Violent video games and guilt

New study suggests that the moral response produced by the initial exposure to a video game decreases as experience with the game develops.

Rapidly advancing technology has created ever more realistic video games. Images are sharp, settings have depth and detail, and the audio is crisp and authentic. At a glance, it appears real.

Violent video games have been blamed for school shootings, bullying, and domestic violence, but evidence has shown that crime statistics have decreased while violent video game sales have increased. Changes in emotions may be a different story: Researchers from the University of Buffalo led a study that found playing video games over a long period of time can reduce a person’s ability to feel guilty.

Even though for the last 20 years designers have toyed with the idea of culpability and consequence, of getting players to consider their actions in moral terms, remorse is something we rarely experience in video games. Asking a player to feel guilt, and recognizing the consequences of that guilt in gameplay form, is impossible.

A new University at Buffalo-led study suggests that the moral response produced by the initial exposure to a video game decreases as experience with the game develops.

The findings provide the first experimental evidence that repeatedly playing the same violent game reduces emotional responses -- like guilt -- not only to the original game, but to other violent video games as well.

“Why do games lose their ability to elicit guilt, and why does this seemingly generalize to other, similar games?” Matthew Grizzard, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor of communication, wants to find out.

Grizzard, an expert in the psychological effects of media entertainment, has previously studied the ability of violent video games to elicit guilt. The current study builds upon that work.

Gamers often claim their actions in a video game are as meaningless to the real world as players capturing pawns on a chess board. Yet, previous research by Grizzard and others shows that immoral virtual actions can elicit higher levels of guilt than moral virtual actions. He hypothesized that as players keep playing the game, they get desensitized to all guilt-inducing stimuli for two basic reasons: The first one may be that the gamers see video games in a different way, compared to non-gamers. For example, non-gamers tend to look at a game holistically: they see the environment, the characters, the story, the killing, the gore; while gamers only see their desired result, that is, a successful end to the game, and their strategy on how to get there. The second one is that people are deadened because they've played these games over and over again.

This study is a huge wakeup call for parents who let their kids play videogames for long periods of time. As we have pointed out before, videogames may have positive effects on children such as highest levels of sociability and satisfaction with their lives, fewer friendship and emotional problems and less hyperactivity than kids who don´t play. However, extensive past research has shown the negative impacts that violent entertainment can have on behavior. For this reason, limiting the play-time to one hour a day may guarantee that kids grow to be conscious, smart and compassionate.

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