Gamer Morality: The initial results

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:
overall morality

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.
single-playershipwereck gamers-vote gamers-vaccine

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!

  • Gamers in general tend to care about the ‘greater good’, no matter the game they play
  • Violent games don’t lead to violent morals, in fact they make you faster in accepting non-violent dilemmas that benefit the greater good
  • There seems to be an effect if you interact with real people in multi player games
  • The moral dilemmas are not perfect, but a good start to examining this topic
  • Games are complicated, I should examine the gamers by the games they play for more accurate results

  • * 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!

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    1. schnappi says:

      hence some critic too?

      as i read through your thesis i want to give some critic:

      until page 24 it was very fluid to read through, but then – at the
      end of page 25 and beginning 26 – it got a bit confusing first. had to double check and tripple check to often.
      it was due, that ‘the shipwreck’ chart had to be on page 25 imo, not on page 26, coz when i read page 26, my mind was with ‘the vaccine’, so i looked right and there was the chart of ‘the shipwreck’. so i was like Oo. i expected a vaccine chart – it’s missing.

      after that at ‘answering the hypothesis’, especialy 2nd part ‘to what extend does moral decision making differ…?’ it got a bit boring, although it was one of the most crucial parts to read, coz it did read like: this is this… this is that… that is that… that is this. just make it visualy more attractive – put charts to the text, pictures, etc. (it’s easier if u have to track back informations, when u read through it).

      it’s more appealing, it keeps it fresh, not letting the thesis dry out in the end. even if it’s scientific work… it can be entertaining. ; ]

      other thing that bugged me and is a bit confusing too, is when you are talking about ‘the vote’. it’s more then just about a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. it’s about ‘A’ and ‘B’. A implies a yes and no situation and B the same. as u choose A or B it reverts the one you didn’t chose to the oposite of the one you did chose. (if A is 1, then B is 0 and vice versa). it’s just mathmatic. it’s if A would be chosen with 92% with 10.000 death, it’s more likely it would be chosen one time. but if u choose B with 90% and 1000 death it leads basically to the oppertunity to try it 10 times. so B has much greater value than A, or am i wrong? so the question is flawed in itself kind of or not? it’s just a more rational choice in the end than something more moral based?

      my conclusion out of the thesis about the control-group ( tv-group 😛 ) and the gamer-group ( nerd-group ^_^ ) is that the more you get exposed to moral decision making… ur vision for the greater good/things is growing and dependent to which content u r more exposed to in gaming/non-gaming (violent & non – violent) the quicker u get in decision making. social aspects incorporate in these… but i believe to see a trend that gamers that are actively doing decision making over and over again are faster, more intuitive ( System 1 and 2 )

      overall it was rly interesting and i appreciate every effort that puts us gamers in a better light for the… i just call them dinosaurs.

      for additional analysis:

      research groups of ppl that are more introverts and/or extroverts.
      research the social status of the these ppl.

      lil example: there was a kid, a good, nice, intelligent, but shy and not good looking… got beaten up and got made fun of in school (basically in his social life) all the time, but behaved friendly in the public… but in his mind grew the anger and the rejection-feeling. it flew into the cyber world to ventile these. it played fps’s, but also strategy games and it gave it most likely the only thing that held it and gave it respect for it’s skills and was not judging it by it’s lookings or shy’ness. but the relation broke kind of, coz the pressure of the real life world got so intense, that this kid started to use his abilities learned from gaming to actually plan a amok run. it built up a plan with strategy and used his fps’s skills to execute his plan in real life, commiting suicide in the end, to get revenge for everything the ppl in real life did to it, even though it never deserved to be treatend like this. it was just the outcome of things that happened in it’s life triggered by the social life it faced and it’s incapability to deal with it.

    2. schnappi says:

      basically what i wanted to put out in this lil story in the end was
      that this kid betrayed and used the only thing that treated him like he should’ve been treated for his own sake in the end, but judged on itself to too (morality in immorility).

      • Liefje says:

        Wow thanks for the awesome and well thought out reply. I wish I had your fluidity feedback prior to handing in the thesis!

        It would be interesting to examine traits and events that may have led to an individual being attracted to certain types of games, but with this kind of research it may very difficult to attribute causality to certain things (say, one bullied child had much emotional support from the parents so they switched schools but then it still happened).

        Unfortunately I don’t have the data from this dataset to analyse such cases but it would definitely make for some interesting future research. Thanks again! ♥

        • schnappi says:


          always happy, when i’m able to help and when the help is actually appreciated.

          …in case, you’ll do some research again and as i’m guessing that you are still studying it’s not lost yet.
          ; ]

          maybe i can help u next time – and through ur studys u’ll help me too. so actually we are helping each other with it – teamwork. ^__^

      • Liefje says:

        Oh also, I completely agree about the vote dilemma. I think the results for that can be explained by the dilemma being poorly worded, or not even a test for morality. I wanted to mention the work of tversky and kahneman for that dilemma, as it could also be that people would overwight small probabilities, thus choose no.

        • schnappi says:

          as far as i’ve got to understand ppl… hmm… how shell i put this…

          let’s just say – today there are so much possibilties to choose from, that someone is pretty fast overwhelmed by these, which is very pressuresome, which leads basically to wrong decisons. most likely they decide to not decide. that’s stagnation. it makes unhappy – in result it will not only harm urself, but also the ppl around u –> Doom-Lo Ping ^__^.

          ino its not rly an answer to ur answer. but i hope u get my point.

          just to end this: the biggest problem is oneself, coz as long as u lie to urself, u will lie to other ppl too. so first – be true, be honest (u’ll have to learn Conciliatorily & Contenance) with urself first. then u will be carry it to other too. if not the balloon goes boom boom. and that’s what happening all day long with urself and the ones around u.


    3. How would you feel if you waited for the new Corvette to come out, preordered one, and when you try to drive it home with its massive V8 engine the dashboard tells you, “Gas Pump not connected, aborting.”?Well, this is the world of EA games. For years now they have been plugging DRM into games regardless if it’s singleplayer or multiplayer. At some unspecified date, from a year to a few years down the line, they’ll pull the plug on the life-support of the game (aka server) and tah-dah! Your $60 game is now a $60 Frisbee.There is no reason at all that anyone who shells out top-dollar for an over-hyped game should have to sit in a queue for hours at a time to even reach the main menu. The queue makes NO mention of your spot in line, and only says, “ATTEMPTING to reconnect in: (20 minute countdown)”. That is, not checking persistently. That is, indefinite wait time. Your saves are SERVER based, so if your connection is lost, the server hiccups, or you move to a less-populated server? Hours of gameplay wasted.Tutorials are bugged. Region buttons are greyed out and unable to continue. The crashes force you to sit in the queue once again.Bottom line: Go up to a random stranger, preferably a musclehead, hand him your $60 and ask him to punch you in the face. You’ll get more out of your money, and it’ll be less painful to watch.PASS.

    4. It has three save modes: Evade, which has the wallet rolling away on it’s built-in wheels so that it’s owner can’t get to it; Asking for Help, where it basically “screams” for help so that other people can chastise the owner before he or she can take any money out of it; and Last Resort, where the wallet sends a text message to the owner’s parents. It also has a fourth mode called Consumption Mode, which encourages you to spend money when you’ve got the money to spare.

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