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The Gamer’s Dilemma: Virtual Murder versus Virtual Paedophilia (Part One)

Modern video games give players the opportunity to engage in highly realistic depictions of violent acts. Among these is the act of virtual murder: the player’s character intentional kills someone in the game environment without good cause. Most avid gamers don’t seem overly concerned about this (reputed links between video games and violence notwithstanding). Nevertheless, when the possibility of other immoral virtual acts — say virtual paedophilia — is raised, people become rather more squeamish. Why is this? And is this double-standard justified?

Screenshot from Grand Theft Auto

These are the questions that Morgan Luck sets out to answer in his article “The Gamer’s Dilemma”. In brief, Luck argues that if virtual murder is deemed morally permissible, then it is difficult to see why virtual paedophilia is not. Both can claim the same moral argument — no actual victim is harmed in either case — and it is difficult to find further moral distinctions that would justify the double-standard. The result is that video gamers are landed in a dilemma: either they reject the permissibility of virtual murder and virtual paedophilia, or they accept the permissibility of both.

Originally published in 2009, Luck’s article has already generated a good deal of academic debate (I count at least three follow-up articles). I want to cover some of that debate in this series of posts. I start today by looking at Luck’s initial defence of the dilemma.

The post is divided into five main sections. The first clarifies exactly what it is we are talking about; the remaining four look at a series of arguments that try to avoid the dilemma.

1. Virtual Murder and Virtual Paedophilia
Before we get into the dilemma itself, it is worth briefly clarifying the kinds of virtual activities with which we are concerned. No doubt there could be many “borderline” or “fuzzy” instances of virtual murder or virtual paedophilia. For the purposes of the dilemma, we are concerned with paradigmatic instances of both. This makes the dilemma more compelling, and less easy to avoid.

The following is the definition of virtual murder proposed by Luck (this is slightly modified from the text):

Virtual Murder: A player commits an act of virtual murder if s/he directs his/her game character to kill another virtual character in circumstances such that, if the game environment were real, it would count as murder (i.e. not justified killing). Stipulatively, we assume that:
(a) the virtual victim is an AI, not the avatar of another human player; 
(b) the virtual victim represents a human adult; 
(c) the virtual victim does not “respawn” (come back to life); 
(d) the game player is a human adult with full mental competency; and 
(e) the game player’s virtual character is a human adult.

The stipulations are designed to avoid distractions. Luck argues that there are clearly some video games that allow players to commit acts that fall within the scope of this definition. Grand Theft Auto is a well-known example. Luck also argues that many people deem virtual murder to be perfectly permissible.
The following is the definition of virtual paedophilia proposed by Luck (again, slightly modified from the text):

Virtual Paedophilia: A player commits an act of virtual paedophilia if s/he directs his/her game character to molest another virtual character in circumstances such that, if the game environment were real, the character would be deemed a paedophile. Stipulatively, we assume that:
(a) the virtual victim is an AI, not the avatar of another human; 
(b) the virtual victim represents a human child; 
(c) the game player is a human adult of full mental competency; and 
(d) the player’s virtual character is a human adult.

Again, the stipulations focus attention on the paradigmatic case. I have no idea whether there are any video games that allow players to engage in acts of virtual paedophilia, but the existence of such video game is, of course, clearly possible.

Luck contends that many people, including those who are nonplussed by virtual murder, are disturbed by virtual paedophilia. But why? Is there any way for them to slip between the horns of the gamer’s dilemma?

The Gamer’s Dilemma: It is either the case that virtual murder and virtual paedophilia are both morally permissible, or that they are both morally prohibited; it is not the case that virtual paedophilia is prohibited and virtual murder is permissible.


 Luck considers five possible arguments. Each of them alleges that there is some moral principle that allows us to distinguish between the two cases. The first of the five arguments is, rightly, given short shrift. The is the argument alleging that the important distinction between virtual murder and virtual paedophilia is that one is socially acceptable while the other is not. While this may be true, “social acceptability” is not a significant moral distinction. Something else must be motivating the social acceptability to make this compelling. So let’s consider some possibilities.

