A relatively new philosophical debate is the concept of virtual morality. Video games, online communities, and the internet in general can cause us to engage in actions that we may never do in the flesh. In this post, we’ll explore what virtual morality is and if it matters.
Note: This article includes brief spoilers for the video games Life is Strange and Persona 5.
What Is Virtual Morality?
Video Game Violence
At a house party in Canada, a group of friends gather to play an interactive video game where the protagonist commits acts of violence, such as shooting innocent people or running them over for fun. Perhaps the most overdone example, but one most will recognize, is the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series, notably GTA 5. In that game, players often run around and shoot innocent people for fun, run people over with cars, kill sex workers, and so on. Players can avoid killing the pedestrians and just play the story, which usually involves dealing with a killer and murder scenarios that are long and elaborate, but most people don’t play the game that way.
Video game violence has been hotly debated over the years; people wonder if being violent in a game can affect how humans behave in the real world. Many people may agree that playing a few minutes of GTA isn't going to make us run over everyone, but can it make us more aggressive? Research studies suggest mixed results, and the rate at which players are affected varies. The role of social media and how such games are viewed also plays a part in shaping public opinion on this issue. The debate continues as newer games, like one involving a teddy bear, push the boundaries of violence in gaming.
In general, studies seem to be leaning towards the conclusion that violent video games do not make a person violent. Most sensible people seem to know the difference between real life and fictional violence. Some studies, such as one done by the American Psychological Association, seem to link some aggression in people who play violent video games, but that all depends on the person.
A person may just be frustrated at the game and could be more aggressive, and it can also depend on one's age. A child may be more aggressive if they play GTA, but one might argue that the games weren't created for them, and it's up to the primary caregiver to decide if the child can handle such violent content. On the other hand, a high school student may be mature enough to handle such content responsibly while being mindful that real life is much different than video games.
As for what violent games say about us as a person, it may be difficult to say. People from all walks of life seem to play GTA, which is one of the hottest selling games of all time, and many of them may have different outlooks.
Moral Choices In Video Games
One popular type of game allows players to make important moral decisions to decide the outcome of the game. Games that involve moral choices include Mass Effect, Fable, Infamous, and many more. In these games, players can choose to be the hero, anti-hero, villain, or a neutral force.
Often, these games present moral decisions that can lead up to some debates, especially debates that may not happen otherwise. In the ending of Life Is Strange, for example, a player can choose whether to save Chloe, their friend, and possible lover, or save an entire town from a storm. They may ask themselves, “What is more important to me? The life of one person I know very well, or the lives of an entire town of people I don't know as well? If I had to make a choice, which one would I pick?” Should there be a limit on killing in video games? Is it appropriate for characters to die, or should they just fade away in some fashion?
What choice a player picks may say something about them as a person. Someone who wants to be powerful in real life may pick the villain. Someone who is more empathetic may find it difficult to harm people and want to pick the good route. There may also be some who will play the game multiple times and pick different routes to see what all the experiences are like.
In some games, there are consequences for a player’s actions. Take for instance Persona 5, where players can choose to date multiple partners at a time without getting proper consent from their other partners. This may make them feel like they’re a sexual dynamo, but at the end of the game, every partner finds out, and the player ends up losing it all. In cases like this, a player may be forced to reflect on their choices and the consequences that arise from them.
Do the choices a player makes in the game say a lot about them? Someone can be completely loyal to their spouse but then want to play with different partners in a game. Does that reveal a hidden desire to cheat, or is it a person playing with the “what ifs” of the world? It can be tough to say, and as always, it could depend on the individual.
As some games become moral realistic, who knows what can happen? In a VR setting, when a player is fully immersed in the game, will it be harder to make certain moral choices when the characters seem tangible? Will it be different than if the characters were just on a TV screen? These questions will be quite interesting to answer once society reaches that level.
Trolling is another action in the virtual world some may take, and it's debatable as to what it says about someone as a person. The definition of the word “trolling” has been muddied in these past few years, but the basic definition is when a user says something controversial on the internet to get an emotional response out of someone.
