Travis J. Taylor, M.A.
Baylor University, Digital Specialist and Academic Consultant
Daniel M. Shafer, Ph.D.
Baylor University Department of Film and Digital Media
This study seeks to explore the multidimensional nature of audience responses to video games. Specifically, appreciation as an audience response serves as an often overlooked but complimentary reaction to enjoyment. Appreciation describes viewer reactions to serious, meaningful and, in the case of video games, morally challenging media content. This study examines the impact of moral decision making on hedonic enjoyment and eudaimonic appreciation. In the study, 165 participants played three different game conditions (non-violent and non-morally challenging, violent and non-morally challenging, violent and morally challenging) in order to gather data on factors relating to both enjoyment and appreciation. Results showed a significantly higher level of participant appreciation in morally challenging games than in non-morally challenging games. The study also found differences in enjoyment between conditions, although the results seem to indicate a number of varying factors behind appreciation as an audience response during video game play.
Travis J. Taylor, (M.A., Baylor University, 2016) is a Digitization Specialist and Academic Consultant at Baylor University in Waco, TX, USA. His research interests include morality and media enjoyment and appreciation. He currently works with A/V and film digitization, as well as digital media preservation.
Daniel M. Shafer (Ph.D., Florida State University, 2009) is Associate Professor of Film & Digital Media at Baylor University in Waco, TX, USA. His research interests include media psychology, video game enjoyment, effects of and reactions to new media technology such as virtual reality, and morality in entertainment media. His articles have appeared in Journal of Communication, Mass Communication and Society, Virtual Reality, and Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments. You can find him on ResearchGate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Daniel_Shafer2
Video games continue to capture more and more of the general population’s attention. From simple early games such as Spacewar in 1962 and Pong in 1972 (Kent, 2001), gaming has grown as an industry. The constant search for new subject matter upon which to base games has resulted in a wide range of genres. Games have moved from simple to massively complex. The complexity can be seen not only in the worlds and mechanics of the games, but also in the narrative qualities they possess. Some more recent video games revolve around ethical and moral questions (e.g., Fable, Fallout 3, Fallout New Vegas and Fallout 4, Detroit: Become Human). These games involve numerous opportunities for antisocial activities such as lying, deception, and manipulation; criminal activity such as theft and murder; and brutality such as torture. Some games even bring heavy consequences for some decisions to bear on the player and the game world. Fallout 4 seems to steer players away from some negative behaviors such as picking locks and murder, while giving a wink and a nod to others like cannibalism and computer hacking (Villas-Boas, 2015).
The recent release of Quantic Dream’s Detroit: Become Human sparked controversy due to the game’s inclusion of a domestic violence scene in which a young girl is abused by her father (Yin-Poole, 2017, p.). The game gives the player the choice to intervene violently (kill the father) or non-violently (escape with the girl) – or to do nothing. There is also the chance that an attempt to intervene will fail, resulting in the death of the player-controlled character. The scenario represents what could be an agonizingly difficult moral quandary for a player. By many accounts, this type of gameplay is enjoyable. Players seem able to enjoy games with ethically-charged decisions no matter what choices they make (Shafer, 2012). However, the complexity of the experiences these morally-charged games provide demands a deeper look at player responses to those experiences. Recent research in entertainment theory and media psychology has established that player experiences of media cannot simply be talked about in terms of pleasurable enjoyment. No, the media consumer’s experience is deeper, and more complex, as shown by several studies that have served to alter the course of research on media enjoyment (Oliver & Bartsch, 2010, 2011; Oliver & Raney, 2011)
The Hedonic Enjoyment and Eudaimonic Appreciation
Enjoyment can be seen as an important part of human motivation (providing reason for action), desire (“desiring something for its own sake”) and beauty (Warner, 1980, p. 507). Vorderer et al. (2004) built a conceptual model that is “centered around enjoyment as the core of entertainment” (p. 388). The concept of enjoyment as a media motive can also be described using the term “hedonic”, or pleasure seeking (Oliver & Bartsch, 2011).
