With increasingly realistic video games, new players of excessively violent games may express feelings of guilt or disgust while playing. Now a new study at the University of Buffalo has found that this initial moral response tends to lessen the more the game is played.
The study is the first to show that repeatedly playing the same violent game reduces emotional responses, such as guilt, not only to the original game, but to other violent video games as well.
While the researchers have several hypotheses, they are still unsure as to exactly why this happens.
“What’s underlying this finding?” asks lead researcher Dr. Matthew Grizzard, assistant professor of communication and expert in the psychological effects of media entertainment. “Why do games lose their ability to elicit guilt, and why does this seemingly generalize to other similar games?”
Some of Grizzard’s previous studies have focused on the link between violent video games and guilt. His current research builds on those findings.
While gamers often assert that their violent plays in a virtual world are as meaningless to the real world as players capturing pawns on a chess board, research by Grizzard and others has found that immoral virtual actions can elicit higher levels of player guilt than moral virtual actions. These findings appear to contradict claims that virtual actions are completely unrelated to the real world.
Grizzard conducted the new study to further confirm his earlier findings and also to determine whether gamers’ claims that their virtual actions are meaningless actually reflects desensitization processes.
Although the study does show that desensitization occurs, the mechanisms underlying these findings are still unclear. He says there are two arguments for the desensitization effect.
“One is that people are deadened because they’ve played these games over and over again,” he says. “This makes the gamers less sensitive to all guilt-inducing stimuli.”
The second argument is a matter of tunnel vision.
“This is the idea that gamers see video games differently than non-gamers, and this differential perception develops with repeated play.”
For example, non-gamers or new gamers look at a particular game and process everything that’s happening, including the violence. The intensity of the scene trumps the strategies required to succeed. But regular players ignore much of the visual information in a scene if this information is meaningless to their success, according to Grizzard.
“This second argument says the desensitization we’re observing is not due to being numb to violence because of repeated play, but rather because the gamers’ perception has adapted and started to see the game’s violence differently.”
“Through repeated play, gamers may come to understand the artificiality of the environment and disregard the apparent reality provided by the game’s graphics.”
Grizzard plans to conduct further studies to gain a better understanding of this phenomenon.
“This study is part of an overarching framework that I’ve been looking at in terms of the extent to which media can elicit moral emotions, like guilt, disgust, and anger,” he says.
The study is published in the journal Media Psychology.