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Being Bad in a Video Game Can Make Us
More Morally Sensitive
Matthew Grizzard, PhD,
Ron Tamborini, PhD,
Robert J. Lewis, PhD,
Lu Wang, MA,
and Sujay Prabhu, MA
Several researchers have demonstrated that the virtual behaviors committed in a video game can elicit feelings
of guilt. Researchers have proposed that such guilt could have prosocial consequences. However, this propo-
sition has not been supported with empirical evidence. The current study examined this issue in a 2 ·2 (video
game play vs. real world recollection ·guilt vs. control) experiment. Participants were ﬁrst randomly assigned
to either play a video game or complete a memory recall task. Next, participants were randomly assigned to
either a guilt-inducing condition (game play as a terrorist/recall of acts that induce guilt) or a control condition
(game play as a UN soldier/recall of acts that do not induce guilt). Results of the study indicate several
important ﬁndings. First, the current results replicate previous research indicating that immoral virtual be-
haviors are capable of eliciting guilt. Second, and more importantly, the guilt elicited by game play led to
intuition-speciﬁc increases in the salience of violated moral foundations. These ﬁndings indicate that com-
mitting ‘‘immoral’’ virtual behaviors in a video game can lead to increased moral sensitivity of the player. The
potential prosocial beneﬁts of these ﬁndings are discussed.
Several recent studies have demonstrated that
committing immoral behaviors in a video game can elicit
Guilt is a moral emotion that provides ‘‘immediate
and salient feedback on our social and moral acceptability.
When we sin, transgress or err, aversive feelings of shame,
guilt, or embarrassment are likely to ensue.’’
moral emotions are anticipatory as well as consequential (i.e.,
one can anticipate feeling guilty before one commits a
have argued that committing
immoral actions in video games may lead to prosocial effects.
If a player ‘‘feels guilty for a certain behavior or choice, a
certain level of conscious consideration of the repercussion of
one’s behavior is implied. Games could provide an important
outlet for not only making moral decisions, but also reﬂecting
upon (and perhaps mentally rehearing) what the right choices
and behaviors are.’’
The current study seeks to test
whether playing an immoral role in a video game can lead to
increased sensitivity of relevant moral intuitions through the
elicitation of guilt.
has recently proposed a model of intuitive
morality and exemplars (MIME) that combines current ad-
vances in moral psychology with media effects theories to
explain the inﬂuence of mediated experiences on individu-
als’ moral judgments. Moral foundations theory (MFT)
provides the theoretical foundation for the MIME’s con-
ceptualization of morality. MFT proposes that human mo-
rality is the result of ﬁve evolutionarily derived intuitions:
care (related to empathy and violence), fairness (related to
justice considerations), loyalty (related to ingroup biases),
authority (related to respect for dominance hierarchies), and
purity (related to sanctity and avoidance of bodily contami-
nation). Tamborini argues that these moral intuitions drive
individuals’ evaluations of media, such as video games.
Previous research on video game play demonstrates that the
salience of these moral intuitions can drive decision making
in video games.
Notably, research by Weaver and Lewis
did not ﬁnd a signiﬁcant correlation between sensitivity
of these moral intuitions and guilt experienced after game
However, this research examined moral intuition sa-
lience prior to game play, and not the ability of game play to
increase intuition salience.
The MIME also predicts that mediated experiences can
increase the salience of content-relevant intuitions.
plied to video game play and, more speciﬁcally, the game
utilized in the current study, engaging in unjustiﬁed violence
in a video game should increase the salience of fairness and
Department of Communication, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, Buffalo, New York.
Department of Communication, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan.
Department of Advertising and Public Relations, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas.
CYBERPSYCHOLOGY,BEHAVIOR,AND SOCIAL NETWORKING
Volume X, Number X, 2014
ªMary Ann Liebert, Inc.
care intuitions (i.e., the intuitions violated by engaging in
unjust violence). Related research has shown that expo-
sure to television programming can increase the salience of
but the observed effects have
been somewhat weak. This weakness may simply indicate
that media’s ability to affect these intuitions is weak. How-
ever, other explanations are also possible. One explanation
might be that media’s inﬂuence on these moral intuitions is
mediated by emotional responses not measured in earlier
research, such as guilt.
