A Conceptual Critique of the Use of Moral Disengagement Theory in Research on Violent Video Games

Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen

Abstract


Moral disengagement refers to cognitive processes of misrepresenting immoral acts in order to justify them. Research on moral disengagement factors in violent video games assumes that the digital representation of violence in video games is meaningfully similar to the cognitive misrepresentation of immoral acts that defines moral disengagement. Thus, the story worlds of violent video games are thought to misrepresent violence as being justified in order that players may morally disengage from their violent actions. This article challenges the moral disengagement perspective on violent video games by demonstrating its empirical reliance on a conceptual misunderstanding: The story worlds of most video games are not representational; they do not deviously misrepresent an underlying reality against which players ought rightfully to judge their own in-game conduct. Rather, video games simply present a story world that is as real or unreal as the violence that occurs within it. Therefore, moral disengagement theory is not readily applicable to the story worlds of video games. The article proceeds to show how this misconception leads researchers to draw empirically false and topically fraught conclusions about how players perceive and respond to violence in video games. Thus, the article challenges the moral disengagement literature’s claim to meaningfully inform the pervasive debates surrounding violent video games.

Keywords


moral disengagement; violent video games; media psychology; media effects

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