Moral (Dis-)Engagement. How real life context can sensitize players of violent video games

by Julian Marx (Author)

Term Paper 2016 14 Pages

Psychology - Media Psychology


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Literature Review
2.1. Aggression through violent video games and sensitization
2.2. Moral Disengagement
2.3 Interactivity and Realism

3. Methods
3.1. Overview
3.2. Participants
3.3. Stimulus material and procedure
3.4 Measures

4. Expected Results

5. Discussion

6. Conclusion

7. References

8. List of Figures:

Man's mind cannot grasp the causes of events in their completeness, but the desire to find those causes is implanted in man's soul. And without considering the multiplicity and complexity of the conditions any one of which taken separately may seem to be the cause, he snatches at the first approximation to a cause that seems to him intelligible and says: "This is the cause!"

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

1. Introduction

Shooting sprees and acts of terrorism shake public opinion and media agendas eminently as the discourse involves strong emotions like anxiety and fear towards violence against humans. Violent video games might arouse similar emotions to individuals, they are often suspected to be the origin of aggression and violent potential of young and male perpetrators with no perspective and a poor social environment.

Research on violent video games is ubiquitous, yet lacks to find consensus on the effects of these entertainment products and the level of aggression or other emotions aroused by the consumption of violent media. This study outline proposes to invert the leading question - not to depreciate the wonder of how we step into the real world after we have played violent video games - but to find out how we step into violent video games after we have been shattered by reality.

The identified research gap of missing findings on how real life context might manipulate the gaming experience leads to the construction of a rather unconventional study design depicted in this study outline. A leading research question to be posed at this point can be worded as: To what extent can players of violent video games be morally sensitized through the exposure to real life violence?

2. Literature Review

2.1. Aggression through violent video games and sensitization

Research on the morality and potential psychological effects of violent video games (hence VVGs) have been conducted ever since this genre attained broad attention in entertainment industry and contentious media discourses. Public perception suspected VVGs to have a strong negative effect on the aggression level of its consumers. Early studies strengthened this claim by showing results of increased aggression levels as a direct consequence of playing a VVG: The more violent a video game, the higher the level of aggression (Anderson & Bushman, 2001). However, more recent studies on immediate effects of VVGs on the players’ behavior predominantly contradict these findings or at least distinctly qualify them to be less severe and propose to incorporate other sociopsychological factors such as personal, family and social context of conspicuous individuals (Fumhee & Naidoo, 2015). Finding empirical evidence for psychological effects aroused by VVGs has proven to be a sophisticated endeavor, due to its complexity. For instance, increased implicit aggressive behavior could be found in context of single player VVGs, whereas aggressive behavior decreases as the number of players in a game situation increases. Furthermore the extent of interaction affects the level of aggression (Liu et. al, 2014). An eligible framework regarding the emergence of aggression can be provided by the assumptions of the General Aggression Model (GAM, Anderson & Bushman, 2002). The model constitutes the presumption that people react with fear and anxiety as predominant emotions towards violent entertainment media, including video games. The model involves the reciprocity of personal and situational inputvariables. Following various routes, the reciprocity might lead to aggressive behavior which then eventually causes another episode (cf. Fig. 1).

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Figure 1: GAM: episodic processes (Anderson & Bushman, 2002)

The GAM was further extended to compromise a change of an individual’s personality through VVGs in a shortterm and longterm context (Carnegey et. al, 2007). Applied to this context of extensive VVG consume, the model posits an increase in aggressive personality characteristics due to desensitization.

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Figure 2: Personality processes (Anderson & Bushman, 2002)

2.2. Moral Disengagement

When it comes to judging someone’s own actions and therefore determining the ethical correctness of these actions, people refer to ethical standards they have established for themselves. If an individual evaluates a certain situation to be embedded in an extraordinary moral context, the selfview of one’s ethical standards may not apply in this particular context (Bandura, 1999). This concept of a Moral Disengagement hence finds itself to be a predestinated theory for VVG research. Experiments indicated moral judgement of violent behavior in VVGs to be connected to its context. When a game situation is perceived as such and further is familiar, guilt and judgement of players towards their ingame actions tend to be less negative (Hartmann & Vorderer, 2010).

When players of VVGs are exposed to real life content after playing the game, their judgment differs about their violent ingame actions as well as actual criminal actions of real life scenarios they are being confronted with. A study by Lee, Peng & Klein about this matter revealed that players might judge their own virtual criminal actions to be less negative when they read about a similar crime stemming from a real life context. Furthermore these crimes are also perceived as more tolerable and players would propose a minor sentence to the perpetrators of these violent crimes compared to people who did not play the VVG beforehand. The study hence suspects some kind of desensitization of moral judgement through VVGs (Lee, Peng & Klein, 2010).

This moral construct raises the question, how real life context might affect the gaming behavior and media perception and if reverse reactions concerning the level of aggression and the moral disengagement can be observed when payers are exposed to violent real life scenarios before playing a VVG. The attempt to determine whether reverse effects of the exposure to real life content and therefore its sensitization might reveal further insights on the Moral Disengagement theory and leave major implications to the design of VVGs and the inhibition of aggressive emotions.

H1. Since the overall view on findings towards aggression and Moral Disengagement does not provide consensus concerning the effects of VVGs, this study outline aims to provide a rather maverick approach towards VVG research. This inverted approach compared to Lee, Peng & Klein towards the exposure to real life context proclaims that people who have been confronted with violent real life content will (a) show a decreased level of aggression and (b) judge their own violent ingame actions to be more negative than people who have not been confronted with the real life content beforehand.



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  • Julian Marx (Author)



Title: Moral (Dis-)Engagement. How real life context can sensitize players of violent video games