Mirrored morality: Moral choices in videogames (Weaver & Lewis, 2012)

In the early eras, videogames did not concern themselves of morality because of technological limitations. How could I feel guilty with such ambiguous representations? There was little or no plot and the choices were also limited which does not elicit much thinking beyond its parameters. Gaming historians might disagree when they point out my lack of historical knowledge. Today, the level of sophistication in videogames affords a broad range of experiences and a plot to follow and enjoy. Morality in videogames, represented often as a behaviour-feedback schema, is gaining academic attention which is becoming a parallel avenue along with prosocial gaming research.

Andrew Weaver and Nicki Lewis (Indiana University) have published an article in Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking about how our moral choices are reflected by our real life-based morality. I met Nicki Lewis a few years ago when she visited OSU’s open house when she was looking for a PhD program.


This exploratory study was designed to examine how players make moral choices in video games and what effects these choices have on emotional responses to the games. Participants (n = 75) filled out a moral foundations questionnaire (MFQ) and then played through the first full act of the video game Fallout 3. Game play was recorded and content analyzed for the moral decisions made. Players also reported their enjoyment of and emotional reactions to the game and reflected on the decisions they made. The majority of players made moral decisions and behaved toward the nonplayer game characters they encountered as if these were actual interpersonal interactions. Individual differences in decision making were predicted by the MFQ. Behaving in antisocial ways did increase guilt, but had no impact on enjoyment.

I have personally did not examined much in that area since there are a good number of academics on that line. But my colleagues and I did discussed it quite often during meetings.

In-game moral behaviours and intent appear under certain circumstances within the game. The presence of certain characters and events precipitate active moral reasoning, such as dialogue options with explicit moral consequences. Despite the characters being artificial, they are nevertheless narrative ones with which most often we related them as social entities and we really don’t want to break the immersive experience we’re enjoying as we do with movies and TV. Furthermore, moral decisions are conceptualized as an automatic social process, so the authors reasoned that one’s moral compass guides their in-game behaviours.

There are other in-game circumstances that inhibit moral reasoning, such as an intense battle with faceless enemies. This phenomenon has been identified as moral disengagement, where guilt-inducing actions like killing and theft are rationalized away from players’ moral reasoning and to keep ourselves enjoying the game (see Hartmann & Vorderer, 2010 for further details). The authors argued that in-game events asking players to make moral choices don’t have any cues of moral disengagement which suggests (to me) that videogame developers made deliberate efforts to differentiate parts of the game. This is quite interesting when some game characters kill many human beings in the course of the game without a single remorse, but a disconnect appear if these game characters do so in cutscenes which can be jarring for immersive experiences. Nathan Drake pointed out this absurdity in combat.

The study’s theoretical foundation in morality is moral foundations theory. Moral foundations theory posits a social intuitionist perspective (i.e. morality comes from emotions rather than reasoning) and morality consists of five universal foundations: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, authority/respect, ingroup/loyalty and purity/sanctity. According to Wikipedia, there’s a sixth: liberty/oppression.

The authors previously noted that moral decisions are mostly guided unconsciously. Therefore, they hypothesized that when presented with moral choices, it will be made according to our moral foundations and which foundation depends on what is salient in the situation.  On the other hand, if our moral foundations do guide our moral behaviours, it is reasonable to link our enjoyment and emotional reactions in the game. Thus, the authors hypothesized that players enjoy their game if they behaved morally than those who violates them. Remember in this context, enjoyment is based on their moral compasses, so someone who likes unfairness would enjoy doing unfair things. Likewise, someone who violates their moral creed would feel guilty than those who did not.


Participants: 75 undergraduate students. Age range from 18 to 24. 40 men and 35 women. Videogame experience is measured by average playtime per week which 7.5 hours per week.


Morality: the Morality Foundations Questionnaire is used to assess participants’ five moral foundations based on Haidt’s theory. There are 30-items on a 5-point relevance scale.

Enjoyment: 3-items on a 5-point quantitative scale. One example is “How much did you enjoy this video game?”

Guilt: 2-items on a 5-point from a larger questionnaire, they cited a reference, but I could not pinpoint the exact measure.

