Do violent video games stunt the development of moral reasoning?

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Regular exposure to violent video games makes it difficult for young people to tell the difference between right and wrong and weakens empathy for others, according to recently released research. We summarise the report's main findings.

This study by Brock University in Canada investigated the relationship between adolescents’ violent video game playing patterns, habits and attitudes, and their levels of moral reasoning.

The results found that over-exposure to violent games weakened empathy for others and that regular exposure to violence and lack of contact with the outside world makes it harder to tell right from wrong. Young people who play too many violent video games also struggle to trust other people, and see the world from their perspective.

Report summary
Mirjana Bajovic of Brock University set out to discover whether there was a link between the types of video games teens played, how long they played them, and the teens’ levels of moral reasoning – their ability to take the perspective of others into account. 109 adolescents from the eighth grade of seven public elementary schools in Canada were studied.

The results suggested that playing violent video games in general was a very popular activity among the adolescents. However, the results demonstrated a significant negative relationship between adolescents’ amount of time playing violent video games during the day and their socio-moral maturity.

The results indicate that there was a significant difference in the socio-moral maturity levels between adolescents who played violent video games for one hour a day and those who played for three or more. Bajovic suggests that both the content of the games and the time spent playing contribute to the fact that many of the violent gamers achieved only the second stage of socio-moral maturity. Earlier research suggests that adolescents who have not advanced beyond this point ‘usually have not had enough opportunities to take different roles or consider the perspective of others in real life’.

The report puts the study’s findings into the educational and the context of normal development, and suggestions are given for parents, for educators and for future violent video game research.

Key findings:

  • The findings suggest that playing violent video games may hinder moral development in some adolescents. However, not all adolescents who played violent video games demonstrated lower level of socio-moral maturity. Only those adolescents who declared playing violent video games for prolonged hours demonstrated a tendency to score at the lower level of socio-moral maturity.
  • Spending too much time within the virtual world of violence may prevent adolescents from getting involved in different positive social experiences in real life, and in developing a positive sense of what is right or wrong.
    Different social opportunities are important as adolescents promote development by stimulating mental processes, and children’s moral development depends on their role in different social contexts.

Key recommendations for teachers and schools:

  • Teachers, parents, and students should start working collaboratively in providing those missing opportunities.
  • Working collaboratively to create opportunities for children’s participation in charity work, in community involvement, and in extracurricular activities will provide them with different perspectives and positive role taking opportunities.
    Schools should work on cooperative decision-making and problem-solving, nurturing moral development by requiring students to work out common rules based on fairness.
  • In the context of video game playing, teachers are required, first, to understand the content of video games and the story line in the game and, second, to initiate discussions about video games in the classroom. Through this dialog, they can guide children to differentiate between right and wrong within the stories depicted in video games.
  • Character education should also serve to further enhance moral skills, such as sensitivity to others, and care for both others and self.
  • Within the context of schools, the teachers are responsible for creating a moral community, in which students learn to respect and care about each other so that everyone feels valued within the group, and for that they need opportunities to develop their intuitions in well-structured environments that provide guidance for developing proper ethical skills.
  • Teachers need more opportunities through professional development to learn about video games and to directly experience video game playing in order to perceive the possible applications of such tools in the classrooms. It is important for teachers to be informed about the possible effects of video games in order to avoid the influences on media moral panics related to the portrayal of violent video games in the media.
  • Another important skill that children need to develop through critical media literacy and character education is the ability to understand the relationship among the common good, the good of others, and the individual good.
  • It is of essence that everyday social and educational experiences contain moral dimensions; thus, both moral literacy and critical media literacy should involve the analysis of the violent video game messages as well as underlying issues of moral values and beliefs presented in these games.
  • There should be no desire to stop children from playing video games, but opportunities can be created in and out of school to enhance their ability to become tolerant and compassionate in helping others and themselves.

Click here to read the full report 'Violent video games and moral reasoning in adolescents: is there an association?'.