One of the strongest and most popular theories that support the hedonic view of entertainment motivation is affective disposition theory (ADT). ADT, also known as the disposition theory of drama (Zillmann & Cantor, 1976), explores the enjoyment factors that are experienced during media use (Bryant & Zillmann, 1986). Disposition theories claim that most viewers enjoy watching media that reward good characters and punish evil characters. When good characters are harmed or fail to accomplish a goal, or if a bad character succeeds or triumphs over the good character; viewers will experience less enjoyment. Optimal enjoyment is achieved when good characters succeed and evil characters fail (Raney, 2003). This coincides with the viewpoint that most viewers are motivated by hedonic concerns (Bryant & Miron, 2002). However, hedonic enjoyment/non-enjoyment is not the only possible response to a narrative. For instance, some tales involve tragedy, and/or run counter to the hero-defeats-villain trope. Some narratives have sad or disappointing conclusions. This paradox of sad entertainment seems to contradict established, empirically supported viewpoints on media consumption (Oliver & Raney, 2011).
In response to the difficulty presented by narratives that are not hedonically pleasurable, Oliver and Raney (2011) proposed an alternative or additional perspective on enjoyment known as “eudaimonic” motivations for consumption. This form of motivation accounts for media that address serious, meaningful or ethically weighty subject matter, and focus on viewers who are “seeking meaningful portrayals of the human condition” (Oliver & Raney, 2011, p. 987). From this perspective, both “appreciation” as well as enjoyment have a role in fulfilling viewer needs while consuming media, especially when the message is one of “meaningfulness, moral considerations, and contemplations of life’s purposes” (Oliver & Bartsch, 2011, p. 31). Specifically, appreciation of media entertainment also may occur when questions of morality or ethical dilemmas are experienced. A media experience is an excellent venue to encounter such questions, because difficult ethical choices may be experienced with little risk to the viewer (Sicart, 2013). Studies have shown that participants will report a greater sense of appreciation for a film based on its genre, and that viewers of more serious films reported a greater sense of a moving, thought-provoking experience than with “fun”, less-serious films (e.g. Oliver & Bartsch, 2011). One key finding from the study shows that appreciation and enjoyment are not polar opposites, and that viewers may experience both when watching certain films. While this form of dual-motivation has been seen in other philosophies (e.g. Aristotle wrote of hedonic and eudaimonic happiness), Oliver and Raney were some of the first researchers to apply eudaimonic concerns to media motivations. This model of dual motivators has been applied to similar research situations: in a study conducted by Wirth et al. (2012), for example, researchers found that hedonic entertainment measures were impacted by changing the ending of a movie from “sad” to “happy”, but eudaimonic entertainment was largely unaffected. In short, there seems to be some significance to both hedonic and eudaimonic factors during media consumption.
The Interactivity Factor
Despite the arguments of the duality of appreciation and enjoyment, little can be said about eudaimonic motivators if video games are seen as too different of a medium from other, more conventional forms of media. Video games, for example, result in higher levels of involvement, require a degree of user mastery, and can provide unique experiences to different players (Lieberman, 2006; Sicart, 2013; Vorderer & Ritterfeld, 2009). Despite these differences, video games may prove to produce both appreciation and enjoyment in the same, if not larger, amounts as other forms of media. Sicart (2013) quotes game designer Paolo Pedercini when he argues that video games can be judged on the same level as film, literature and television because they are all forms of “representational media” and reflect real cultural truths. Pedercini notes that the opposite also can be true in that video games have a “role in shaping our perception of reality” (Sicart, 2013, p.24). Appreciation is also an established response to a number of different forms of media, ranging from art, music, theater and literature, showing that appreciation as an audience response can be applied to new and different forms of media consumption (Oliver & Bartsch, 2011).