2. The Significant Likelihood Argument
The second argument against the dilemma makes the classic consequentialist “turn”. It starts from the premise that the real moral problem with virtual acts is not so much what they depict, but what they might lead to. Specifically, the problem is that those who engage in such virtual acts will become more inclined to engage in the real versions of those acts. This isn’t a purely hypothetical concern: worries about virtual environments providing training grounds for paedophiles have arisen in the past.

The problem is that this premise by itself is too general. The key move is to claim is that a virtually immoral act should be prohibited if it significantly raises the likelihood of someone engaging in the real version of the act. The argument then follows:

  • (1) If P’s virtual performance of an immoral act type X significantly raises the probability of P’s performing an actual version of act type X, then virtual performances of X ought to be prohibited.
  • (2) Virtual paedophilia significantly raises the probability of actual paedophilia; virtual murder does not significantly raise the probability of actual murder.
  • (3) Therefore, virtual paedophilia ought to be prohibited, but virtual murder should not.

There may be some reason to question the motivating principle here, but we’ll ignore that possibility for now. Luck suggests that the problems with the argument lie elsewhere.

Start with premise (2). Are we really so sure that virtual paedophilia does significantly raise the probability of actual paedophilia? Luck notes that the evidence is not particularly strong. Unfortunately, Luck only cites an article by the philosopher Neil Levy from 2002 on this. But I did some minimal online searching and found this article from Carla Reeves which offered a more comprehensive summary of the evidence. And her article reaches a similar conclusion: the evidence for a causal link is not robust. Couple this with the problem that there is also evidence (perhaps equally inconclusive) for a causal link between virtual violence and real-world violence and we have reasons for doubting whether the argument can resolve the dilemma.

Furthermore, Luck notes a potential counterargument. Suppose it was found that virtual performances of an immoral act actually reduced the likelihood of real performances. Would we then have to conclude that virtual performances were permissible? This is a serious objection since there is, arguably, some plausibility to the claim that the virtual performance provides an “outlet” for immoral desires.

3. The Argument from Moral Character
Another argument against the dilemma focuses not so much on the nature of the acts themselves, but on what they do to the individual performing them. Specificially, what they might do to his/her moral character over time. We can call this the argument from moral character. It claims that the important distinction between virtual murder and virtual paedophilia is that the former can have a positive (or neutral), virtue-building, effect, whereas the latter cannot. Indeed, the opposite would seem to be true: the person who performs virtual paedophilia will exhibit vicious, improper, and immoral character traits.

  • (4) If the virtual performance an act of type X builds (or does not harm) moral character, then it is permissible; if it harms moral character, then it is not.
  • (5) The virtual performance of murder can have a positive or neutral effect on moral character; the virtual performance of paedophilic acts cannot.
  • (6) Therefore, virtual paedophilia is impermissible and virtual murder is permissible.

What are we to make of this? Well, let’s set to one side the motivating moral principle. It seems reasonable, though I have to say that it may mix questions of right/wrong with questions of good/bad in an improper manner. This, however, is more my problem than Luck’s, since nowhere in the article does he actually specify the moral principles underlying the respective arguments. I’ve had to speculate to make sense of them, but in this instance my speculation may be misleading.

The more important issue is with premise (5). You are probably already thinking: but surely virtual murder also develops an immoral character? There is, however, a response to this. It could be that the killing that takes place in video games is merely an necessary instrument for building some positive 9or neutral) traits like competitiveness. Consider an analogy: to win at chess you must virtually “kill” your opponent’s pieces, but doing so doesn’t mean that you enjoy the “killing”. It is just part of the competitive, strategy-building quality of the game. The same could be true of the killing that takes place in video games.

There are two objections to this response. First, it means that instances of virtual paedophilia that are part of the competitive infrastructure of the gameworld would be permissible. Luck gives a hypothetical example of game that requires that you steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London but forces you to seduce a Beefeater’s young daughter along the way in order to make progress. Second, many virtual murders are not part of the competitive infrastructure of the gameworld. The example of Grand Theft Auto springs to mind again. In that game, people wantonly kill pedestrians and other bystanders, without this advancing their cause within the game. Why aren’t such acts impermissible?

