Reference : Moral Decision-Making in Video Games
Dissertations and theses : Doctoral thesis
Social & behavioral sciences, psychology : Communication & mass media
Moral Decision-Making in Video Games
Holl, Elisabeth mailto [University of Luxembourg > Faculty of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences (FHSE) > Department of Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences (DBCS) >]
University of Luxembourg, ​​Luxembourg
Docteur en Psychologie
Melzer, André mailto
Steffgen, Georges mailto
Billieux, Joel mailto
Rieger, Diana mailto
Kneer, Julia mailto
[en] video games ; morality ; psychology
[en] The present dissertation focuses on moral decision-making in single player video games. The thesis comprises four manuscripts: a theoretical book chapter (Melzer & Holl, 2021), a qualitative focus group study (Holl et al., 2020), a quantitative case study on the video game Detroit: Become Human (Holl & Melzer, 2021), and results from a large experimental laboratory study (Holl et al., 2022).
With more than 2.6 billion players worldwide (Entertainment Software Association, 2018) gaming has become increasingly present in society. In addition to this growing interest, technological advances allow for more complex narratives and deeper character design. Thus, meaningful and morally-laden storylines have become increasingly popular in recent years both in popular AAA (e.g., Detroit: Become Human, The Last of Us 2) and smaller Indie titles (e.g., Papers please, Undertale). At the same time, scholars suggested that not only hedonic but also eudaimonic experiences are an essential part of (gaming) entertainment (Daneels, Bowman, et al., 2021; Oliver et al., 2015; Wirth et al., 2012). This dissertation explores in greater detail one aspect of eudaimonic gameplay, namely single player games that feature meaningful moral decision-making.
Prior research on morality and gaming has relied on a variety of theoretical concepts, such as moral disengagement (Bandura, 1990; Klimmt et al., 2008) or moral foundations and intuitions (Haidt, 2001; Haidt & Joseph, 2007; Tamborini, 2013). Thus, the first task of the dissertation was to establish a previously missing model of moral processing in video games the unifies existing theories (cf. chapter 5.13; Melzer & Holl, 2021). Furthermore, the model proposes factors (e.g., moral disengagement cues, limited cognitive capacities/time pressure) promoting or hampering moral engagement while playing, thus fostering moral versus strategic processing. The model not only integrates relevant theoretical publications but was also designed using data collected in focus groups with frequent gamers (Holl et al., 2020). These qualitative results showed that moral gameplay is not a niche anymore. Furthermore, players expressed they deliberately chose between hedonic and eudaimonic gaming depending on their mood and motivation. Lastly, players mentioned several factors influencing their emotional and moral engagement while playing (e.g., identification, framing). To test parts of the proposed theoretical model, the game Detroit: Become Human, which has been praised for its emotional storytelling and meaningful choices (Pallavicini et al., 2020), was investigated in a case study (Holl & Melzer, 2021). Extensive coding of large-scale online data revealed that 73% of in-game decisions in Detroit: Become Human were morally relevant with a high prevalence for situations relating to harm/care- and authority-based morality. Overall, players preferred to choose moral options over immoral options. This tendency to act “good” was even more pronounced under time pressure and when non-human characters were involved. Furthermore, behavioral variations were found depending on what character was played. To test findings of the case study in greater detail and to also gather individual data in an experimental setup, Holl et al. (2022) conducted a laboratory study. A total of 101 participants played several chapters of Detroit: Become Human featuring up to 13 moral decisions after being randomly assigned to one of three conditions (i.e., playing a morally vs. immorally framed character vs. no framing/control). As expected, players again preferred to act morally sound. Contrary to expectations, character framing did not affect decision-making or physiological responses (i.e., heart rate variability). However, time pressure again increased the likelihood of moral decision-making. Unfortunately, anticipated effects of personality traits (i.e., trait moral disengagement, empathy) were inconclusive both regarding the outcome of decision-making and participants’ perceived guilt after playing.
In summary, the work of this dissertation further underlines the relevance of eudaimonic entertainment. Studying moral decision-making in games may provide insights for moral decision-making in general. Additionally, the presented results have the potential to defuse the heated debate over violent gaming. Novel insights are gained using a mixed methods approach combining qualitative with quantitative data from a large-scale case study of worldwide user behavior and an experimental setup.
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