Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Why Video Game Violence Isn’t Innocent


What follows is a guest post by Christopher Bartel, Professor of Philosophy at Appalachian State University

Is it ever morally wrong to commit violent or immoral acts in a video game? Video games are just images, right? No matter what I do in a video game, I am just interacting with images, and harming an image doesn’t cause any real-world harm. So, all of my actions in games must be morally neutral. This is a perfectly reasonable (and common) line of thought. But I think it’s wrong. Here’s why.

Forget about video games for a moment. Let me ask you a different question: is it ever morally wrong to harm a photograph? Photographs are just glossy pieces of paper that share a visual resemblance to people, places, and things. Like video games, photographs are just images.

But it can be morally wrong to harm a photograph. Imagine that a white supremacist burns a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. Or imagine someone burning a photo of the Pope, or of the Queen of England. Are these actions really morally neutral? I don’t think they are (which I’ve argued for here and here). How we behave toward inanimate objects is not accidental. We have our reasons and our reasons can be morally problematic. 

A photograph of my grandfather is not my grandfather. It has no feelings and cannot be hurt. It is merely a glossy piece of paper that visually resembles my grandfather. Now, imagine that I burn the photograph. Does my burning the photograph mean anything? In one sense, you might think not. There is nothing morally wrong with burning glossy pieces of paper. And I might have some understandable and morally innocent reason to burn the photograph. Suppose I decide to simplify my life, to get rid of all the stuff cluttering my house packed away in boxes that I never open. I am not a sentimental person after all. So, after binge-watching hours of Marie Kondo, I decide it’s time to get rid of my boxes of old photographs by burning them. It is a purely pragmatic decision to declutter my life. This seems fine because I am merely thinking of the photograph as an image—just another photo tucked away in a box. 

However, if my reasons for burning the photograph are directed instead toward the subject of the photograph, then something more is going on. Suppose that I harbor some malicious and vindictive animosity toward my grandfather. In this case, my burning of his photograph is potent with meaning. I am not just burning any old photograph, rather it is him that I am fictionally burning. But, why do I want to burn his photograph? What are my reasons for defacing his image? Is my animosity toward my grandfather justified? Was he worthy of such animosity? Or am I being unreasonably malicious? 

Think of my earlier examples—burning a photograph of Dr. King, or of the Pope, or of the Queen. If my reasons for burning these inanimate objects are directed toward the people depicted in them, then my reasons and my behaviors toward these objects are open to moral scrutiny. In these instances, the objects take on some symbolic meaning and my actions become symbolic too. My actions indicate something about my attitudes, values, and respect (or lack of respect) for the subject of the symbolic image. And we can morally criticize people for their attitudes and values just as much as we can criticize someone for their actions.

The important thing to notice here is that the object of moral condemnation in these cases is not the individual’s actions toward a glossy piece of paper. Rather, it is the individual’s attitude toward the person who’s in the photograph that is morally questionable. It is morally wrong to hold malicious attitudes toward other people even when we don’t act on those attitudes and the malicious things we do to photographs (or symbols more generally) reveal something about our attitudes toward those real-world subjects. 

The same is true of video games. When we interact with a video game, we are merely interacting with images. But it is not the player’s actions toward those images that are morally interesting. It is their attitudes toward the image’s subject that matters morally. Consider a recent controversy over Red Dead Redemption 2. In one small town in the game, the player can interact with a suffragette who is campaigning for women’s right to vote. Many gamers have posted videos of themselves beating the suffragette unconscious, giving their videos titles like “Beating up annoying feminist”. The player’s actions may be fictional, but their attitudes are non-fictional.

Video games are works of fiction to be sure. What happens in a game is not real and cannot be held to the same moral scrutiny as our real-world actions. But that does not mean that our actions in video games can never be held to any moral scrutiny, as if they were entirely morally neutral. Video games often make use of the depiction of people, events, or scenarios that resonate with us; and by resonating with us, they invoke something of our real-world attitudes toward them. 

Consider a few other examples. Battle Raper is a Japanese erotic game released in 2002 featuring hand-to-hand combat. When the player-character strikes a female opponent, her clothes fall off. After the female opponent is defeated, the player has the option to rape her. Jesus Strikes Back: Judgment Day is a third-person shooter. It was released in 2019. The player can choose to play as Hitler, “Tromp”, or Jesus Christ. The player’s mission is to kill a horde of immigrants, transgender people, and feminists. For the player who is drawn to these games, they are not “just games”. They are effigies. The player acts out symbolic violence on these effigies, which betrays the player’s attitudes toward their real-world counterparts. And attitudes themselves can be open to moral scrutiny. 

