The Ethics of Video Games: Mayhem, Death, and the Training of the Next Generation

Donald Gotterbarn


Some video games, such as the Grand Theft Auto series are notorious for their rewarding of racial, sexual, nationalistic discrimination and savage behavior. There are significant psychological studies of the negative impact of prolonged playing of such games, indicating an increase in aggressive thoughts.’ (Anderson & Bushman). The Entertainment Software Rating Board ESRB has content descriptors: use of drugs alcohol tobacco; strong language sexual, five degrees of nudity, four degrees of violence content. Work on the ethics of video games seems to focus on potential reinforcement of these specific behaviors.

Such broad stroke criticism of video games in not justified. There is a need to distinguish types of video games. Some interactive video games such as the Nintendo Wii are being used in rehabilitation in physical therapy for stroke patients. Video game controllers are used to direct real-time surgical devices and video games are used to improve surgeon’s reflexes that operate with these game controller driven surgical tools.

There is however a significant issue ethical issue with video games that has not been discussed in the literature. Video games are treated by members of the game design and development community as a domain of software development that seems to lack clear ethical impacts beyond some minimal affect on the users of the software. I recently asked a group of computing students if they would blow the whistle if a software product they had been working on was about to be released to the public even though it is clear that the software is unreliable and does not adequately perform. An immediate response was to ask if the software was merely a video game or was it “more serious”. If it controlled devices for eye surgery there was unanimous agreement that it is wrong to release known unreliable software. If, however, it was ‘merely’ video game software there were a variety of justifications given for releasing the unreliable software. I think this attitude points to a deeper problem and it needs to be addressed.

There is a family of video games based on rapid decisions which are related to the success of the gamer in that game. These include role playing games, real-time strategy games, games whose success is determined by the number killed , or to use the games euphemism ‘ the number K.O.ed” The Xbox and Game Boy generation of students raised on these games are being trained that decisions are all and only about themselves.

The most banal description of the problem is to say, in a non-pejorative way, that the development of e-games seems to be ‘self-centered’. The gamer is encouraged to think solely in terms of benefit to their character when making a decision. Thus in ‘Gears of War’ which mimics dangerous military situations, the only reason to save a wounded teammate is that the action will improve your chances of winning. The motivation is not loyalty or concern for the other soldier’s life. In Grand Theft Auto one is rewarded for the number of acts done in service of a master criminal. The driving question is not the impact a decision has on society but rather the impact on the individual character. This approach is true of most button mashing shoot-up games as well. We are training a generation to make decisions without any attention to the consequences for others of their actions

This problem is also exacerbated by the focus of new e-gaming curricula. The focus resembles the early computer science curricula which focus on the speed and efficiency of the system with little attention to the impacts the system has on others. A typical description treats video game design as devoid of social impact. For example “…the program provides preparation in the math and physics of games; programming fundamentals; game design; modifications (MOD) and massively multi-player online game (MMOG) programming; two- and three-dimensional graphics programming; and simulation and game engine design”

In this paper the strengths and weaknesses of a variety of ways to address this problem of game design and development and its negative impact on ethical decision models will be presented. The methods considered include Value Added Programming, decisions on when to ethically break rules, the impact of these decisions on the world beyond one’s character, and suggestions for modifying e game curricula to address these issues.