Examining The Ethics Of Virtual Reality Media Essay

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During the last decade, computer scientists have strived to achieve realistic Virtual Environments (VE), addressing many areas of life. As a result the concept of Virtual Reality (VR) has led to the creation of virtual universities, virtual museums, virtual life/world and others, which can be easily accessible through a browser or provided for the use of a specific circumstance.

But what is Virtual Reality?

There is no one common definition for VR due to the vast areas of use, but essentially, virtual reality is about presenting the user with a 3-Dimensional computer-generated environment, controlled and manipulated by the user in a complex manner. A VR user is capable performing actions which would otherwise be impossible within the real world.

When examining VR's all together, one can conclude that there are common characteristics for all, which have been pin pointed out in Michael Heim's article stating that VR is defined by the three I's, being:

Immersion: being able sense and feel that one is actually living within the real world.

Interaction: being able to provide rapid exchange of data based on the one's physical position.

Information intensity: being able to establish communication between one's perceptions and the virtual world in order to support the previous two characteristics of virtual reality.

These characteristics of virtual reality are supported through the use of a system which manages to portray to the user a 3-Dimesional environment in real-time together with the use sensory input devices used to determine which physical actions are being conducted by the user.

The peripherals used in order to support the immersion of a user within the virtual environment vary from the use of head-mounted displays, gesture-sensing gloves, and navigational devices. The most commonly used virtual reality peripherals is by combining the use of head-mounted displays together with a tracking system which allows the portrayal of the computer generated 3-Dimensional environment in real-time based on the user's physical actions.

This is much like an aircraft simulator which is used for military issues to train one's piloting ability.

Virtual Worlds

Apart from all the input complexities, VRs can also be simply limited to a keyboard as the input devices together with 3D computer-generated environment visible through a simple monitor. This type of VR is known as a Virtual World whose aim is to allow internet users to interact within it. The users of a Virtual World are generally represented through an avatar, which is a personalized graphic human model which when rendered within the virtual world it is presented as an interactive graphical character.

A much known example of such virtual world systems is World of Warcraft, an online role-playing game taking place within a fantasy virtual world. Its main aim is to allow the user play inside a virtual world using a specific character (avatar) specifically created by the user himself. In 2008, World of Warcraft was estimated to hold 62% [1] of the MMORPG subscription market in which users could interact with other players of the Virtual World. The average age of the player is 28.3 and on average, they spend 22.7 hours per week playing World of Warcraft. [2] 

Apart from World of Warcraft, there exists more realistic virtual worlds which do not focus on the ideology of gaming but rather it is issued as an effective real-life world. Second Life is one of the most popular non-gaming virtual worlds, created in 1999 by Linden Labs. Second Life is provided as a desktop application which can be downloaded by everyone and allows users to communicate, educate and socialize within the Virtual World. Second Life goes beyond this and also provides its own currency referred to as Linden Dollars, which is even exchangeable to real money in the real world. Therefore, users or residents are also starting up and managing businesses within Second Life. Moreover, real world brands such as Reebok, Mazda and Calvin Klein, just to name a few, are translating and marketing their real-life products and services into Second Life, which makes Second Life an important milestone to several stakeholders.

Second Life is hosted by Linden Labs themselves but the virtual world is imagined and created by its residents. That is the users represented by their avatars are able to create and build within the virtual world new buildings and environments which other residents can interact with. This gives Second Life an increased immersion to its users and therefore making Second Life also a community driven VR service same as most of the social networking services such as Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube. Therefore Virtual Worlds are even being considered as the future of social networking, online games and simulation, which also gives the user an added experience by including the three I's, which results in giving the user the desired effect of actually being in the Virtual World. Some other examples of Virtual Worlds are Active Worlds, Kaneva and the Sims Online.

It is expected that in future, the possible improvements in the technologies which make immersion possible will allow the creation of virtual reality systems to be even more user friendly and therefore widely accessible and usable by all possible users. These Virtual systems would be aimed at addressing a wide range of human senses such as physical and emotional issues. These developments result in providing an off-the-self system purchasable at a low-cost which also provide a greater sophistication and responsiveness in terms of immersion and interactivity. Therefore this results in virtual reality becoming a wide spread application. However this increase in popularity and usefulness of VR systems, will incentive cyber criminals to carry out serious misuse of this technology and thus attempting to perform illegal actions. This is also true for other developed systems which are also being used as a gateway to commit illegal actions upon underage users. Therefore these new advancements in technologies have opened up new channels through which crime can take place.

