A study released last week by researchers at the University At Buffalo concludes that committing evil acts in video games can make players more morally sensitive in real life—a result that contradicts the popular thesis that all video game players live on the verge of committing a gruesome mass shooting, just waiting for the one Call Of Duty mission that will push them over the edge.
The full study report is paywalled, but U.B. provided The A.V. Club with a copy. Led by U.B. professor Matthew Grizzard, the experiment randomly assigned one group of people to experience a “guilt-inducing condition”—either by committing “unjustified violence” as a terrorist in a first-person shooter or by recalling a real-life bad act that made them feel guilty. Meanwhile, members of the control group either played the shooter as a U.N. soldier or were invited to recall real-life activities that didn’t make them feel guilty. As you’d imagine, the people who played as terrorists were more likely to feel guilty than those in the control group, a result that echoes previous research.
The Grizzard study delves more deeply into the nature of that guilt than the studies that preceded it, though, testing whether game-induced guilt makes people more sensitive to morality in real life. After playing/remembering, participants were invited to take a “moral foundations questionnaire,” and this is where the study got interesting: While the game players felt less intense guilt than the people who recalled actual bad acts, the virtual terrorists were significantly more likely than the control groups to demonstrate a heightened sense of care and fairness. The upshot is that “[c]ontrary to popular belief, engaging in heinous behaviors in virtual environments can lead to an increased sensitivity to moral issues.” In other words, being a murderous asshole in a game might make you less likely to be a murderous asshole in real life.
That result will resonate with countless players who have long maintained that they have the extraordinary superpower of distinguishing pretend from reality. Before anyone starts boasting that they slaughter virtual innocents by the bowlful to improve their moral fiber, though, it should be noted that the study comes with caveats, as new science usually does. The main sticking point is that the “sensitivity” measured by the experiment doesn’t necessarily lead to a population of better human beings who join hands to form a circle of love around the globe: “Whether this heightened sensitivity should then translate to sterner moral judgments and a stronger sense of morality for the player remains to be determined,” Grizzard writes.
Another sticking point is that the study participants only played the game—a modified version of the 2001 shooter Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis—once for 10 minutes. That differs from the common use case of players shooting at on-screen dudes until their higher brain functions shut down and/or they run out of Mountain Dew Code Red. The study acknowledges as much and says that repeated play could either heighten the morality effect or dampen it:
Overall, the findings suggest two possibilities. First, repeated play as an immoral character may repeatedly activate guilt and its resultant influence on the increased importance of care and fairness. Under these conditions, we might expect that repeated play as an immoral character would lead gamers to become more sensitive to fairness and more caring overall. Alternatively, guilt resulting from playing as an immoral character may habituate from repeated exposures. Under these conditions, we might expect that repeated play would not lead a gamer to become more sensitive to fairness or become more caring overall, especially if the ability of the game to elicit guilt dissipates with repeated play.
As Polygon has reported, Grizzard is looking into this question, and early results suggest that the latter conjecture is true—violent acts elicit less guilt with repetition. Still, the study remains a delicious counterpoint to those who would cast fans of violent video games as one big Trenchcoat Mafia, and it suggests that these strange game-playing creatures may be capable of heartfelt emotion and independent thought. They might even be—dare we say it—human?