Open-ended questions: The researchers asked participants about their experiences with the videogame, such as “why did you make the choices you did?”

dialoguegp9Videogame used: Fallout 3 on the xbox 360. The participants’ playthrough were recorded. When I talked to Nicky during her visit to OSU, I mentioned to her that some of my colleagues were also thinking of using Fallout 3 for a similar purpose. But then, she already started data collection. One caveat is whether participants had previous experiences with Fallout 3 might have influenced their decisions, although I am pretty sure Nicky covered that and probably didn’t find anything significant about it. It’s just that it’s not mentioned in the article and maybe because they had to cut it out due to the journal’s word limit. Yes, paper is very precious, but more precious is the attention span of a busy researcher.

Playtime is 30 minutes average. The participants played the intro part of the game [see video example I pulled out of YouTube]. The authors chose this part because the participants go through the tutorial so they learn how to play, it provides some background story and there were several explicit and implicit moral choices.


Participants filled out the moral foundations questionnaire, demographics and media use. After that, they start playing Fallout 3 until the finished the first act, I am not sure which part they end, but their playtime lasted on average 30 minutes. After play, they completed the enjoyment and guilt measures, were asked questions by the researchers about their videogame experiences.


The participants’ moral behaviours were coded by Nicky’s fellow graduate students (pretty sure of that) and perhaps she was also involved since the paper mentioned three grad students. They coded for seventeen interactions that had explicit moral choices from social (e.g. polite and friendly) to neutral to antisocial (e.g. hostile).  I had to guess these interactions were the dialogue options with Vault 101’s citizens.

The coders also coded for other behaviours in between the interactions, such as aggression or theft. Although, I am pretty sure looting and theft would be rampant after the first act or as soon as we get a hold of a merchant. My little brother and I are such kleptomaniacs in these games, always saving up for the best equipment until the end boss, never sparing a health potion when I have the option to load a save point…

Their analysis on the seventeen interactions found that 46 participants (61.3% of sample) did not commit a single antisocial act. 10 participants (13.3% of sample) committed antisocial acts more than half the time. I’m guessing the rest committed some acts of kindness and meanness.

Other behaviours outside of the interactions were rare. 3 participants committed some aggression, 5 participants tried stealing. The authors noted two scenes where the main character was given an opportunity to aggress. They found that 39 participants (52% of sample) chose to reason with the aggressors.

The participants’ responses to the open-ended questions yielded evidence of their moral reasoning to their moral behaviours. 58 participants (77.3% of sample) felt they made moral decisions when playing. The authors coded participants’ responses and found three motivational categories: Real life, curiosity and game strategy. 51 participants (68% of sample) based their moral motivations and behaviours based on what they would do in real life. 15 participants (20%) did them out of game strategy. Oh those karma points and loot rewards… 9 participants (12%) did them out of curiosity. So much for the argument of players experimenting with virtual reality as a proxy for real life. I guess it becomes salient if given a second try that they would start experimenting.  This also tells me that first times are often about doing things your moral way.

The authors observed some of the interactions were associated to one of the moral foundations, harm/care and authority/respect. The authors averaged the scoring for these interactions and created two dependent variables: level of care and level of obedience. They conducted regressions to see how participants’ moral foundations were predictors for the level of care and obedience, respectively. Their regressional analyses revealed that harm/care is a significant positive predictor for the level of care. The second analysis revealed that authority/respect is a significant positive predictor for the level of obedience.

Their analysis on enjoyment and guilt revealed some significant findings. They compared two groups, who did not commit antisocial acts and those who did and found no differences in their T-test. There was a significant difference in guilt in that those who behave antisocially felt more guilty (M = 0.98, SD = 0.77) than those who did not (M = 0.65, SD = 0.47).


