Is virtual vice a virtue or a vice?

Wordplay aside, my question is whether it’s good or bad to experience sin vicariously, for example, playing violent video games or watching violent movies.

We can think of scenarios in which it’s bad: Underage children learning belligerence from video games that they take it out on people in real life. We can think of scenarios in which it’s good: People venting their hostilities off line so they aren’t tempted to do it on line. The terrain on which this question gets debated has been tirelessly and tiringly trammeled.

The substructure of the terrain doesn’t get much attention. It’s a question of what economists call complements and substitutes. As described in the last mind-readers, complements are goods that you partake of together—burgers and fries. The more of one the more of the other. Substitutes are goods you partake of in lieu of each other—burgers or hot dogs. The more of one the less of the other. Complements are both/ands. Substitutes are either/ors. So the question is whether virtual vice is conducive to complementarity—more violent movies leading to more violent lifestyle or to substitution—more violent movies leading to less violent lifestyles. We hope it’s the latter. We want virtual vice to substitute for real vice.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


The reverse is true when it comes to virtual virtue. Virtual virtue is imagined virtue, for example feel- good movies in which handsome heroes help the little guy or save the world. But virtual virtue has many manifestations, really any contrived experience that is designed to induce a sense of what is good, right, or beautiful. Visiting a church; looking at statues of Jesus, or praying to idols, for example.

Virtual virtue have been almost as controversial as virtual vice. But whereas we hope virtual vice will substitute for real vice, we hope that virtual virtue will do the opposite. We hope it will complement real virtue and not substitute for it. We hope that going to church on Sunday will make people nicer all week long. We hope that seeing a movie in which do-gooders prevail will make people more inclined to be do-gooders. We don’t want people going to movies, identifying with the good-guys and afterwards being nasty because they already did their good deed when they were in the theater, identifying with the handsome hero who saved the world.

History, and especially the history of religion, is filled with campaigns to induce real virtue by means of virtual virtue. Sooner or later, people slip into going through the motions, using the virtual virtue as a substitute for real virtue. Iconoclasts (Idol smashers) then expose the sham and demand a return to real virtue which then gets codified in virtual virtue rituals again.

Abraham, the father of Judaism, Islam and Christianity rejected idol worship. Christ attacked the money lenders. Mohammed’s armies destroyed the Kaba, the temple filled with hundreds of idols and insisted that no images be made of him. When the Crusades brought back to medieval Europe humbling news of scientific and technical advances in the Muslim empire, some Christian leaders suspected that Muslims may have received more favor from God because Muslims really followed the second commandment against making any graven images. Soon, in a new anti-ritual ritual act, Christian kings were demonstrating their faith through the destruction of Christian religious icons, (often pocketing the precious metal and gems from the salvage.) Luther, centuries later reviled the Vatican’s virtual virtue demanding a return to direct communication of the Gospel from God to the individual. From his Church sprang all sorts of new and revived rituals including glossolalia (speaking in tongues) which some regarded as direct proof of possession by the holy spirit and others regarded as easily faked, a virtual substitute for real possession by real virtue.

At a more personal level, notice what happens with the virtual virtue of apologizing. Saying you’re sorry can engender contrition or let you off the hook. Similarly, saying, “I mean to do the right thing,” “I’m really trying,” “I would never lie to you.” and “I don’t mean to be unkind but…” Each of these and hundreds more easy declarations of virtual virtue hover ambiguously between inducing and reducing real virtue.

Then there’s virtual virtuosity, for example any video game that lets you experience what it would like to be a pro athlete, or any digital keyboard that enables you to sound like a great musician by hitting a few buttons. Virtual virtuosity is as controversial as virtual virtue and for the same reasons. It can encourage you to go for the real thing or to settle for substitute.

I suspect that the second commandment can never be obeyed strictly in a species like ours. We’re all about going virtual, seeing things in our mind’s eyes that aren’t real. Any species that has preferences (and all species do) but also has the capacity to imagine, will have visions of their preferences being fully satisfied and will then try to hold fast to their visions, to keep hope alive, to attempt to jump start virtue by going through the motions. But since going through the motions sometimes sets things in motion and sometimes substitutes for motion we have to keep smashing yesterdays symbols of hope and building new ones.

Here’s a disturbing video of a nine year old boy playing video games while arguing with his mother. It’s used as an argument that video games are corrupting the youth, which is, if you follow my argument here, part true. It’s corrupting those who don’t substitute video games for real-world beligerence.