Gaming and Virtue Ethics

The Enlightenment really posed more questions than it answered. One of the more important questions that it asked of the world was “How do we make ‘ought’ statements?” or perhaps “Can we make ‘ought’ statements?”. That we struggle to answer it is significant for our future ability to make moral claims and thus live good lives. In the 1980’s Alasdair MacIntyre came up with an answer of sorts but interestingly the Gamer community has developed a ‘world’ in which ought statements abound and moral lives are easy to live. But before we get too far along, lets go back to what an ought statement is and then work out how it applies to gaming.

If I know what the situation is, can I say what ought to happen next? So for example “I am tall, therefore I ought to ……..?”, or “The sky is cloudy, therefore we should ……..?”. These are two fairly mundane examples and I think you would agree that stating that someone should or shouldn’t act one way or another because of their height or the whether is fairly uncompelling. But if I were to say “He is a man, therefore he ought not be homosexual” or “She is pregnant, therefore she ought not have an abortion”, you can see that making ought statements are very important, topical and contentious. Can we make them without simply being judgmental and pushy but rather being compelling to any human who desires to be moral?

Yes we can, but only under certain conditions. Think of it as giving directions. If we know where a person is and where they want to be, we can say “you ought to go straight for 2 blocks, left at the post office and keep going straight”. The directions might end up being wrong, but trying to give them at least makes sense. If we only knew where someone was (and not where they wanted to go or even if they wanted to go anywhere) it would seem ridiculous to say “you ought to go straight for 2 blocks, left at the post office and keep going straight”. As humans, sometimes we know where we are but do we know where we want to go? If either of these two factors are missing, we can’t make ought statements.

MacIntyre’s thought that bridged the Ought Gap was that if a thing had a specific function, ought statements were easy. The watch ought to tell the time. The compass ought to point to magnetic north. The gate ought to open and close. Christians solved this puzzle for humans by saying that a human had a function, to serve god. Given that we know what serving God looks like from the Bible, we know where human’s are headed and we can say “a man ought to do unto others as he would have them do unto him.”.

But before Christianity, we had Aristotle. He wrote about ethics and how a man should act. A very peculiar point about his writing was he seemed to find where a man was going or what he wanted to be as pre-ordained. These days we ask ourselves endlessly about “What should I do with my life?”. Aristotle seemed to think that a man was like an acorn, he would either grow into an acorn tree or die, the idea of an acorn being anything other than an acorn tree is absurd. So to Aristotle, living the good life for a harpist was all about playing the harp well. Whether he should play the harp at all did not seem to factor.

These leads us to gaming. When one logs onto a game like World of Warcraft one is usually greeted by some sort of scenario where a king’s guard comes running up and says “The fair city Stormwind is under attack by the evil Lich King and his army of the undead. Either report to brave King Varian to take command of the defenses or report to wise mage Rhonin to lead the counter offensive”. You’ll notice that a difficult moral decision between right and wrong does not exist. You are a solider. Stormwind is good. The Lich King is bad. Your own status as a good man or a bad man will depend upon your virtue in war, not in ethical decisions about whom you should fight for. The use of reason and wisdom in gaming is not in choosing the moral good from bad, but in using wisdom and practical reason to champion the good that the game sets out for you within it’s game play.

I believe this is why gaming is not only popular but also safe. When one logs onto twitter, one is instantly greeted by vileness and hatred. This is because people are there trying to determine the difference between right and wrong in 140 characters. But no one in the gaming world is spewing hate as they raid Black Rock Mountain. No one is playing in male only guilds or asking all Jews to log off. The reason is that what is good and what is bad is decided by the game. The art of the game is in swinging a battleaxe well which makes life within the game not only challenging, but fun. It is fun to know that you are always on the right side. It is fun to solve a puzzle or complete a challenge. It is not fun to get 90% of the way through life and find out you were on the wrong side that whole time. It is not fun to be brave an strong but have no enemy to direct yourself against.

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