You are on page 1of 13

Shoot ‘em up!

Ethics as seen from video games perspective

By Per A. Godejord, Cand.Polit.,

Decanus, Faculty of Scientific Subjects,
Nesna University College, Norway.


Per Arne Godejord, Cand.Polit, (Born 1965), is a senior lecturer in social informatics at Nesna
University College, Norway. His work is focused on didactics of social informatics and social
informatics as a base for formation (bildung) of both computer science students and teacher
education students. He is using both the theme of sexual abuse of children on Internet and
violence in video games in his teaching, in order to create awareness of ethical issues. At the
present he is the Dean of Faculty of Scientific Subjects, Nesna University College.


This paper is a “lecture paper” intended for use in the international e-learning course ICT103,
at Nesna University College and does not aim to give any in-depth scientifically view of
ethical theory. The paper is based on the lecture “Ethics – A presentation on Ethics as seen
from Computer games”
(URL: )

Ethical/Societal Issues, Pedagogy, Social Informatics

"War is where the young and stupid are tricked by the old and bitter into killing each other."
- Niko, in Grand Theft Auto IV

In video games, violence is very often a large part of the game experience and the players
become “virtually violent”. While it has been quite common to discuss whether or not video
games makes people violent, there are less focus on how violent or abusive acts in games
would look if viewed from various ethical rules.


Before starting our journey into the realm of ethical theories, let us take a quick peek upon
some perspectives that we should bear in mind when looking at video games. The
perspectives we have on video games is based on many factors, like whether we are ardent
players ourselves, do not play video games at all, and so forth. For simplicity we will divide
them into two perspectives; Child perspective and Adult perspective.

The child perspective is what we call the egocentrically perspective. It is the tendency to
perceive, understand and interpret the world in terms of the self. The term derives from ego,
meaning "I," "me," and "self". An egocentric person cannot fully empathize, i.e. "put himself
in other peoples' shoes," and believes everyone sees what she/he sees, or that what he/she
sees, in some way, is better and more true than what others see.

This egocentric stance towards the world is present mostly in younger children, but might also
be found in young adults or adults. They are unable to separate their own beliefs, thoughts and
ideas from others. For example, if a child sees that there is candy in a box, she assumes that
someone else walking into the room also knows that there is candy in that box. She implicitly
reasons that "since I know it, you know it too". The fact that young children are egocentric by
nature does not mean that they are selfish, but that they do not have the mental ability to
understand that other people may have different opinions and beliefs from themselves.

The adult perspective is a more critical perspective, where we appreciate viewpoints other that
our own and are able to perform critical thinking. Critical thinking clarifies goals, examines
assumptions, discerns hidden values, evaluates evidence, accomplishes actions, and assesses
conclusions. "Critical" as used in the expression "critical thinking" connotes the importance or
centrality of the thinking to an issue, question or problem of concern. Critical thinking can
occur whenever one judges, decides, or solves a problem; in general, whenever one must
figure out what to believe or what to do, and do so in a reasonable and reflective way.
Reading, writing, playing video games, speaking, and listening can all be done critically or

When looking upon video games critical thinking is important, unless one wants to fall into
the, alas, far too common habit of viewing this media in purely black and white, i.e. either
very positive or very negative to every aspect of video games and gaming.

I just wanted to piss you off before I killed you

- Tommy Vercetti, in GTA Vice City.

We will start this part of the paper by looking at to viewpoints; The Utilitarian and the
Kantian point of view.

Utilitarianism is the idea that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its
usefulness in either maximizing the positive or minimizing the negative, such as increase
pleasure, knowledge or satisfaction and lower or avoid giving pains to other, etc. It is thus a
form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined by its
outcome. The most influential contributors to this theory are considered to be Jeremy
Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

Utilitarianism has been described as "the greatest happiness or greatest felicity principle."
The good to be maximized has been defined by various thinkers as happiness or pleasure
(versus suffering or pain), although preference Utilitarians define it as the satisfaction of
preferences. It may be described as a life stance, with happiness or pleasure being of ultimate

Utilitarianism can be characterised as a quantitative and reductionist approach to ethics. It can

be contrasted with deontological ethics, which do not regard the consequences of an act as
being a determinant of its moral worth, and virtue ethics, which focuses on character, as well
as with other varieties of consequentialism. A Utilitarian point of view on for instance
software piracy would be “I will not pirate software, because it might put programmers out of

On the other hand Kant's ethics are focusing entirely around duty rather than emotions or end
goals. All actions are performed in accordance with some underlying principle; it is according
to this that the moral worth of any action is judged. Kant's ethics are founded on his view of
rationality as the ultimate good and his belief that all people are fundamentally rational
beings. This led to the most important part of Kant's ethics, the formulation of the Categorical
Imperative, which is the criterion for whether a principle is good or bad.