As an example, on-line chatting, which is a very popular tool amongst teenagers, provides a means of communication between their friends. However, this also provides the risk of being contacted by unknown users of the system whose aim is to attempt illegal acts upon the teenagers. Therefore paedophiles are using these online tools to communicate with teenagers and hide their real identity behind a false identity.

The Stake Holders

Defining the stakeholders involved in virtual reality is crucial in order to perform appropriate ethical analysis upon the ethical issues which will be discussed. The following is a description of such stakeholders in VR:

Software Developers: the creators of the virtual world which will greatly be affected by the ethical issues which will be pointed out, as this can lead to further enhancements within the system or even its failure. But, one must also consider that VR software developers are few and therefore they might even be neglected within appropriate ethical analysis.

Users of VR: the users of virtual worlds are divided into three, namely:

normal users who are willing to explore new ways of communication a new expires within the World Wide Web

minors who are new to these kind of technologies and are the ones who are the most potentially involved in consequences of virtual world systems

Criminals who are using virtual world to disguise themselves as someone else whose aim is to perform criminal acts within the virtual world or by using the virtual world's provided functionalities.

Organisations: the representatives of an organisation that use virtual worlds as an asset to achieve a competitive edge over other organisations by adverting and selling products within the virtual world.

The Laws and Guidelines

How do these issues regarding the minors this reflect in Malta and what actions are being taken upon such circumstances?

All of these issues gather up as the term Cyber Crime, which has led the Maltese Government to address the issue of Internet safety. The Maltese Government has recognized the significance of considering cyber-crime as a threat, giving particular attention to child abuse over the Internet. In 2002 a Child abuse Task Force was set up following a recommendation to discuss and put forward a set of measures to create a safer web environment. A number of recommendations were put forward in the final report from the Task Force which resulted in the following laws to be set as stated within CHAP. 9, ART. 208A: [3] 

"(1) Any citizen or permanent resident of Malta, whether in Malta or outside Malta, as well as any person in Malta, who takes or permits to be taken any indecent photograph, film, video recording or electronic image of a minor, or distributes or shows such indecent photograph, film, video recording or electronic image, or is in possession of such indecent photograph, film, or video recording or electronic image, shall, on conviction, be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine (multa) not exceeding two hundred liri, or to both such imprisonment and fine:

User meets illegal content

Provided that for the purposes of this article the expression "permanent resident" shall have the same meaning assigned to it by article 5(1)(d).

(2) A photograph, film, video recording or electronic image shall, if it shows a person under age and is indecent, be treated for all purposes of this article as an indecent photograph, film, video recording or electronic image.

(3) Where the offence referred to in sub article (1) is committed by any ascendant by consanguinity or affinity, or by the adoptive father or mother, or by the tutor, or by any other person charged, even though temporarily, with the care, education, instruction, control or custody of the person under age shown in the photograph, film, video recording or electronic image, or where such person under age has not completed the age of nine years, the punishment shall be of imprisonment for a term from seven months to one year, with or without solitary confinement, and the provisions of article 197(4) shall also apply.

(4) Where a person is charged with distributing or showing, or with being in possession of, any indecent photograph, film, video recording or electronic image under sub article (1), it shall be a defence for him to prove that he had a legitimate reason for distributing or showing, or for having in his possession, such photograph, film, video recording or electronic image, or that he had not himself seen the photograph, film, video recording or electronic image, and neither knew nor had any reason to suspect them to be indecent.

(5) For the purposes of article 635(1)(a), the person under age shown in any such photograph, film, video recording or electronic image shall be deemed to be the person against whom the offence is committed."

The Police Cyber Crime Unit is one which assists in the investigation of all crimes in which computer and computer systems are used as a target of an attack, and used as the medium to launch any attack on any entity. It must also be in a position to collect and preserve evidence and to present same evidence before judicial authorities and to provide a 24x7 level of support to international law enforcement agencies [4] . However, these codes of practice are in place for the most widely used social networks rather than virtual worlds, where such crimes are depicted through images and can be visible by anyone. But there is no reason why such regulations should not be immediately extended to cover virtual reality in Malta.

The reason why we are focusing on this type of VR is because it is the entertainment application area which is mostly used by the masses and thus resulting in several moral implications which must be considered.