4. The Argument from Unfair Targetting
Now we get into some murky territory. While the preceding arguments tried to focus on the virtual acts and their consequences, the next two arguments don’t. Instead, they focus on differences between the real-world acts (particularly their effect on real-world people) and then tries to transpose those differences back onto the virtual versions. Basically, they both claim that there is something especially wrong with child molestation, and that this makes virtual depictions of that act worse than virtual depictions of murder.

This argumentative strategy seems is slightly odd to me, but since Luck discusses it I have to do the same. My main beef is that this type of argument looks pretty weak: how can the real-world differences be transferred back onto the virtual cases in this manner? One of the distinguishing marks of the virtual world is that it doesn’t involve real people who exemplify the properties that make the moral difference in the real world. That’s not to say that the virtual world could never exemplify those properties — with sophisticated AI it might someday do so — but at the moment it can’t, and that seems significant.

But leave that to one side. Let’s focus on the first of these two arguments, the argument from unfair targetting. This argument claims that one thing that makes child molestation especially wrong (vis-a-vis murder) is that it singles out a particular segment of the population for harmful treatment. It then claims that virtual depictions of unfair targetting are sufficiently serious to warrant prohibition. Luck says this has some intuitive support. Imagine a video game that allowed you to play as the Nazis and to plan and implement the virtual extermination of the Jews. A game like this would surely face staunch moral opposition. That gives us the following:

  • (7) The virtual depiction of immoral acts that specifically and unfairly target a segment of the population ought to be prohibited.
  • (8) Virtual paedophilia involves such unfair targetting but virtual murder does not.
  • (9) Therefore, virtual paedophilia should be prohibited, but virtual murder should not be.

There are three problems with this. First, as hinted at above, it doesn’t actually distinguish virtual paedophilia from virtual murder all that well: games involving the unfair targetting of murder victims would also have to be banned (and it’s hard to see why pedestrian massacres in GTA would not count as unfair targetting). Second, it’s not clear that the unfair targetting principle is all that compelling. Luck asks us to compare the slaughter of twelve adult humans with the molestation of twelve children. It’s not clear that the latter is really that much worse than the former (if, indeed, it is worse). Third, the argument would seem to imply that a game involving indiscriminate molestation (i.e. molestation of all people, regardless of age) would be acceptable. Surely that cannot be?

​5. The Argument from Special Status
All of which brings us to the final argument. This argument claims that children exemplify certain key properties (intrinsic to the concept of childhood) that makes immoral acts against them especially wrong and hence virtual depictions of those immoral acts especially worthy of prohibition. The properties in question are their innocence, defencelessness, immaturity and so on. All properties that are, rightly, thought to make children worthy of special moral concern.

That leads us to the following argument:

  • (10) Ceteris paribus, the virtual depiction of acts that target children is worse than the virtual depiction of acts that do not; hence those virtual depictions are especially worthy of prohibition.
  • (11) Virtual paedophilia targets children; virtual murder does not.
  • (12) Therefore, ceteris paribus, virtual paedophilia is especially worthy of prohibition.

The argument as it stands is in need of some repair. Obviously, acts of virtual child murder will be ruled out by the motivating principle as well. So the only kinds of virtual murder that would be permissible under this argument would be virtual acts of adult murder. That repair will probably seem like a small price to pay for those keen on defending the permissibility of some forms of virtual murder.

With the repair in place, does the argument as a whole succeed? There is definitely something to it: children are worthy of special moral respect. But the ceteris paribus clause (spotted by the keen-eyed among you) is all important. Luck argues that while it is no doubt true, all else being equal, that immoral acts against children are worse than immoral acts against adults; all else may not be equal in this case. The quality of the immoral acts themselves is a relevant factor. Thus, while it may be true that child molestation is worse than adult molestation; and that child murder is worse than adult murder; it does not follow that child molestation is worse than adult murder.

For that conclusion to follow, it would need to be shown that molestation is worse than murder. And that is not at all obvious.

6. Conclusion
It is important not to misinterpret the implications of the preceding discussion. The argument here is not that virtual paedophilia is permissible. Far from it. The argument is simply that there are no compelling moral distinctions between virtual paedophilia and virtual murder. Consequently, if one is impermissible so too must the other. That is the gamer’s dilemma.