Kant`s point of view amounts to a thought experiment: one should try to attempt to
universalize ones principles, that is imagine that everyone else in the world would act
according to your preferred principle in a relevant situation. Let us say that you are of the
opinion that a good principle is to kill anyone who annoys you, something that might look
quite reasonable within a video game. Then take this principle and apply it universally. Does
it sound like a sound principle? No, not really, as this would result in a world which would
soon be devoid of people and without anyone left to kill. So sticking to such a principle is
irrational as it ends up being impossible to adhere.

Universalizing a principle leads to it being valid, or to one of two contradictions — a

contradiction in conception or a contradiction in will. The first type leads to a "perfect duty",
and the second leads to an "imperfect duty."
Kant's ethics focus then only on the maxim that underlies actions and judges these to be good
or bad solely on how they conform to reason. Kant showed that many of our common sense
views of what is good or bad conform to his system but denied that any action performed for
reasons other than rational actions can be good.

For instance; saving someone who is drowning simply because you feel sorry for them is not
a morally good act. Kant also denied that the consequences of an act in any way contribute to
the moral worth of that act, his reasoning being that the physical world is outside our full
control and therefore we cannot be held accountable for the events that occur in it. Based on
this we get two rules:

1. Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it would
become a universal law.
2. Act so that you always treat others as an end and never as a means to an end only.

Using the same example as for Utilitarianism a Kantian point of view would be that “I will
not pirate software, because that is stealing, and stealing is wrong”.

These two points of view, the Utilitarian and Kantian will be with us as we proceed towards a
closer look at the ethics involved in video games.

War is delightful to those who have not yet experienced it.
-Erasmus, quoted in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

The ranges of video games are enormous and in this paper we will only look at some of them,
and only at examples from what I chose to call “Killing games”. These are games that have its
focus on killing your opponents, either computer generated AIs or computerized presentations
of real life people that you may play against online. Another word for these games is First
Persons Shooters.

We may divide these games into two categories; Fair games and unfair games. A typical “fair
game” will have rules of engagement and codes of conduct. Examples of such games are
Ghost Recon and SWAT 4. The “unfair games” will have no rules at all and you may freely
do whatever you want. Examples on such games are Postal and Manhunt.

But to say that a video game is “fair” in the sense that it has an established code of conduct
and rules of engagement does not constitute that this is a more ethical game than the ones
without rules of behaviour. If we look upon first person shooters with the viewpoint from two
major ethical philosophies; Utilitarian and Kantian one, we might reach a common
conclusion. A Utilitarian would say that killing people is wrong, and a Kantian that it is
illegal, and therefore wrong. So if we base our verdict on FPS games on the fact that we have
to kill in order to achieve the games objective, we may conclude that any game that has
killing of people as a major part of the play is unethical.

But does this mean that there is no difference between FPS-games as for ethics? Let us
explore this a bit and look first at the category of FPS-games that we call war games.

In war it is allowed to kill people – that is; soldiers. Non-combatants are off limits, as often
shown in military shooters like Ghost Recon 1 where any shooting of civilians ends the game.
So does that mean that such games are slightly less un-ethical as viewed from a Kantian point
of view? Before we try and close in on any conclusions, let us have a look at some more
ethical theories concerning the question of how to act, morally speaking. We call this branch
of philosophical ethics for normative ethics. Normative ethics examines standards for the
rightness and wrongness of actions. In normative ethics we are concerned not with questions
like is killing always wrong, but whether it is correct to hold such a belief at all. Broadly
speaking, normative ethics can be divided into the sub-disciplines of moral theory and applied
ethics. In this paper we will concentrate on moral theory. Traditional moral theories were
concerned with finding moral principles which allow one to determine whether an action is
right or wrong. Classical theories in this vein include both Utilitarianism and Kantianism.
Within normative ethics we will now look upon three theories:

• Virtue theories
• Duty theories
• Consequentialist theories

Virtue theories is concerned with the good habits of character, the virtues of a person, such as
wisdom, courage, temperance, justice, fortitude, generosity, self-respect, good temper and
sincerity. The opposite of virtues is vices, such as cowardice, insensibility, injustice and

Duty theories is based on the principles of obligation, and there are some duties that are
absolute, such as avoid wronging others, treat people as equals and promote the good of
others. Within this framework we also have what is called the Right Theory; that other
persons have a right not to be harmed by you, and Kant`s categorical imperative; that you
should treat people as an end, and never as a means to an end.

