Backtracking on Virtual World Ethics


Anything unethical about these guys?

I was wrong.

New technology challenges our ethics because we have no immediate frames of reference to rely on. The situations created by the use of new technology require us to reach back to things we are more familiar with for guidance, and we risk choosing comparisons that prove to be superficial and inaccurate over time. This is the trap I fell into when I first approached the question of whether a player’s misconduct —or rather his avatar’s misconduct—in virtual worlds like World of Warcraft and Second Life could be unethical. My frame of reference was video games, role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons,  and games generally. If engaging in Second Life is analogous to playing a game, then vandalizing someone’s home in cyberspace is no different from invading another player’s country in Risk. If “Warcraft” is essentially similar to playing a video game, then “killing”  an avatar is no more unethical than mowing down enemy soldiers in Medal of Honor.

And if virtual games were fantasies, I reasoned, then declaring anything that took place in their boundaries unethical was tantamount to policing thought. Thoughts are not unethical;  actions are. Case closed, right?

Wrong. As is often the case in carrying over ethical principles from one sphere into a supposedly analogous sphere, my analogies were flawed.

I am still willing to dismiss one of the supposedly unethical aspects of virtual gaming: that misconduct in a virtual world makes one more likely to commit a similar bad act in the real world. This is the same charge  leveled against video games, and it is too much of a stretch for me. I am more persuaded by the theory that violence in games provides an outlet for aggressive urges than the theory that it weakens ethical and moral values.

The problem, rather, is this: When is conduct in a virtual universe the equivalent of real conduct rather than game conduct?

I see several possibilities:

  • When a player intentionally breaches a rule required by the game company.
  • When a player steals or destroys something of real value. Players sometimes pay real money for objects and property in Second Life, for example, and these things can be re-sold for real money. Taking these things in a virtual world is still real theft.
  • When an action is intended to cause emotional distress to another player, such as virtually beating or raping an avatar, or killing a player’s virtual children.
  • When conduct is designed to spoil the game experience for other participants. This can occur in non-virtual world games, of course; I’ve played Monopoly with jerks whose idea of fun isn’t to win but to make the game unenjoyable for everyone else.
  • Many of these issues can be settled with consent. If a player agrees to “live” in a virtual world where is or she is subject to violent attacks, theft, or other misconduct, then such conduct would no longer be unethical. But should such a player be able to withdraw consent, for example, mid-rape?

I’m sure there are other ethical issues on the horizon. Having leaped to one conclusion rashly before I had properly understood the issues, I want to learn more before I go out on another ethical limb. In the meantime, here is a scholarly paper on the question, well worth reading.

7 thoughts on “Backtracking on Virtual World Ethics

  1. I don’t see a need for the real money caveat. If I spend 40 hours of playing to acquire something, does it matter that it had no monetary cost to me? Scams that take virtual property are unethical, no matter if the property was paid for in time or money.

    Similarly, I don’t see intent necessary in actions that spoil the game playing experience or cause distress. The knowledge that they do should be enough.

    In a game designed to model the world, destroying virtual property is more akin to destroying property in the world, then to destroying property in a game where the goal is destruction of property. Basically, the rules and objects of the virtual world affect what is ethical in that virtual world.

    That you thought that WoW and Medal of Honor were in the least bit similar is a testament to your original problems, and your still less than ideal positions. You can’t compare punching someone during a boxing match with punching someone playing basketball, even if you are both contact sports. Scamming someone in baseball is just as unethical as scamming them in real life, or in a virtual world.

  2. I’m not as familiar as others about WoW or SecondLife, but I know a bit in this field.

    Making the game not fun for others, or playing it deliberately wrong, is called “griefing,” or sometimes “raging,” if the goal is trying to make people angry and scream.

    Griefing can be amusing when viewed from the outside, as some videos on Youtube can demonstrate (normally if the griefer acts like like they’re an idiot). Some times, the people doing it just want to make people angry, and that’s not as amusing.

    This is a video of an apparently famous “rager” who was on a server with me once. I recorded him cheating, and I decided to highlight the times in the video that, despite his cheating, he still died. Cheating and he still manages to lose?

    Now THAT’s funny.