But even when accepting video games as a valid form of media, few studies have explored user enjoyment and appreciation in ethically challenging video games. A number of games have been examined and analyzed for their ethical and moral content (e.g. Hourigan, 2008; Slocombe, 2008). Other studies also have looked at the effect of moral engagement on the enjoyment of video games; in one example, a study looked at whether or not moral deviancy in video games resulted in higher player guilt and lower enjoyment, and found that guilt did indeed increase with moral deviancy while enjoyment remained relatively the same (Weaver & Lewis, 2012). Another study applied Bandura’s moral disengagement theory to violent video game play, stating that players will often use a number of disengagement strategies (including moral justification, displacement of responsibility, and dehumanization) in order to maintain high levels of enjoyment while playing violent video games (Bandura, 2002; Klimmt, Schmid, Nosper, Hartmann, & Vorderer, 2008). Vorderer and Ritterfeld (2009) see entertainment motivation as a two-step process involving both enjoyment and motivation. Enjoyment is achieved through pleasure experienced by playing video games and comprehension, or understanding, of a game experience, while appreciation is achieved through “autonomy, competence, and relatedness” (Vorderer & Ritterfeld, 2009, p. 459).
This study will attempt to measure enjoyment and appreciation experienced with morally challenging game play as opposed to “fun” or “light” video games. Morality in media has already been correlated to both enjoyment and emotional reactions to media (Raney, 2011), but what about appreciation? Due to the number of established reports from Oliver and Bartsch (2010) in regards to enjoyment and appreciation experienced with “morally challenging” and “non-morally challenging” films, a number of hypotheses can be made in regards to the possible effects of playing morally challenging and non-morally challenging video games:
- H1a: Players of morally challenging games will report greater eudaimonic appreciation than players of non-morally challenging games.
- H1b: Players of non-morally challenging games will report greater hedonic enjoyment than players of morally challenging games.
- H2: Players of morally challenging video games will report lower levels of hedonic enjoyment than players of non-morally challenging video games.
- H3a: Player reports of a moving and thought provoking experience will be greater with morally challenging video games, while reports of a fun experience will be higher with non-morally challenging games.
- H3b: Player reports of suspense will be higher with morally challenging video games than non-morally challenging video games.
The study was constructed as a between subjects multivariate design, where the three types of video games constituted the independent variable conditions and appreciation and enjoyment served as the dependent variables. The study involved 165 student participants from a medium sized, southwestern university. Students who participated in the study received extra credit within relevant courses whose professors agreed to give extra credit.
Participants of this study averaged 20.4 years of age. 59% were male (n = 98) while 41% were female (n = 67). In terms of ethnicity, 75% of the participants were white, 13% were Hispanic or Latino, 11% were African American, and the remainder were Asian or Pacific Islander or Native American. Of the participants, 33% (n = 54) responded that they do not play video games (zero hours of gameplay per week), 30% (n = 49) reported that they play one to four hours of video games every week, 14.0% (n = 23) reported playing five to eight hours of video games per week, and 23% (n = 39) reported spending nine or more hours per week playing video games.
This study utilized three different video games to test various levels of ethical game play: Portal, the non-violent, non-morally challenging condition, Half Life 2, the violent, non-morally challenging condition, and Fallout 3, the violent, morally challenging condition. Portal provides players with non-violent, puzzle-based gameplay in the style of a first-person shooter. Portal offers no ethical dilemmas or decisions to the participant. Half Life 2, a first-person shooter game, exposed players to violent gameplay without the inclusion of ethical or moral choice. While players engage in violent actions, the violence is directed at nonhuman, computer-controlled aliens. Shooting enemies within the game results in no moral consequences, and the player experiences a degree of moral justification because enemies attack the player on sight.
Fallout 3 exposed participants of the study to violent gameplay with a strong element of moral choice and ethical engagement. Each participant was directed to complete the “Megaton” quest. In this quest, the player comes upon a town with the notable feature of an undetonated atomic bomb at its center. The player is asked by the local sheriff to defuse the bomb, thereby keeping the town safe. Another visitor to the town then asks the player to detonate the bomb at the behest of Mr. Tenpenny, the shady owner of a hotel some distance away who thinks the town interferes with the view from his penthouse. Participants could choose to either defuse the bomb to keep the town safe; or to detonate the bomb to satisfy Tenpenny’s request. Various rewards are offered for either option.
All three of these games were played on the Xbox 360 video game console within a laboratory setting. Each game was played from the first-person perspective and involved the use of guns or gun-like items. The inclusion of three games with a consistent player perspective is important when considering the vast amount of perspectives available in video games (ranging from isometric, overhead view, third-person, first-person, etc.) and the potential impact of these different viewpoints on player experience (Nitsche, 2008).
