Have you ever felt so caught up in a narrative experience that it had a strong emotional impact on you? A recent study by Chad Mahood and Michael Hanus (2017) attempted to better understand this phenomenon, known as narrative transportation, and how it relates to videogames. Specifically, they wondered whether transportation into a role-playing videogame can lead to feelings of guilt, when players play an immoral character. Two major predictions were made: (1) playing an immoral character should lead to stronger feelings of guilt compared to playing a moral character, and (2) transportation should lead to stronger emotions. The researchers were also interested in whether playing an immoral character would promote more aggressive tendencies, compared to playing a moral character.
In this study, participants watched a short backstory depicting an immoral or moral character whom they then got to play after receiving instructions to imitate that character or no such instructions. Measures of emotion, transportation, aggression, and perceptions of violence were collected from participants after they played the game as this character. The researchers reported two major findings: (1) participants felt guiltiest when instructed to play as an immoral character, and (2) participants experienced feelings of guilt only if they were transported into the game. Playing as an immoral character also produced aggressive thoughts, such as reporting an inclination toward rudeness, threatening behavior, and using physical force.
The results of this study provide pioneering support for the claim that videogames can create feelings of guilt. It also supports the established connection between videogame violence and aggressive tendencies. There are, however, limitations to this study that must be considered. For example, receiving instructions on how to play a character is not how videogames are actually played. Moreover, the results reported were not large in magnitude and it is not clear to what degree they would reflect real world effects. Despite these limitations, videogames appear to have the potential to produce feelings of guilt, and this study is a useful stepping stone toward further research.
Mahood, C., & Hanus, M. (2017). Role-playing video games and emotion: How transportation into the narrative mediates the relationship between immoral actions and feelings of guilt. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 6(1), 61-73. doi:10.1037/ppm0000084
* For a copy of the original article, please contact R. Mar (see profile for e-mail).