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 behaviour 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 desensitised 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.