Hedonic enjoyment and eudaimonic appreciation were measured using a scale developed by Oliver and Bartsch (2011); which was originally used to measure audience appreciation and enjoyment experienced when watching films. The questions were modified to measure the effects of video game play instead of watching a film. One response, for example, was changed from “it was fun for me to watch this movie” to “it was fun for me to play this game”. The 12 item scale measures the four factors of fun, moving/thought provoking experience, lasting impression and suspense. The scale also includes three additional items used to measure perceived artistic value of the game.
Upon arriving at the testing center, participants were seated at one of three game stations and instructed to read and sign an informed consent statement that notified them of their rights as a participant of the study as well as detailed the purpose of the study. Participants were then be required to fill out a pre-test that included demographic information, previous video game experience, and video game preferences.
The participants were issued an instructional sheet detailing the controls of the particular game they had been assigned to play. The participants were then instructed to play one of three randomly assigned video games (described above) for 20 minutes. Finally, participants filled out the post-game questionnaire that included the aforementioned measures of appreciation and enjoyment.
In order to first confirm that the conditions differed in their representations of non-violent or violent, non-morally challenging or morally challenging, all participants were asked to rate the game they played on violence, blood and gore, moral decision-making, and player freedom. Results of an ANOVA indicated significant differences between games on all variables (see Table 1). These results indicate that the three conditions fit their pre-designated assignments: Fallout 3 as the violent, morally challenging condition, Half Life 2 as the violent, non-morally challenging condition, and Portal as the non-violent, non-morally challenging condition.
Table 1: Manipulation Check Questions
In order to test the main hypotheses, a one-way between subjects ANOVA was conducted to compare the effects of video game play on appreciation between morally challenging and non-morally challenging conditions. H1 predicted that morally challenging and non-morally challenging would determine feelings of enjoyment and appreciation with video game play, with serious, ethically challenging games producing greater levels of appreciation than games with no moral components. This hypothesis proved to be partially supported. There was a significant effect of game played on eudaimonic appreciation (using measures for moving/thought-provoking, lasting impression and aesthetic value) between the violent, morally challenging game Fallout 3 and the violent, non-morally challenging game Half Life 2 (see Table 2). A significant effect for eudaimonic appreciation also was found between Portal, the non-violent, non-morally challenging game and Half Life 2. Post hoc comparisons using the Bonferroni test indicated that the mean score for both Fallout 3 and Portal was significantly different from Half Life 2. In short, players of both Fallout 3 and Portal scored higher on the appreciation scale than players of Half Life 2.
With regards to the individual factors of appreciation, there was a significant difference between game types (specifically between Portal and Half Life 2) on the factor of lasting impression. Post hoc comparisons using the Bonferroni test indicated a higher mean score of lasting impression with Portal than with Half Life 2. Fallout 3 also showed a higher mean score, but was not significantly different from the other two conditions according to the test. As predicted by H3a, there was borderline significance between the Fallout 3 and Half Life 2 conditions on the factor of moving/thought provoking experience. Bonferroni tests indicated a higher mean score of both the Fallout 3 and Portal conditions than the Half Life 2 condition. Finally, Bonferroni tests of the factor of artistic value showed significant differences between Fallout 3 and Half Life 2 as well as Portal and Half Life 2.
The second hypothesis (H2) predicted that players of morally challenging video games would report lower levels of enjoyment than players of non-morally challenging video games. This hypothesis was not supported at a significant level, as all three conditions showed relatively similar mean scores. To test this, another ANOVA was conducted to compare hedonistic player response. In terms of hedonic enjoyment (measured through tests of fun and suspense), there was no significant effect of game played on the combined fun and suspense score between any of the three game conditions.
