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12: Simulated Killing

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  • Can you avoid knowledge? You cannot! Can you avoid technology? You cannot! Things are going to go ahead in spite of ethics, in spite of your personal beliefs, in spite of everything.1

    Technology: the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.2

    1. Introduction

    Ethics is about how we live in the world and how we interact with one another. Given that “simulated” killing is, well, “simulated”, we might think that it falls outside ethical consideration. However, this chapter will challenge this claim. Simply granting that a scenario is not “real” does not mean that it should not be thought of as ethical. We think through how the various ethical theories we have looked at in this book might have something to say about simulated killing. The chapter relies on the work of Michael Lacewing (1971–) and Garry Young.3

    Simulated killing can mean a number of things and at first it is perhaps easier to say what it is not. Obviously simulated killing is not actual killing, nor is it a description or representation of killing. So J. K. Rowling’s description of the death of Voldemort will not count as simulated killing nor would Caravaggio’s painting depicting John the Baptist’s decapitation. However, acting in a film involving killing — Schindler’s List for example, or acting Romeo killing Tybalt on stage, would. Furthermore, with the advent of computer games and virtual reality there are interesting, and arguably morally different, dimensions to simulated killing. Specifically, modern technology helps us all be part of the simulation.

    Of course, one reaction to supposed ethical worries surrounding this topic might be simply — “grow up”! There are many horrific things — real things — going on in the world, poverty, torture, crippling debt. They are the things that as ethicists we ought to be concerning ourselves with. In contrast these simulated things are just entertainment. After a killing scene in a film the actors will go home; the actors in Romeo and Juliet will dust themselves off and go out for a drink, and the pixels will be altered on the computer monitor and reformed due to electrical charges. No one is actually hurt!

    However, to counter this more dismissive attitude, consider a few examples. The thing to keep in mind when reading them is whether this “who cares, it’s not real!” attitude seems right? And if it is not, why?

    1. A local high security prison has a large number of child killers. They often riot which causes massive destruction and suffering. However, the prison warden proposes a way of stopping the rioting. At little cost, each inmate can be given his or her own virtual reality headset that gives each prisoner the ability to engage virtually in his or her favourite child killing fantasy. Experiments have shown that the immersive nature of this seems to act like a safety valve and prisoners become quiet and helpful and are willing to get involved in educational and community programs. Should they be given the headsets?
    2. It is common for armies to use very realistic computer gaming to train their soldiers. Imagine that soldiers are currently fighting in Syria and their Syrian training simulator — along with realistic Russian and US soldiers, realistic maps, civilian sites such as mosques etc. — is released for sale. Is there anything wrong with this?
    3. As part of one level of the video game Call of Duty — Modern Warfare 2 you are expected to participate in a mass shooting of civilians at a Moscow airport in order to pass yourself off as a Russian terrorist. If you play this level are you doing something morally wrong?
    4. In June 2015 a video game called “Hatred” was released. The aim of the game is simple, to kill as many civilians as possible. The gamer controls the character through a town, shooting, burning, running over, blowing up, and executing random innocent people. (Equally controversial is Super Columbine Massacre RPG! Where players can play Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and re-enact the Columbine High School Massacre). Is it morally wrong to play such games?

    What is interesting is that we suspect that many of you reading this chapter would find some or all of (1)–(4) objectionable. Even, perhaps, morally objectionable.

    In this chapter we will start by looking at different moral theories and how they might capture this intuition. We will then consider the type of cases, one’s in which we are observing the simulated killing. We end by highlighting a famous philosophical problem that might relate to these issues, the Paradox of Tragedy.

    2. Utilitarianism and Simulated Killing

    For Utilitarianism no act, qua act, is right or wrong. So we cannot say that playing at killing others is wrong. What we have to focus on is how much happiness is created in particular examples of simulated killing.

