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How Could a Video Game Improve the Justice System?

Increasing the realism or the ecological validity of psychological research.

Key points

  • Psychological science has often been criticized for studying participants in scenarios that share little resemblance with the real world.
  • Attempts to overcome these criticisms via high-stakes deception studies introduce their complications and limitations.
  • Americans spend billions of hours and dollars on increasingly immersive video games.

Many domains of psychological science have been criticized for putting research participants in scenarios that share little resemblance with the real world (i.e., being low in ecological validity). The psycho-legal domain has not been immune to these critiques.

For years, much of the research on legal decision-making has relied on narratives or vignettes. Participants in these studies read a story and are typically instructed to imagine that they are characters (e.g., accused criminal defendant, defense attorney, etc.). They are then asked to respond to several potential variables (e.g., a plea offer, attorney advice, etc.). While these studies have produced several valuable insights, the conclusions we can draw are limited by their hypothetical nature (i.e., people must arguably be incentivized to engage in optimal decision-making).

Raising the Stakes

Consequently, other psycho-legal researchers have created more realistic experimental environments, typically by deceiving student research participants into believing they are being accused of wrongdoing (e.g., cheating paradigms). In these studies, guilt is often randomly assigned via a research assistant who pretends to be a fellow participant (i.e., a confederate). This confederate will ask guilty participants for help with a problem meant to be solved individually (in contradiction to the study instructions). Whereas innocent participants will receive no such request. All participants, regardless of actual guilt, will later be accused of misconduct by the experimenter.

While these studies overcome the hypothetical quality of vignettes, they introduce a number of their weaknesses. Although these studies do not approach the depth of the deception (and controversy) employed in Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, institutional review boards (charged with judging the ethicality of research involving human subjects) understandably hesitate to approve them. It is, therefore, unlikely that these paradigms would ever be approved for use with vulnerable populations, like juveniles.

Yet, in the real world, juveniles are not shielded from difficult legal choices (e.g., accepting a plea offer, confessing to a crime, etc.). These cheating paradigms also require numerous resources (e.g., multiple rooms, large participant pools, etc.), which essentially limits their accessibility to larger research institutions.

Finally, it is much more challenging to incorporate elements of the actual justice system: participants are typically not provided with an opportunity to consult with attorneys, and the penalties facing real defendants are often dramatically worse than any sanction a university could impose (e.g., a criminal record, incarceration). These factors are critical to the decision-making of real defendants but cannot be captured by these paradigms.

The Researcher’s Dilemma

Thus, researchers interested in studying legal decision-making face a dilemma. Do we accept the limited applicability of vignette research that asks participants to imagine what they would do in certain hypothetical situations? Or, do we put them in highly deceptive experimental studies offering a limited connection to the stakes faced by real-world decision-makers? We need to consider new research methods. Paradigms reduce the demand on participants’ imaginations and free researchers to incorporate real-world variables without raising serious ethical concerns.

Using Virtual Reality to Study Reality

Nearly 1 in 2 Americans report sometimes playing video games—the rate is even higher among young adults. The average number of hours spent playing video games has also steadily increased. Overall, gamers report playing an average of ~7 hours per week; for those aged 26 to 35, it’s ~8 hours. Simulated realities have become so significant that there is now a booming virtual economy.

Consumers are spending billions of real dollars on intangible clothes, incorporeal weapons, and simulated characters or creatures—items that can never be touched. Money is also shelled out for digital currencies to purchase even more of these virtual goods and services. Video games are now more immersive than ever. Games allow users to customize an avatar to represent further the investment players have in these virtual worlds. And research has shown that the behaviors exhibited by players’ virtual characters mirror real-world social protocols (e.g., making eye contact during conversation).

So, could virtual realities offer a solution to the researcher’s dilemma?

Olya Adamovich/Pixabay
Source: Olya Adamovich/Pixabay

A Virtual Research Community

My colleagues and I have been working to answer this question since 2016. We have created a tool that can capture participants’ interest by posing simulated consequences within dynamic environments while incorporating real-world legal variables. Although this simulation was originally designed to study plea decision-making, we have expanded the available assets such that other legal procedures could be studied as well (e.g., interrogations).

The simulation, and its available assets, are all publicly accessible, free of charge (at Any interested scholar can create an account and build an interactive legal simulation. The simulation has been designed to incorporate features that will make it more immersive for research participants: participants customize an avatar to represent them, engage in a compelling narrative. They are asked to encode complex information regarding the charges or accusations faced.

Jordi Love/PleaJustice
Avatar customization
Source: Jordi Love/PleaJustice
 Jordi Love/PleaJustice
Source: Jordi Love/PleaJustice

In addition to providing researchers with a more engaging alternative to vignettes, this simulation offers several other benefits. The only resource researchers require to conduct a simulation study are people with internet access. Thus, research participation can easily extend beyond traditional samples of Western college students. It also provides an answer to the replicability crisis in the social sciences (i.e., the finding that a significant proportion of social science studies could not be reproduced).

Researchers can share scenarios used in published studies on the site. Once shared, anyone could copy the scenario and recruit their participants to replicate the effect. The public nature of the simulation also helps to build a community of researchers who can create their features and assets to share with other users, thereby continuously expanding the flexibility of the simulation.

The dynamic nature of the simulation also makes it easy to repurpose for educational uses (e.g., teaching people about the legal process)–and we are working toward this goal now.

The Future of Psychological Research?

Given the myriad benefits, other domains of social scientific research should seriously consider building virtual simulation systems like They can provide engaging environments where realistic participant behaviors can be observed (without raising ethical concerns).

Once constructed, they also provide a low-cost method of collecting data that requires few external resources. Finally, they allow for easy replication—an essential quality for strengthening the rigor of psychological science moving forward.


Wilford, M. M., Zimmerman, D., Yan, S., & Sutherland, K. T. j (in press). Innocence in the shadow of COVID-19: Plea decision making during a pandemic [Psychological Factors in Responding to COVID-19 Special Issue]. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

Wilford, M. M., Sutherland, K. T., j Gonzales, J. E., & Rabinovich, M. (2021). Guilt status influences plea outcomes beyond the shadow-of-the-trial in an interactive simulation of legal procedures. Law and Human Behavior, 45(4), 271-286.