Table 2: Appreciation: Levels of Moving/Thought Provoking, Lasting Impression and Artistic Value
This finding did not support the hypothesis that Half Life 2 and Portal would see higher levels of enjoyment than Fallout 3 (See Table 3). Post hoc comparisons showed slight variations in mean score for the three conditions: Half Life 2 had the highest hedonic enjoyment mean score, Fallout 3 reported the second highest, and Portal had the lowest. H3a and H3b predicted that player reports of fun would be higher with the non-morally challenging condition, while reports of suspense would be higher with the morally challenging condition. H3a was not supported as all three conditions showed similar mean scores for fun. H3b was also not supported as levels of player reported suspense was higher in the violent, non-morally challenging condition than in the violent, morally challenging condition. When looking at the individual measures of hedonic enjoyment, there was borderline significance of game played on the factor of suspense between Fallout 3 and Half Life 2 as well as between Portal and Half Life 2. Post hoc comparisons using the Bonferroni test indicated that the mean score for Fallout 3 was slightly lower than Half Life 2, while the mean score for Portal was significantly different from Half Life 2. For the hedonic factor of fun, there was no significant effect of game played between any of the three conditions. Means comparisons showed that each condition had similar scores based on the fun factor. This did not support the hypothesis that non-morally challenging games would see higher levels of fun and lower levels of suspense than morally challenging games.
Table 3: Levels of Enjoyment, Fun and Suspense
This study has attempted to analyze the impact of morally driven gameplay on player appreciation and enjoyment. The possible outcome of eudaimonic responses to video games was established through its presence in other forms of media (music, art, etc.) and through the establishment of video games as a comparable form of media to films, which have been studied in prior appreciation studies. The evidence suggests that a morally challenging game may inspire higher levels of eudaimonic appreciation than a non-morally challenging game, but that there are factors other than the moral qualities of a game that may produce eudaimonic appreciation.
H1a predicted that morally challenging game experiences would result in higher eudaimonic appreciation than non-morally challenging games. Results showed that there was a significant difference in eudaimonic appreciation between the violent, ethically challenging Fallout 3 and the violent, non-ethically challenging Half Life 2. Portal, the non-violent, non-ethically challenging condition, was also significantly higher in appreciation than Half Life 2. In other words, both Fallout 3 and Portal scored higher in player appreciation than Half Life 2. This finding only partially supported the H1a hypothesis, as the Portal condition was not expected to report high levels of eudaimonic appreciation.
Why did Portal, the non-violent, non-morally challenging game score just as high as the violent, morally challenging game? One important factor may be that the role-playing game (RPG) Fallout 3 offers players extensive player creation choices, dozens, if not hundreds, of hours of gameplay and the development of non-player character (NPC) relationships. The play experience of the participants in the study was limited to a 20-minute play session, and while participants were exposed to moral decision making in the gameplay, they were not given time to customize, build or guide their character before beginning the quest. Players of RPGs anticipate the ability to develop their own storyline (Despain, 2009). Trepte and Reinecke (2011) showed that identification with an avatar leads to higher levels of enjoyment, and that greater similarity between the player and the avatar in terms of personality led to higher levels of identification with the avatar and game world. Essentially, players who create their own avatar, plot and game world tend to show higher levels of enjoyment. Although unstudied in the Trepte and Reinecke report, appreciation is part of and can be felt concurrently with enjoyment (Oliver & Raney, 2011). The relative lack of development for players of Fallout 3 may have produced a lower than expected result in terms of eudaimonic appreciation.
Portal, the game with the highest level of eudaimonic appreciation, may have offered participants the highest level of character development and world building, as players began their play session from the beginning of the game’s story mode. Portal also scored high in terms of aesthetic value (M = 3.10, SD = 1.75), which may indicate a strong influence of perceived artistic value on player appreciation. Oliver and Bartsch (2010) argue that “appreciation seems to suggest that the work is perceived to reflect talent or insight on the part of the creator” (p. 58). Consumer reviews of the game Portal point out its unique game concept, distinctive storytelling and the “level of polish and thought that went into the presentation” (Adams, 2007, p. 2). Portal also scored far higher than the other two conditions in the factor of lasting impression. In the game, the player is tasked with traversing a series of test rooms in a sterile, laboratory-like environment. Portal portrays a novel, satirical environment that mocks the mechanical nature of scientific testing. The player’s character is subjected to psychological manipulation, ostensibly for the betterment of mankind – despite the fact that the game world seems to be devoid of any other humans. This tongue-in-cheek, originative game may result in a higher perceived lasting impression among players due to its unique attributes. In short, it would not be a far stretch to say that the perceived artistic value and the lasting impression of a game may influence, or even dictate, a player’s appreciation for the game.
