Gaming Violence and Guilt

When one studies communities that are forged as a result of competitive video games, the content of those games are an important variable. Not only that, but a critical portion of how those communities are structured is the way the game affects the player and his interpersonal relationships is. Hartmann, Toz, and Brandon analyze how a game may do this in their article “Just a Game? Unjustified Virtual Violence Produces Guilt in Empathetic Players” (2010). Since most competitive video games today employ an inherent level of violence, the factor of guilt can prove to be essential in affecting the player and those around him.

In their literature review, the researchers used past studies of how players relate with video games, highlighting how players use senses of immersion and relation. Most avid game players claim to be able to distinguish that their in-game actions are completely virtual and have no real life appropriation. A common metaphor that the article uses to relate to this concept is how these players see violent video game acts as comparable to playing chess. Movements in chess are not seen as violent or relatable in any way, but are rather a means to an end to accomplish the desired goal. However, as the article reveals, this concept of video games being unable to trigger any emotional reaction is challenged by recent examples. Most notably, Activision’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009) features a scene where the player assumes the role of an undercover CIA agent attempting to infiltrate terrorist ranks. However, in the process of doing so, the now-infamous “No Russian” level involves the player and the terrorist shooting and killing a large number of civilians in an airport takeover. Unsurprisingly, most players feel disturbed while this event occurs and the media latches onto it to criticize video games as a whole.

The “No Russian” example supports theories that media has the ability to portray social situations that have the potential to be very engaging. This is because as the technology develops, digital characters become more human-like in appearance and personality, and as a result, players invest more immersion to achieve a more entertaining experience. With the theories established, the authors proposed two experiments to test three hypotheses. The first experiment would test whether or not players experienced more guilt while engaging in unjustified violence, when compared to justified violence. The second experiment would examine if players felt more guilt if they knew more background information about their opponent. Finally, each experiment would investigate if a player’s trait empathy had a positive relationship with the feeling of guilt caused by virtual violence.

The methods involved acquiring random samples of forty-nine and eighty college students for the two experiments, respectively. Each experiment used first-person shooter video games with modified code to set up particular scenarios. The first examined a hostile prison camp, with subjects split into two roles – United Nations soldiers killing the criminals running the camp (justified violence) or criminals running the camp killing U.N. soldiers to continue their evil deeds (unjustified violence). This tested the experiences players had the particular role they assumed in the game. The second experiment put the player in the position of a secret agent with a specific target to kill. Subjects were split regarding how much information about the target they were given. Both groups knew the target’s face and that she was a secretary, but only one group was given extended, background information on the target. This was meant to test the significance that information on the opponent had in creating guilt in the player. After each game play session, subjects completed a questionnaire to measure their experiences with specific questions.

For those that have played video games before, the results were not too surprising. Empathetic players seemed to feel guiltier committing virtual acts of violence than non-empathic ones. Additionally, there were higher measured levels of guilt for those committing unjustified acts of violence in the first experiment involving the U.N. soldiers and the prison camp. Finally, players who knew more background information about the targeted secretary felt guiltier killing her than those who only knew her face and occupation. Essentially, each hypothesis was proven to be true – trait empathy, justifiability, and opponent knowledge seemed to play a role in a player’s experienced guilt while playing a video game. The authors came to the conclusion that violent video games were indeed capable of inducing personal dilemmas and choices regarding morality, which reflected previous theories. If the video game had no such impact, the measured guilt levels would have had no measurable difference between the two scenarios in each experiment. In this circumstance, the scenario in a video game reflected the appropriate reactions from its real-life counterpart.

While I believe the premise, application, and conclusion of the experiments are valid as a whole, there exist some potential flaws that could create some unreliability. Even though the sample was randomly selected, the sample size was remarkably low. If the number of the subjects reached triple digits, the argument’s strength would have been greatly improved. An observation that the researchers themselves made was rather remarkable. They showed concern for the potential of how poorly disguised their questionnaire may have been. This is a significant problem with most survey approaches, because if the subject discovers what the dependent variable is, and thus the researcher’s intent, their behavior may change in a variety of ways. For this event, also known as the Hawthorne effect, to occur, the experiment’s results could likely be seen as invalid. However, I had an issue with the decision to design and modify specific games to test particular variables. While it does give the researchers more control over what the player experiences, such a limitation is not fully reflective of what video game players experience in today’s market. Such games go through rigorous testing and content checks, so to freely construct a game for this specific research purpose makes the experiments feel slanted. If I were in charge of the research project, I would have used sections of recent video games on store shelves, which would help with the generalization of the conclusion. The experiment appears to be replicable and the tested concept is logical, but there are significant improvements that could be made before this could become a widely accepted and valid theory.

Hartmann, T., Toz, E., & Brandon, M. (2010). Just a game? Unjustified virtual violence produces guilt in empathetic players. Media Psychology, 13, 339-363.

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Peter Spezia

Editor-in-Chief at Rhymes With Asia
Speaking into a microphone about nerd culture is a passion project for Peter Spezia, formerly known as SMYNYouko. Peter has been an Internet broadcaster since 2007, with past shows including Show Me Your News and WTF, Pokémon. His latest ventures include hosting The PowerSwitch - gaming's call-in talk radio show - and writing for A University of Michigan alum, Peter lives in the Great Lakes State with his wife Rachel as he works in video production for FCA US LLC. When he isn't keeping track of the latest video game industry news, Peter is either playing the guitar or staying fit.