07/02/2014 11:53 am ET Updated Sep 01, 2014

Moral Combat: Do Violent Video Games Make Us Reflect On Morality?

Pamela Joe McFarlane via Getty Images

Scholars have long debated whether playing violent video games can produce antisocial behaviors in players. Evidence has been mixed, at best, and often controversial. And youth violence has been steadily declining for decades in the United States despite the widespread proliferation of video games. A new study may help us understand why we're not seeing antisocial behaviors in-game translate to the real world. Rather than making players consider aggressive acts, such games may actually nudge them to think more morally.

Led by Matthew Grizzard at the University of Buffalo SUNY, the researchers randomized some participants to play an action game either as a terrorist (the guilt-inducing condition) or as a UN soldier (the control condition). Other participants were randomized to write a quick narrative about either a time they felt guilty (the guilt inducing condition) or an ordinary day (the control condition). People playing as the terrorist essentially spent the game, which lasted 10 minutes, committing antisocial acts. After the randomized condition participants filled out a questionnaire about how guilty they felt as well as on moral reflections more broadly.

Most research on video game violence in the past hasn't looked much at moral reflections. However, it is generally presumed by advocates for the belief that such games are harmful that violent antisocial acts in game should "normalize" such acts for players, leading them to accept them more and possibly imitate similar behaviors in the real world. However, in Dr. Grizzard's study, a different pattern of results emerged. Players who engaged in more antisocial acts tended to demonstrate higher levels of guilt, as well as moral reflection. That is to say, they were considering morality to a greater degree than those who had committed fewer antisocial acts. This pattern of results was similar as for the guilt inducing writing condition, except that the video game manipulation seemed to result in greater moral reflections. The authors concluded that it may be possible that playing out antisocial behaviors in the safety of a video game may actually lead to moral reflections that could lead to more prosocial behavior in real life. However, it's important to point out that the authors did not measure subsequent prosocial behaviors and this speculation remains just that, speculation.

What is most intriguing about this study is the observation that the cognitions experienced by players after antisocial games is not as simplistic as previously thought. A lot of studies have examined what have been called, perhaps prematurely, "aggressive thoughts" following video game play. Typically these experiments involve examining how quickly people respond to aggressive words (explosion, fight, etc.) as opposed to neutral words, or filling in the missing letters of word stems. So, for instance, if you fill in a word as "kill" rather than "kiss" you are having "aggressive thoughts." I've always been wary that these outcomes were called "aggressive thoughts" which imply intentionality even where none is demonstrated. After all, I suspect if I showed participants wildlife videos of kangaroos in the outback, I could demonstrate people were having "kangaroo thoughts" without any intention of actually hopping about, moving to Australia or carrying their children around in a pouch on their stomach. But, according to anti-game advocates, this is a crucial theoretical step. Playing games lead to "aggressive thoughts" and these thoughts develop cognitive scripts that make aggressive behavior more likely.

It was these "aggressive thought" studies that the US Supreme Court were particular skeptical of (and rightly so) in the 2011 Brown v EMA case in which they struck down a California law seeking to regulate violent video game sales to minors. The Supreme Court correctly noted that thinking about something right after you saw it is hardly surprising and not proof that one is going to imitate the behavior seen. If scholars were to claim that watching television shows or movies with LGBT lead characters would lead people to adopt an alternate sexual orientation themselves, such a theory would be met with derision. Yet, this is essentially the approach adopted in aggression research.

Dr. Grizzard's study suggests that, although violent games may indeed get us thinking, the cascade of thoughts we have may be more complex than simply saying they are "aggressive thoughts." Past research has assumed that thinking about aggression has implied approving thoughts, but apparently that's not the case. Thinking about aggression doesn't necessarily mean we are going to act on those thoughts. Possibly quite the contrary. If nothing else this study suggests that it's difficult to draw a straight linear line from a particular type of media content to a particular set of thoughts to particular imitative behaviors. Rather game players are thoughtful processors of media content and their reactions to game content, even content society might consider objectionable, may not be as simplistic as many once thought.

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