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How Should We Treat Virtual Wolves?

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Charlie Huenemann reminds us that even how we manage our "attachments" to virtual pets reveals who we are as moral persons. Here he reflects on his treatment of dogs within the world of Minecraft:

"On Killing Virtual Dogs"

The blog entry asks why we would consider the killing of virtual dogs a bad thing, but it leaves open the even more basic question, "Should we devote any time to the care of virtual dogs?"

Even though the ancient Greeks did not have video games, the Plato-Aristotle debate (over the value of poetry) still plays out in our world today in the production and consumption of video games. Plato, who wanted to banish poets from his ideal society, would immediately define Minecraft as an illusion, designed to divert our attention from things that matter in the real world around us. Video game designers, like poets, are magicians who, in Plato's logic, deal solely in imaginary worlds. We should instead be devoting our attention to taking care of real dogs, not virtual ones.

Aristotle, though, who defended poetry, might want us to consider how the simulation might be a training ground or a cathartic release. Going through the motions of caring for the dog in the virtual world could develop habits which would then be used in the real world. Then again, on the flip side, and more controversially, the killing of the dog in the virtual world might create a cathartic release which would prevent the gamer from actually hurting dogs in the real world. But that act of destruction also might create bad habits and then immoral actions in the real world--the angle many critics take today when condemning the wide array of violence in current video games.

Critics have long argued about the moral influence of our imaginary creations. Video games, though perhaps more viscerally immersive, share the basic components of the epic poetry and tragedies Plato and Aristotle analyzed: we surrender to the mental activity of story construction (the unpredictable dance among authorial expression, literary integrity, and reader response); we invest time in giving meaning to words on a page, actors on a stage, images on a screen. Sometimes we connect and invest emotionally, and perhaps spiritually, with these creations.

While many declare (inadvertently lining up with Plato) all of these stories are a waste of time, others adamantly defend the stories and the games, claiming these "flights of fancy" actually help them to understand the real world better. It is an endless debate, but we should not throw our hands up in frustration. We should eagerly enter the fray.

I would defend the virtual worlds, but I would also be greatly concerned if they became a substitute for the real world. There should always be a connection. Those entering the fray will have their own standards of what constitutes a valuable story, and some of us will be more persuasive than others about which stories have more lasting impact. Minecraft has quite a following, and many wolves have been tamed, so this reflection may not be as absurd as may have seemed at first glance.

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