Vet Ethics: Virtual animals – real consequences

In 2021, video games are big business – bigger in dollar terms than Hollywood and North American sports combined. Video games are not just for children: many parents and other adults play video games on a regular basis. Games such as Grand Theft Auto can be both hyperviolent and a lot of fun; they seem to lock into the brain’s dopamine reward centres.

Recently, there has been interest in how video games portray animals—in particular, their violent treatment. Although this may seem like a trivial issue, the way animals are presented to us in various formats arguably has wider effects on our ethical attitudes to them. I wrote about this with a colleague last year in an article called The “digital animal intuition:” the ethics of violence against animals in video games.

Consider some of the ways that animals are portrayed in video games. Virtual animals are often given no agency of their own. They may be presented as convenient and disposable tools or resources. Wild animals in games can seem to be infinitely killable and renewable, even if in reality they are endangered.

There can also be differential treatment of animal species. So, gamers may be invited to treat companion animals well, while killing or torturing non-aggressive wild or farm animals. Even a cartoonish game such as Minecraft can do this sort of thing. Some games glorify hunting for trophies.

Violence to animals can be built into the logic of some games. Harming animals can be necessary for the player to progress to new levels.

Sometimes, however, animals are portrayed more sympathetically. As blogger Michael Swistara points out, virtual animals can be rendered as helpers. This occurs in the game Ghost of Tsushima, where birds lead the gamer to hidden locations and foxes lead them to shrines.

Another game focuses on a hedgehog called Leo and his natural habitat and burrow. Says one commentator: “All of a sudden [students] have to think about life from [Leo’s] point of view, what his life is like and how things are different from his perspective.” This could potentially encourage more humane and environmentally aware views amongst players.

Many video games have morality systems. For example, in the game series Red Dead Redemption you can lose honour points for shooting your own horse.

Concerns about video games that portray animals as killable resources might seem like moral panic. After all, virtual animals are just pixels on a screen. Setting them on fire or clubbing them to death does not hurt them!

Furthermore, evidence that playing violent video games make gamers themselves more likely to go out and commit acts of violence is weak—or at least strongly contested.

However, perhaps the broader context is important in how we should understand and interpret video game violence against animals. In real life, animals are often treated as tools and disposable commodities. They are also more vulnerable than most humans.

Of course, some people, like children and minoritised groups, are also more vulnerable in reality. That may be why video games often don’t allow players to single out children or certain racial groups for especially violent treatment.

Some commentators have suggested that video game designers might increase sympathetic portrayals of animals. It is suggested that designers might give more personality to animal characters and enhance players’ emotional connections with them.

Designers could create more games that allow players to step into the paws or hooves of an animal, and to see the world from their perspective.

While video games have traditionally got some bad press, these days more and more people argue that video games have benefits beyond enjoyment. For example, some believe video games can not only boost creativity and critical thinking, but also empathy and emotional intelligence.


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