  3. I confess to being betwixt and between on this. Sorry, but even though I’m not up on all the games (including the ones my son plays), people learn their ethical and moral outlooks from a variety of sources. Video games are only one source, but they ARE a source. I took one game away from my son — presumably a rather tame racing game — when I found out he got extra points for hitting and killing homeless people on the street as he raced by. I would never expect him to do this in real life, of course, but was terribly offended at the concept.

    I honestly think that this is a case where technology has overtaken our common sense and our concern for the common weal. High resolution murder and war that the player controls on a TV screen does NOT compare with Monopoly, Battleship, or even the old-time Intellivision games where the player battled monsters for treasure.

    None of this should be censored, of course. But didn’t some of the 9-11 bombers learn to fly airplanes through simulated flight games? One of which my son owns. I don’t expect him to hijack a plane and use that knowledge, but the content, skill, and attitudes presented in these games can be used in a variety of ways –and it all depends on who’s using it.

  4. I play EVE Online, a game of warring spaceships, where treachery is all part of the experience. Some regions of space are more dangerous than others, and not every form of play involves conflict with other players. Nevertheless, once you take your ship into space, you’re never really safe.

    In such a game, I’m not sure how to think about whether another player’s behavior is ethical. I can’t quite figure out how to apply such an abstract and objective concept to an artificial world. On the other hand, I have a pretty clear sense of when another player is behaving like an asshole. That concept transfers into the game world just fine. And I have to think it’s not completely orthogonal to ethics.

    A lot of the activity in any multi-player game such as EVE involves talking to other players. In this, it is a lot like Facebook or MySpace or the chatrooms that have been around for decades. These “places” aren’t the real world either–Facebook friends aren’t the same as real-world friends–so perhaps the techniques we’ve used to extend ethical philosophy into these more familiar virtual worlds can be applied to the multi-player game worlds as well.

    I have noticed one set of ethical concepts that seems to carry over into the virtual world intact: Trust and betrayal. Even EVE’s bands of pirates, who spend all day trying to blow up everyone who enters their region of space, still expect to be able to trust each other. And they still despise those who betray that trust.

  5. Secondlife & other virtual worlds should be viewed as 3D platforms rather than “games”. Games are one of the activities that can happen in Second Life. There are roleplaying enivironments there. There are also university campuses offering credit courses, businesses, art experiments, lectures, discussion groups, support groups, faith groups, social action groups, and music series. I submit that it is a very different act to attack a character with a weapon in a roleplaying sim (where everyone is playing a game that involves raids and war) than going to a shopping plaza in Second Life and opening fire. The real world equivalent would be life leaving a paintball game with your weapon and taking it to a shopping mall. Totally appropriate in the paintball arena, not in the shopping mall.

    Likewise griefing a virtual concert causes real people to be upset and inconvenienced. I have hosted concerts that have been months in preparation where the musicians have rented equipment and there is a real audience standing by for the start of a mixed-reality live time concert. Disrupting such an event costs big time in money, reputation, and stress. Thankfully it doesn’t happen very often.

    The whole area of virtual relationships is another new frontier. Some are purely roleplay in the context of a game, a warrior has a superior, a woman has a husband, and it goes no deeper. However, others are using virtual reality either to seek potential real partners or to form a virtual partnership that has its own meaning. Lying, manipulating, and emotionally damaging people in virtual places, is no less hurtful than in face-to-face relationships. Some report being more hurt because their hearts are more open.

  6. I think most of your confusion stems from a lack of familiarity with these programs. For example, Second Life isn’t a game, it’s a virtual world. You can play games *in* Second Life, but you can also go shopping, dancing, listen to music, own property, etc. And since the in-game currency can be bought *and* sold, that is taken in and out of the game, people do have thriving businesses in there that make them significant real world money. And because it’s real money, there have been a series of scams, frauds, DMCA abuses, pyramid schemes, high investment yield fraud, fake banks, you name it. So ethics is a very relevant concern there, not at all hypothetical.

    • A virtual world is still fantasy; I don’t think you are telling me anything I don’t know. Is “The Sims” a “game”? It doesn’t have to be a competition to be a game; “playing house” is a “game,” isn’t it?

      I mentioned the financial aspect. That’s real, because the money co-exists in the real world. The term”virtual world” is just descriptive of a particular form of fantasy-based recreation. It doesn’t settle the issues I raise just to say “it’s not a game.”

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