The take home message from this study is that we behave in-game based on our moral foundations and we often behave morally and upon the moral principles we would apply in the real life and videogame-play context. IMO, the feeling of exploration or experimentation seemed to rarely enter our minds and as mentioned earlier, there are conditions that elicits either moral experimentation or moral immersion [terrible word choice]. The authors argued that our suspension of disbelief, such as a good and engaging story I should add, as a key feature when interacting with fictional characters and we empathise the same kinds of emotions. We empathise with our main character’s situation because we identify ourselves with them or within them depending on the game. This is something for videogame literary scholars to discuss as further evidence that videogames share similarities with older media in terms of narrative, montage, characters among other things.  They transport the audience in a world that share or implied to share the same moral principles with the audience’s world.

The authors established good evidence that our moral decision-making and behaviours transfer over to the videogame environment, although specifically where there is choice. They examined morality under the perspective of moral foundations theory. It would be interesting to investigate moral in-game behaviours from other moral theorists, such as Martin Hoffman, Lawrence Kohlberg among others. Furthermore, research on moral development on children can inform and utilize videogames to investigate what socialization factors and practices that could enhance moral maturity among children with developmental difficulties and at greater experimental control. I guess a starting point would be from television and moral development research, like Dora the Explorer?

The authors called for further research into the relationship between guilt and enjoyment. I suspect measurement error or if it’s truly a non-significant relationship, then perhaps a guilty pleasure experience? Guilt and enjoyment are not necessarily mutually exclusive constructs. The authors noted that such experience could have prosocial effects and they elaborated that in-game moral agency and feelings of guilt could cause us to think on our behaviours.


Agent 47 (Hitman)

The study has shed a small candlelight on morality in videogames, but they have questions worth to shine upon. One interesting question is what conditions of morality would occur? Another is how narrative plays into moral disengagement? What happens if a player’s character has different moral framework than their own? IMO, how does a player feel about playing Agent 47? Would it be enough to cause moral decisions that their character would have done or in a different way?

Shogo Makishima (Psycho-Pass) is about to execute an innocent woman and yet the protagonist is not allowed to shoot

Shogo Makishima (Psycho-Pass) is about to execute an innocent woman and yet the protagonist is not allowed to shoot

From a game design perspective, there are several ‘rules of engagement’ at work to enforce moral behaviours, but not necessarily moral agency. I just played Assassin’s Creed on winter break of 2012 and one the tenets of the Creed is “I would not have drawn attention to us. I would not have taken the life of an innocent”, the consequence is a desynchronization or losing health should I kill an innocent, I once accidentally killed a beggar who stood in front of my target at the wrong moment. Another rule of engagement in FPS is the ‘Friend-or-Foe’ reticule, red is a valid target, green or an cross target means an invalid target. One interesting subversion of this reticule rule is how computers or perhaps your character’s morality affects the reticule.  Extra Credits has an episode on that and discusses more eloquently about the game designs and moral agency.

Another perspective to consider is narrative canon [another terrible word choice]. Even if there’s no real harm to real life, we still act morally as if in real life because of the narrative or virtual consequences that could have befallen on the character the player is controlling, or is “responsible” of. There’s “narrative harm” that we don’t want the hero to suffer and be denied future opportunities, akin to social ostracism in response to antisocial behaviors. Anecdotally, I would play my main character as I intended to play as if I were in it, this would correspond to the current study’s results. The good thing about videogames is I can play it again (until the sequel comes out) by exploring alternate narratives and whatever immoral acts I commit, I would rationalize it away upon resting in my main character’s narrative. The motivations might have been different, perhaps strategic.

Interesting to note of what genres give the sort of opportunity for moral development among emerging adults. Anecdotally, first-person shooters don’t give a lot of moral agency for players and often when morality is used, it is often used for justifying violent actions or within a violent context that is dissonant with some of the moral foundations. And remember that during those events of battle, players morally disengage in order to enjoy and immerse themselves in the game.  Another genre is adventure game, such as Heavy Rain, where a colleague of mine felt so much guilt that he stopped playing for several days to ponder on what his next moves and what consequences it will bring.

Weaver, A. J., & Lewis, N. (2012). Mirrored morality: An exploration of moral choice in video games. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 15 (11), 610-614. DOI: 10.1089/cyber.2012.0235


One thought on “Mirrored morality: Moral choices in videogames (Weaver & Lewis, 2012)

  1. Pingback: Can Video Games Make Kids Healthier? | Footnote

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s