Virtual Environment

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A Virtual Environment

A virtual environment is a computer-generated set of surroundings.

In the field of ethics and information technology, focus is primarily concentrated upon environments with a concentrated user base, since ethical choices often influence another user's gaming experience. However, even when a user is not playing in multi-player mode, or in a single-player game, the virtual environment can influence how that player acts. The code that creates the virtual environment has implicit rules of behavior: what is possible for a player to do in this virtual world, and what is not possible. In order for ethical situations to be representative of actual morals and behavior, virtual environments must allow some autonomy and accountability on the part of its users.


Virtual environments may be categorized by whether or not they are online or confined to a single console or personal network, and by whether the environment is designed for one user at a time or for multiple users at once.

Offline/Single User

These are mostly single player video games with no online functionality, which include most single-player RPGs such as Final Fantasy I-X and Ratchet and Clank. Many of these games have virtual worlds that the user can navigate through. Some allow greater freedom of navigation than others, which we can see by contrasting the storyline of any Call of Duty game (very linear and requires the user to do what the mission wants requires the user to do) with an open-ended game such as Oblivion (almost completely non-linear, with a huge map that the user can navigate at his or her own discretion). The more choices that are given in a game as to how the player should progress and the number of options for this progress is what determines how ethically challenging a game can be. No one feels any remorse when "killing" virtual terrorists because they are just bits of data that are not actual people, but some people may refuse to play a level on Modern Warfare 2 because they don't want to kill civilians.

Offline/Multiple User

The players in this kind of environment only interact with the people who are connected through the same system, usually multiplayer console games or systems connected via a LAN (examples include the multiplayer campaign mode or multiplayer vs. mode of games such as Modern Warfare 2 or Super Smash Bros.). Overall adherence to rules varies between groups of people and is dependent on the agreement of the players (i.e. if everyone wants to spam bouncy balls, then there is no rule-breaking occurring when everyone spams bouncy balls). Some users tend to ignore the implemented user restrictions because they are simply using the environment to have fun. However, many others do believe it is wrong to break rules that were created to keep the gameplay fair.

Online/Single User

Single user games based online are less common than the other three game categories listed, simply because the experience is fundamentally the same as that of an offline single user game. A number of browser-based games are single-player.

Online/Multiple User

The players in this kind of environment can interact with anyone who is connected to the same network. Many of these games are termed MMOGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Games) or MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) and include titles such as World of Warcraft, MapleStory and RuneScape. Just like in the offline environments, there are both kinds of users: those who don't mind rules being broken and those who do. There are two main differences which make ethics in this kind of environment much harder to assess: quantity of users and relationship between users. The quantity of users may affect the ethical value of the situation because when a rule is broken, the user affects a much larger number of people. The relationship between users is especially governed by how well the users know each other. For example, users playing on the same console most likely know the fellow participants in their game since they are physically present in the same room. When playing online, however, you could literally be playing with anyone, such as a little kid from Japan or a British police officer. Because of the larger range of people you could potentially be playing against, this is the more dangerous of the two when it comes to breaking ethical norms. Your friends may forgive you or may not care, but other people may take measures to get you banned from Xbox Live.

Users Within Virtual Environments

Users are typically portrayed within a virtual environment by way of an avatar. There are many ethical boundaries with avatars, which may easily be broken. These range from the name the avatar is given to the actions the avatar can take in the environment itself. Extreme cases of this may even include virtual rape and virtual child pornography.


Cheating is the most usual form of ethics breach in virtual environments. It is considered particularly unethical when it is performed in a multi-user environment because the cheater may produce a detrimental experience toward the other users in the environment. When done in single user environments, it is mostly not considered an ethical problem because the user is the one who decides how they want to deal with the rules of any specific environment. Since they are not affecting anyone else, it doesn't really matter.

Behavior in a Virtual Environment


(See Also Bartle Test)

Bartle Test Example

When building a virtual gaming environment, the most important aspect that must be considered is the audience. Who will be playing in this virtual environment? Richard Bartle argues that there are 4 different kinds of players.[1] In recognition of his research and grouping, Erwin Andreasen and Brandon Downey, created the Bartle Test of Gaming Preferences to classify gamers in one of these types, although the test is not definitive. The results only allow for one dominant type, with percentage tendencies towards the other three.

These 4 types are:

  1. Achievers: Players who focus on competition and accumulating anything of value within the game.
  2. Explorers: This type Is most interested in the game's content and mechanics.
  3. Killers: Players that like to destroy things within a virtual environment. Killers like to kill things. And people.
  4. Socializers: These players make the most of the online features of games, frequently attempting to communicate with other players as if they were actually socially competent. 22px

In order for any virtual gaming environment to be successful, there needs to be a balance between all four of these personality types. A change in the percentage of one type will cause a change in the percentage of the others. Combined with the influx of new users and the outflux of users is how the virtual environment remains stable.[1]


Trust in a virtual environment determines much of how people and businesses interact. It is difficult to quantify such trust and thus it is difficult to determine who is trustworthy. Some companies have had varying degrees of success fostering trust through reputation systems and various forms of security. Thus far, building a reputation online, to which one is held accountable seems to be the best way to garner such trust. John Weckert's "Trust in Cyberspace" discusses these obstacles in depth.

Philip Brey

Philip Brey is a professor at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, focusing his studies on the philosophy of technology. He is also the chair of the department of philosophy at the University and is one of most of people in combining the subjects of Information, Virtual Reality, Computer Simulations and Ethics. In Brey's 2008 discourse on virtual reality and computer simulation, he elaborates on what it means to be in an immersive versus a nonimmersive virtual reality system. He contends that while true immersive virtual reality systems are not popular among the average user, nonimmersive virtual reality systems are gaining popularity in the form of computer gaming, exploration in virtual worlds, and social networking. Specifically, Brey focuses on how these various virtual reality environments affect archetypical thought in terms of benefits and harms to users in our technological community, and the virtues and opinions that can be inferred from virtual reality experiences. By assigning responsibility and a sense of ethics to computer gaming and social networking, Brey raises the notion that society believes these virtual products have a significant impact on how children and young adults perceive violence, sexuality, and horror. In retrospect, new technologies by designers and programmers should clearly be celebrated in their own right, but with constant innovation in technology the ethical considerations of virtual reality in gaming, therapy, corporations, professional and service organizations, and banking, the practical applications should garner interest in evaluating their impact. Due to virtual reality and computer systems gradually being integrated into our everyday lives, Brey essentially advocates for the need to compare the ethical implications of virtual reality and computer simulation to real world conflicts. [2]

See Also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Bartle, Designing Virtual Worlds, 2003
  2. Brey, Phillip. "Virtual Reality and Computer Simulation." The Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2008. Web. 9 Dec 2011.

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