Virtual Environments Allow for Disengagement from Real-World Behaviors

Source: IGN Entertainment

A user's selection of avatar morality in a virtual environment is most accurately predicted by the user's measured level of disengagement from normally held moral values and beliefs. 

To fully understand this concept, one must first consider the implementation of morality in video games.

Such implementation can be found in the 2003 role-playing game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, wherein the player can make an evil, neutral, or good avatar. This avatar alignment system has become very popular because it determines how an avatar is perceived and treated by non-player characters (NPCs).

Although users can choose heroism or neutrality in their gameplay, the role of the villain has become disturbingly popular. The ending of Knights of the Old Republic, for instance, is often praised by gaming communities for its option to join the dark side, whereas the path of the hero is belittled and even ridiculed. Video games have cultivated this growing desire among gamers to play as a villain by allowing for the mistreatment of NPCs without significant consequence.

Instead, players are actually incentivized to engage in immoral and unethical behavior. For example, by destroying a populated town in the 2008 role-playing game Fallout 3, the player is rewarded with 1,000 in-game currency, while the reward for saving the town is only half that amount.

Psychosocial factors Contribute to the Toleration of Immoral Behavior in Virtual Environments

Interestingly, the impact of in-game choices is not only limited to NPCs. In the online role-playing game Runescape, users are notoriously deceitful and nefarious in their interactions with other users. High-ranked players frequently lure low-ranked players into an in-game area that permits avatar killing. High-ranked players then kill low-ranked players' avatars and steal their in-game items. Victims often find this ploy to be unfair and irritating, but as they progressively gain experience they begin to use this trick against new players themselves.

Experienced Runescape players justify taking advantage of the ignorance of new players by insisting that the game has a social hierarchy that all new players must endure and overcome. This mentality is often attributed to psychosocial factors that are best explained by past psychological experiments.

Zimbardo's Stanford Prison experiment, for instance, demonstrated that a person's social behavior often arises from the environment in which they are placed, as opposed to their actual moral values, and Albert Bandura's Bobo Doll experiment showed that social behavior is regularly learned by observing the behavior of others.

The inconsequential nature of an online virtual environment provides players with a sense of freedom, resulting in behavior considered to be morally reprehensible in a real-world environment. New players observe this behavior and, interpreting it to be socially acceptable, imitate it.

Men tend to Choose more Immoral and Unethical Avatars than Women

The propensity of an individual to overlook their own moral rules in some situations is measured by the Moral Disengagement Scale (MDS). Recently, a study was conducted by Dr. Patrick J. Ewell et. al to determine the presence of a relationship between the MDS-assessed morality traits of users and the moral/ethical alignment of their avatars.

112 college-aged men and 62 college-aged women first filled out the MDS in order to ascertain their level of moral disengagement. Participants then created an avatar before playing Neverwinter Nights 2, a multiplayer online role-playing game. Part of the avatar customization process was choosing a moral alignment (Good, Neutral, Evil) and an ethical alignment (Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic).

For the purposes of this study, "good" was defined as being altruistic and benevolent, "evil" was defined as being oppressive and harmful, and "neutral" was defined as being apathetic. "Lawful" and "chaotic" were associated with having a respect or disdain for authority, respectively.

As shown by the graph on the right, men had a higher mean score on the MDS than women, indicating a higher level of moral disengagement. Men also scored higher on moral and ethical alignment, meaning that their avatars were usually more evil and chaotic than the avatars selected by women. Personality traits, such as neuroticism and conscientiousness, were originally taken into account, but were discovered to be insignificant alignment predictors when compared to the MDS and, therefore, were omitted from the graph.

After interviewing a group of college-aged men and women myself, I received answers that were similar to the results of the study— Men prefer to play as unethical characters in video games and women prefer the opposite.

The finding that women preferred lawful characters in video games was corroborated by the responses of college-aged women that were interviewed. It has been suggested that women may be more inclined to select morally good and ethically sound avatars due to the social pressure that they feel to be likable, helpful, and cooperative.


Avatar Selection is Accurately Predicted by a User's Level of Moral Disengagement

The MDS results from the study were compared with the avatars that each user created to see if the moral disengagement of users accurately predicted their avatar alignments. As previously mentioned, men had a higher mean MDS score than women and generally chose immoral and unethical alignments for their avatars.

This demonstrates that higher levels of moral disengagement tend to correspond with the selection of evil and/or chaotic avatars, and lower levels correspond with good and/or lawful avatars. The study by Ewell et. al shows that the player's choice of morality in video games can be accurately predicted by their moral disengagement, as measured by the MDS.

Many role-playing games have utilized an avatar alignment system by providing players with numerous opportunities to develop the moral traits of the characters that they inhabit. In doing so, they have successfully implemented a system of morality and ethics and will continue to provide users with an environment in which they can partake in socially-acceptable moral disengagement.

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