The influence of moral intuitions on decisions in video games (Joeckel et al., 2012)

vEEbQMorality is a relatively new direction in videogames research, although the approach is different from older media in that negative aspects was given a lot of attention, such as comic books, which was attacked by Dr. Fredric Wertham who argued about its moral corruption. To my knowledge, current media effects researchers generally do not describe videogames as a moral corruption, but more of a public health concern. (Anderson & Bushman, 2001; Huesmann, 2010). On the other hand, videogames can be great teaching tools for moral reasoning.

Sven Joeckel (University of Erfurt), Nicholas Bowman (West Virginia University) and Leyla Dogruel (Free University of Berlin) published an article in Media Psychology regarding how people behaved morally in videogames.


Recent theorizing on the role of morality in media entertainment suggests morality serves as a guiding force in audience reactions to content. Using moral foundations theory as a base, research has found significant associations between moral salience and audience preferences for and responses to film and television varying in their presentations of morality. Our study extends this work by testing the same relationship in video games. Because a distinguishing factor between video games and traditional media is interactivity, our study focuses on how moral salience predicts decisions made in a video game. We find that increased moral salience led to a decreased probability of moral violations, while decreased moral salience led to an observed random (50%) distribution of violations. This finding was largely stable across different morality subcultures (German, United States) and age groups (adolescents and elderly), with deviations from this pattern explained by theory. We interpret this as evidence for a gut or game explanation of decision making in video games. When users encounter virtual scenarios that prime their moral sensitivities, they rely on their moral intuitions; otherwise, they make satisficing decisions not as an indication of moral corruption but merely as a continuation of the virtual experience.

I don’t have a set criteria for selecting articles, usually I print out a set of articles and go from there, but anyone who contacts me usually gets a post or two, eventually.

Violent videogames condone immoral acts through killing (using weapons) others, said a typical anti-violent videogame advocate. Other advocates would even use the slippery slope card saying many videogame condone torture, executions, rape and other taboo acts. However, I simply winced whenever they mentioned these taboo acts since they mostly come from the shock-value videogames, such as the Postal and Manhunt series. The research concerning players’ moral processes differ according to the acts. When it comes to violence, such as warfare and action, players morally disengage to avoid the discomfort of moral transgressions and to enjoy the game. Players reasoned such violent experiences are outside of reality. When it comes to committing taboo acts, they avoid doing so even in the virtual realm (research from a book that is not available on amazon). I would add that certain acts vary in terms of disgust and the ease to which we can morally disengage. I hypothesize that acts (e.g., rape or torture) that we feel more disgusted are more difficult to morally disengage and in turn to commit these behaviours, but this needs to be tested later.

Their theoretical basis to examine morality in videogames is moral foundations theory by Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph. Moral foundations theory posits individuals’ moral considerations result from innate intuitions rather than rational processing. We act from a quick and gut reaction to morally charged situations. There are five broad moral foundations: harm/care (suffering of others and empathy), fairness/reciprocity (Reciprocity and justice), authority/respect (negotiation of dominance hierarchies), ingroup/loyalty (common good and punishments towards outsiders), purity/sanctity (living a clean life). These foundations are conceptually distinct and interrelated. The theory posits that moral acts are dually processed which explains an immediate intuitive moral reaction and a later cognitive moral reasoning process.

Moral foundations theory posits how we make moral decisions in that we are biased to act morally according to our innate morality. This is done quicker if the situation is morally salient in that whether a situation is particularly important to the person’s moral foundations. For example, if a person’s foundation is harm/care, then situations involving helping others who are hurt would have the person immediately act on helping them out. The helping behaviour would be satisfying in one’s moral orientation which acts as a reward. Not everyone holds all five moral foundations to the same degree. One or more moral foundations may not be salient at all to some people, so they would discount it from their moral decision making into something else like rational decision making. However, the authors argued non-salient situations where the outcomes are no better than the other, then people would spend as little mental effort to decide, which is basically a random decision.

On a secondary note, the authors wanted to test moral foundations theory across cultures and ages as they noted differences between cultures and ages. Therefore, they examined American and German populations.


Participants: 301 participants with an equal proportion from the U.S. and Germany. The sample has roughly equal gender ratio, there were more adolescents (61%, age: 12 to 15) than older adults  (39%, age: 49 to 86).


