Could violent video games make players more moral in the real world?

Video games allow players to indulge in simulated behaviours that in the real world would be highly antisocial or unethical, and many people are concerned how this might spill over from the screen to the street. A new study, however, suggests that such activities can elicit a moral response in players, reinforcing the potential of the medium as a means of civic development.

In the study developed by Matthew Grizzard and colleagues, players of a first-person shooter game reported higher levels of guilt when their ten-minute session involved playing as a civilian-slaying terrorist rather than a UN soldier.

Historically, guilt has been a difficult emotion to reach through designed media: an after-school special film can elicit fear or disgust, but guilt involves reflection on your own behaviour rather than that of others. This new finding follows earlier data, cementing a special role for games as a reliable mechanism for producing guilt.

Moreover, Grizzard’s study aimed, and succeeded, in targeting certain “moral intuitions” but not others. Specifically, participants playing as terrorists reported that concerns about fairness and care for others were higher in their mind after playing – exactly the concerns that the scenario was designed to violate. Moreover, the salience of these concerns was related to their level of guilt. In contrast, players did not have elevated senses of loyalty, authority, or purity – the remaining intuitions that make up the five evolutionary foundations of our morality. In other words, this game’s guilt gun was carefully calibrated.

Although a control group who reminisced about a real-life time they’d felt guilty, similarly reported higher levels of guilt afterwards, this lacked any correlation with particular moral intuitions, confirming that guilt is not linked to care and fairness concerns by default. This detail is important and invites further research for producing media that can elicit guilt with different moral bases.

Critics of gaming often point to desensitisation as a possible route to moral compromise, so the short time period involved in this game does not directly counter their claims. But it helps us better recognise the complex nature of gaming as a medium. It’s quite possible that different stages of playing a game may make one first concerned about violence, then blasé, then extremely concerned once again. And the complicity of play versus passive consumption means different rules for how this form of media may shift how we think, feel… and yes, ultimately act.


Grizzard, M., Tamborini, R., Lewis, R., Wang, L., & Prabhu, S. (2014). Being Bad in a Video Game Can Make Us Morally Sensitive Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 17 (8), 499-504 DOI: 10.1089/cyber.2013.0658

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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