PRINCETON, New Jersey — In a popular Internet role-playing game called Second Life, people can create a virtual identity for themselves, choosing such things as their age, sex and appearance. These virtual characters then do things that people in the real world do, such as having sex.
Depending on your preferences, you can have sex with someone who is older or younger than you — perhaps much older or younger. In fact, if your virtual character is an adult, you can have sex with a virtual character who is a child. If you did that in the real world, most of us would agree that you did something seriously wrong. But is it seriously wrong to have virtual sex with a virtual child?
Some Second Life players say it is, and have vowed to expose those who do it. Meanwhile, the manufacturers, Linden Labs, have said they will modify the game to prevent virtual children from having sex. German prosecutors have also become involved, although their concern appears to be the use of the game to spread child pornography, rather than whether people have virtual sex with virtual children.
Laws against child pornography in other countries may also have the effect of prohibiting games that permit virtual sex with virtual children.
In Australia, Connor O’Brien, chair of the criminal law section of the Law Institute of Victoria, recently told the Melbourne newspaper The Age that he thought the manufacturer of Second Life could be prosecuted for publishing images of children in a sexual context.
The law is on solid ground when it protects children from being exploited for sexual purposes. It becomes much more dubious when it interferes with sexual acts between consenting adults. What adults choose to do in the bedroom, many thoughtful people believe, is their own business, and the state ought not to pry into it.
If you get aroused by having your adult partner dress up as a schoolchild before you have sex, and he or she is happy to enter into that fantasy, your behavior may be abhorrent to most people, but as long as it is done in private, few would think that it makes you a criminal.
Nor should it make any difference if you invite a few adult friends over, and in the privacy of your own home they all choose to take part in a larger-scale sexual fantasy of the same kind. Are computers linked via the Internet — again, assuming that only consenting adults are involved — so different from a group fantasy of this kind?
When someone proposes making something a criminal offense, we should always ask: Who is harmed?
If it can be shown that the opportunity to act out a fantasy by having virtual sex with a virtual child makes people more likely to engage in real pedophilia, then real children will be harmed, and the case for prohibiting virtual pedophilia becomes stronger.
But looking at the question in this way raises another, and perhaps more significant, issue about virtual activities: video game violence.
Those who play violent video games are often at an impressionable age. Doom, a popular violent video game, was a favorite of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the teenage Columbine High School murderers.
In a chilling videotape they made before the massacre, Harris says: “It’s going to be like f**king Doom. That f**king shotgun [he kisses his gun] is straight out of Doom!”
There are other cases in which aficionados of violent video games have become killers, but they do not prove cause and effect. More weight, however, should be given to the growing number of scientific studies, both in the laboratory and in the field, of the effect of such games.
In “Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adults,” Craig Anderson, Douglas Gentile and Katherine Buckley, of the Department of Psychology at Iowa State University, draw these studies together to argue that violent video games increase aggressive behavior.
If criminal prosecution is too blunt an instrument to use against violent video games, there is a case for awarding damages to the victims, or families of the victims, of violent crimes committed by people who play violent video games. To date, such lawsuits have been dismissed, at least in part on the grounds that the manufacturers could not foresee that their products would cause people to commit crimes. The evidence that Anderson, Gentile, and Buckley provide has weakened that defense.
Andre Peschke, editor in chief of Krawall.de, one of Germany’s leading online computer and video game magazines, informs me that in 10 years in the video game industry, he has never seen any serious debate within the industry on the ethics of producing violent games.
Manufacturers fall back on the simplistic assertion that there is no scientific proof that violent video games lead to violent acts. But sometimes we cannot wait for proof. This seems to be one of those cases: The risks are great and outweigh whatever benefits violent video games may have. The evidence may not be conclusive, but it is too strong to be ignored any longer.
The burst of publicity about virtual pedophilia in Second Life may have focused on the wrong target. Video games are properly subject to legal controls, not when they enable people to do things that, if real, would be crimes, but when there is evidence on the basis of which we can reasonably conclude that they are likely to increase serious crime in the real world. At present, the evidence for that is stronger for games involving violence than it is for virtual realities that permit pedophilia.
Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University and laureate professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include “How Are We to Live?” and “Writings on an Ethical Life.” Copyright 2007 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)