Therefore given the definition of what constitutes virtual reality together with its relevant laws we will next analyse the role of ethics in regulating behaviour. The idea of allowing users to perform actions with no restrictions is important for virtual reality, but the restrictions placed by the law must be taken into consideration, whose aim is to define the legal obligations which restrict this freedom and therefore limit such usage in virtual reality. Moreover individuals must be provided with the right to take decisions and evaluate their actions wherever possible and therefore not everything that is disapproved can be considered an immoral issue.

Ethical Issues

The following are the possible ethical issues involved in virtual reality, specifically in virtual world. Each ethical issue is further explained in order to come up with the appropriate questions and further analysed by the appropriate ethical theory.

Taxation of income

As already discussed, Second Life users are provided with the ability to earn Linden dollars through their own business running within the virtual world. As a result, this fictitious currency can be exchanged to a real life currency and thus being a way of earning money for a living. Theoretically, every type of income should be taxed appropriately where in Second Life this is not the case. Therefore one might argue that such users should report this income in order to appropriately assessed through the tax regulations.

Should taxation laws be also valid for monetary incomes within a virtual world?

Money laundering

Linden Labs does not only provide the ability to exchange Linden Dollars into the actual currency in real life, but also provides to its users the capability to convert US Dollars into Linden Dollars at the appropriate exchange rate.

Therefore Second Life, or any other virtual world, allowing its residents to convert virtual money into real world money and vice versa, can be used as a means to anonymously deposit dirty money which is related to the act of drug dealing or any other illegal actions which is then subsequently reconverted back to US Dollars. This concept is known as money laundering which is considered as an offensive crime in Malta.

Should Virtual Worlds prohibit the conversion of real life currency into a virtual currency?

Vulgar Behaviour

Virtual worlds, where communication is provided would possibly lead for residents to create a relationship within the virtual world. Such virtual worlds are trying to mimic all the behavioural possibilities within a real-world and thus sexual activity is also present, as in Second Life. Therefore several issues arise in allowing such actions to live within a wirtual world, namely: Users making use of such virtual worlds are both children and adults. Therefore one might ask, should such actions be present within a Virtual World where it can be visible by anyone? Also, is it ethical to allow sexual activity between adults and children to occur within Second Life?

Moreover, the real users behind their avatars are anonymous and thus not knowing the real user's identity can lead to other users misinterpreting the real aims of a user. This is the same for sexual abuse on instant messaging and video chatting.

Psychological issues

Immersion, which is the key aspect of Virtual Reality, tries to minimize the differences between the real-world and the virtual World. The behavioural aspects of users in making use of such systems are considered to be divided into two, users that keep in touch with reality and accept the fact that virtual reality is not the real-life but rather a game in itself and the users who detach themselves from the real-world, immerse themselves into a new life, i.e. the Virtual life then predominates over their real-life. Therefore the virtual worlds can weaken one's aspects of life which are essential to social development within the real world as opposed to the virtual world.

Should there be a time restriction on the amount of time that a user can spend within the Virtual World?

False Identification

The majority of online systems provide a registration mechanism which does not authenticate the true identity of the user. Thus, a minor can register as a thirty year old, a criminal as a teenager - all attempting to spoof themselves as individuals with a false identity. At present, such identity problems are common place in the social networking, more specifically on line chatting, which attracts to it a large number of minors. This flaw in identification mechanisms opens up dangerous opportunity for the on-line community. Using a false identity would allow the malicious user to enact actions which he would otherwise not do in the real world. Reason being that false identity brings with it a sense of freedom - free from the laws that prevail our real lives.

Should false identification be controlled in such a way that one's identity in the real world is mirrored in the virtual world?

Analysing the Ethical Issues

After presenting these ethical issues, we will now perform an ethical analysis in order to determine if such actions should be permissible by the masses. This analysis will not be limited to one ethical theory but rather an ethical analysis will be performed by following two different theories, i.e. a Consequentialist theory and a Duty theory which will be further explained below and followed by the analysis upon the ethical issues.

Consequentialist Theory

The consequentialist theory is an approach which determines the morality from the consequences of a specific action, hence its name. Determining if an action is considered to be good or bad through the use of a consequentialist theory consists in first listing all of the good and bad consequences of the action being questioned. Subsequently, one must analyse all these consequences and if the number of positive consequences outnumbers the negative ones, the action is considered to be morally accepted. On the other hand the action is considered as morally unacceptable if the number of negative consequences is larger than the positive ones.

