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Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Friday, January 21, 2011

The following video is horrendously graphic. It is not work safe. It is not, in my opinion, fit for anyone under 18. I personally question the motives and character of anyone who enjoys playing this particular scenario. Not because it's violent, but because I genuinly feel it is reprehensible.

But hey, I'm not a gamer. The pretext - if you didn't pick it up - is that you must pose as a terrorist in order to save many more from the terrorist. That is, it kind of taps into the morality and ethics questions posed in my last post. But it really takes it one step away from the hypothetical argument and into the realm of action - yes, it's virtual action - but I couldn't even watch that whole video. Honest to the FSM, my eyes water.

But are the actions of gamers in a virtual environment even subject to normal morality and ethics? Does it matter if one is acting against AI, or against other real players? In the video above only AI - mere representations - were killed. Ignoring the question of does this kind of thing make people violent, or, do violent people play these games, I ask the question are virtual actions subject to normal morality, and if so, was the above a moral/immoral action?

How about this?

Please note - I am not asking 'Who is  making these games?', because, well, the answer is fucken' sickos. The question is - are the actions moral?

Morality and disgust go hand in hand, and it's very difficult to disentangle the actions from the actor. Personally, if I knew someone who played the rape game and wasn't repulsed by it, I would be uncomfortable in my existing judgement of their character. It is with the distinction of actor and action in mind that I continue.

And so Young and Whitty (2010) state:The problem we presently face is that little is known about whether behaviours considered to be illegal offline, or relationship transgressions, or even deeply immoral, are viewed in the same way in a variety of other spaces online. single-player games one might legitimately ask who is being offended. Where the ‘violation’ is directed by the gamer toward a virtual character controlled only by computer software, any offence, it would seem, must be felt by ‘society’. Why? Because what the gamer is communicating, even through the virtual nature of his/her action, Power tells us, is ‘‘socially significant expression” (p. 193). Yet within single-player games, even those that allow torture and mutilation, or rape, murder and even cannibalism, is not the ‘social significance’ of the expression strictly context-dependent, based as it is on a contingency relation that is specific to the gamespace? As such, should the moral system used to evaluate the gamers’ engagements not be born of the same space?

Of course I've primed you with some horrendous examples, who can condone such things after witnessing the massacre of hundreds of people and the immenant rape of a young girl? The paper by Young and Whitty (2010) is excellent, and contains examples more horrendous than I felt inclined to youtube, and so before you blithely troll me, consider reading the article.

I'd also like to point out - in similar terms that Young and Whitty (2010) do - is that in the Call of Duty example the player has the option to skip the mission and procede without participating in it. The rape game appears to be solely focused on the act of virtual rape and revenge (at least that's what I picked up from the lazy reporting). Again, we face the entangled problem of the action and the actor, but within the realms of the game-space, is there a qualitative difference? (Yes, it would seem intuitively obvious that there's a qualitative between one's motives for playing, but that might be argued as independent from the actions within the realm of the game, particularly in less-extreme examples).

The article goes on to outline some theoretical perspectives regarding virtual morality and real-world identity. A fascinating topic, and one entirely worthy of the questions What impact does this kind of game play have on people; Who plays these games, anyway? and Who makes these games, and why? These are all valid, but my question is, are those actions moral in the game-space created - where those who are subject to and/or witnesses also accept the reality as it is offered - that is, it's only a game.


Young, G., & Whitty, M. (2010). Games without frontiers: On the moral and psychological implications of violating taboos within multi-player virtual spaces Computers in Human Behavior, 26 (6), 1228-1236 DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2010.03.023

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Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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Great article, Rohan.  In the latest Call of Duty game, Black ops, there's a level where the protagonist goes around killing people with a hatchet.  And that'd be gross in itself, but the killings are brutal.  It's not like you swing the hatchet and instantly kill the person.  You swing the hatchet and the person defends themselves, and this drama plays out in a surreal CGI movie.  In one example, the hatchet is swung, but the guy turns around right before you hit him and the hatchet gets stuck in his forearm.  It's just gruesome and graphic.  I hated playing that level.  I don't mind first person shooters, but when the murdering becomes that graphic and personal, it's almost too much.

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Woah. Fucked up. I assume you can't skip this level, since the graphic part is so brief...

Though I should clarify a bit - I do game a little bit (back in the day), and I've spent my fair share of time on GTA slaying civilians from a lofty vantage point while defending against cops.

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But then where do you put the limit? Why being the terrorist in Call of Duty is bad? Because it is graphically exact? So when you kill somebody in a 16-bit game is it not morally reprehensible?

And why is the rest of the game not morally reprehensible? You are killing other human beings, something that you can't do otherwise.

I think this is more philosophy that psychology at least in the definition of the problem. The reaction of the people, that is the psych part. For example, if I am a vehement pacifist, I may see you (the Call of Duty player) as repugnantly as you see the participant in the rape game. Why would I be wrong? Because multiple millions of people do it?

