Stranger Danger

Video Games as Ethical Diagnostic Tools

What is evil? From the Lisbon Earthquake to Auschwitz, from rape to human sacrifice, from neo-Nazis to ISIS, we all seem to know evil when we see it. [1] The ultimate might be the murder of children, which would seem to be an evil that could universally be agreed upon. [2] Even with the killing of children, however, the ethical implications of concrete, contextualized occurrences have an uncanny capacity to thwart easy universal claims. Take for instance, the case of a Chinese mother who in September 2016 poisoned her four children with pesticide. Was she evil, or just poor? [3]

The problem is that “postmodern” relativity has dissolved many of the foundational moral frameworks by which ethical judgments have been made. As the philosopher and, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman illustrates, in Postmodern Ethics, in contemporary life universal ethical structures seem good only for the trash heap of history. As Bauman writes: “ ‘The postmodern perspective’ to which this study refers means above all the tearing off of the mask of illusions; the recognition of certain pretenses as false and certain objectives as neither attainable nor, for that matter, desirable.”[4]

If modern sources no longer hold authority, where can current ethical standards be found? Like diagnostic tools, a type of digital conceptual sonar, I hypothesize that video games can locate the ethical foundations that still exist. My stance would seem diametrically opposed to many peoples’ understanding of video games. Yet, thick, close, contextualized readings prove that such shallow interpretations are short sighted.

Take, for instance, the video game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’s [5] add-on mod, “Stranger Danger – Children can be pick-pocketed or killed.” [6] “Stranger Danger” was uploaded by MrJentipede to the NexusMods Skyrim webpage.  Skyrim, published in 2011, is an open-world action role-playing game developed by Emil Pagliarulo, Bruce Nesmith, and Kurt Kuhlmann, for Bethesda Game Studios. As the description of “Stranger Danger” reads, the mod allows for “killable, pick-pocketable and lootable children.”

The prohibition against killing does not at first seem relevant to the play of a game environment’s “magic circle”, that arena of fantasy play and game competition which society shields off from the “real world.” Yet, because of play’s aspect of pretend, killing in game environments is not always simply just the taking of a token. Eliminating an opponent’s piece in checkers, or capturing a pawn in chess (or even Ms. PacMan’s eating of a cherry) is distinct from killing in a digital game, such as Assassin’s Creed II [7], where players slaughter their enemies by thrusting swords through their adversaries’ backs, plunging knives through their heads, slitting their throats, and jamming spears in their spines [8]

Still, what can a mod about killing children tell us about evil? A mod refers to user created programs that alter a video game to make it operate in a manner different from its original “vanilla” version. Much like “fan fiction”, mods display users’ desires, and exist in a legal gray area of poached official corporate sources. Considered one of the “greatest video games of all time,” Skyrim’s main quest revolves around the player’s effort to defeat Aluduin, a world-eating dragon prophesied to destroy the entire universe. “Stranger Danger” can be considered an add-on mod affecting only a small alteration in Skyrim’s gameplay. Yet, while it might not greatly change the narrative structure of the game, it does alter one of Skyrim’s chief ethical conceits.

As an “open world” game, in Skyrim players can choose to kill or not to kill almost any non-player character. The only non-game related exception is the killing of children NPCs. In a gamer’s chat room thread titled “How to kill children,” Artiess writes, “If you’ve been playing a decent amount of Skyrim, you may have noticed that children are annoying. Really annoying. However, while trying to bash one of the little snots into the ground to teach him some manners, I noticed that they’re invulnerable to damage.” [9] In a related chat thread, titled “Why can’t you kill children?”, the gamer Sapier sums up the reasons for why it is unethical to kill children in a game environment. “1. Most people don’t care about not being able to harm kids. 2. To allow gamers to kill children would get the game banned in almost every country in the world. 3. only people with real psychological issues want to seek and kill the young for no reason.”[10]

Does evil exist in our postmodern world? “Stranger Danger” illustrates that the moral significance of video games rests precisely on the opportunity they offer as postmodern ethical diagnostic tools. Rather than the twilight of ethics, video games offer the dawn of a new morality by making visible the deeper underlying topography of evil. Rather than needing to be explained away, evil in video games help explain prevalent underlying moral structures. They serve as a diagnostic tool for discovering what is wrong, and how to make current life a little less evil.



  1.  Susan Neiman. Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.
  2.  Religions all seem to condemn the needless taking of life, a moral imperative seen in the Jewish doctrine of “Don’t commit murder” (Exodus 20:13), the Hindu ethical concept of ahimsa (Rigveda 10.22), and in the Buddhist precept of abstaining from killing, Pāṇātipātā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi. Needlessly killing innocent civilians, specifically women and, children, is perceived as particularly heinous (Quran 7:28).
  3.  NPR: North Carolina Public Radio. “Mother Kills Her Children And Herself; Chinese Bloggers Ask Why.” Last Modified September 19, 2016,
  4. Zygmunt Bauman. Postmodern Ethics (London: Blackwell Publishing, 1994), 3.
  5. Pagliarulo, Emil, Bruce Nesmith, and Kurt Kuhlmann. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Bethesda Game Studios, 2011.
  6. Nexus. “Stranger Danger – Children can be pick-pocketed or killed.” Last Modified February 5, 2015.
  7. Patrick Plourde and Olivier Palmieri. Assassin’s Creed II. Ubisoft, 2009.
  8. Shanny Luft. “Hardcore Christina Gamers: How Religion Shapes Evangelical Play,” in Playing With Religion in Digital Games, eds Heidi Campbell and Gregory Grieve (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2014), 154-170.
  9. User27134. StackExchange. “How do you kill children.” Last modified June 25, 2016.
  10.  Sapier. GameGaqs. “Why can’t you kill the children?” Last Modified 2012.

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