What the user says can depend on severity. Sometimes, people can troll someone by saying they dislike a show, and it may cause people on the internet to get mad. Other times, it can be something more severe, such as saying racist statements to get a rise out of people. It is important to be clear about the fact that this is a form of hate crime.
Is being a troll online an immoral action? Or is it just harmless fun? Or is it dependent on the situation? One may argue that trolling someone about a plot point in their favorite show is just messing around, while others may argue that trolling – especially trolling regarding “morality policing” or the tendency to hold creative works and creators to impossible moral standards - can have some real-world consequences. It’s entirely possible to ruin a person’s career or social life through supposed “trolling,” meaning that their mental and possibly physical health may be at risk.
The effects of trolling may also depend on the person. Someone who is younger may be more sensitive to trolling if it involves insults and older people may let it roll of their backs, but this doesn’t rule out any age group from being affected by insults from a troll.
Trolling can also include cyberbullying, cyberstalking, and the harassment of a targeted person. Studies have noticed a substantial link between cyberbullying and mental health in both adults and adolescents. In this case, virtual morality can be prominent in affecting someone’s mental wellbeing.
Of course, there is a difference between a game where the characters are not real and trolling where there are real people behind the computer screen. On the internet, where the person we’re talking to may not have a face, it can sometimes be hard to distinguish the difference between the two. We may be inconsiderate to the real person behind the screen, or we may believe what we’re typing is just a joke. We may never know how our actions online can personally affect the other person behind the computer screen.
Other Virtual Worlds
In online communities, we can live an entirely different identity from our real-world persona. Some people may create an avatar that is nothing like them. Their age, gender, or any other traits may be different online than they are in “rea life.” Is this a desire to become someone else? Is it just someone experimenting with another identity?
Speak With A Therapist
Virtual morality is one thing, but our real-world morality is another. If we’re dealing with a moral crisis, connecting with a counselor can help. An online therapist can support us in becoming more comfortable with ourselves and living an authentic life that’s productive and fruitful.
Online therapy can be a great option for understanding our behaviors on the internet and even the reasons why we seek connection on the internet—whether that be positive social connections or negative interactions.
According to Mental Health America, studies show that even compulsive internet use can be treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which can be carried out via online therapy. A 2017 study found that internet-based CBT was effective in the treatment of psychiatric disorders, suggesting the legitimacy of digital intervention for exploring how virtual morality affects us.
Online therapy is beneficial for many reasons. It’s available for clients as there is no requirement to travel for an appointment and participants can feel more at ease when speaking to a therapist from the comforts of their home.
Morality in games and other virtual communities can be quite intriguing. It's debatable whether the choices we make in a game or online say something about us as a person. It may also have something to say about our unconscious desires or our personality traits, or it could just be us having fun. It may also be a case-by-case basis.
With so many choices to make, it's interesting to see what decisions people make online. Connect with a licensed mental health provider to learn more about the choices we make online in comparison to the choices we make in reality.
Below are some frequently asked questions about virtual morality.
What Is Virtual Morality?
Virtual morality in psychology is the moral choices one makes in a video game, on social media, or in another virtual environment. A person’s virtual morality may differ from their in-person morality, as some people may believe online actions do not have as significant a consequence as offline actions.
What Is An Example Of Virtual Morality?
An example of virtual morality is a person partaking in different types of humor on a video game than they might offline. In some cases, people may participate in more offensive jokes when meeting with their friends online, believing they have less impact on people who may hear them. However, virtual immorality can still have a significant effect on those who are impacted emotionally. Unkind comments, bullying, and insults on video game channels, lives, or videos can hurt people in real life and may qualify as cyberbullying in some cases.
What Is The Virtual Morality Show?
Virtual Morality is the name of an independent murder-mystery video game published and written by Ilan Benjamin and Mercedes Bryce Morgan. It is an interactive show putting into question the viewer’s own virtual morality. The game has three episodes and functions as a live-action video game and short series.
The first episode of three episodes is “Who Killed Teddy Long?” and sets the stage for the murder mystery to find out who killed the character of Teddy Long. The result of the video game depends on the player’s completed choices, and the game creators ask viewers to consider their own morality at the end of the game.
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