Burning Guy Fawkes in effigy (Photo credit: wwarby)

There are many reasons why players commit acts of violence in games, just like there are many reasons why someone might burn a photograph. Some of those reasons are morally innocent—because the violence offers a challenge, is novel, and is aesthetically rich. Indeed, many players engage in violent acts in video games for purely strategic reasons having to do with the competition—enacting violence is how you win. However, there are other reasons why players commit acts of violence in games that are not morally innocent. The moral relevance of our actions toward mere images is dependent on our attitudes and motivations. 

Perhaps you—dear reader—are still not convinced. I ask you, then, to try this experiment at home. The experiment comes in two stages. Stage One: Take a photograph of someone you love and stab the eyes out. Are you hesitant to do it? Does it make you feel uneasy? Are you unwilling to stab out the eyes? Remember, it’s just a glossy piece of paper. If you can stab the eyes out, then you can move on to Stage Two: leave the maimed photograph in a place where your loved one will find it. When they find it, give them a lecture on the metaphysical status of images and why your actions didn’t mean anything because photographs lack moral status. Good luck! 

Notes on the Contributor
Christopher Bartel is Professor of Philosophy at Appalachian State University. He is the author of Video Games, Violence, and the Ethics of Fantasy: Killing Time (you can read the first chapter for free here). He plays a lot of fantasy RPGs, is embarrassingly bad at Smash Bros., and can’t seem to get interested the Assassin’s Creed franchise. (I mean, it should tick a lot of boxes for him, but for some reason it’s just not.) 

Edited by C. Thi Nguyen


  1. Neat! I would suggest that this argument is one of the central themes of Toby Fox’s ‘Undertale’ (2015). You might also find support from Noah Caldwell-Gervais’s video review of the ‘Postal’ games (it’s entitled something like… er, it has ‘asshole simulator’ in the title anyway). From a philosophical point of view, these things are hardly as concise as your post, though 🙂

  2. Thank you for an interesting, thought provoking post!

    I wonder whether mere attitudes and motivations are enough to get the argument going, though. A lot of the examples seem to hinge for their intuitive appeal on publicizing the virtual acts, which makes them a lot less, well… virtual, I guess.

    When we imagine a white supremacist burning a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr., we tend to think of them doing so at some rally, or maybe in a YouTube video or something. In these cases, the burning is clearly a communicative act, and very close to a direct call for violence. A white supremist all on their own burning a picture without ever telling anyone about it seems a lot less problematic – I am not sure if I would think of that as problematic at all. The same for beating up suffragettes in a video game. The point here, it seems to me, is mostly that people *advertise* their beating up of someone who advocates equal rights.

    Even in the case of stabbing out the eyes of a photograph of your partner, the really problematic bit is where the photograph is left for your partner to find. Here it seems intent isn’t even a necessary criterion for the act being morally problematic: even if I only stab out my wife’s eyes by way of moral experiment, it seems clearly morally problematic to subject her to such an experiment without her consent.

    Admittedly, I am less sure about ‘Battle raper’ and ‘Jesus Strikes Back’.

    • Hi! Thanks for the comment.
      I agree with you that publicizing an action can serve as a communicative act, and we can morally condemn immoral communicative acts. But in my view, that just means that we have two condemnable actions: the virtual action and the communicative action. I would think of the player who beats up the virtual suffragette privately as a closet-misogynist. They are not guilty of an immoral communicative act, but they are still guilty of harboring a condemnable attitude. I don’t want to let them off the hook for their beliefs just because they know to keep quiet about it.
      And I think this is exactly what is happening in cases like ‘Battle Raper’. That is a single-player game. It is (typically) played privately. The player’s virtual actions may even cause no real-world harm. And yet the person who spends hours of their day playing ‘Battle Raper’ creeps me out. I think that person’s moral character is flawed because they are harboring a condemnable attitude — and not only harboring it, but also reinforcing it. I am glad that they don’t communicate their acts; but, I think they would be morally better off if they worked to change their attitude.

  3. excellent article. what makes this more complicated however is any attempt at legal regulation, especially if the immoral act reflects harm but does not carry it. issues of individual autonomy and a slippery slope of excessive or abusive regulation need to be addressed. but that doesnt mean one should not be judged on the moral content of her actions

    • Hi! Thanks for the comment. I haven’t thought at all about the issue of regulation. I’m really just interested in questions about morality. And while moral issues sometimes inform regulation, they sometimes don’t as well. I’d rather leave questions of regulation to the social and political philosophers.

  4. Completely agree with your thesis: some actions in games are morally objectionable because they express/reflect morally objectionable attitudes and desires the player possesses.

