Bad Press: Why Violence Against Digital Animals Isn’t An Ethical Issue

Sorry Simon and Lucy, you are dead wrong on this one.

(Editor’s note: spoilers for the game Blair Witch within. Offending sentence is bolded.)

For this week’s Monday editorial I decided to pen an open response to a recent piece by Simon Coghlan and Lucy Sparrow of the University of Melbourne who decided to publish a paper about the ethics of digital violence against animals. If you want to read the piece, it is available here.

The gist of the paper is simple: They believe that game violence against digital animals is more likely to promote disrespect for their real counterparts.

It’s not clear exactly why players feel so differently about in-game violence. Attitudes towards in-game violence may be shaped by personal views, social mores, gaming culture and also the amount someone plays violent games.

As an expert in the field of video games, let me explain this succinctly. Players feel differently about in-game violence because those people have the cognitive ability to tell the difference between things that are real and things that are not. It’s an insane idea, one that academia has a very hard time grasping.

Animals as with their human counterparts in video games are as important as the game needs them to be and players understand that. In Dynasty Warriors you play as a one man army slaughtering people by the millions. In Minecraft you kill chickens and cows by the thousands to sustain yourself with meat and gear. In The Last Of Us 2 the game makes you feel bad for killing a dog by making them act like a real dog would. For some this backfired and made them feel contempt for the game trying to manipulate their emotions in such an obvious way. That’s not the point.

Chickens in Minecraft do not exist for players to feel sympathetic for them. They are for all intent and purpose a collection of ones and zeroes that exist as a vessel for digital chicken meat and feathers. They did not exist before you launched the game and if you didn’t kill them they would cease to exist when you end the game. They were spawned because the player was in the vicinity and they will despawn when you get far enough away. That Minecraft chicken has no thoughts, no family, it cannot eat or procreate. It poofs into smoke when it disappears because the game rendered animations and brought its statistical health to zero.

Video game animals exist because a board room decided they should and a programmer wrote the code to render it on a graphics card. It’s how a player can slaughter millions of chickens in Minecraft and not even flinch yet still lead a life as a militant vegan animal rights activist who calls their dog Uncle Chunker and cries whenever they pass roadkill. I’m describing a real person (it’s not me). It’s also how a game like Blair Witch can force the player through an arduous scene where they carry their injured dog to the point of passing out from exhaustion to avoid leaving the good boy behind. It’s also how PETA can be as anti-gamer as one can get, and yet euthanize the grand majority of the animals in their shelters every year. People are as disposable as the narrative needs them to be, animals are as disposable as the narrative needs them to be.

There is utterly zero credible information to suggest that video games somehow contribute to the indifference of people toward real life animals. It isn’t a topic that requires philosophic attention, although they are welcome to dive in anyway and find the nothing that sits inside the pyrite-plated chocolate egg.

Coghlan and Sparrow like to use a lot of vague language. It may have an effect. There might be a correlation. Of a massive variety of influences, this could feasibly have a non-statistically-negligible influence, with that evaluation being essentially unquantifiable of course. Taking two things that exist and insisting that there must be even the most bare of threads connecting them because why not. It offers no solution to a problem that they can barely muster a show of confidence that it exists.

To put it into perspective, Red Dead Redemption released in 2010. The latest National Survey of wildlife was released in 2016 with the next release in 2021. It found that between 2011 and 2016 that the number of hunters decreased 16%, big game hunters decreased by 20%, and other animal hunters decreased 39%. Comparing 2006 to 2016 numbers found no statistically significant differences in any category except for small game which dropped 27%.

Red Dead Redemption 1 had a heavy emphasis on hunting and it shipped over 15 million copies. One might expect that if there was a deleterious effect on gamers’ respect for animals that we might see a reflection in the number of hunters. But no, from 2011 to 2016 the number of hunters dropped by 2.2 million from 13.7 to 11.5 and not only that but hunters spent nearly 100 less days hunting and had $10 billion less in expenditures during that same period.

The whole idea that video game violence leads to real life repercussions is one that will never go away, because there are parties who start at the assumption that the conclusion is correct and then work out trying to find supporting evidence. And there is no supporting evidence, or at least what exists is vaguely tenuous at best and doesn’t actually support the conclusion. Some kid in Boise Idaho played Call of Duty and said “frick you” to a girl so it must mean that games make people more likely to shoot rabbits and disrespect women.

Essentially the piece feels like it is starting at the problem it invented and asking why nobody else talks about it, while ignoring that it might be because the fundamental theories are ridiculous. PhD’s trying to validate their existence on the payroll. The fact that nobody has discussed the distinct possibility of the sun being made of molten hot Sunny Delight doesn’t indicate a dropping of the ball from researches, because I know who is covering that information up.

But what do I know, I just talk about video games.

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