Doing bad things in a virtual world may influence you to do good work in the real world. A study published online by the journal "Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking" features the article, "Being Bad in a Video Game Can Make Us More Morally Sensitive."

The study, conducted by the University of Buffalo professor Matthew Grizzard, showed that immoral behavior in video games makes players feel guilty. This guilt results in the players being more sensitive to morality in the real world.

It states in the paper, "The fact that engaging in virtual transgressions was capable of eliciting similar increases in guilt along the same measure as compared to recalling a past transgression indicates that the guilt experienced from game play is functionally similar to real world guilt."

For the study, 185 subjects were either randomly assigned to play the game "Arma: Cold War Assault" as a terrorist and then to recall actions in their lives that induced guilt, or to play the same game as a UN solider and then recall actions in life that did not bring guilt. The subjects then completed a questionnaire on moral behavior and the foundations of morality. Correlations were found in the questionnaire responses, with positive correlations seen in the subjects that felt guilty from playing the game as a terrorist.

The study uses the concept of five moral domains: Harm/care, Fairness/reciprocity, Ingroup/loyalty, Authority/respect and Purity/sanctity, though the study mainly focuses on the two domains of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity. These moral domains were challenged by being cruel, abusive and injust when playing as a terrorist in the game.

As games have grown more sophisticated over the years, some feature complex morality systems that track how you play and adjust the reactions of characters and the progress of the game's story accordingly. This study lends credence that such moral choices make a game not only more interactive, but closer to real life with actual moral considerations.

According to the paper, "The findings here demonstrate the potential for emotional experiences that result from media exposure to alter the intuitive foundations upon which humans make moral judgments. This is particularly relevant for video game play, where habitual engagement with the media is the norm for a small but considerably important group of media users."

There has been a persistent concept that violence in video games can cause violent behavior. This study may provide doubt on that concept, often used by politicians and also reported in the media.

Beyond Dr. Grizzard at the University of Buffalo, the paper is co-authored by Ron Tamborini, Robert J. Lewis, Lu Wang and Sujay Prabhu, researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Texas, Austin.

The paper on the study can be found online, though it is behind a paywall, with a print version to come.

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