    In asking this question regarding the amount of happiness we might conclude that there is nothing wrong with (1)–(4). After all, the inmates, the players of Call of Duty or Hatred get enjoyment and there is a lot of happiness, no one is hurt, and there is no unhappiness. In fact, we can imagine that there might be more unhappiness if someone stops playing these games. Perhaps people who are stopped from playing their video games might turn to making life miserable for those around them or slump into depression. In fact, then, according to Utilitarianism it might be that playing a killer in a computer game is something that some people morally ought to do. In some situations, it might even be their duty to play such games.

    This said, notice that the question is an empirical one (i.e. it is a question answered a posteriori rather than a priori). If playing the killer in simulated killing leads to more unhappiness than not doing so, then playing the killer is wrong. But why might such simulated killing bring about unhappiness?

    Perhaps playing a killer makes people more inclined to violent behaviour? Perhaps it makes the player less able to empathise and trust, each of which might lead to the player being more likely to harm others (what McCormick calls “risk increasing acts”4). Or perhaps playing simulated killing desensitises the players to violence in ways which might be harmful to both themselves and other?

    As Young (2014) reports the evidence relevant to these sorts of claims is mixed. In some cases, where a gamer perhaps already has a predisposition to violence, playing the killer will lead her to violence and harm. So the utilitarian would say it is morally wrong for this person to play such games. Whereas in other cases, where the player has a “normal” disposition, playing a killer in a video game may have no negative effects; in which case, it is not morally wrong.

    So, for Utilitarianism if there is a clear link between risk-increasing acts and playing the killer in games then we might be able to say that such game playing is morally wrong. But the evidence does not support this claim. There is though, a further consideration to be made when thinking about playing the killer. If you recall from Chapter 1 Bentham and Mill differ in their approaches to “happiness”. Bentham famously claims:

    Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and science of music and poetry. If the game of push-pin furnish more pleasure, it is more valuable than either…If poetry and music deserve to be preferred before a game of push-pin, it must be because they are calculated to gratify those individuals who are most difficult to be pleased.5

    Because “push pin is as good as poetry” Bentham would treat playing the killer in a video game in the same way as any other pleasure. However, you’ll also recall that Mill thought that this was not quite right, and that push-pin (or, in our case, playing the killer in Call of Duty/Hatred etc.) is perhaps not of equal value as the pleasure we get from other activities such as poetry.

    Maybe then when doing a utilitarian calculation regarding the pleasure involved in playing at killing we need to consider — not just the empirical questions highlighted above, but also whether such pleasure is higher or lower? We might reasonable conclude (though this is debatable) that it is a lower pleasure. Mill might argue that the inmate gaining pleasure from enacting virtue kill fantasies is not just of less quantity, but is of less quality than joining a drawing class or, say, visiting an Art Gallery.

    Of course, introducing the distinction between higher and lower pleasure will not necessarily lead to the conclusion that playing the killer in video games is morally wrong. We might argue (can you?) that playing such games as Call of Duty can in fact lead to higher pleasure. Or we might agree that it is correct to think of such activities as a lower pleasure but still maintain that in some instances it would be right to play the killer in these games.

    There are further things that Utilitarianism would have to take into account in each case. For instance, what is going to be important is not only the type of person playing the simulated killing — do they have a violent disposition? — but the type of killing that is simulated. Maybe the way that the killing is simulated: the age, race and gender of the person killed and the method of death are important. Perhaps, for example, a simulated killing which is highly sexualized is much more likely to bring about harm in the gamer. Or in contrast maybe the simulated killing of uniformed soldiers in a video game does not change people’s outlook and behaviour. The simple point is that the utilitarian questions about “simulated killing” can only be answered if we first pin down the precise details of the situation.

    Young is a good place to end this section:

    We have a very good idea of the benefits of video games. Their economic impact is quantifiable as is the number of hours of entertainment they bring to gamers. GTA [Grand Theft Auto] alone sold over 66 million games by 2008, evidence that at least this many people derive entertainment from game violence. Other heavily criticized violent games are likewise usually among the top sellers. There are also a number of educational benefits. The improvements in visual perception, hand-eye coordination, and other motor skills from gaming are also well documented. The difficulty only lies in deciding how much these benefits should weigh against any harm that games do, but this is a problem intrinsic to utilitarian theory and should not be counted against violent games.6

    3. The Kantian and the Virtue Ethics Approach

    We have placed these two theories together because in the end what they have to say about playing the killer in video games is going to be similar. Specifically, whether they think playing the killer is right or wrong is going to depend directly on the empirical data about how doing so will change the person playing the game.