Previous investigations argue that video games offer moral
agency to players that is absent in narrative media such as
televised drama and news. In narrative media, viewers simply
watch moral decisions being made by others, but in video
games, players often make the decision to be moral (or im-
The present study began by considering situations
where people engaged in (or recalled) immoral or moral be-
haviors that vary in their ability to induce guilt. It then built on
the expectations that (a) the moral agency afforded by video
game play will prompt immoral game play behavior to have
an inﬂuence on moral intuition salience, and (b) moral emo-
tions such as guilt will serve as a mediator for the inﬂuence of
video game play on moral intuition salience. As such, the
current study seeks to test the following hypotheses:
H1: Engaging in immoral behavior in a video game will lead
to higher levels of guilt than engaging in moral behavior.
H2: Guilt experienced from video game play will lead to
increased salience of the content-relevant intuitions of care
H3: Guilt mediates the relationship between engaging
in immoral behavior and increases in content-relevant
With regard to H2, the video game selected for use in the
study is expected to produce an increase in the salience of
the care and fairness intuitions speciﬁcally because of
committing unjustiﬁed violence in the game (i.e., a simul-
taneous violation of the care and fairness intuitions). To test
for the potential that guilt can selectively increase the sa-
lience of the speciﬁc moral intuitions whose violation
yielded the guilt, we chose to elicit guilt utilizing two proce-
dures: video game play and memory recall.
In the current
study, we should expect both guilt inductions to elicit guilt.
However, we should only expect game-elicited guilt to
correlate with the content-relevant intuitions of care and
fairness, as the guilt elicited by the game should be asso-
ciated systematically and exclusively with these two moral
intuitions. The guilt elicited by an undirected recall of
memories, on the other hand, should not be systematically
related to any intuition. That is, recalled guilt should vary
randomly across all intuitions, as participants should be
equally likely to recall guilt associated with a violation of
the care and fairness intuitions as they are to recall guilt
associated with the other three intuitions. This procedure
can provide both convergent and discriminant evidence. As
such, we expect a positive relationship between guilt and
the salience of the care and fairness intuitions for partici-
pants in the video game conditions (convergent evidence).
Guilt and intuition salience should be unrelated for all other
intuitions in both the video game and memory recall con-
ditions (discriminant evidence).
Participants (N=185) were recruited from classes at a
large, Midwestern university in the United States, and re-
ceived course credit for their participation. Participants’ ages
ranged from 18 to 29 years (M=20.18 years, SD =1.70, 122
A2·2 (medium: video game play vs. memory re-
call ·condition: guilt vs. control) experiment was conducted
to test the hypotheses. Participants were ﬁrst randomly as-
signed to either play a video game or complete a memory
recall task, and then randomly assigned to a guilt or control
Participants in the video game conditions played a modi-
ﬁed version of a ﬁrst-person shooter game utilized in pre-
Video game play participants in the guilt
condition played as a terrorist soldier, while participants in
the control condition played as a UN soldier. The game itself
informed participants of their character’s motivations to en-
sure that the experimenter did not bias results. Participants in
the memory recall conditions were asked to remember and
describe in a short paragraph a time in which they felt par-
ticularly guilty (the guilt condition) or an ordinary day (the
control condition). Game play lasted for approximately 10
minutes; the memory recall procedure was not timed, but
participants wrote on average 51.79 words (SD =22.99).
After completing the video game or the memory recall,
participants completed a 3-item guilt scale from prior stud-
‘‘To what extent do you feel.’’ ‘‘regret,’’ ‘‘sorry about
something you’ve done,’’ and ‘‘like you’ve done something
wrong.’’ Next, participants completed the 30-item moral
foundations questionnaire (MFQ), designed to assess the sa-
lience of the ﬁve moral intuitions.
At the end of the study,
participants in the video game conditions completed a ma-
nipulation check asking them whether they played as a terrorist
or a UN soldier. Participants (n
who answered incorrectly or could not remember what type
of character they controlled were excluded from further
analysis, as these responses indicate a failure of the primary
After obtaining a valid and reliable factor loading through
conﬁrmatory factor analyses, composites were created for
the guilt scale and the ﬁve moral intuition scales. The reli-
abilities were guilt a=0.88, care a=0.60, fairness a=0.66,
loyalty a=0.61, authority a=0.59, and purity a=0.72. Al-
though some of these reliabilities may appear less than op-
timal, they are consistent with previous uses of the MFQ.
