The Ethical Implications Of Virtual Reality
Throughout history new approaches to ethics have emerged along with social change. With the development of agriculture and the attending emergence of early civilizations, new ethical guidelines guided group life within the context of urban settlement (some of which became the basis for foundational religious texts). As the development of capitalism emerged, ethical frameworks were developed to deal with contractual law and property ownership. With the industrial revolution driving the growth of the applied sciences and technologies in the twentieth century, ethics have become focused upon the impact of science and technology upon individual and collective subjects. As we move into the twenty-first century, an information revolution is transforming social organization in ways that demand a return to new ethical considerations. Technoethics, the interdisciplinary research area related to the moral and ethical aspects of technology in society, helps to embrace the questions that stem from such technological developments, as it can with the recent adoption of virtual reality as a place of residence, business, entertainment and education for millions of people.
The ethical implications of virtual reality are only beginning to be taken in a serious and scholarly way. This is perhaps due to the fact that many popular virtual reality interfaces involve video gaming and similar entertainments, relegating them to the sphere of play and separating them categorically from the realm of the serious. For instance, World of Warcraft, now the most popular interactive, three-dimensional computerized virtual reality interface, involves a fantasy role-playing architecture through which twelve million users, more or less, interact (as of October 7, 2010, www.worldofwarcraft.com). Yet it is considered merely a game by most. While the ethics of interaction in these types of virtual worlds would be subject to as intense a scrutiny as possible if it were to take place in face-to-face reality, because such a virtual reality is “only a game,” the impacts are typically minimized: such games are deemed irrelevant outside of the context of the virtual world and their feedback into the face-to-face world is deemed by many to be negligible. However, there is evidence to suggest that the relevance of virtual worlds to face-to-face interaction may be growing.
The most popular human-computer virtual reality interfaces today are known as MMORPGS (massively multiplayer online role-playing games), or simply MMOs. Examples of such MMOs beyond World of Warcraft include Eve Online, Blue Mars, Entropia Universe, AlphaWorld, There.com, D&D Online, EverQuest, Lineage, Final Fantasy, Runescape, Asheron’s Call, Cybertown, WorldsAway, and many others. Today, the development of virtual worlds has gone beyond the video gaming genre and has become a unique form of social interaction. With the emergence of avatar-built virtual realities the user has gained control over elements of the development of their online three-dimensional experience, following the limitations of the virtual reality laid down by the software they are using (for example, gravity, sun movement, and other universal, if simulated, forces). This introduces to virtual worlds the quality of frontier genesis, or social spaces where new boundaries are being developed, new norms created, new status arrangements negotiated and new territories contested. With only a loose set of rules provided by the developers of the software, these virtual frontiers can be seen as sociological laboratories, giving glimpses into the continual process of the (re)development of society and the inevitable ethical choices made by participants. As Malaby (2009, p. 132) puts it, “What should command [our] attention…is the way in which it is now possible to build, with the help of game design and other techniques, complex spaces designed to be spaces of possibility but without the conventional boundaries that mark games. This generates a remarkable opportunity for us to explore issues such as creativity, governance, ethics, and many others… Institutions, it seems, may be changing in their ability to govern themselves and others, and the advent of virtual worlds is at the forefront of this transformation.”