    Recall from Chapter 14 for a discussion of this).

    The point of this diversion into animal ethics is that the morality of playing the killer in video games will be dealt with in the same way. If playing the killer makes us less able to reason and hence discern our duty towards others, then Kant would say that we should avoid them. But, as stated above, this is an open question as the empirical evidence is inconclusive.

    Shifting to virtue theory, if playing the killer makes us less virtuous — e.g. less courageous, empathetic, sensitive etc. — then the virtue theorist will claim this will make us less able to do the right thing at the right time to the right proportion. This means that playing the killer is to be avoided. So to the question “would the Aristotelian or Kantian think it is wrong to play the killer in video games?” the answer is: “Not directly, it just depends on the link between doing so and its effects on us as moral agents”.

    4. Films and Plays

    Recall, we started this chapter by pointing out that simulated killing takes place in films and plays. Notice that this might include watching simulated killing, or acting out the killing. Playing such characters is — we guess — of less direct relevance to our readers. Anyway, we suggest that we could treat playing the killer in films and plays in a similar way as we have in video games. Of course, there might be further complications when asking how playing a killer on stage or in a film differs psychologically from playing one in a video game. However, we suggest the issues are still fundamentally the same, it is just how we extract the empirical data — what sort of empirical questions we need to ask — which will be different. For example, perhaps physically holding a (fake) knife or gun makes us more — or less — likely to hold a real knife or gun. Or perhaps watching people being (virtually) shot and (virtually) bleeding makes us less — or more — sensitive to real blood and death. And perhaps this is fundamentally different to how playing a knife-wielding killer in a video game affects us. But again, this is an empirical and not a philosophical question. (It is interesting to note that because of the increase in the sophistication of virtual reality, the gap between playing video games and acting in films/plays might be closing.)

    What then about simply watching simulated killing? Well, we do not need to rehearse again the general approaches discussed above. Does the utilitarian think that watching killing is wrong? Well it depends on the consequences. Does the Kantian or the Aristotelian? Well it depends on how it affects us as moral agents. And the answer to these questions is, again, an empirical matter.

    We end with an ancient philosophical problem which has come to be known as the Paradox of Tragedy. Although it is not directly about ethics, it brings to the fore issues to do with authenticity and character which might have a direct link to other issues we have discussed.

    5. The Paradox of Tragedy (or More Correctly the Paradox of “Negative Emotions”)

    Imagine that we go into a hotel room and we see bloody hand marks on the wall and in the shower. We feel disgusted, anxious and scared. We quickly turn around and get out of there as quickly as possible. Such emotions are unwelcome and make us uncomfortable. However, consider all the time and money spent on watching and making films which have upsetting scenarios. Watching films (of course it does not have to be a film — the same reasoning applies to plays or video games) generate in us disgust, anxiety and fear but we flock in our droves to such films. In fact, the more scary/disgusting/disturbing the film is, the more attractive it seem to audiences. Consider Hitchcock’s groundbreaking Psycho for example. Here then is the “paradox”. On the one hand negative emotions are not desired, whereas in other context they are.

    Although it is not a genuine paradox it is certainly a tension — an odd thing that needs to be explained. We will not go into the possible explanations here. What is interesting to us is that this paradox seems to be particularly pertinent when we refer to simulated killing. Presumably we would find it particularly horrific if we witnessed real life killing, but if it is “simulated” perhaps these emotions — horror, fear, etc. are qualitatively different. Call them *fear*, *horror*, *disgust*.

    This in turn might mean that we need to be less worried about the changes in our character that might come about through simulated killing because they are to do with *fear* not fear, *horror* not horror, *disgust* not disgust etc. Again, we do not need to go into the details of this. It is though just another dimension to simulated killing which may have moral significance and consequently deserve consideration.