Prior to hypotheses testing, a zero-order correlation matrix
was created, as well as separate correlation matrices for the
video game conditions and the memory recall conditions (see
Table 1). The signiﬁcant positive correlation between guilt
2 GRIZZARD ET AL.
and condition for the video game conditions (r=0.25,
p<0.05) is consistent with Hypothesis 1, indicating that im-
moral video game behavior leads to feelings of guilt. Re-
plicating prior research,
participants playing as terrorist
soldiers (M=4.55, SD =2.76) felt signiﬁcantly guiltier than
participants playing as UN soldiers (M=3.24, SD =2.41),
t(66) =2.08, p=0.04, Cohen’s d=0.51.
With regard to the memory recall conditions, the signiﬁ-
cant correlation between guilt and condition (r=0.49, p<
0.01) provides evidence that the memory recall group re-
counting an experience in which they felt guilty (M=5.79,
SD =1.89) experienced signiﬁcantly more guilt than the par-
ticipants recounting an ordinary day (M=3.75, SD =1.78),
t(85) =5.19, p<0.001, Cohen’s d=1.13.
The correlation matrices (see Table 1) are consistent with
the expected patterns suggested by Hypothesis 2. For par-
ticipants in the video game conditions, guilt is signiﬁcantly
positively correlated with the salience of the care (r=0.28,
p=0.02) and fairness (r=0.35, p<0.003) intuitions (i.e., the
intuitions violated in game play), but not signiﬁcantly cor-
related with the loyalty (r=0.00, p=1.00) authority (r=0.19,
p=0.12) or purity (r=0.14, p=0.25) intuitions. In addition,
for participants in the memory recall conditions, guilt does
not signiﬁcantly correlate with the salience of any intuitions.
This speciﬁc pattern of signiﬁcant correlations is consistent
with Hypothesis 2, indicating that the guilt elicited by game
play should lead to increases in the content-relevant intui-
tions of care and fairness and only those intuitions.
To provide further evidence of the intuition-speciﬁc ef-
fects of guilt, structural equation models were examined to
determine whether guilt mediated the increase in the salience
of content-relevant intuitions. Due to the high average cor-
relation between the intuitions (mean r=0.40) and the po-
tential for multicollinearity to distort results and substantive
10 separate structural equation models were
conducted (one for each of the ﬁve intuitions separated by
the two media). Criteria for evaluating the structural equation
models were established a priori, and consisted of (a) sig-
niﬁcant paths between variables, (b) CMIN/df <2.00, (c) a
comparative ﬁt index (CFI) >0.95, (d) the root mean square
residual of approximation (RMSEA) <0.06, and (e) the
standardized root mean square residual (SRMR) <0.08.
The basic outline of the structural equation models tested can
be seen in Figure 1, and the results of these tests are shown in
Table 1. Correlations Among Study Variables
Condition Guilt Care Fairness Loyalty Authority
Zero-order correlations (N=155)
Guilt 0.36** 1
Care 0.07 0.19* 1
Fairness 0.05 0.10 0.54** 1
Loyalty -0.09 -0.02 0.31** 0.07 1
Authority 0.00 0.07 0.38** 0.40** 0.48** 1
Purity 0.06 0.05 0.35** 0.30** 0.50** 0.67**
Video game play conditions (n=68)
Guilt 0.25* 1
Care 0.07 0.28* 1
Fairness 0.13 0.35** 0.73** 1
Loyalty -0.07 0.00 0.36** 0.06 1
Authority 0.11 0.19 0.53** 0.48** 0.46** 1
Purity 0.17 0.14 0.49** 0.40** 0.52** 0.59**
Memory recall conditions (n=87)
Guilt 0.49* 1
Care 0.07 0.06 1
Fairness 0.02 -0.11 0.35** 1
Loyalty 0.12 -0.03 0.24* 0.07 1
Authority 0.08 0.01 0.25* 0.32** 0.50** 1
Purity 0.02 -0.02 0.24* 0.21* 0.50** 0.72**
Note: Condition is dummy coded as 1 =guilt condition, 0 =control condition.
FIG. 1. Basic outline of the
structural equation models
designed to test the mediat-
ing role of guilt.
BEING BAD IN A VIDEO GAME 3
Table 2. Results of the structural equation models are con-
sistent with Hypothesis 3. In the current study, guilt acted as
a mediator between video game play and intuition salience
for the care and fairness intuitions only.
Results of the current study suggest a link between the
performance of antisocial behaviors in video games and the
potential for prosocial effects.
