Moral Disengagement: How Video Games Frame Physical Violence an ‘Okay’ Action
Tilo Hartmann, Vrjie Universiteit Amsterdam

Users’ may experience warfare in video games primarily in a state of moral disengagement in which they perceive their intentional violent conduct against seemingly real social beings on the screen as appropriate and instrumental. This is the basic assumption of the “moral disengagement in violent video games model” (MoDVig; Hartmann, 2012) that I introduce in my presentation. More specifically, the MoDVig builds on four propositions that are backed up by empirical evidence:

1. Despite better knowledge (e.g., if asked in ex-post interviews), players automatically or intuitively perceive video game characters as (existing) social beings who have “a mind of their own” while playing.

2. In general, individuals’ moral socialization involves that social beings are deemed worthy of proper moral treatment. Accordingly, while playing, users may tend to automatically perceive video game characters as agents worthy of proper moral treatment.

3. Accordingly, the improper treatment of video game characters can violate player’s norms, and trigger empathetic distress and feelings of guilt. Guilt effectively diminishes enjoyment.

4. Video games are entertainment products – and they are designed in such a way as to make violence enjoyable. One important design factor is that violent video games frequently embed moral disengagement cues that effectively frame the violence a justified and clean action. Accordingly, players tend to enjoy video game violence and related warfare scenarios (rather than feeling guilty or empathetic distress), because they are morally disengaged while playing.

The MoDVig model argues that the 8 moral disengagement factors that Bandura (2002) identified in real-life contexts like warfare scenarios as the primary reason why perpetrators do not feel guilty about their violent conduct (e.g., justification of violence, neglect of consequences, dehumanization of enemies,…) are also frequently embedded in violent video games (see for content-analytical evidence Hartmann et al., 2014; Breuer, Festl, & Quandt, 2012). Controlled experiments and in-depth interviews with players revealed that the presence of these factors in violent video games indeed effectively reduces feelings of guilt (Hartmann, 2012; Hartmann & Vorderer, 2010; Klimmt et al., 2006). For example, the justification given for violent acts (Hartmann et al., 2010; Hartmann & Vorderer, 2010; Lin, 2010), the dehumanization of opponents (Gollwitzer & Melzer, 2012; Lin, 2011), and portrayal of consequences of violent actions (Hartmann & Vorderer, 2010) effectively frames violence in video games against seemingly existing social beings as an “okay action”. In contrast, even heavy gamers feel irritated, if not outright guilty or morally disgusted, if a video game urges them to engage in virtual violence against seemingly social characters that is not contextualized by moral disengagement factors (e.g., torture sequence “By The Book” in Grand Theft Auto V; massacre among civilians in “No Russian” mission in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2).

In my presentation I will outline the theoretical rationale of the MoDVig model and existing empirical evidence. While research on the MoDVig model focused on players’ experiences and perceptions during game-play, I will conclude my presentation with a link to cultivation theory (Gerbner & Gross, 1976) and speculations about how moral disengagement during game play may affect players’ beliefs and attitudes towards warfare in the short and the long run.


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Gollwitzer, M., & Melzer, A. (2012). Macbeth and the joystick: Evidence for moral cleansing after playing a violent video game. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 1356-1360. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2012.07.001

Hartmann, T. (2011). Players’ experiential and rational processing of virtual violence. In S. Malliet & K. Poels (Eds.), Vice City Virtue. Moral Issues in Digital Game Play (pp. 135-150). Leuven: Acco.

Hartmann, T. (2012). Moral disengagement during exposure to media violence: Would it feel right to shoot an innocent civilian in a video game? In R. Tamborini (Ed.), Media and the Moral Mind (pp. 109-131). New York, NY: Routledge.

Hartmann, T., & Vorderer, P. (2010). It's okay to shoot a character: Moral disengagement in violent video games. Journal of Communication, 60, 94–119. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2009.01459.x

Hartmann, T., Krakowiak, M., & Tsay-Vogel, M. (2014). How violent video games communicate violence: A literature review and content analysis of moral disengagement factors. Communication Monographs, 81(3), 310-332.

Hartmann, T., Toz, E., & Brandon, M. (2010). Just a game? Unjustified virtual violence produces guilt in empathetic players. Media Psychology, 14, 339–363. doi: 10.1080/15213269.2010.524912

Klimmt, C., Schmid, H., Nosper, A., Hartmann, T., & Vorderer, P. (2006). How players manage moral concerns to make video game violence enjoyable. Communications: The European Journal of Communication Research, 31, 309-328. doi:10.1515/COMMUN.2006.020

Lin, S. F. (2010). Gender differences and the effect of contextual features on game enjoyment and responses. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 13, 533-537. doi: 10.1089/cyber.2009.0293

Lin, S. F. (2011). Effect of opponent type on moral emotions and responses to video game play. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 14, 695-698. doi:10.1089/cyber.2010.0523

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