H2 predicted that players of morally challenging games would report lower levels of enjoyment than players of non-morally challenging games. This hypothesis was not supported at a significant level. While Half Life 2 had the highest hedonic enjoyment score, Fallout 3 had the second highest score, contradicting the prediction that a game with morally driven content would show significantly lower levels of player enjoyment. This seems to be consistent with findings in a study conducted by Shafer (2012a), where players dealt with morally reprehensible decisions in video games with the use of moral disengagement strategies. Shafer (2012a) notes “using moral disengagement in moral choice games does not impact enjoyment, but rather impacts the route to enjoyment” (p. 1). This may suggest that players of the violent, morally challenging condition were able to use disengagement strategies to maintain a high enjoyment level. Portal, which had the lowest levels of violence and blood, had the lowest levels of enjoyment. This seems to suggest that participants received the same amount of hedonic pleasure gratification regardless of moral consequence within the game.
One key factor in both enjoyment and appreciation that could have been added to the study was player competency. With 32.7% of the participants reporting that they did not play video games, it would have been insightful to compare perceived competency with both enjoyment and appreciation. Some studies looking at video game enjoyment and appreciation observed that player competency could have a significant impact on enjoyment (Oliver et al., 2016).
It is also important to consider the video game narratives of the conditions and their impact on the results of the study. In particular, participants began play in both the Fallout 3 and Half Life 2 conditions partway through the games’ narratives, whereas participants who played Portal began at the beginning of the game. This could have resulted in a lack of story development, character maturity and player engagement. With Fallout 3 specifically, participants had to be given detailed instructions regarding the backstory of their character and plot of the game in order for a specific quest to be played. An appropriate balance had to be found in order to both give direction to the participants while allowing them to develop their play organically. Half Life 2 faced similar criticism, with the game dropping players into a mission that met the condition of “violent but non-morally challenging” but provided little context as far as story development. In retrospect, finding games with simpler, pick-up-and-play gameplay and storyline to use as conditions may have added to the overall consistency of the study results.
Future research in the area of video game appreciation and enjoyment can go in a number of directions. Topically, research involving the future of video game narratives and their impact will become vital as new display and graphic technologies continue to change how players interact and engage with entertainment media. Virtual reality, for example, may have a big impact on player engagement and should be examined in future studies. Would improving aesthetics and realism of virtual reality games enhance the engagement and appreciation experiences of players on these new technologies? New forms of media platforms, such as augmented reality or social gaming, may also impact video game narratives. It would also be important to re-examine the tools used to collect data in order to ensure enough detail is gathered on appreciation. While lasting impression, moving/thought provoking and artistic value are important factors included with appreciation, other inputs, such as narrative engagement or emotional impact may also have an effect on appreciation. Finally, examining different genres and types of games, including popular massively multiplayer online (MMO) games, social games and mobile games would be valuable for enjoyment and appreciation research.
The purpose of this study was to explore the effects of moral decision making on the appreciation and enjoyment of video games. By examining the effects of moral decision making, it is possible to analyze how players react to different game types, identify trends in player gratification levels, and ultimately study the interaction between media and consumer. The results from this study were significant because they showed that game type, be it morally challenging or not, violent or non-violent, can impact levels of player enjoyment, appreciation and engagement. But the split between these factors is much more complicated than simply the genre of game. It also involves factors inherent to the game, such as player freedom and the management and utilization of violence, to the factors perceived by the player, such as perceived artistic value, player competency, perceived realism and the lasting impression of the game. This study has shown that, with the increasing popularity of moral choice and ethically driven game play in video games, these factors will have a larger impact on player enjoyment, appreciation and engagement. The study of these types of games is important because of their potential implications for moral decision-making in real life; do ethical decisions that players make in real life reflect those made in the virtual world? Do ethical choices made in the virtual world impact choices made in the real world? These kinds of questions are important when trying to understand not just how people interact with entertainment media, but how entertainment media impacts those who consume it.
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