These ﬁndings indicate that
committing ‘‘immoral’’ virtual behaviors in a video game
can increase the salience of content-relevant intuitions. No-
tably, this increase means that instead of becoming less
sensitive to moral violations, players who commit moral
transgression in video games actually become more sensitive
to moral violations, if they feel guilt. Importantly, only
models examining an increase in the salience of moral in-
tuitions violated in game play (i.e., care and fairness) ﬁt the
data. All other models fail to meet the a priori determined
criteria. These results provide strong convergent and dis-
criminant validity for the potential that playing an immoral
character in a video game leads to an increased salience of
content-relevant intuitions mediated by the moral emotion of
guilt. Furthermore, by utilizing random assignment and a
sequential model, the ﬁndings provide evidence of causation.
The increase in the salience of content-relevant intuitions
observed in the current study is particularly telling when
combined with the results of prior work. In an earlier study,
Weaver and Lewis examined whether the salience of the
moral intuitions prior to game play correlated with guilt.
Their work found no signiﬁcant correlation between moral
intuition salience prior to game play and guilt experienced
from video game play, with a 0.02 correlation between guilt
and care salience and a 0.10 correlation between guilt and
fairness salience. The signiﬁcant positive correlations of
0.28 for the guilt–care correlation and 0.35 for the guilt–
fairness correlation observed here strongly contrast with
their prior work, suggesting that the correlations observed
here indicate the ability of game play to increase the sa-
lience of the intuitions rather than a natural correlation. In
addition, the differentiation of these correlations between
the video game and memory recall conditions reinforces the
potential that increases in intuition salience are related
exclusively to guilt-eliciting stimuli. In other words, guilt
does not function in a general manner that leads to an in-
crease in all intuitions; guilt only affects the salience of
The implications for these ﬁndings are important practi-
cally and theoretically. The ﬁndings here demonstrate the
potential for emotional experiences that result from media
exposure to alter the intuitive foundations upon which hu-
mans 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
Overall, the ﬁndings suggest two possibilities. First, re-
peated play as an immoral character may repeatedly activate
guilt and its resultant inﬂuence on the increased importance
of care and fairness. Under these conditions, we might expect
that repeated play as an immoral character would lead
gamers to become more sensitive to fairness and more caring
overall. Alternatively, guilt resulting from playing as an
immoral character may habituate from repeated exposures.
Under these conditions, we might expect that repeated play
would not lead a gamer to become more sensitive to fairness
or become more caring overall, especially if the ability of the
game to elicit guilt dissipates with repeated play.
A less central ﬁnding of the current study indicates that
recalling a past real world transgression elicits more guilt
than a virtual transgression, as indicated by the larger effect
size for the memory recall conditions compared to the video
game conditions. This was not wholly unexpected, as the
strength of an emotional experience correlates with the
probability of that experience to be stored in long-term
memory. Accordingly, particularly strong emotional expe-
riences are perhaps the most likely to be recalled.
the difference in effect sizes, the fact that engaging in vir-
tual transgressions was capable of eliciting similar in-
creases in guilt along the same measure as compared to
recalling a past transgression indicates that the guilt expe-
rienced from game play is functionally similar to real world
guilt. As such, the current study provides empirical evi-
dence of a proposition that has been merely assumed in
Table 2. Numerical Results from the Structural Equation Models Testing Hypothesis 3
Intuition Path A Path B CMIN/df CFI RMSEA SRMR
Video game play conditions
Care 0.24* 0.32** 0.93 1.00 0.00 0.04
Fairness 0.24** 0.40** 0.79 1.00 0.00 0.04
Loyalty 0.24** -0.03 1.99 0.90 0.12 0.11
Authority 0.24** 0.26 0.92 1.00 0.00 0.05
Purity 0.24** 0.17 2.02 0.92 0.12 0.12
Memory recall conditions
Care 0.54** 0.04 1.33 0.95 0.06 0.07
Fairness 0.54** -0.13 1.48 0.95 0.08 0.06
Loyalty 0.54** -0.18 1.21 0.96 0.05 0.08
Authority 0.54** -0.22 1.14 0.98 0.04 0.08
Purity 0.54** -0.04 1.11 0.99 0.04 0.06
Note: Path A corresponds to the path between condition and guilt, and Path B corresponds to the path between guilt and intuition as
indicated in Figure 1. Full diagrams and results of the structural equation models and its results are available upon request from the ﬁrst author.
*p<0.05 (one-tailed); **p<0.05 (two-tailed).
