A few months ago I invited you all to take part in my thesis experiment. Finally, the grades have been handed out and I’m able to share my initial results with you. I won’t bore you with all the academic necessities included in the thesis, but if you do wish to see the final product you can download my thesis here. But, to understand where I’m coming from and how I interpreted the results, I’ll have to give a quick non-academic rundown:
Why research gamer morality?
There’s a lot of media kerfuffle over video games and how it can breed addicts and killers. I’ve written about it quite a bit in other posts. Media effects research is also contested within academia. Some research finds effects, others doesn’t. Most of the effects research is focused on violent games, and experiments usually test direct effects. In other words, participants play a violent game and are tested directly after to see if it impacted them in any way. So there’s a gap for researchers to check out if there are cumulative effects. Also, morality is at the basis of actions we take. So instead of looking at (for example) aggression, I wanted to look at the ‘bread and butter’ of our judgements – those feelings that we get that make us do things, or refrain from doing things. I wanted to investigate;
What are the differences in moral decision making between gamers and non-gamers?*
In order to research this, I need to explain moral decision making in the context of video games.
What are other researchers saying?
With regards to morality in gaming, there isn’t much data. Mostly, research has found that games can induce feelings of morality, especially amongst those who have higher trait empathy. So, if you are an empathetic person, you will feel bad when you have to smash in someones skull to progress in the game. Additionally, it’s been discovered that games provide an arena where young males can exercise a variety of emotions, including feeling repercussions of (im)moral actions. So games make us feel things, but how do we process these feelings in our brains?
For simplicity, we can think of our brains like a reptile brain, inside a monkey brain, with a human outer shell. Evolutionarily, this makes sense. Psychologically (and also supported by neuroscientific evidence), there are theories of dual processing, which assert that we have these intuitive reactions that occur within our biological ‘reptile brains’. Then, our human brains justify why we feel this way. A good example of dual processing in morality is this:
Most people get grossed out by incest. But what if a consenting pair used birth control, as well as protection from STDs? Or, what if the incestual couple were of the same gender, thus offspring were not a consideration, and they also protected themselves from STDs?
According to research, our brains struggle to find a reason for why it’s wrong, we just ‘know’ that it is. To put this in a fancy way, our pre-frontal cortex (part of our ‘human’ brain) is responsible for providing post-hoc justifications for our intuitions (which occur in our ‘reptile/monkey’ brain). So, since there is some lag between the time the intuitions arise and the processing of these intuitions by our ‘human’ brains, moral intuitions can be measured through examining the time taken to respond to a moral question. Fast response times indicate less processing in the brain, pointing to an intuitive judgement.
But what does any of this have to do with gaming?
Well, there is a growing body of evidence regarding neural plasticity, and how repeated actions and exposure can shape cognitive functioning. Simply put, if you keep playing video games you can alter the way you think. So by that logic, one could (for example) assume that if you play shitloads of violent video games, violence can become part of your intuition.
So, I wanted to test morality on several dimensions. Each of the dilemmas featured dimensions of violence and utilitarian (benefiting the greater good) outcomes.
I examined a control group of 99 people who did not play video games at all, and 329 people in the gamer group. Significance was tested at a 95% confidence level (so, anything that was found to be significant I can be 95% sure that it’s not due to random chance).
Okay, first of all, there weren’t that many differences between the gamers and the control group. This is because the control group didn’t seem to agree on what was intuitive to them as a whole, except for with one dilemma (we’ll return to this later). The overall acceptance rate of the participants is in line with previous research, noting that the closer the proximity of violence, the less likely people are willing to accept the action. This graph explains it:
For the selfish, non-utilitarian dilemmas (The Hospital and The Wallet), most people did not accept these. 34.5% said they would keep the money found in a strangers wallet, and only 8% said they would smother a dying man for money.
Females were overall faster in both accepting or rejecting the dilemmas, across the board (so, it didn’t matter if they were gamers or not). Many scholars note that females have a more developed sense of morality and perhaps that is why they reached their judgements faster.
Okay now back to the dilemma which the non-gaming group intuitively agreed upon. This was The Shipwreck. The control group results hinted that intuition lay with rejecting the dilemma. This means that they would not push people off a sinking lifeboat in order to save everyone else. Gamers, on the other hand, especially those who predominantly play single player games, found it intuitive to push the people off the boat, saving everyone else as a result. What does this mean? It could mean that those who play single player games are less sensitive to violence. Why do I think this?
Well, when looking at the other answers, single player gamers did not have any other agreed-upon intuitions. The gaming group in general, however, tended to intuitively accept dilemmas that had utilitarian outcomes. Therefore you could make a broad generalization that playing games makes you want to be more helpful to people. But it could also be down to helpful personalities who are attracted to certain types of games. Or to take part in this experiment.
Finally, could levels of in-game exposure to violence, social behaviour or helpful behaviour lead to quicker acceptance or rejection of dilemmas? Not really. Exposure to violence led to quicker acceptance of The Vote. But that doesn’t make much sense, since it’s a non-violent dilemma! Increased social engagement in games led to quicker rejection to smother a dying man for money. So, loads of online social engagement might make one averse to violent, selfish actions. Overall though, the indexes of exposure were probably lacking and that’s why hardly any significant results were found.
So, for a bachelor thesis, I found some stuff. But there’s more to be done. Speaking with another video game effect scholar, I realized that most studies now tend to do psychological pre-testing prior to the experiment, to test things like trait empathy. While I don’t have the chance to do that, I do have enough data to run further analysis. The next results I will look into will be:
1. Moral intuitions by game type – Lots of Starcraft II, Quake Live and DotA 2 players took part in the experiment, so I have a large enough sample to examine some specific games.
2. The extreme outliers – Perhaps those who played an excessive amount have the most pronounced effects. These were excluded in the initial analysis because it skewed the normal distribution of the data
Explain it like i’m 5!
* This isn’t the real RQ I used. I know it’s academically wrong, but I wanted to simplify this as much as possible. Read the full thesis if you want to know the details.
Thanks for taking part everyone, I really enjoyed doing this research and I hope to do more in the future. Did you bother to read the whole thesis and have more ideas for additional analysis? Leave a comment and let me know!