Are Video Games Good?

Dear Aristotle,


Hi Aristotle, love your column. Glad to see you writing again; it’s been a few years.

I’m wondering what you think about video games. Is there a difference in virtue between video games and other types of recreation? Is it morally and/or aesthetically better to spend one’s free time, say, learning a musical instrument or crafting something out of wood, or playing a video game? Does the type of game matter? Is there virtue in the virtual? 😉

Thanks,
Abigail

Dear Abigail,

First thanks for visiting the page and supporting my, ‘come back tour,’ as they say. It can be hard to get back into the swing of things post-retirement. I am not the young popular academic I once was, but the 21st century is teeming with so many new and intricate ethical quandaries that I had to give it a go. The Starbuck’s cappuccino makes it easier to get moving again, fortunately! 

You are asking a great ethical question, and one that I find especially interesting since video games were not part of Ancient Greek’s social-fabric. We did, however, have theatre, and for the purpose of your question, there are many similarities. My teacher, Plato, is famous for having argued that the virtual is very much not virtuous. He thought theatre was an art of ‘imitation’ that distorted. He found the entire practice misleading and one brand of dishonesty. Because theatre misrepresented the world, those who watch it become corrupted. Plato saw virtue as a means of inching closer and closer to truth and what is real, while slowly backing further and further away from mere imitation. Hence, Plato seems unlikely to issue his ethical or aesthetic approval to video games. I suspect he would be appalled by young persons (whose character is still developing) spending hours on end enmeshed in this virtual reality. Plato is likely to say there is much more virtue in creating something out of wood, or other activities that are not centrally involved in misleading representations of reality.

My own thoughts on this are much different from my teacher’s. I do not think that theatre or video games necessarily are a form of imitation. Instead, they can be representation, which is much different. Imitation tries to pass itself off as something it is not. But representation can be forthright in what it is aiming to do, and so while not reality itself, is not misleading for there is no attempt to trick. That being said, the details are critical. While theatre need not be misleading, it can be misleading. If there is an intended (or even unintended) consequence of persons seeing fiction as reality after a particular show or game, then participants risk of becoming more vicious than virtuous. 

In one sense I would say video games are a lot like theatre: they are not necessarily problematic. And, in fact, the right kind of video games might help us become more virtuous by allowing us to practice certain kinds of emotional undertakings. On the other hand, if video games either misrepresent reality, or have the wrong kind of effects on the emotions, then they contribute to vice and not virtue. The wrong kind of emotional consequences is a major concern with violence and otherwise immoral activities conveyed through video games. Some games might desensitize us in the wrong way. Violence and assault, for instance, should illicit emotional distress in virtuous persons. But some video games desensitize this response by either encouraging it within the structure of the game, or by repeatedly displaying these situations so the player becomes accustomed to them, as if they were nothing to get upset about. 

Video games also can be a threat to virtue insofar as they can become an addictive activity. As I have argued, virtue lies in moderation, i.e. in finding the right middle ground between too much and too little. Addictive substances and activities are by their very nature vicious; they sit at the extreme end of the spectrum far away from the virtuous middle. When players become so focused on video games that it diverts their attention away from all the other things that need attention, this is clearly a point where these games are making a person not morally better, but instead worse. 

Yours,

Aristotle

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