Consequentialist theories are focused on the following two theses:

1. An action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favourable than
2. If the good consequences are greater, then the action is considered morally proper. If
the bad consequences are greater, then the action is morally improper.

Well, you might say, so there are a bunch of theories on ethics. Fair enough. But so what?

Ok, let us have look at two video games; one “unfair” and one “fair”. For this lecture I have
chosen two games that are quite well known; Grand Theft Auto 3 and Ghost Recon. The
following examination is not an in depth study of the various moral and/or ethical issues
concerning these two games, but a cursory look at some actions and how they tie in with the
ethical theories we so far have been describing.

Grand Theft Auto III, or GTA III for short, is an action-adventure video game published by
Rockstar Games. It was the first 3D title in the Grand Theft Auto series, and was released in

GTA III is set in modern Liberty City, a fictional metropolitan city based on New York City.
The game follows a nameless criminal who was betrayed by his girlfriend in a bank heist and
is required to work his way up the crime ladder of the city before confronting her. GTA III is
composed of elements from driving games and third-person shooters.

The game's concept and game play, coupled with the use of a 3D game engine for the first
time in the series, contributed to its positive reception upon its release and it became 2001's
top selling video game. The game is cited as a landmark in video games for its far-reaching
influence within the industry. GTA III's violent and sexual content has also been the source of
public concern and controversy.

Let us take a look at one specific action within this game, called the “hooker cheat”. The
action is as follows: Pick up a prostitute, have sex to gain extra health, and then kill her when
you are finished and steal her money, so as not to have financial loss.
If we use the hooker cheat as our point of evaluation we`ll see that as for virtue this specific
behaviour is not very commendable. It is difficult to argue that there are any good virtues in
this specific behaviour, and the action might be viewed as both cowardice, unjust and
insensible. But in the game it is a logical thing to do if you want to win, and you may do it as
often as you want to.

If we look upon the action from the viewpoint of duty, we`ll see that this choice of behaviour
is wronging the prostitute. She is not treated as an equal, there is absolutely no promoting of
her good, her rights not to be harmed are violated and she is treated as a means to an end, i.e.
to win the game.

As for the consequential point of view this action is of course favourable to you as a player,
but very unfavourable to the prostitute. Now, let us pause here for a moment and look at the
“hookers cheat” from three other points of view; ethical egoism, ethical altruism and

Ethical egoism states that something is morally right if the consequences of the action are
more favourable than unfavourable only to you. Ethical altruism on the other hand, states that
a specific action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favourable than
unfavourable to everyone except you. And finally Utilitarianism claims that an action is
morally right if the consequences of the action are more favourable than unfavourable to

Egoistically speaking the action involved in the “hookers cheat” is quite in order as it enables
you to win the game, but naturally not so if viewed in the light of altruism or Utilitarianism.

Think about what you have read so far.

What is YOUR view on the action
involved in the so called “hookers

Let us leave GTA III and focus on the other game of our choice, Ghost Recon.

Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon is a series of military tactical shooter video games created by Red
Storm Entertainment. In the series, the player is in charge of a fictional, newly-conceived
squad of United States Army Special Forces operators from Company D, 1st Battalion, 5th
Special Forces Group (5th SFG) stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. They are sometimes
referred to as "the Ghosts". Their role is not unlike other real world special operations forces,
in that their operations are kept highly classified. In the first three instalments the “Ghosts”
where to stop ultra-nationalists, who had seized power in Russia, from building a new Soviet
Union, then stop an Ethiopian colonel from invading Eritrea and finally secure free elections
on Cuba.
The second series named Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter and consisting of two games, is
set in an unstable Mexico where Marxist rebels are trying to seize power. There have also
been instalments set in Korea, and in the next game, supposed to be released in 2011; the
story will take place in Norway, the Middle East, and Asia. The Ghosts will again be fighting
an ultra-nationalist force that have taken control of Russia and are invading neighbouring

In the following we will look upon the first Ghost Recon series and Ghost Recon Advanced
Warfighter 1 and 2. In these games there is no specific cheat as in GTA III. Like in the Grand
Theft Auto games you might encounter civilians, but unlike GTA, any killing of them ends
the game. In Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 1 and 2 there are no civilians at all.

