Behavioural Science
Guilty Effects of Violent Video Games

Since the rise in popularity of violent video games, questions have been asked about the merit of gamers’ behaviors being influenced by the games they play. Opponents of violent video games believe that playing such titles could lead to similar behavior in the real world. Are they onto something?

Behavioral scientists are trying to find out for sure. New research by Grizzard et al (2014) found that behaving immorally in a computer game may trigger feelings of guilt that translate into greater sensitivity to these issues in real life. For the research project, participants either played a terrorist or a UN soldier in a video game; those playing the terrorist role reported greater levels of guilt afterwards than those playing a UN soldier. The authors suggest that, contrary to the bulk of evidence linking violent video games to violent behavior, these games may in fact lead to better behavior in real life.

However, on closer inspection, these findings are not necessarily incompatible with previous research, though the explanation of them may be. A short-term initial effect of heightened guilt, as found here, may give way to neural desensitisation following repeated exposure. Additionally, the paradigm of terrorist vs UN soldier is a lot more morally-absolute than a game like Grand Theft Auto, where most of the interactions occur between equally amoral characters, and therefore may produce a more pronounced guilt response.

The majority of research in this area does suggest that even playing these games for a short time can lead to more violent behaviour. Engelhardt et al (2011) found that participants with low previous exposure to violent video games showed a reduced neural response to violent images after playing one for twenty-five minutes, and in addition, that this reduced response was directly related to subsequent greater aggression towards other participants, as measured in a competitive reaction-time task. This complements other research that has found reduced heart rate and galvanic skin response to viewing violent films following playing a violent video game, all indicators of reduced sensitivity to violence. One study even found the use of violent video games was positively associated with antisocial behaviour in a clinical sample of juvenile delinquents.

Further research needs to be done to determine whether violent video games with a moral message can promote good behaviour, but for the time being, the evidence suggests the negative effects may outweigh any positive ones.

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