    Also onboard with the idea that the publicity/privacy of the act is not it’s most important feature. And sometimes the public vs private act difference could run the other way. It is conceivably worse to perform some objectionable virtual acts in private than in public.
    For example, suppose I had group of friends who all shared my love for dark humor. One of them might mod a shooter to replace all the enemy characters in the game with a model that looks like a silly looking version of me. And then, as a surprise, they turn the game on when we all get together and are amused when I see that they are all confronting and “killing” waves of “me” over and over. Maybe I would laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of the scenario and at the lengths they had gone to in order to set this up—it’s at least possible I would laugh and not be overly concerned for my safety. The act of my friend “killing” “me” might be objectionable here, but not as objectionable as the same act in committed in the following scenario.
    Suppose a so-called friend of mine made that same mod in secret and never told anyone of its existence. Then one day while at his house I stumble across it still running in the background on his computer. I’m initially concerned. I look at the log in the menus and I find he has logged 1000+ hours of play time. He has spent over one thousand hours “killing” representations of me. And now it seems I should be horrified. It seems like this friend’s virtual actions reflect much more darkly on his character, attitudes, and desires than in the first scenario.

    Setting that point aside, I have one more question: does the group membership/morally relevant properties of the depicted individual matter targeted by a virtual act of violence matter independently of the player’s rationale for performing the action? Is it always bad to virtually kill a character depicted as being a member of such and such group or with such and such morally important qualities? Or is it only bad if the rationale reflects a morally objectionable attitude? For example, maybe a player “kills” an npc philanthropist-saint because they drop the most valuable item in the game which cannot be acquired any other way. The player would rather not virtually kill the virtual philanthropist-saint, but just wants that cool virtual item. Is this objectionable or not? (My feeling is that if there’s something objectionable here, the designer is more to blame for structuring things this way.)

    • Hi! Great question! In the scenario you are describing, where one reluctantly kills the saint in order to get the loot, I DON’T think that is morally objectionable. Instead, the player performs the act of virtual killing for the pragmatic aim of getting the loot. It is the presence of a vicious attitude that makes the action immoral; and if a vicious attitude is lacking in this case, then you’re good to go!

      Now, I think we could complicate the picture, of course. Imagine a version of Red Dead Redemption where you get some really uniquely great loot by killing the suffragette. For the misogynistic player, killing the suffragette is not a problem; but for me, it is a big problem. Even if I am motivated only to get the loot, I would feel extremely guilty about killing the suffragette. I don’t think I could bring myself to do it. And perhaps that says something about my character — my sympathies for the suffragette are too strong to override my pragmatic goals to get good loot. I have the same problem in BioShock — I have never been able to bring myself to harvest the Little Sisters. I feel too guilty about it.

      I’ll also quickly mention that your example of modding a game to kill representations of an NPC who looks like a person you actually know is an issue that was taken up in an essay by John Tillson, in “Is it distinctively wrong to simulate doing wrong?” (Ethics and Information Technology, 2018). He argues that it is a form of disrespect on Kantian grounds.

  5. Thanks for the response! So seems like rationales matter more than the specific type of action performed, but some virtual acts are unlikely to have an unobjectionable rationale. Will definitely check out your book when I get a chance and might take a look at the Tillson article too.

  6. I was expecting some kind of bad, out of touch views. But I’m surprised to find that I actually agree with your article. It’s not the simulated actions themselves in games that are immoral, but the potential sentiment behind the player doing those simulated actions which may be morally objectionable.

    I personally mostly play RPGs like Elder Scrolls and Fallout. I kill quite a bit in these games, but not because of any toxic sentiment to anyone in real life. But more or else I kill in these games for purely roleplaying and entertainment purposes.

    The only thing I’d like to point out, is that often times in video games the player tends to over-exagerates their sentements to make it more entertaining and/or therapeutic. Just because someone may enjoy seeing feminists in video games or movies being murdered does not therefore mean that they want to see feminists in real life get murdered.

    • Hi! Thanks for the comment. I also play a lot of RPGs, and I can be pretty bloodthirsty!

      I get where you’re coming from. I often dread reading stuff about video games for the same reason. I think part of the problem is that the discussions about violence in video games have been dominated by debates over the causal argument. There is so much more to video game scholarship than the “do games cause violence” debates.

      I like your point about over-exaggeration. One point that some other scholars have made is that people can enjoy something in a fiction that we wouldn’t enjoy in real life. For me, what matters ultimately are our reasons for the enjoyment. Context is everything. Like, if I am watching a horror movie, I might want to see lots of people get killed; but that doesn’t mean that I want real-life killers to be highly successful! My reason for wanting to see more people killed in the horror movie is just because it makes the movie more scary, and therefore more enjoyable to me. On the other hand, imagine someone who wants to see more people killed in the movie because they fantasize about carrying out acts of mass murder themselves: that person creeps me out.

      So, in your example, we would have to ask what are the reasons why someone might enjoy watching violence against the suffragette, and do those reasons offer contextual justification. The range of justifying reasons may be smaller for some fictional representations than for others.

  7. This is such a terrible article

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