You’ve heard it all before: playing violent video games leads to violent behavior. Violent video games are bad for you. The same narrative gets repeated over and over, especially when something terrible happens in the world. There is probably some truth to all sides of the violence argument. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) was instituted in 1994 after early versions of Mortal Kombat caught the attention of legislators.
But not all external stimuli have a negative impact. In fact, I would say that games can be as much of a lesson in what not to do as they are a lesson in behaviors we should emulate.
New evidence from a recent University of Buffalo study seems to indicate this is true. The 2014 study was co-authored by assistant professor Matthew Grizzard and researchers from Michigan State University and the University of Texas. “Rather than leading players to become less moral,” Grizzard says, “this research suggests that violent video game play may actually lead to increased moral sensitivity.”
This actually makes a lot of sense to me. How many times have you watched a movie about a horrible situation and then felt like making a difference in the world? I have and I think the same can be said about violent video games.
“This may, as it does in real life, provoke players to engage in voluntary behavior that benefits others,” said the study. This response is triggered, according to Gizzard’s findings, by a feeling of guilt and sympathy for actions the players take in the fictional world.
Researchers tried to induce a level of guilt that would result in a positive influence on the players’ moral compass. They put players into situations that caused them to violate at least two of the five primary moral domains. These domains are care/harm, fairness/reciprocity, in-group loyalty, respect for authority, and purity/sanctity.
“We found that after a subject played a violent video game, they felt guilt and that guilt was associated with greater sensitivity toward the two particular domains they violated,” Grizzard said. “Our findings suggest that emotional experiences evoked by media exposure can increase the intuitive foundations upon which human beings make moral judgments. This is particularly relevant for video game play, where habitual engagement with that media is the norm for a small, but considerably important group of users.”
The study involved 185 subjects who were randomly assigned to different roles and conditions. After completing their assignments, the participants completed a “guilt scale” questionnaire to measure their response to the events in the game. The study found significantly positive correlations between video game guilt and each participant’s moral foundations.
As video games become more and more realistic, I think this trend is bound to continue. The disconnect between real-world violence and video-game fiction was vast and wide in the ’80s and even through most of the ’90s. After all, running around a two-dimensional plane and jumping on the heads of fictional creatures is easy to recognize as fiction. None of that resembles anything close to reality. But the line is getting blurrier. If I steal a car and kill someone in Grand Theft Auto, it looks a lot like stealing a car and killing someone in real life. Likewise, playing a military shooting game that casts you as a traitor killing other U.S. soldiers can be an extremely jarring and visceral experience.
Through this study, Grizzard and his team have found that “pro-social behavior may result when guilt is provoked by virtual behavior.”
It’s important to keep in mind that the subjects for this study were adults. It did not address how children’s moral frameworks are affected by video game violence. I definitely don’t think it’s advisable to sit your children down in front of war simulators and ask for them to start role playing as terrorists. But these research results do provoke important questions about the relationship between media violence and real-life violence.