Interesting topic, but I think the examples you use illustrate more the limits of our moral definitions than the particularity of a videogame.


Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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Yannis, you raise good points.  I still enjoy these games and know the difference between a game and reality, but these extremely graphic sequences are unnecessary.

Rohan, I've played plenty of GTA.  There's a difference between what I would consider a cartoon-ish game and a realistic drama like CoD.  And no, you can't skip that part of the level.

Back to your CoD: Modern Warfare 2 example.  I saw somewhere when I was poking around for my video that you don't have to play that level.  You have a couple of options.  You can skip it, you can watch it as an observer, or you can just walk the level without shooting civilians.  So I guess you do have a choice...

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I'm afraid I didn't necessarily follow your comments entirely, but with regard to the philosophy v psychology, this is very much psychological. Philosophers can argue about what morality is or isn't by whatever abstractions they deem appropriate, but psychologist can test and measure it, and can watch it change empirically.


Though not covered in this post the fact that we can feel disgust, outrage, and/or violation with regard to mere representations speaks very deeply as to the cognitions and processes involved. We can also look at depth of processessing - in terms of arousal, brain activity, or cognitive measures we can compare the various degrees of 'moral reaction' to different stimuli. It may be outrageous for me play a virtual rape game (in the context of our social values) but does that same outrage overlap when I hear about a rapist on TV, a rapist in my home town, a rapist living on my street? These these things are useful and worthy of discussion. That is why I wondered what the context of game spaces is-


It would be a brutal, objectionable action for me to beat a pizza boy and steal his money and car. Yet in any number of video games doing so is just part of the game - slaying a character and stealing their resources. In some cases this is destroying literally months of work that has been invested into a character. In effect, one steals time from another, as well as a sense of acomplishment, and perhaps even, a sense of identity... this I will post on very soon. Yet my slaying of a fictional character (belong to real person) is trivial (in any somatic sense), especially if we compare it to the beating of a pizza boy? Thus the gamespace question itself is valid.


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Are dreams moral?  If you wouldn't feel comfortable about a person who played RapeLay or COD:MW and wasn't particularly bothered by it, what about someone who dreamt of raping or killing?  Anecdotally, such dreams are fairly common.  In dreaming, a person is more than simply interacting with some "fucken' sickos" content.  Dreamers create the dream's content, uniquely and personally, and this product is much more plausibly a reflection of their mind than the broad interest in shooting games that having playing COD implies.

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I would agree with that premise if you could demonstrate people actively choose, create and pursue such dreams. Personally, I have horrific dreams - just two nights ago a had to stab someone to death in order to defend myself.

In some ways, I tend to avoid horror movies and games because I really don't want to add fuel to the fire. I don't know if it actually decreases the nature of my dreams, but I do get pushed in the opposite direction all the same.

That's not to say your premise doesn't have merit, but I'd be interested in the research.


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"Are virtual actions moral/amoral?" On the philosophy side, I think that that question is pretty much impossible to answer generally, isn't it? After all, a single player game world is fully disconnected from reality - and what's even worse, it is entirely arbitrary...

Gameworld A: "You are a blue rubber ball. You can bounce higher if you jump on those green rectangles on the floor. The rectangles will disappear if you do so."
Gameworld B: "You can fly if you have enough gore points. You can gain gore points by stomping on those babies over there. "

The initial reactions to these two gameworlds are likely to be diametrically opposite. But the path from A to B is continuous, and plagued with sorites paradox. There is no generally applicable way of drawing the line between them.

Also, games are just forms of entertainment in the end. They may allow the player a certain amount of choice, but you literally can not do anything that the game did not prepare for you in advance. Imagine a movie with two endings. One ending is "a family gets murdered", the other that "the family gets reunited".

- Would you consider the viewer amoral if he/she chose to watch the bad ending?
- Would you consider the viewer moral if he/she chose to watch the peaceful ending?

Seen from a philosophical perspective, I think both questions are crooked. If so, then where exactly should a justification come from that, by choosing some seemingly amoral action in a game, the human in front of the screen commits an amoral act?

So my answer would be a straight "No, they aren't, and cannot be.".
The psychological aspects however... would be very interesting to analyze indeed. =)

Casual Player

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Excellent entry! As for "Who plays these games, anyway?"- well, that one question can be easily answered: these people for example.

Note that they are neither particularly evil nor unsocial. Only I cannot promise that you'd get any sophisticated answers from them... as they show the average attention span common to such buzzing places (read: butterfly on cocaine). Smile


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Nice reply, Driveby... I'm inclined to agree with you, I think. It's an artificial world, and actions are independent within it.

And your last point spurred a thought - we could get people played COD in a fMRI or something, and see if the areas active in morality are also active in slaying airport guests...

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