Peculiar moments of videogame play can confuse the moral intuitions of players and witnesses. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 — a 2009 first-person shooter (FPS) game by Infinity Ward — famously includes one such moment in its No Russian mission. Arriving after a sequence of ordinary FPS action, a cutscene offers a brief on the new assignment: to infiltrate a Russian terrorist cell and gain the confidence of their evil leader. The player is warned that they will need to sacrifice a piece of themselves, but that it will be worth it due to the harm they will prevent. Suddenly the mission starts. The player-character can see that they are holding a machine gun and are in an elevator with the leader of the Russian terrorist cell and his subordinates, all similarly armed. The leader turns and reminds the group: “Remember, no Russian”; speaking in their native tongue would give too much away. The elevator doors open to reveal an airport lobby full of civilians. The terrorists step forward and after a second of quietness, open fire. As bodies start to drop, the player suddenly comprehends the moment and becomes perturbed; they were not expecting to participate in a virtual act of terrorism. The game world and the real world have collided, and the player has encountered an uncanny moral moment.
In moments such as this, a player’s real-world values and beliefs are discordant with their knowledge that the game world is fictional. This is likely an extreme version of a familiar moment for experienced players, but perhaps those without firsthand experience have borne witness to gameplay that both concerned and confused them. Carefully thinking through the moral significance of uncanny videogame play helps to avoid assessing such moments unfairly and can lead to important insights about the moral sensibilities of players and of their witnesses.
A core tenet for any serious moral interrogation of videogame play is that any such appraisal must differentiate between performing specific in-game acts and performing the real-world equivalent of what those actions represent. That guiding interpretive principle may seem obvious, but it’s not rare to hear naïve bystanders crossing those wires in a moral panic. My aim here is to make a rather simple point: in-game actions and gameplay behaviours ought to be assessed as actions performed by a real human and seen as involving a potentially context-rich videogame environment. That is, a player’s participation in No Russian ought not to be confused with a comparable real-world military operation. Rather, the only sensible starting point is the recognition that the action in question involves a real player, in the real world, acting upon, and within, a videogame fiction. This is not to say that videogame play is beyond fair moral criticism. Even though gameplay and fiction are involved, the player is still doing something real in a morally murky circumstance. This starting point of gameplay appraisal does, however, remind us that the event involves videogame play, not just what is being depicted. Once we approach an instance of gameplay with this appreciation, we can begin to think it through for what it is.
A fair moral assessment of uncanny gameplay will consider at least the player’s potential recognition of the moment and their response to the experience. Contemplation of these factors may reveal problematic behaviour and psychological states — such as when a No Russian player thoughtlessly directs their character to gun down the civilians and lazily defends their gameplay on the basis that it’s just a game. A player who spontaneously uses the opportunity to sadistically indulge fantasies of misanthropy and guiltily keeps the experience a secret from others would exemplify a more egregious moral failure. Different circumstances may instead reveal thoughtful reflection on an educative experience; a player who begrudgingly participates in simulated violence out of cautious curiosity but later reflects on their experience could gain important insights into their gameplay habits and values. A different player might realise they enjoyed the gameplay more than expected and decide it best to avoid similar experiences in the future. These cases each illustrate the moral importance of recognising that uncanny gameplay involves a specific human playing a videogame in a specific manner.
Players ought to exercise caution if ever intentionally pursuing the moral uncanny via gameplay, due to the very real moral risks at stake. I press this point with great care against falling into the moral panic I warned of earlier. Encounters with the moral uncanny can be innocuous or educative, but using that fact as motivation for seeking deeply troubling experiences can be problematic. A player who claims – either before the experience or afterwards – that their desire to experiment with simulations of brutal violence originates from a primary desire to confront assumptions around taboo media consumption, could be thinking honestly. They could also be obscuring a desire to indulge in something vicious. I expect that a growing repertoire of life experiences and the development of videogame literacies gradually narrows the variety of uncanny moments that a player is likely to encounter. That is, an experienced player with an appropriate attitude will likely, on a gradual basis, consolidate their videogame sensibilities into their broader sense of self. As players or as witnesses, we ought to strive toward that consolidation, tending towards withstanding serious moral scrutiny. This is especially true in the case of young players. We do not expect children to quickly comprehend the vast complexities of moral life, so it is not fair to expect them to do so in peculiar circumstances.
When we witness or participate in gameplay that invites us to a confrontation with an uncanny moral moment, we need a practical starting point for making sense of it. The first step is to remind ourselves that the event in question is a human playing a videogame. The next step is to query that player — whether a dependent child, a friend, or ourselves — on the experience of the moment. Ideally, that will yield an honest and appropriately thoughtful answer and we can take it from there. Perhaps the experience was educational, and will prove to offer enduring value. If the response appears ostensible or otherwise concerning, then perhaps there is a real moral problem, and the player should consider turning the videogame off.