Video Games book

I’m standing in an elevator in Zakhaev International Airport, Moscow. As I brace myself for the opening of the doors, my comrade stoically utters, “Remember, no Russian.” What follows is brutal slaughter. I light the place up with my fully automatic PKM light machine gun and the tourists flee in terror. With the airport in ruins, I casually stroll over the bodies. This is a simulated reality – Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, to be specific. I was a bright-eyed 12-year-old boy at the time, enamoured of the violence. But does that make me sadistic?

The debate over gaming and violence is often reinvigorated by a grisly crime. After the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado in 1999, the press famously, and without evidence, linked the perpetrators’ actions to shooter games they had been known to play such as Doom. The issue recently hit the news in the UK after a 16-year-old shot his schoolmate: a court heard that that the boy’s playing of first-person shooter games was a “significant factor” in his “violent fantasies”.

One might expect a book called Video Games, Violence and the Ethics of Fantasy to engage with the long-running debate around whether virtual violence increases aggression in players, or even the predisposition to kill. Instead, Christopher Bartel, Professor of Philosophy at Appalachian State University, turns his attention to the morality of the player, asking whether the fictitious nature of video games make them “okay to engage in”.

He surveys a variety of video games, examining in particular how a developer’s intentions can interact with those of the players. He notes that this may differ where the violence is contextualised, such as in Red Dead Redemption, where the non-playable characters (fictional people in the game) approve or disapprove of the players’ conduct. “The use of honour as the basis for a moral system in Red Dead Redemption subtly suggests what sort of choices the player ought to make,” writes Bartel. “The story of Red Dead Redemption is – as the name implies – one of moral redemption.” In doing this, the developers have signalled their preference for their ideal, archetypal player.

As may be evident, the “No Russian” mission in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is a very different affair, and is now infamous: in order not to blow your cover as a spy, you are tasked with slaughtering an airport’s worth of innocent bystanders. But Bartel does not simply dismiss it as amoral. He argues that it highlights the ambiguities of warfare, which is never black and white: after all, many governments have carried out similarly “grey” missions. He also includes a striking thought-experiment related to his adaptation of the “gamer’s dilemma”, developed by philosopher Morgan Luck. Bartel points out that although “many players defend murder in video games as merely harmless fun because it causes no real-world harm, the exact same argument could be employed to defend paedophilia in video games with equal force”.

Video Games, Violence and the Ethics of Fantasy is an intriguing, thought-provoking read. An academic title, it is still of interest to the general reader, although we are tested at times by dense passages of specialist vocabulary. It fails, however, to explore some key areas of the wider debate. As a child playing Call of Duty, I didn’t possess the critical thinking skills required to absorb any message about the ambiguities of war, yet Bartel appears not to make the distinction between gaming as a child and as an adult.

Ultimately, Bartel concludes that it isn’t as simple as saying that games are fictitious and thus have no moral implications. He proposes that we do more to understand why individual players are motivated to entertain immoral and violent fantasies. Yet he states that his aim is “not to condemn players for their actions; nor is it to defend or suggest any legislation regarding the sale or availability of games”. The reader is therefore left in doubt as to how his conclusions might apply to the world outside the game.

This piece is from the New Humanist spring 2022 edition. Subscribe here.