Let us have a closer look at the lack of civilians and what this might have to do with ethics.
Ghost Recon was supposedly, at least originally, aiming towards training infantry soldiers as
well as providing entertainment for everyone who liked playing video games. In Ghost Recon
Advanced Warfighter, or GRAW for short, you are involved in urban warfare. In real life this
means you would be “surrounded” by civilians. So is it ethical to portray this sort of warfare
as free of civilians and all that it pertains as for decision making and quick reactions?

Think about this. Should video games focusing on urban

warfare be as ”accurate” as possible so as to present a
”true” picture of this particular way of waging war to the
public? Or is that of no importance?

"Why yes, I did shoot him. And him. And her. And the car. It seemed the appropriate
response, considering the circumstances."
- Sgt. Jack Stone, Sniper, in Ghost Recon 1

While not every video game, not even first person shooters/action games, have their sole
focus on killing, mostly this is what it`s all about. Military tactical games might have more
focus on combat tactics and strategic thinking, while others place the player in situations
where the focus is mostly on killing the enemy before he kills the player.

The Grand Theft Auto series gives the player many choices of how to solve the various tasks
and missions. You may kill every innocent bystander you see, or you may leave them alone.
You are not forced by any specific algorithms in the game to have sex with prostitutes, or kill
them afterwards in order to steal their money. But in the following we are going to
concentrate on military first person shooters and the game Ghost Recon.

Let us view the task of killing the opposing forces, or OPFOR to use a military acronym, from
the perspectives of duty, virtue and consequence.

Your actions in a game like Ghost Recon might both be courageous, attacking an equal strong
enemy in a frontal assault, or cowardice, snipe the enemy from behind and from a safe
distance. But these same actions might also be a sign of insensibility towards your opponents.

As for duty one might say that your actions are wronging your opponents, that you do not
promote your opponents good and that you treat them as a means to an end, i.e. you kill them
in order to win the game. And looking upon it from the viewpoint of consequentialism your
actions (killing the enemy) is favourable to you, but rather unfavourable to your opponents.

But since we are looking at military games and the killing is done within the framework of
war, we have to slightly complicate the matter. Because in war it is another set of ethics that
also apply; the ethics of war. As for war we are usually regarding it from three perspectives,
called jus ad bellum, jus in bello and just post bellum. Jus ad bellum focuses on when it is
justified to go to war. Jus in bello is about acceptable conduct in war and just post bellum
focuses on actions within the termination of war.

We will continue to keep our focus on what you as a player do in the game, i.e. the actions,
and therefore it is the concept of jus in bellom we will take a closer look at. As for jus in
bellom you may attack any military objective, all your actions must have the defeat of the
enemy as their intention, all your weapons have to be clearly visible and there are some
limitations as to what weapons are allowed to use against enemy personnel. I am sure some of
you now would exclaim “Aha! Weapons!” as this is an interesting part for many players of
military first person shooters. In both Ghost Recon 1 and Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter
you have the possibility of using the .50 calibre sniper rifle. This is a rifle that the
International Red Cross wants to have banned as for use against personnel, because of its
power and the “explosiveness” of the projectile.
The Norwegian Government have instructed that the use of the rifle shall be strictly anti-
material capacity only, i.e. only used against vehicles, radio equipment and so forth. But in
Afghanistan the rifle is in use by Norwegian snipers against soft targets (people), and one
unofficial viewpoint have been that it is acceptable to shoot at soldiers carrying radios as long
as you aim for the radio. In battle these finer points of how such a powerful rifle should be
used might easily be waived aside in order to stay alive and defeat the enemy.
As for the US Government they view the .50 calibre rifle as usable against all targets. Because
of the power of this particular rifle there is no chance of surviving a hit. And is it fair to kill
your opponent from 1500 to 2000 meters away?

So, the use of this gun on soft targets, i.e. personnel, is ok from the US point of view, not ok
from other points of view, and in a video game it is entirely up to you.