Mainly there exists three consequentialist theories, all of which are based on the analysis explained above. The difference between these three theories is that they aim at considering consequences only on specific subsets of the stakeholders. One of these theories which will be used throughout the analysis of the ethical issues is Utilitarianism where an action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favourable than unfavourable to everyone.

The reason for such a choice is that the type of VR being analysed within this assignment is one which connects together internet users in the same way as in a social networking system, but in a virtual world. Therefore it is appropriate that in analysing the ethical issues previously explained would involve all of the stakeholders and therefore the Utilitarianism theory will be followed.

Duty Theory

As opposed to the consequentialist theory, the duty theory does not focus on the consequences which are followed by an action, but rather it analyses the underlying principles and the basis of performing such an act. These principles are then compared to the actual obligations which an ethical person would follow.

There exists various theories suggesting the various ways one can compare the foundation of an act to the actual obligations. The one which will be used in order to analyse the ethical issues involved in Virtual Worlds is Kant's theory whose maxim is to "I should act in a way that I would want everyone else in the world to act". Therefore the bases of some acting in a specific manner will be derived and subsequently generalized into a broader view so as to determine if such a maxim could be considered as a universal law.

Taxation of income

Consequentialist Theory:

"Should taxation laws be also valid for monetary incomes within a virtual world?"

The stakeholders considered within this ethical issue are:

the users of the Virtual World either being organisations or individuals who:

already own a business within the real-world and are using the Virtual world as an asset in order to advertise their business and to gain further income

are willing to or have already set up start-ups within the virtual world.

The inhabitants of the country, as the government will use the money for the greater good.

Enforcing taxation on profits from the virtual world would result in a reduction of income which leads to an unhappy situation for individuals or organisations concerned. However, as in the real world, the purpose of taxation is to benefit the greater good. Thus, taxation of income from the virtual world will benefit the population of the country as the taxed income of the organisations would then be used to satisfy the population's requirements and needs ranging from health to education issues.

Therefore the consequences perceived by the mass, in proposing such an issue outnumbers that of the organisations and therefore this proposition is moral and should be acted upon.

Duty Theory:

At present, setting up business within virtual worlds, being as the source of income, does not involve the assessment of going through the tax regulations currently present within the real world. Therefore one might use virtual worlds to evade taxation, thus maximising profit. Consequently the maxim of such a situation is to avoid tax regulations, where in fact it is everyone's duty to declare profitable incomes and pay the appropriate tax.

Let us generalize this maxim, "everyone can evade tax regulations by placing their business within a Virtual World". This would lead to invalidate the current laws of tax and thus leading to a real world whose governments are lacking the necessary funds to regulate and improve the situation in the real world. Therefore this implies that such actions would fail to universalise and it is not ethical to allow such actions to occur.

Money Laundering & Vulgar Behaviour

Consequentialist Theory:

"Should virtual worlds prohibit the conversion of real life currency into a virtual currency?"

"Should sexual activity between adults and children be allowed within virtual worlds?"

The stakeholders affected by this change are:

the criminals which are attempting to try and lose track of the money's illegal origins

the users of the virtual world, as they would be enforced to use money within the virtual world which is earned within it

the law enforcers which try and eliminate illegal issues within the real world

the greater population

The laws present in the real world were and are being created to control actions which are illegal and effect the masses in a negative way. Such illegal matters being mirrored in the real world disseminate uncertainty to users in the real world because crime is still not controlled appropriately. Therefore people will take legal matters in their hands and generate an upheaval in the real world.

Therefore in providing a means of controlling money laundering and possibly any other illegal matter will be serene to the large masses because anything which is illegal makes the common people unhappy. Therefore this proposition is moral and should be acted upon.

Duty Theory:

Currently, several issues are emerging regarding the crimes being affected within virtual environments which range from money laundering to pedophely. The reason why such actions are being performed within Virtual Worlds is that the identity information of such users cannot be easily determined. The maxim of such actions is to perform law-breaking actions without being noticed such as acting a sexual abuse within a Virtual World.

Therefore in generalizing this issue, every paedophile can effect sexual aggressions on minors, the reason being that it is not considered as an actual harassment. This must not be the case as the duty of everyone is to protect children from such attempts.

Psychological issues

Consequentialist Theory:

"Should there be a time restriction on the amount of time that a user can spend within the Virtual World?"

