Ethics in Computer & Video Games

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Computer Game Ethics is an emerging area of study that deals largely with the question of what actions are morally acceptable in different games and whether those actions that are deemed unacceptable are standard throughout all games. The virtual reality of games is worthy of ethical consideration, according to Edward H. Spence. Virtual environments possess many qualities that allow for dilemmas which must be considered when speaking of ethics. Some examples include virtual behavior, identity, and trust in virtual environments. Without well-defined policies designed to encourage desired types of behavior while discouraging others, the behavior of users in games becomes unpredictable and can lead to unfavorable behaviors such as virtual rape, griefing, and identity theft. These types of behavior have the potential to deter users from playing online games and cause information entropy within the world of gaming.


To address ethical problems, people have devised several solutions. In computer games, a code of ethics (Terms of Use) is commonly employed to address such issues as griefing and online cheating. Other people, like computer game theorist and researcher Miguel Sicart, suggest that it is not so much a system of regulation that is needed to enforce ethics in virtual environments, but, among other things, a feeling of personal responsibility and moral integrity by the players themselves.

Ethics in game development

In developing and advertising games, specific audiences are usually targeted, and to conform to ratings (Everyone, or Mature). If developers succeed in this goal, more people will prefer their product, bringing in more profit. If players play by the rules, then cheaters would not scare off everyone else, meaning more subscribers will sign up and play, and thus a larger profit would be made. Therefore it is to developers' advantage to devise some sort of ethical guidelines.

Violence in games

An in-game screenshot of some of the weapons and violence displayed in Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 is shown above.

Some might say it is fun to play a killer or a thief in gaming, and obtain a sense of the thrill or experience despite having similar connotations and contexts than real life violence. One might ask: Is it ethical to play such games? Does that affect our sense of ethics in virtual and real life? With computers becoming commonplace in United States households, the implications of violence in video games need to be taken into consideration. The increasing presence of violence in popular video games such as Street Fighter and Call of Duty seem to promote masculinity and power in regards to gender and character issues. [1] It is difficult to pin a specific meaning to violence in video games when there is little distinction between the isolated and independent concepts of violence in the many contexts it is portrayed in within video games. While there are times when violence is coherently placed in a game to follow the structure of the narrative, there are times when "meaningless" violence occurs and we need to understand whether the meaningless violence enhances the entertainment value of the game or whether users are using violence in video games as an outlet to display power and masculinity. Violence seems to appear even more in advertisements for video games. In a study conducted by Dr. Scharrer at UMass, results show 55.8% of game advertisements contained violence, an average of 2.5 weapons appeared per advertisement, and males outnumbered females by more than 3 to 1. While Scharrer's study did not conclude that violence in video games affect our ethics in virtual and real life, she did suggest that user identification was critical to how violence in video games affected their sense of ethics in real life. The more someone identifies with an avatar in a virtual environment, the more likely they will unconsciously process gender and male violence stereotypes in their schema and knowledge structures. [2]

Accuracy of Ratings

A recent study indicated that the content associated with certain ratings are often times inconsistent with the content ratings. Without ratings that are consistent with the content exhibited in the game, parents are unable to protect their children from disturbing or inappropriate content. The Truth in Video Game Rating Act has recently come into play, which forces rating companies to play games fully through before assigning it a rating.[3] It also ensures that game developers are not hiding any content from the rating companies to try to get a certain rating.

Furthermore, the organization that rates video games, the Entertainment Software Rating Board, does not rate user produced content or interactions in games. [4] This can cause ethical issues as games with a rating suitable for children could feature interactions with other users that might not be family friendly.


There are some arguments on whether or not gaming is more beneficial for learning or more detrimental. "Some players and developers argue that video games are better at teaching logic and problem solving skills than many school curriculums."[3] While some games may merely be for entertainment, other games, such as adventure games, do require some logic when searching for ways to advance in the game. This may increase problem solving skills in game players. In relation to violence, one impact it may have on children is encouraging them to imitate behavior experienced in the game.

Video games require strategies and on-the-fly reactions in order to deal with the challenges that they produce. And because of this mental stress and the replay ability, one side of the argument states that there are educational benefits by developing memorization skills, processing new information, and teaching diversity. Popular game styles, like management, role-play, and strategy games, utilize these educational benefactors more frequently in reaching the games goals as players development of new strategies, and honing ones real life and problem solving skills.

