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Being an Asshole in Games Makes You a Better Person?

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So riddle me this, Batman: Counter-intuitive to what most shrieking heads on Capitol Hill might proclaim, being morally reprehensible in videogames doesn’t make you a horrible individual. In fact, there is new evidence from the University of Buffalo that suggests the opposite. In fact, it may be that gaming builds morality!

The study, “Being Bad in a Video Game Can Make Us More Morally Sensitive,” published in the Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking journal on June 20th argues that the guilt any individual player feels when performing those heinous acts in games actually makes them more aware of how immoral they are being. “We suggest that pro-social behavior also may result when guilt is provoked by virtual behavior,” said leading researcher, Matthew Grizzard, PhD.

Remember the “No Russian” level of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2? This study actually suggests that by playing that level, the majority of us would feel guilty, and that guilt would actually make us more moral people. Consider this quote from ‘Science Daily‘: “For instance, an American who played a violent game ‘as a terrorist’ would likely consider his avatar’s unjust and violent behavior — violations of the fairness/reciprocity and harm/care domains — to be more immoral than when he or she performed the same acts in the role of a ‘UN peacekeeper.”

To perform the study, researchers assigned participants to either play a videogame or perform a memory recall task. They then assigned the gaming group to play Cold War Crisis (later re-released as Arma: Cold War Assault) in two ways: As terrorists, or as U.N. Peacekeepers.

The study found that participants who played the game in the guilt condition felt guilty about certain things by the end of the scenario, and that the guilt from gameplay acted similar to real-world guilt, even if it was less severe.

The reason feeling guilt is important is because past research has shown feelings of guilt lead to pro-social behavior. As the study says, ” Because moral emotions are anticipatory as well as consequential (i.e., one can anticipate feeling guilty before one commits a transgression), researchers, have argued that committing immoral actions in video games may lead to prosocial effects.” Guilt is something to be avoided, and by feeling guilt, we reinforce that we shouldn’t repeat those behaviors.

It should be stated, this study didn’t measure whether gamers’ sense of morality actually increased with regards to being immoral in games. Rather, it was just to test whether being “bad” in videogames can make you feel guilty, and then extrapolating using guilt as a predictor for possible future morality. “Guilt is an “emotion of self-assessment” as compared to emotions of “other assessment,” such as contempt, anger, and disgust,” the study states.

The study released doesn’t test whether there are diminishing returns on the guilt felt from repeated negative actions in the games, or whether the initial pro-social effects can be reversed through continual play. It also did not test whether the heightened guilt would actually translate to “sterner moral judgments and a stronger sense of morality for the player,” but this is at least an interesting first step.

Either way, this study is at least an initially positive story for gamers. It initially suggests playing games like Grand Theft Auto doesn’t decay our emotional sensibilities or desensitize us to the realities of the fictional actions taken in the games. It could, in fact, make us more aware of how those actions make us feel bad and why. I look forward to seeing more tests on the subject!

About Stephen Crane

Stephen was hooked by the NES at a very young age and never looked back. He games on a daily basis and is currently trying to climb his way up the ranked ladder on League of Legends! Outside of the video game world he actually likes running and owns a rapidly growing collection of toed shoes. Stephen Crane is the owner of Armed Gamer.

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