The stakeholders which would be involved in this act are:

users making use of a virtual world

the people socializing with such users within the real-world

the advertisers and organisations within the virtual world

If such virtual worlds would increase their immersive properties, leading to a virtual world which would completely disorientate the user from the real world and the real life, the time spent in socializing within the real world would then be substituted with socialization within the virtual world. Moreover, the organisations relying on the virtual world, in order to successfully allow their business to be successful, would be disappointed by this fact.

Socialisation and communication as we know today revolves around face to face meet ups with others, be it through sports or going out. Therefore in neglecting this privilege, the society as a whole would meet up only within a virtual world. Therefore the consequence of restricting the use of a virtual world to a predefined amount of time would lead to a society which allowed communicating in real-life rather than within a virtual world. Thus this proposition is morally good and should be set up.

Duty Theory:

In future, with the increased immersion of virtual worlds, users might be led to a situation where it is difficult to set a distinction between the real world and the virtual world. Thus proper socialisation would be neglected to the masses. Therefore the maxim of this situation is the simple act of building relationships with other human beings and as a natural consequence having friends, a family and children.

In generalising this terms all people should be given the privilege to build up a proper social life and thus having a real family. Thus in universalising this general maxim it is ethical to allow such time constraints when using and socializing within Virtual Worlds.

False Identification

Consequentialist Theory:

"Should false identification be controlled in such a way that one's identity in the real world is mirrored in the virtual world?"

The stakeholders related to this proposition are:

users who are trying to obscure their real identity for illegal issues

users who are obscuring their real identity for privacy issues

anyone who is affected by the obscuring of the real identity of users within the virtual world

The users which are allowed to obscure their real identity, for privacy issues would be influenced by this fact, as the right of privacy would be neglected within a virtual world. Also the users who are obscuring their real identity in order to perform crimes within the virtual world will be concerned about this issue. But this proposition would address the majority of the population in a positive way, the reason being: minors who are using such systems would protected from users whose aim is to disguise themselves as teenagers in order to establish a relationship with minors and eventually meet up in the real-world leading to several immoral consequences. Moreover parents would achieve a sense of serenity in knowing that their children are securely using such systems as they are provided with the ability to make a distinction between young and elderly people as in the real-world. Therefore this proposition is said to be moral and should be considered as the way forward.

Duty Theory:

In a virtual world, there is no proper way of actually mirroring the user's identity into their avatars and their related information. Thus one might be socialising with someone within a virtual world without knowing who he/she actually is. Virtual World users might create avatars and set their profile information which does not reflect their actual identity. The maxim of such an action would be to either to defend one's own identity for privacy issue or rather to actually wanting to make other users believe that they are someone else.

By generalising this issue, everyone will deceive their identity into someone else's. In doing so, a virtual world would not actually be attempting at virtualising the real world, whose main aim is to allow its residents to communicate as in the real world. Moreover this would give criminals an incentive to set-up a false profiles and obtain explicit content from minors or even build a virtual relationship with minors, without knowing that the resident is an adult, who is actually a paedophile. Therefore this issue must be considered as crucial for Virtual Worlds to exists and be in the norm of everyone's duty.


The problems posed in this document are of crucial meaning to the society as a whole, and the decisions which followed by the ethical analysis all followed the good aspects of morality, both in the consequentialism and duty theory. The reason being, most of the issues are concerned with actions which are not considered as legitimate within the real world and with the increased technological advancements in Virtual Reality immersion within a Virtual World will increase thus leading to all actions within it to be controlled by a set of laws as in the real world. Therefore crimes and virtual reality cannot coexist, especially within the field of Virtual Worlds.

During the evaluation of the decisions and moral issues deducted by both ethical analysing theories, it has been deducted that it is more appropriate to follow the duty theory as it is based on evaluating the moral issues through the obligations in real life, i.e. the laws which define these obligations.

But one must also consider the main aspect of virtual reality, which is to provide a means of virtually allowing users perform actions within a virtual world which would otherwise not be possible within a real-world and therefore a consequence of mapping real life laws and regulations within virtual reality would lead to the failure of such systems.

Following this reasoning, if a Virtual World is not limited to only a subset of users who are willing to accept such consequences, virtual reality, in the field of virtual worlds, must be limited and controlled by laws as in the real world.

The decisions based within this assignment have been based on theoretical methods. From the theory evaluation it can be concluded that unless a set of rules regulate the virtual world then its consequences on the stakeholders are negative. Therefore for the virtual world to be a system beneficial to all stakeholders, rules and regulation are to be enforced.