Dr. James Paul Gee, a Professor of education from the University of Wisconsin, believes because of the visual representation and the freedom to produce any type of demonstration, next gen video games provide the mental stimulus to further ones education more than many techniques used in teaching today. It has the ability to reach a broader range kids in the classroom that prefer the different styles of learning, which include visual learning, kinesthetic learning, and aural learning, because of the overlapping of such styles in playing video games. [5]

Researchers at the University of Michigan studied the implications of puzzle video games on children and concluded that the puzzle games developed their reasoning and problem solving skills. [5]

Using video games in the educational process create skepticism among educators. Some educators believe that in order incorporation of video games, there will have to be a change in how the education system is wired and how they will do homework and test. This is thought to be because of the gap of seriousness and concentration between the video game based class work and the cognitive assessments and testing. Many educators think that this potentially leaves less of an investment in testing by students because they might not be as fun as the games. Another concern is the technical knowledge that educators possess about video games and how they would be able to incorporate video games into the classroom while keeping the education at the current standard. [6]

Video games outside of the classroom are look upon by many educators as having no beneficial educational elements besides the entertainment factor, especially when it comes to crude (violence/sexual) content. This brings up the question "What are kids getting out of playing entertainment based video games?" for many. One advocate for video game teaching, Stephen Reid, stated "teachers can look at the tools and encourage learning from them regardless," which emphasizes that there is beneficial material in any video game, but its up to the teacher and parents to guide the content to be learnable for the student. [7]


Most video games are male dominated, with just seven to eight percent of game developers being women.[8] Since most game players and game developers are male, there is controversial thought that states that video games are meant to appeal only to males. Some people argue that video games are indeed tailored for males and that females are uninterested in gaming. Some of the most common stereotypes for gamers are:

  • Antisocial and socially awkward
  • Lazy and slothful
  • All male
  • Bad eating habits and overweight
  • Misconceptions between reality and fantasy[9]

Despite these stereotypes, gamers are a more diverse group than is typically thought. According to the Entertainment Software Association, as many as 44% of gamers are women.[10]

Gaming Addiction

According to a recent study, "Video game players seem to experience a dopamine-induced euphoria equivalent to one hit of methamphetamine."[3] Some gamers spend hours in front of the television screen gaming, and can suffer socially because of it. Users can also experience mental and emotional withdrawal symptoms when away from gaming for an extended period of time. For most games, players can enter a state of isolation and cut off contact from other people. For players addicted to more violent video games, withdrawal symptoms may include acting aggressively in hostile situations and engaging in threatening behavior.[3] For example, one gamer was "forced into marriage counseling, where he and his wife struck a healthy-sounding compromise of no more than 16 hours of World of Warcraft a week."[3]

Models of Moral Agency

A key concept in ethical video game design is the role of the player as a moral agent. On a Gradient of Abstraction that incorporates a game system as a simulation and the player as an ethical agent, a game can be said to be of poor ethical construction insofar as it does not sufficiently encourage the player to consider his own ethics in relation to the in-game ethical choices being made. For example, in the game Fable there is an in-game ethical system that modifies the character according to the moral actions taken. By limiting the conception of ethics to the level of character-in-game, an ethical model is being posited wherein the ethical assessment of the moral agent is entirely in the purview of a third party (the game engine). A more ethical design would engage the player actively in consideration of his own ethics as a moral agent in the world as they relate to the in-game experience. A concern of those who consider video games to be morally harmful is the potential for extrapolation of in-game ethical models (e.g. violence) onto real world schema. A multi-leveled ethical experience would ensure that the player frames himself as a moral agent separate from the in-game scenarios, and thus has an actively reflective experience about real ethics. If the character is viewed as an extension of the player-as-moral-agent interacting in a vacuum with other moral agents (computer characters), then the game serves as a skewed model of ethical behavior wherein personal assessment of ethical behavior has no place and other moral agents are oversimplified. By understanding the game as an abstraction (rather than a model) of ethical choice, the potential for extrapolation of in-game ethical interactions with in-game characters as assessed by a third party to models of real-life ethical choice is reduced.[11]

See Also


  1. Janzten, G., & Jensen, J. "Powerplay - Power, Violence and Gender in Video Games." Department of Communication, Aalborg University. 1993. Web. 28 November 2011: 368-385.
  2. Scharrer, E. "Virtual Violence: Gender and Aggression in Video Game Advertisements." Mass Communication and Society, Fall 2004, Vol. 7, Issue 4. Web. 28 November 2011: 393-412.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Playing With Ethics: Video Game Controversy, Jimmy Dang, Jin Lee, Chau Nguyen PDF
  4. ESRB: Ratings FAQ
  5. 5.0 5.1 Games: Improving Education
  6. Education Nation: Why Educators Aren't Sold On Video Games, Jackie Mader, 25 September 2012
  7. Minecraft In Education: How Video Games Are Teaching Kids, Mark Walton, 25 November 2012
  8. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named ethical
  9. Pam Zhang Game over for 5 Videogame Stereotypes September 13, 2011.
  10. 2015 Sales, Demographic, and Usage Data
  11. Sicart, Michael. The banality of simulated evil: designing ethical gameplay in Ethics and Information Technology 11:3 pp.191-202. 1999.
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