The effects of moral disengagement and avatar identification on player experience of guilt

Allen, Johnie
Major Professor
Craig A. Anderson
Committee Member
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The study of video games and morality has emerged only recently. Thus far, research has examined the topic through the lens of moral foundations theory and moral disengagement theory. Generally, these lines of research have found that players often treat in-game behavior as morally significant as long as the behavior is considered morally relevant and the player is not morally disengaged. Another nascent domain of research concerns video games and identification with in-game avatars. This area has found that video games can temporarily alter implicit and explicit self-concepts to be more similar to the characters or roles that are played in video games. Moreover, this self-other merging may have important implications for real-world behaviors. The present study synthesized these three lines of research by utilizing a 2 (moral disengagement: unjustified violence/justified violence) x 2 (avatar identification: low/high) design with explicit and implicit guilt as the primary outcome variables.

It was predicted that player experience of guilt would be stronger when participants carried out unjustified (as compared to justified) violence (H1), and this effect would be especially pronounced in the high identification condition (H2). Moreover, it was predicted that this effect would only occur for players who consider the in-game behavior to be morally relevant (H3). Finally, it was expected that player experience of guilt would yield short-term increases in the salience of violated moral foundations. When a continuous measure of similarity identification was used instead of the experimentally manipulated avatar identification factor, results supported H2 for explicit guilt. Participants who carried out unjustified violence were more likely to experience guilt if they felt similar to their in-game avatars, but feeling similar to one’s avatar had no effect on the likelihood of experiencing guilt for players who carried out justified violence. Familiarity with the game that was played also reduced the likelihood of experiencing guilt. These effects were not found for implicit guilt. No other hypotheses were supported.