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Free will and moral responsibility in video games


Can a player be held morally responsible for the choices that she makes within a videogame? Do the moral choices that the player makes reflect in any way on the player’s actual moral sensibilities? Many videogames offer players the options to make numerous choices within the game, including moral choices. But the scope of these choices is quite limited. I attempt to analyze these issues by drawing on philosophical debates about the nature of free will. Many philosophers worry that, if our actions are predetermined, then we cannot be held morally responsible for them. However, Harry Frankfurt’s compatibilist account of free will suggests that an agent can be held morally responsible for actions that she wills, even if the agent is not free to act otherwise. Using Frankfurt’s analysis, I suggest that videogames represent deterministic worlds in which players lack the ability to freely choose what they do, and yet players can be held morally responsible for some of their actions, specifically those actions that the player wants to do. Finally, I offer some speculative comments on how these considerations might impact our understanding of the player’s moral psychology as it relates to the ethics of imagined fictional events.

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  1. 1.

    There has been some recent discussion of the problem of the morality of fantasies and works of fiction explicitly. Contemporary interest in the debate began with Kendall Walton’s (1990) theory of fiction and imagination. Discussion of Walton’s view and the possible limitations of imagination regarding morality have led to debate over the possibility of “imaginative resistance”. For discussion, see Gendler (2000) and Walton (1994). Some theorists have questioned whether the contents of works of fiction can be inherently immoral. For general discussion, see Cooke (2012, 2014), Gaut (1998), Harold (2002), and Smuts (2013). Finally, the recent debate over the “gamer’s dilemma” offers a more specific case of this general problem, and one that relates directly to video games. For discussion, see Luck (2009), Patridge (2011, 2013), and Young (2013).

  2. 2.

    I take this way of formulating the question from Cooke (2014).

  3. 3.

    See for instance, Dunn (2012), Gooskens (2010), McCormick (2001), Patridge (2011), and Tavinor (2009).

  4. 4.

    The body of literature on violent video games is enormous. The reader would do well to begin with a review of the literature, such as Barlett et al. (2009) or Ferguson (2007).

  5. 5.

    See McCormick (2001) and Sicart (2009) for similar accounts.

  6. 6.

    In the debate over free will, philosophers—from the most ancient to the present day—have sought to analyze precisely what is the source of the problem and how it should be resolved. For an introduction to the debate over free will and some indication of the range of views available, see Pereboom’s (2009) collection of some of the classic essays.

  7. 7.

    For discussion of whether compatibilism or incompatibilism are intuitive, see Nichols and Knobe (2007) and Nahmias et al (2006).

  8. 8.

    Certainly there is more that can be said about Frankfurt’s account of moral responsibility—for instance, Frankfurt cautions that we need to distinguish between being “fully” responsible and being “solely” responsible (p. 20, fn. 10)—but this level of detail is not necessary for my purposes here.

  9. 9.

    Cf. Frankfurt’s comment on the moral responsibility of the “willing addict” (pp. 19–20).

  10. 10.

    For discussion of this point, see Carroll (1998) and Walton (1994).

  11. 11.

    I take this to be a point that both Walton (1994) and Gendler (2000) would accept even despite their disagreements.

  12. 12.

    Cf. Sicart (2009).

  13. 13.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for this journal for the example and for pushing me to clarify this point.


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Bartel, C. Free will and moral responsibility in video games. Ethics Inf Technol 17, 285–293 (2015).

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  • Violence
  • Video games
  • Free will
  • Harry Frankfurt
  • Moral choice
  • Moral responsibility