Violent video games have been blamed for school shootings, bullying, and domestic violence, but evidence has shown that crime statistics have decreased while violent video game sales have increased. Changes in emotions may be a different story: Researchers from the University of Buffalo led a study that found playing video games over a long period of time can reduce a person’s ability to feel guilty.

"This study is part of an overarching framework that I've been looking at in terms of the extent to which media can elicit moral emotions, like guilt, disgust and anger," said Matthew Grizzard, the study’s lead researcher, in a statement.

Grizzard and his colleagues recruited 145 college undergrads who were asked to play different versions of the same violent video game. For the first four days, the participants played as one of two characters: the moral United Nations soldier or the immoral terrorist soldier. On day 5 all participants were asked to play as the terrorist soldier.

To assess each participant’s guilt, the research team asked, “When playing the game, to what extent do you feel regret, guilty, blameworthy, ashamed, sorry about something you did, and like you did something wrong.” Responses were on a scale from 0 (not at all) to 10 (extremely).

While participants reported feeling guilty for both the moral soldier and the immoral soldier at the beginning of the study, that eventually faded by the end. However, the reduced ability to elicit guilt by day 5 only held true for the immoral character not the moral character. An inability to feel guilt persisted across other games.

Grizzard offered two arguments that explain why we are desensitized by video games to such a degree that it limits our ability to produce a natural response:

"One is that people are deadened because they've played these games over and over again," Grizzard explained. "This makes the gamers less sensitive to all guilt-inducing stimuli. This is the idea that gamers see video games differently than non-gamers, and this differential perception develops with repeated play."

Grizzard’s team conducted a similar study in the past that found people were more likely to feel guilty when they took immoral virtual actions than moral virtual actions. Gamers from this investigation reported feeling guilty if they played a game that violated two of the five moral domains: care/harm, fairness/reciprocity, in-group loyalty, respect for authority, and purity/sanctity.

"This second argument says the desensitization we're observing is not due to being numb to violence because of repeated play, but rather because the gamers' perception has adapted and started to see the game's violence differently,” Grizzard added. “Through repeated play, gamers may come to understand the artificiality of the environment and disregard the apparent reality provided by the game's graphics."

Although violent video games may reduce our feelings of guilt and increase feelings of aggression, this behavior has not been linked to actual violence. The American Psychological Association released its Task Force on Violent Media report back in August 2015. Violent video games do increase aggression while decreasing empathy and prosocial behavior, but gamers do not indulge in criminal behavior as a result.

Source: Weber R, Sherry J, Tamborini R, Grizzard M. Repeated Play Reduces Video Games’ Ability to Elicit Guilt: Evidence from a Longitudinal Experiment. Media Psychology. 2016.