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Players New to Violent Games Feel The Need to Go Wash Away the Moral Distress After

Illustration for article titled Players New to Violent Games Feel The Need to Go Wash Away the Moral Distress After

Many years ago, researchers confirmed the existence of the "Lady Macbeth Effect." The gist of it is that we humans really do associate metaphorical uncleanliness with the more literal sort: if we've done or witnessed something immoral or unethical, we are often likely literally to want to go wash or bathe in response. Like Lady Macbeth and her infamous, "Out, damned spot," when we say, "I kind of want a shower after reading that," we mean it.


So other than the obvious stereotypical hygiene jokes, how does the Macbeth Effect relate to gaming? It turns out that video games can cause it. Science Daily reports that a team of psychologists at the University of Luxembourg have observed the Lady Macbeth Effect in "inexperienced" study participants who played violent video games.

There's a lot of violence in many genres of video games. Researchers have spent decades going back and forth wondering whether violent games inspire violent behavior in the real world. The verdict on that seems to be "probably not," but it does seem, according to new research, that those of us who are regular players are desensitized to and unfazed by the virtual acts we perpetrate on digital people. But players unfamiliar with the conventions and on-screen blood react differently.


Participants played a violent game for 15 minutes, and then were asked to select a "gift" from a list of items. Subjects who were not accustomed to playing violent games showed a strong tendency to go for "hygenic" items, or items related to cleaning the self: shower gel, toothpaste, deodorant, and the like. Subjects who had more experience with playing violent games were not particularly likely to choose the hygenic items. Additionally, players not accustomed to playing violent games "felt higher moral distress" than their counterparts.

Dr. André Melzer, one of the scientists conducting the study, explained that the Macbeth effect "is a psychological phenomenon in which a person attempts to purify oneself in order to cope with feelings of moral distress," and suggested that gamers who have more experience pulling the virtual trigger on hi-def people have developed an alternative coping strategy of some kind.

Most of us don't think of our pastime as something that requires complex psychological coping mechanisms to enjoy. But it's possible, the research indicates, that violence in gaming may have a stronger effect on us than we think.


The full findings of the study will be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology later this year.

Inexperienced Video Gamers Show Macbeth Effect [Science Daily, via GamePolitics]

(Top photo: Shutterstock)

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Alternate coping strategy? If I'm playing a game where violence is the only option, then violence it is — no reason to feel any guilt over it unless you think the game itself is tasteless or perhaps overly glorifies that violence.

However, in a game where non-violent or non-lethal solutions are a possibility, I feel immense guilt at any act I take which results in someone losing their life. Some people might think that playing MGS or DX on a non-lethal run is an achievement, but for me that's the only way to play.

The only exception are truly nasty villains. If a villain is horrible enough, I'd consider killing them a lesser evil... but it's definitely a choice that weighs heavily on my heart.