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I’ve been pondering a comment I received earlier this summer at a conference.  I had presented my paper “The Ethics of Choice in Single-Player Video Games,” in which I made a distinction between intravirtual and extravirtual harm.  This distinction isn’t wholly mine – I adapted it from Johnny Søraker, because I thought it was particularly useful in game contexts; just as we distinguish between a character and the player of that character, so too we can distinguish between what happens inside the game (intravirtually) and what happens outside of it (extravirtually.)  In any case, one of the people attending the paper came up to me afterward and asked whether that distinction was always clear-cut.  In particular, he wondered what I made of the fact that the military has sought out video game players to pilot combat drones; the skills that the players learned while playing first-person shooters turned out to have military applications.

In many ways, that situation seems relatively straightforward: extravirtual skills can be gained from intravirtual environments, which is a fancy way of saying that games can teach us stuff.  I played a game when I was a kid where I had to defend a space station from attacking aliens; the only way to shoot down the alien ships was to correctly type the word associated with the alien.  (“Alfalfa” was my bane.)  Intravirtually, I was shooting down aliens; extravirtually, I was learning to touch-type.  The fact that hand-eye coordination can be developed from playing video games and then employed in the real world is not terribly noteworthy.

On the other hand, if we push the military example a bit more, things become blurrier if we think about video games used for training – here we are simulating the real world and thus it is harder to maintain a sharp distinction between intravirtual and extravirtual harm.  After all, if you are essentially practicing skills that you will use to harm someone, there is a strong causal link between becoming good at the intravirtual harm and being able to cause extravirtual harm.  The link doesn’t just go in that direction, of course; there was a great deal of controversy about the game Six Days in Fallujah, which was ultimately cancelled, because it was a hyperrealistic first-person shooter set at the battle of Fallujah in 2004.  Moreover, the game interwove interviews with soldiers and footage of the actual battle with their own game footage; this makes the distinction between the intravirtual and extravirtual worlds rather difficult to maintain (and is also probably what caused the controversy – the extravirtual events were so recent and so painful to people that making a video game about them seemed to trivialize people’s suffering.)

Moving further down the line of games, those which involve augmented reality quite clearly involve blurring the boundaries because players have an experience which is neither completely intravirtual nor completely extravirtual.  Since virtual objects are superimposed on the real world by means of a device, the player is “in” both the intra and extravirtual worlds.  Similarly, the potential seems to exist for harm that isn’t exactly intra or extravirtual – it spans the two; if I create an app that pops up all kinds of harmful slurs around your house when someone walks past it, the harm stems from the juxtaposition of the intra and extravirtual aspects.

Having said all of this, I still think the distinction is useful, even if reality may be a bit messier than fitting neatly into two boxes.  It is helpful to be able to conceptualize virtual worlds or video game spaces as having aspects which occur inside the virtual space and aspects which occur outside it.  We just have to keep in mind that sometimes one box spills over into the other.

References

Controversial Video Game on the Battle of Fallujah. (2009) Newsweek. http://www.newsweek.com/controversial-videogame-battle-fallujah-80591  Accessed 6 September 2016.

Neely, E.L. (2016) The Ethics of Choice in Single-Player Video Games. Manuscript in preparation. Current version accessible at http://www.ericaneely.com/publications/

Søraker, J. H. (2012) Virtual worlds and their challenge to philosophy: understanding the “intravirtual” and the “extravirtual.” Metaphilosophy, 43 (4), 499-512.

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