Virtual Reality and Ethical Issues

There are a few ethical issues in regard to virtual environments which need to be addressed. These are related to human behaviour and motivations and are also a concern for the gaming industry.

They include:

  • The problem of ‘desensitisation’
  • Virtual criminality

The desensitisation of virtual reality

Concerns have been raised about a possible relationship between virtual reality and desensitisation. This refers to virtual reality games in which there are high levels of violence or training exercises for the military in which soldiers engage in simulated combat scenarios which include killing.

Desensitisation means that the person is no longer affected by extreme acts of behaviour such as violence and fails to show empathy or compassion as a result. In some situations they actively seek out this type of scenario for the adrenaline rush and sense of power.

This has been noticed with gamers, especially those who play first person shooters or role playing games which involve a high degree of immersion.

Another issue related to this is ‘cyber-addiction’. There are people who become addicted to virtual reality games and as a consequence, start to blur the boundary between real and virtual life. They spend increasing amounts of time in the virtual environment which has a detrimental effect on their real world life.

Virtual criminality

It is hard to imagine but what happens if someone commits a criminal act but within a virtual environment? A potential situation is one in which several people are immersed within a virtual environment but one of these participants becomes injured or traumatised due to the actions of another person in that situation.

The question is whether it is possible for someone to suffer an injury or mental distress as a result of a violent action carried out in a virtual environment. And if this does happen is the perpetrator punished in a similar way to someone who commits this action in the real world?

What may be argued is whether a virtual reality participant can experience pain, distress or other emotions associated with a criminal act?

This is an ongoing issue.

The disadvantages of virtual reality described above are minute in comparison to the wide benefits of virtual reality as a whole but it is very important that these issues are addressed.