That brings us to the end of Luck’s initial presentation of the dilemma.* In future entries, we’ll consider some responses.

(Part Two)

John Danaher holds a PhD from University College Cork (Ireland) and is currently a lecturer in law at NUI Galway (Ireland). His research interests are eclectic, ranging broadly from philosophy of religion to legal theory, with particular interests in human enhancement and neuroethics. John blogs at You can follow him on twitter @JohnDanaher.


Bravo, Dr. Danaher! Your articles are always thought-provoking, this one especially so. My feelings after reading it are those of Laplace, who was about to present a paper to the French Academy when he realized there were errors in it. He told the audience: “Gentlemen, I must think further about this” and sat down.

I think our common sense squeamishness when it comes to virtual pedophilia makes a great deal of sense.

I am not a gamer, but as I understand it, perhaps the majority of violent video games take place in a world where violence largely occurs in circumstances where such violence might be considered morally justified as a form of self-defense i.e. in war. Of course, one should ask whether violence in real world war is ever justified, but that seems more morally tricky territory than situations real or virtual where self-defense or defense of the community is not the aim.

Thus, many parents are troubled by the video game, Grand Theft Auto (where players steal cars and murder) in a way they are not troubled by an equally violent game, Call of Duty. Many people are oblivious to the violence in contemporary video games because the murder in them as in “unjustified homicide” is peripheral, that is not the main focus of violent action. These same people, I think, would freak out if there was a video came called “Serial Killer” in which players deliberately hunted down and murdered innocent people.  Virtual pedophilia is always like the hypothetical Serial Killer game in that the victim is innocent and the perpetrator is not motivated by the needs of self-defense. In the same way violent pornography- as in virtually depicted rape- leaves people, I think, more squeamish than the regular sort.   

Good points, Rick. I too am not a gamer, but as I recall, the video game “Postal” was basically a spree killing game with self-defense only indirectly involved. There was an uproar about it but it was never banned to my knowledge. Certainly, a game in which players murder innocent people is bound to be a lot more controversial than one in which they are fighting wars or slaying monsters.

A thought just occurred to me. Virtual victims possessing advanced AI would probably be more entertaining for players. As AI advances closer to the Turing test, at what point would it be inappropriate to harm these virtual victims?

Luck tries to structure the dilemma so that it doesn’t cover the possibly justified killings that take place in video games. He is talking about the gratuitous killings that are often part and parcel of a game like GTA.

That said, it is certainly true that some video games generate more controversy on this point than others. You mention “Postal” (which I’m not familiar with). “Manhunt” was another game like this. As I see it, people are often disturbed by these cases (in comparison to cases like Call of Duty) but still think they are permissible (even when it involves gratuitously killing innocent people).

The squeamishness about virtual paedophilia seems to be much stronger.

“The squeamishness about virtual paedophilia seems to be much stronger.”

I think our moral common sense is helpful here. Imagine how freaked out people would be if there was a video game where the aim of play was to kill children!

It’s the kind of victim involved that engenders squeamishness.

I never saw “Postal” myself, but it was briefly popular in the late 90’s and had, I believe, a sequel in the middle of the last decade. It was based loosely upon several workplace killings in the US by postal workers, which had led to the phrase “going postal” (running amok with a weapon.) Players targeted random people for unprovoked killings.

I fully agree with your point that squeamishness and perhaps a sense of moral justification greatly affect how a game is perceived. Killing in war, no matter how gruesome, is perceived by most people as justifiable so games like “Call of Duty” create little controversy. The gratuitous killings in “Grand Theft Auto” create more uneasiness in the general public. A game based upon gratuitous killing such as “Postal” increases the level of uneasiness even more. Pedophilia (sorry for the US spelling!) is regarded by many as the vilest crime imaginable, and a virtual pedophilia environment would produce ferocious opposition.

Of course, all of this is based purely upon the “yuck” factor and has nothing to do with your and Luck’s admirable examination of the moral questions about the virtual depiction of a despicable activity.

Part of it may be that virtual fighting and death have always been a part of the “pretending” experience (witness kids with finger guns and stick swords) while pedophilia has not. One is not permissible to even pretend about. So this whole article proceeds from a faulty premise (by an admitted non-gamer).

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