Do we become more morally sensitive by acting badly in video games?

Do we become more morally sensitive by acting badly in video games?

In previous blog posts, I wrote about whether video games make players more violent, and also Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which created a feeling of guilt during game-play. In this post I look at a research paper that connects these two by looking at how video games elicit guilt and thereby salience towards care and fairness.


Grizzard et. al. published an article called Being Bad in a Video Game Can Make Us Morally Sensitive in “Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking” in 2014. The results of their research is interesting and supports previous research that proved immoral behaviour through video games can elicit guilt. They took this one step further and found evidence to suggest that this feeling of guilt can also promote increased salience towards human morality stemming from,

“five evolutionarily derived intuitions: care (related to empathy and violence), fairness (related to justice considerations), loyalty (related to ingroup biases), authority (related to respect for dominance hierarchies), and purity (related to sanctity and avoidance of bodily contamination)” (499).

This suggests very different effects of video games to the ones suggested by the APA (The American Psychological Association). The APA recently published a report that suggests that violence in video games also leads to violence in real life. The issue here is that the APA on several occasions has been criticised for adopting a biased negative stance towards video games, and this I suspect such a bias could also have influence their most recent report. Not only this, but the report only looks at previous research done in the years 2005-2013, and this then does e.g. not take the paper by Grizzard into account, which I would say is problematic.

In other words, I see Grizzard’s research as a counter-view to that of the APA in terms of the effects of video games. The results point towards the possibility of video games actually having a positive effect on player’s moral values as, “These findings indicate that committing ‘‘immoral’’ virtual behaviours in a video game can increase the salience of content-relevant intuitions” (502). The content-relevant intuitions, in the case of the study, are care and fairness. I must stress that I am the one placing Grizzard’s findings in opposition to the APA, not Grizzard himself, as he does not take any stance on the matter.

When findings are directed towards specific intuitions it is because, “guilt does not function in a general manner that leads to an increase in all intuitions; guilt only affects the salience of violated intuitions” (ibid.).

As one of the control parameters of the study Grizzard et. al. also measures guilt induced by memory recall. I mention this group because the study found that guilt induced by recollection of a past event is stronger than the guilt elicited through the video game. The researchers did not find this surprising due to how such memories are often also cued through particular emotional connection, so recalling an event that caused guilt also recalls the emotions connected. What the game test shows is that through video games developers are able to trigger specific guilt and thereby specific intuitional salience towards moral foundations such as care, fairness, loyalty, authority and purity (502).

In the discussion section of the study two possibilities for the findings are suggested:

“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” (ibid.)

These two different possibilities highlight the need for further studies. The study mentions some of its own limitations including a relatively low reliability within the salience measurements; that only one game was in the study; and participant variables. Further studies would in other words need to repeat this study in order to either confirm or repudiate the reliability of the measurements. It would also be interesting to look at the effects of more games, not only those that elicit guilt, but also those that prompt positive emotions. The use of various control groups with minimized variables might also show different results.

Nonetheless, I find this article very interesting and well worth the read for anyone interested in video games and their effects on people. I am personally very sceptical towards studies that show increased aggression in people who play violent video games. One of the major weaknesses in these studies is the lack of long term studies that measure long term results – most studies measure the short term effects, which might (or might not) prove inconsequential in the long run. On the other hand Grizzard et. al. also measure the short term effects in their study, so the call for studies that look at long term effects is a general one.

What does seem more conclusive is that video games affect its players through the actions and decisions they take in the virtual world. This supports the way Star Wars: KOTOR affected me when playing, but also the other way around, as my anecdotal evidence based on playing that game supports the findings from Grizzard.

Try it out yourself. Play a game where you are made to take immoral action towards a character of sympathy, and see how it affects you. Does it make you want to do something good in order to counter your previous action? Feel free to let me know.

And thank you for reading.


Grizzard, Matthew. Et. al. 2014. Being Bad in a Video Game Can Make Us Morally Sensitive. “Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking”. 17 (8).

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