Recently, the American Psychological Association released the findings of a study of hundreds of research papers published between 2005 and 2013. They concluded that ‘The research demonstrates a consistent relation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behaviour, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect, and decreases in pro-social behaviour, empathy and sensitivity to aggression’. In response, more than 200 academics signed an open letter claiming that the study was flawed. This repeats a pattern; with violent video games, as with pornography before them, it is difficult to show that there is any systematic link between consumption and subsequent behaviour. However, having bad consequences is not the only way something might be bad. Even if it does not lead to bad behaviour, is it a Good Thing for people to spend their afternoons doing such things as killing and maiming their fellow human-beings?
The boundary between happenings in real life and happenings in video games is a particular instance of the boundary between real life and make-believe. It is plausible to think that it is what happens in real life that matters, and it does not really matter what we make-believe. Children do things in games of make-believe that would be terrible if they did them in real life: shooting Indians, operating without anaesthetic, sinking boats and so on. We would not really wring the neck of our line-manager, even if we might relieve our stress by day-dreaming about doing so. Loving couples enact sexual fantasies which, were they real, would not be the kinds of things done by loving couples. One would have to be rather puritanical to think that moral judgement applied equally on both sides of the boundary. If this line of thought is right, then it seems that video games are in the clear.
One reply to this is that people, particularly children, don’t always recognise this boundary: they slip seamlessly between reality and fantasy. This is a complicated empirical matter; it might be that such confusions are extremely ‘local’. That is, they might not recognise the boundary in some areas of life while keeping it very clear in others. I once went to a play in which a gingerbread man was in frequent danger of being eaten. The children howled whenever he was in danger, and prayed for him to be safe. However, that did not prevent them scoffing as many gingerbread men as they could in the interval.
Is it so clear that moral considerations do not apply on the make-believe side of the divide? What if you discovered that a work colleague spent his or her days fantasising about torturing small animals? Wouldn’t that be, to say the least, a bit yukky? The philosopher, Morgan Luck, has developed this line of thought further. What if there were a game (even a virtual reality game) in which players did not commit violent acts, but rather committed sexual acts – let’s make it even more problematic, and say sexual acts against children? Would virtual paedophilia be morally unproblematic just because it is on the make-believe side of the divide? If not (and I am guessing that most of us would say it was not) then why is virtual murder in the clear? There are a number of replies we could make to this. Another philosopher, Chris Bartel, has suggested that there is a relevant difference between the two cases: the one if pornography and the other is not. That still raises the question: if there are no real world consequences (and the jury is still out on that one) then do moral considerations apply in the make-believe world – whether about violence or about sex?