    “Simulated killing” covers a number of different areas; it could involve playing the killer, or watching someone play the killer. In the first category it could be an actor on film or stage, or it could be someone playing a video game.

    Initially we might think that because it is “simulated” this topic is outside ethics. But using Utilitarianism, Kantian and Virtue Ethical lenses we have shown that this is not the case. For Utilitarianism whether it is simulated or not is not important, the question is how much happiness each of these activities generates compared to doing something else. If it is more, then we ought to do them, if not, we ought not. For the Kantian and virtue ethicist the question is how being involved in simulated killing changes us as a person. If it makes us less able to be a moral agent — e.g. less rational or virtuous — then we ought not to be involved in simulated killing.

    However, the main lesson from this chapter is this. Issues surrounding simulated killing are going to be addressed via psychology. Which is thus far inconclusive. So it seems the best we can say is that “yes simulated killing is a moral issue”, but the decision of whether a particular activity is morally right or wrong will be advanced via experimentation.


    • Thinking that the Utilitarian would say there is nothing wrong with simulated killing.
    • Missing how important the psychological data is to the ethical question.
    • Thinking that we can answer the Paradox of Tragedy by simply pointing out that sometimes we like bad things.
    • Assuming that bad taste just means morally wrong.


    1. Watch the 2015 film Gamechangers starring Daniel Radcliffe. This film looks at the court case between the creators of Grand Theft Auto and Jack Thompson. How do you think the film deals with the ethical issues? Do you think that a particular ethical theory comes out as more favourable?
    2. What is “simulated killing”?
    3. Reading (1)–(4) do you think that simulated killing generates a genuine moral issue?
    4. How might you consider (a) the simulated killing of animals? Should it be treated any differently from the simulated killing of humans? (b) young children playing games that involve killing, e.g. a playground game of soldiers.
    5. Should we treat “simulated killing” differently from other “simulated” actions, such as stealing or rape?
    6. Do you think that the pleasure gained by the inmates in (1) is a “lower” pleasure?
    7. What would the Kantian/virtue ethicist say about (1)?
    8. Imagine a case in the future where one can buy ultra-life like AI robots. These robots can be “killed”. They will “bleed”, they have been programmed to beg for mercy, to whimper, etc. Once they have been “killed” they can be reset and “killed again”. Should we treat this case differently? What happens if the robots are so lifelike that people no longer know the difference between them and real humans? Does that change things?
    9. Governments have censored video games, such as Call of Duty, and Hatred. Are they right to do so? That is, even if we find them immoral, how might this relate to laws governing “simulated killing”?
    10. What is the “Paradox of Tragedy”? Do you think it has any relevance when discussing the morality of simulated killing?
    11. Use Google Scholar to find the most up-to-date research on the psychological effects of “simulated killing” (any version you want). What does the current psychological research tell us about the ethical issues raised in this chapter?


    Simulated killing

    Paradox of Tragedy

    Higher and lower pleasures

    Risk-increasing Acts


    Bentham, Jeremy, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, freely available at

    Frisch, Max, Homo Faber: A Report (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1959).

    Horgan, John, ‘The Forgotten Era of Brain Chips’, Scientific American, 293.4 (October 2005): 66–73,

    Lacewing, Michael, ‘Simulated Killing’, freely available at killing.pdf

    McCormick, Matt, ‘Is It Wrong to Play Violent Video Games?’, Ethics and Information Technology, 3.4 (2001): 277–87,

    Young, Garry, Ethics in the Virtual World: The Morality and Psychology of Gaming (Abington: Routledge, 2014),

    1 J. Delgado, quoted in John Horgan, ‘The Forgotten Era of Brain Chips’.

    2 M. Frisch. Homo Faber: A Report.

    documents.routledge-interacti...ries/Simulated killing.pdf. See in particular Garry Young’s Ethics in the Virtual World: The Morality and Psychology of Gaming.

    4 M. McCormick, ‘Is it Wrong to Play Violent Video Games?’, p. 279.

    6 G. Young, Ethics in the Virtual World: The Morality and Psychology of Gaming, p. 131.