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What violent games can teach us about morality

A “Grand Theft Auto 5” screenshot.

Rockstar Games

A “Grand Theft Auto 5” screenshot.

We’re finally starting to unravel the true impact of violence in gaming. And it’s a lot more complicated than you might expect: Violence in video games may, in certain instances, make us more morally sensitive. At least that’s the takeaway from one new study in the journal of Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.

For the study, led by Matthew Grizzard of the University of Buffalo, 185 university students were assigned to play a video game or complete a memory task, and placed in a “guilt” or control group. Members of the video game/guilt group played a first-person shooter as a terrorist, while members of the control group played as a UN peacekeeper; members of the memory/guilt group were asked to write a paragraph about a time they felt “particularly guilty,” while members of the control group were asked to write about a typical day in their lives.

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As it turned out, those who played as terrorists felt a sense of guilt afterward. They also experienced an increased salience in two of the five so-called “moral foundations” that some researchers believe constitute our moral world views — care (the idea of not harming innocent people) and fairness (the idea of treating people fairly). Those who recalled a guilty experience felt more guilt, but it wasn’t centered on any particular moral foundation.

So the details are a bit wonky, but what it comes down to is that the players who played as terrorists had temporarily arrived at a more morally attuned state by way of their virtual evil-doing. Certain moral concerns rated higher among them, at least in the immediate aftermath of playing the game, than they would have otherwise.

What can this tell us? Well, it’s complicated.

The players who played as terrorists had temporarily arrived at a more morally attuned state by way of their virtual evil-doing. . . . What can this tell us? Well, it’s complicated.

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The experimental setting wasn’t entirely realistic, for one thing. In the real world, you aren’t randomly assigned a good character or a bad one. Rather, the trend is toward games with some degree of moral choice. The main plotlines of the “Grand Theft Auto” games, for example, tend to entail tons of questionable behavior, but what really drives attention to games like these is that players can go on violent rampages at random, shooting innocent passers-by or blowing up busy intersections.

That said, the experiment does point to some of the potential benefits of interactive entertainment compared with its more static predecessors. “Yes, after watching ‘Breaking Bad’ or reading ‘Moby-Dick,’ we might question obsession and the moral quandaries that face humans,” Grizzard wrote in an e-mail. “But, video games actually allow us to engage in moral and immoral actions, albeit virtually, and find out what it means to do good and bad for ourselves.”

We’re still at a very early stage in understanding exactly how interactive storytelling works. It’s even possible that future developers will be able to come up with interactive environments that help make us better people.

We’re certainly not there yet, though. “Games helping ‘to foster the better angels of our nature’ is within the realm of possibility, but there’s so much we need to learn before we’ll get there,” Grizzard said. “One way I think game developers could help is to provide strong consequences for the choices made by the player.”

This is tricky, of course. Game developers have no more of an obligation to show bad characters getting their comeuppance than David Chase needed to show Tony Soprano being locked up for life. But not all virtual environments exist in commercial video games. Researchers can use these tools for their own purposes, too.

So if Grizzard and his colleagues can, down the road, provide ways for researchers in controlled settings to chip away at empathy gaps in at-risk youth, for example, we’ll finally start to capitalize on some of the potential offered by realistic — and violent — virtual environments.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.

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