Moral foundations salience: The Moral Foundations Questionnaire is a 32-item 6-point agreement scale. This measure assesses the person’s five moral foundations.

Videogame experience: one question: “Hoe experienced are you with computer games?” this is answered on a 5-point scale.

Videogame used: Neverwinter Nights, they modded the game to create scenarios salient to each moral foundations. The scenarios were adapted from existing moral foundations theory studies, and it involves six former students of a professor. The participants engage a dialogue with each student about a problem representing a moral foundation and the participant could tell the student to either violate or not violate a moral choice in order to solve the problem. The sixth one involves a neutral scenario. Nicholas Bowman posted more details in his blog.


Under a cover story, participants were told that the experiment involved evaluating a videogame for cross-generational appeal. Participants played the videogame with a generic human avatar with a generic name of the same-sex as the participant. They played the videogame at their own pace. Once they have completed the videogame, they completed the moral foundations questionnaire and the videogame experience question.


The authors explained how participants moral foundations scores were calculated. Unlike personality tests where an absolute value is used as a cut-off for ‘high vs. low’, the moral foundations scores are relative to each other. For example, a person scoring a 3 on harm/care is salient if the other foundations are relatively low (e.g., 1), conversely a 3 is less salient compared to a 5 on another foundation, say fairness/reciprocity. So, the authors looked at the percentages of which foundations scores are highest and lowest.

To test their hypotheses in whether participants’ moral foundations have an influence on their moral decision making, they conducted analyses to test three criteria. The first criterion is that highly salient moral foundation should result in different proportions of moral violations in comparison to those of low salience. So, someone with a high salience on harm/care is less likely to violate than someone with a low salience on harm/care. Their analysis revealed this to be statistically true. The second criterion is that highly salient moral foundations should result in less than 50% proportion in moral violations. This is also found to be statistically true. The third criterion is that low salient moral foundations should result in a 50% or random proportion in moral violations. This is found to be true.

In essence, whenever there’s a situation that touches on your moral foundations, such as harm/care, then we are moved to act upon these morals. If it doesn’t match with your moral foundations or it doesn’t show up, then, in the context of this study, it’s pretty much random or you just pick the choices at random.

The authors conducted further analyses because their sample consisted of American and German individuals, they looked at cross-cultural differences and similarities. They wrote at great lengths that I don’t think I can summarize in fewer paragraphs, so I suggest reading the article, if you are so interested in that.


The take home message is that we make moral decisions in a fictional and virtual world based on our moral intuitions despite that there are no consequences in real life. This particularly salient when they encounter scenarios and actions that is in serious violations of their personal sense of morality.

The study gives some interesting explanations for particular statistics. For example, an infographic on Mass Effect 3 players showed that 64.5% of players played as paragons. However, paragon is a general indicator when you compare with the five moral foundations, perhaps fine tuning the data to see what actions are taken in moral scenarios. It would be interesting to find a scenario that is salient to one of the foundations, have players complete the moral foundations questions and cross-check their responses. The authors suggested correlating participants’ in-game moral decision making and its effects on real life moral decision making behaviours.

The authors listed some limitations. First, the moral foundations questionnaire needed some more work as internal consistency is okay, but not great. Second, the participants did not perform any moral behaviours, but merely told a character to violate or not a moral foundation. But then, again I am sure there are plenty of dialogue options in many videogames that does that. The point is whether telling or doing it have different or equivalent impact on the players’ decision making process. So, I guess Heavy Rain might be a good start to examine moral behaviours. Third, they will need to start looking into parasocial relationship between player and character, whether players identify with the characters they play.

Joeckel, S., Bowman, N. D., & Dogruel, L. (2012). Gut or game? the influence of moral intuitions on decisions in video games. Media Psychology, 15 (4), 460-485. DOI: 10.1080/15213269.2012.727218

2 thoughts on “The influence of moral intuitions on decisions in video games (Joeckel et al., 2012)

  1. Your style is very unique compared to other people I’ve read stuff from. I appreciate you for posting when you’ve got the opportunity, Guess I’ll just book mark this site.

  2. Pingback: What's Your Moral Code? - Midlife Gamer

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