Virtual immorality

Culture | Interactive Web sites and computer games pose new moral problems

Issue: "Just say clean needles," May 9, 1998

Fed up with the Spice Girls? You can slap them senseless with the help of your computer. Simply go to the Slap-A-Spice Girl Web site, choose the picture of the sickeningly sweet pop star who annoys you the most, and click the mouse. This smacks her a good one, and as you continue, to the sound of flesh hitting flesh, her face gets bruised and bloody.

Computers, CD-ROMs, and video games are adding a whole new dimension for our entertainment-crazed culture. Instead of simply kicking back and watching a TV show or a movie, passively absorbing whatever is on the screen, we can interact with the new entertainment media. The viewer participates as an actor, or even as an author, to shape the story or to cause things to happen.

In some ways interactivity may be a promising development, engaging the audience's mind and imagination and avoiding the couch potato syndrome. But in other ways, the new interactive entertainment technology opens up another moral can of worms.

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Consider the fad of celebrity-bashing Web sites. With the aid of morphing photo technology, one can have the vicarious pleasure of beating up Bill Gates, smashing David Letterman's gap-teeth in, and yanking out Michael Bolton's eye with a fish hook. Your sound-blaster can add the sounds of slaps, smacks, shotgun blasts- whatever your pleasure. The Media Dunk Tank site, which allows you to immerse celebrities in a vat of acid, gets 100,000 hits a month and was named a Yahoo Site of the Week.

Sites are available for just about everyone anyone loves to hate, from Rush Limbaugh to Barney. As Jackie Loohauis of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel points out, the images on the Punch Pamela Anderson Lee Page can be made to look just like her real photos-after the Baywatch pinup was recently beaten up by her husband, heavy metal rock star Tommy Lee.

Or consider some of the new video games popular with children and adolescents. WORLD reader Jamie Jenkins has been studying the problem of games like Grand Theft Auto, which involves mugging innocent bystanders and killing policemen. Players win the game by successfully stealing a car. In the game Postal, the player pretends to be a berserk postal employee, killing men, women, and children. Then there are the pornographic video games, in which computer-animated women can be made to do the player's bidding.

Defenders of these pastimes point out that no one is actually hurt. "Sometimes it's fun to be able to take out frustration by virtually smacking a deserving individual or group," says one fan of the celebrity-bashing sites interviewed by Ms. Loohauis. "It doesn't really hurt them and there's no chance of physical damage to one's person." In today's therapeutic value-system, interactive acting-out supposedly allows a person to express pent-up fantasies and emotions in a harmless way.

For Christians, though, the issue is not that simple. In the realm of God's earthly kingdom, overt acts in the real world are of major importance, so it is a fair question to ask whether these fantasy games affect actual behavior-whether Grand Theft Auto inspires some of its players to a life of crime; whether there is a correlation between slapping around the Spice Girls and abusing one's wife.

But those are not the only issues for Christian ethics. Jesus makes clear that the real soul-destroying sin lies not so much in the external actions, but in what is going on inside the heart. God's judgment against murder goes not merely to those who do it-that is the judgment of the state-but to those who cultivate anger and a murderous spirit. God's judgment against adultery is applied to lust in the heart (Matthew 5: 21-30). Even if no one is objectively hurt, the soul of the person wallowing in sinful imagination is hurt.

It is theoretically possible to watch violence without being harmed by it. In a movie bloodbath, the viewer did not cause it to happen and possibly is not taking unlawful pleasure in it (though too much vicarious enjoyment may well trigger the condemnations of Matthew 5). But interactively initiating evil fantasies, enjoying the sense of transgression, and thus indulging the inner depravity that lurks in the core of one's fallen nature-that's another story.

My colleague Mark Wolf at Concordia University-Wisconsin, who has studied these new art forms, speaks of virtual sin. (See WORLD, Dec. 6, 1997.) Blasting away at alien spaceships, as in the earliest video games, is not truly violent in the harmful sense, since the targets are abstract, mere counters in a shooting gallery. But as games get more and more realistic, they bring the mayhem down to a human level, and the potential moral problems multiply.


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