Brian Tomasik is a consultant at the Foundational Research Institute, which explores possible avenues for reducing suffering in humans and other sentient beings, now and in the future. He maintains the website Essays on Reducing Suffering, where he writes on issues in ethics, biology, philosophy of mind, and other fields relevant to the question of how best to reduce the amount of suffering in the world.
Recently, he has become interested in the question of what moral standing, if any, we should give to non-player characters in video games (NPCs). He argues that, while NPCs do not have anywhere near the mental complexity of animals, the difference is one of degree rather than kind, and we should care at least a tiny amount about their suffering, especially as they grow more complex. We spoke on Gchat this past Tuesday. An edited and condensed transcript follows.
Dylan Matthews: What exactly is your view about the moral standing of non-player characters (NPCs)? Is it moral to kill them?
Brian Tomasik: That depends on their degree of sophistication, and whether they're built in a way such that killing them would correspond to something harmful.
Very simple game algorithms would matter to an almost infinitesimal degree, and they may not have responses that we would consider aversive. A Goomba in Super Mario Bros. that just walks along the sidewalk back and forth is arguably as simple as a physical object bouncing back and forth. It doesn't seem to have pronounced goals that are being thwarted by its nonexistence, nor does it have machinery to try and avoid death or feel bad about death.
In contrast, a slightly more complex character that plans moves to avoid being shot or injured by the player of the game has at least the bare outlines of goals and attempts to avoid injury. This case might be marginally ethically relevant. The moral significance would increase further if, for example, the character had penalties applied to its health or wellbeing level as a result of injury, as is the case in some RPGs [role-playing games] or reinforcement-learned game characters.
Present-day video games mostly use extremely simple algorithms that resemble goal-directed and welfare-relevant behavior in very crude ways. They resemble complex, sentient animals in a similar way as two dots and a smile resemble a detailed picture of a face. Hence, it seems plausible to give any single game character extremely small weight compared with vastly more complex forms of purposeful, welfare-relevant behavior in larger organisms like animals.If you follow Mr. Tomasik's reasoning literally, you end up with the belief that all life is sacred, and causing suffering to any living thing is immoral. Someday, we might develop a computer program that can qualify as self-aware.
I think any unnecessary suffering is a bad thing - but for the present - computer algorithms?
The bigger problem in my mind with some of these video games is desensitization to violence and common courtesy. They might not be a proximate cause of outright violence, but they can't help matters.