title of space invaders, for example). Historically we are often the victims of other invading humans. It makes sense we would develop an interest in watching such conflict in a way to try and learn from and survive such conflict.

While animal cruelty or child cruelty pays off no survival dividends.

On the bicyclist, it seems no one did any science on whether a person could brake in time (with or without a front brake). He might be dispassionate but it's because he has no doubt she was in the wrong, just as everyone else seems to have no doubt he was in the wrong.

Anecdote: I heard of someone who was really upset at the 'No russian' level (I have not 'played' it) and mowing down civilians. But they got really upset when they were told you can just walk through that level - you don't have to shoot anyone at all. The person who was upset by doing so did so...out of an entirely incorrect assumption they had to. Again, it's funny how we can be unaware of the drives the push us to do things.

jcdenton said...

A few, perhaps unremarkable (and not necessarily connected), observations. First, the degree of revulsion we feel towards violence in video games depends, to a large extent, on framing. There are plenty of games that feature animal cruelty, but the context is comedic (think 'Goat Simulator').

More broadly, one could also spin a fairly plausible evolutionary tale - the reason we're often incapable of peeling our eyeballs off horrific events taking place on a screen is because, in the past, attention to such events IRL paid dividends in terms of 'fitness'.

There's also an argument to be made that people often fantasise about things they have absolutely no desire to enact - it's like a fanciful exploration (simulation) of the capabilities and limits of one's own mind.

And lastly, a more 'pretentious' way of looking at this could be that some people feel compelled to immerse themselves in everything that is vile about the world (albeit, from the comfort of their own keyboards) because they wish to feel at home in it regardless (i.e., they're motivated by a desire to 'love' the world 'as it actually is' without sweeping the unpleasantness under the rug).

Anonymous said...

Brandon - very interesting thoughts. I'm inclined to agree that what we call 'normal moral psychology' may be highly malleable, although there are likely to be limits (e.g., John Mikhail's idea of universal moral grammar). As for whether we should attempt to shape these norms - fascinating question. We could perhaps be guided by considerations of indirect harm in determining which norms we should cultivate; if it turns out that developing a norm against fictional depictions of violence wouldn't actually make us any less likely to engage in violence, that might tell against doing so.

Callan - love your story about the No Russian level! Reminds me of some of my own experiences playing Spec Ops: The Line (a great case for these kinds of discussions). Re: invasion narratives, I think you're right that it's a powerful trope, but I find myself playing the invader as often as the invadee in a lot of strategy games...

JCDenton (great name) - yeah, I tend to think humans have a pretty robust capacity for distinguishing fiction and reality (I'm genuinely surprised by the weak/nonexistent relationship between enacting virtual violence and predisposition towards actual violence, for example). I also agree that framing matters a great deal; I suspect that's why we have weaker revulsion reactions to 'arcade' shooters like Doom or even GTA than to more serious depictions of violence (as in the No Russian level).

Callan S. said...

Henry - That kind of raises the question of why you're being the invader? Often 'offence is the best defence' is cited. Perhaps your dilemma is whether that maxim is, in particular instances, actually a rationalization?

Why are you playing the invader?