So far we have been looking at the actions from within the game. Let us take a quick step
away from the game play as such and ask the question: Is military first person shooters
training our kids to kill? And if so is that ethical? And what about the use of such games as
training tools for army recruits? Do they install in young men and women the idea that it is ok
to kill opponents who have surrendered (like in Call of Duty: Black Ops) or that urban
warfare is devoid of civilians and therefore you may shoot and bomb everything in sight?

What do YOU think?


- exclamation from AI team members signifying a successful shot, Ghost Recon 1

So far you have been given a cursory glimpse into ethical thinking from the viewpoint of
video games. There have not been any attempts to go into great depth or to explore the
various theories thoroughly. We shall therefore end this paper in the same vein and not give
you a long discussion or summing up, but rather give some short points that might be
considered a sort of conclusion.

All actions that involve killing and maiming others are unethical. So video games that include
such actions might be said to be unethical. The spreading of such games to kids might also be
unethical; i.e. the use of such games might desensitise them, make them more aggressive and
violent, etc.

On the other hand such games might contain a lot of ethical actions and thinking, and the use
of such games might encourage kids to think in ethical terms and create awareness of how
various actions in a first person shooter might be looked upon from different ethical
viewpoints, and thus instil critical thinking in kids and young persons.

Friedrich Nietzsche once claimed that “Es gibt keine Fakten, nur Interpretationen”, and
perhaps he was right.

What do YOU think?


Aristoteles: Etikk, Gyldendal, 1996

Castillo, Frida: Playing by the Rules: Applying International Humanitarian Law to Video and
Computer Games, Report, Geneva/Zurich, October 2009, Link to document:

Christopher, P.: The Ethics of War and Peace – An introduction to Legal and Moral Issues,
3d. Edition, Pearson Education, 2004

Cogburn, J, and Silcox, M.: Philosophy through video games, Routledge, 2009

Godejord, P.: Getting Involved: Perspectives on the Use of True Projects as Tools for
Developing Ethical Thinking in Computer Science Students, International Journal of
Technology and Human Interaction, Vol. 4, Issue 2, 2008

Lunde, N. and Mæland, B.: Militæretikk, Tapir akademisk forlag, 2006

Sicart, M.: The ethics of video games, MIT press, 2009

Thiroux, J. and Krasemann, K.: Ethics - Theory and Practice, 10th. Edition, Pearson
Education, 2009

Waller, B.: Consider ethics - theory, readings and contemporary issues, 2nd. Edition, Pearson
Education, 2008


Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Have a look at the “No Russian” scene. You are given a
choice; what do you do? Does your choice have any influence on the course of action? What
do you think about this scene?)

Call of Duty: Black Ops (1. Have a look at the scene where you are given only one choice and
that is to place a piece of glass in the mouth of Dr. Clarke and hit him. This is torture. What is
your views on that? Is this scene purely bad taste in order to pretend to be “controversial”
and thus sell more games or does the scene have some intellectual point? Is it sensible to put
glass in the mouth, and thereby risk damaging the tongue – a rather vital part of a person’s
ability to speak- , of someone you want to interrogate? What do you think?
2. In the scene where you fight as a Soviet soldier against SS-troops at the Arctic Circle,
several SS-troops extend their hands in the air and surrenders. What do you do in this
situation? What does the Geneva convention says? By following proper rules of conduct, does
that change any course of action in this particular scene? What is your thoughts about this?)

Grand Theft Auto III, and later instalments in the series (How do YOU play/ what choices do
you make when playing in this/these games? What is your thoughts about GTA?)
ARMA II: Operation Arrowhead (When the enemy surrenders, does the game allow you to
shoot them? Does anything happen if you do so?)

Bad Company 2 (In this game the engine allows for destructions of buildings. You enter a
village/town and you may freely destroy the houses. Is this allowed in war? Does the fact that
combatants/ soldiers are present in a town make the entire town a military objective? What
do YOU do when playing this game?)


 Play ARMA II, Call of Duty, Ghost Recon, Counter-Strike or some other similar
tactical shooter game.
 Read the Geneva Conventions online at
 Ponder about this: Does the values and rules that you read in the Geneva Conventions
seem to be implemented in the tactical shooter games you have tried yourself? Is it
possible to play such games efficiently, and win, and at the same time follow ethical