4 GRIZZARD ET AL.
The ﬁrst limitation relates to a concern regarding the
quality of our observations and the relatively low reliabilities
found for some of the intuition salience measures. How-
ever, there is reason to believe that these lower reliabilities
may actually increase conﬁdence in patterns observed. While
the reliabilities for the moral intuitions would be considered
marginally low, there are several reasons why their inﬂuence
on the tests of the hypotheses is minimal. First, the factor
structure of the intuitions was conﬁrmed prior to hypothesis
testing. So, while the low reliability might indicate incon-
sistency in a measure, it does not indicate a lack of validity of
the constructs’ measurement. Second, low reliability always
results in the statistical attenuation of relationships,
such, these lower reliabilities would have decreased our
ability to observe the patterns found. Third, because the low
reliability is limited to the ﬁnal variable in our causal chain, it
cannot affect assessments of the validity of our model.
Only low reliability in a mediator variable can cause a model
that should not ﬁt to appear valid, or a model that should ﬁt to
appear invalid. In our study, the mediating variable has high
reliability (a=0.88), and therefore any concern about the
validity of our model cannot be attributed to low reliability.
In fact, as stated above, the low reliabilities provide a more
robust test of the processes hypothesized due to attenuation.
The second limitation relates to the fact that we examined
only one game and the mediating inﬂuence of only one moral
emotion. Questions remain about the manner in which dif-
ferent games and different moral emotions (both positive and
negative) mediate the relationship between game play and
the salience of all moral intuitions. For example, we exam-
ined the negatively valenced moral emotion of guilt. Other
moral emotions, especially positive moral emotions such as
pride, may have similar or dissimilar inﬂuences on moral
intuitions, both in terms of the direction and intuition spec-
iﬁcity. The ﬁndings here indicate that negatively valenced
moral emotions elicit positive, intuition-speciﬁc changes. It
is unclear whether this is true for positive moral emotions,
such as pride. Based on the moral self-licensing literature,
which shows that being good can give individuals a ‘‘li-
cense’’ to misbehave,
it is plausible to suspect that positive
moral emotions would have a negative inﬂuence. Therefore,
it remains unclear whether guilt is a unique moral emotion,
whether it behaves similarly to other negative moral emotions,
and whether positive moral emotions have similar effects.
Finally, we would note the lack of covariates utilized in
the current study. Numerous variables, including gender,
game play experience, and political afﬁliation, may be ex-
pected to interact with guilt or moral intuition salience. We
examined this potential in our data analyses, and all results
were robust to the inclusion of these covariates. Still, future
research should examine the potential for individual differ-
ences to moderate the results presented here.
Prior research has argued that antisocial video games may
yield prosocial outcomes.
The current paper tests this
possibility and provides evidence that committing immoral
behaviors in a video game can lead to an increased moral
intuition salience. Contrary to popular belief, engaging in
heinous behaviors in virtual environments can lead to an
increased sensitivity to moral issues. Whether this height-
ened sensitivity should then translate to sterner moral judg-
ments and a stronger sense of morality for the player remains
to be determined. Research should continue to explore these
issues, replicating the current research to determine whether
these changes in moral sensitivity extend to real world in-
creases in moral behavior, and whether similar effects are
found with other moral emotions, such as pride.
a. Our decision to elicit guilt using a memory recall as a
comparison to video game play rather than using other more
traditional forms of media, such as television viewing, was re-
lated to the fact that guilt is an ‘‘emotion of self-assessment’’
as compared to emotions of ‘‘other assessment,’’ such as con-
tempt, anger, and disgust.
One feels guilt when one com-
mits a moral violation, whereas contempt, anger, and disgust
are felt when observing others’ moral violations. As such,
we did not feel that watching a media experience would be
capable of eliciting guilt, as a viewer of a traditional media
experience simply observes the actions of characters on screen;
s/he does not actually engage in the immoral/moral behavior.
As such, it is unlikely that viewing traditional media would
lead to feelings of guilt. However, when one plays a video
game character, one is actually engaging in simulated moral/
immoral behavior. This type of simulated experience should be
capable of eliciting guilt. We thus compared guilt elicited from
virtual experiences to guilt elicited from prior real life experi-
ences through the utilization of a memory recall procedure.
Author Disclosure Statement
No competing ﬁnancial interests exist.
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Address correspondence to:
Dr. Matthew Grizzard
359 Baldy Hall
University at Buffalo
The State University of New York
Buffalo, NY 14260
6 GRIZZARD ET AL.