Can Video Games and Virtual Reality Contribute to the Resocialization of Young Offenders?

ZEIT Verbrechen magazine reports about MAXLab Freiburg

June 29, 2023

The latest issue of ZEIT Verbrechen magazine reports on a juvenile detention center in Berlin, where video games are used as a tool to promote social behavior. First, the young offenders have to earn access to the video games: If they wish to use the console, they must have exhibited good behavior during their daily prison life. When they even play together, positive group dynamics can result.

At MAXLab Freiburg, the criminological research laboratory of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law, video game technology and virtual reality (VR) are being used with the ultimate aim of preventing crime. The researchers’ objective is to find out more about how offenders make decisions and what decision-making processes are involved.

One example is the Virtual Burglary Project that uses 3-D environments of residential areas to study burglar behavior. The unique approach: The study is conducted in convicted burglars. These "experts" explore a computer-simulated residential area just as they would if they were about to commit a break-in. In the process, they encounter various deterrents (street lighting, everyday noises, etc.). The aim of the study is to measure how these different types of situational factors influence burglars' decisions to commit a break-in in a specific area. The goal is to better understand burglars' decision-making processes and behavior in order to improve crime prevention policy.

The concept of the FutureU project is somewhat different: Here, the act of looking into one's own future seeks to counteract criminal behavior. The FutureU project aims to teach at-risk youths to consider the future consequences of their behavior when making decisions. By thinking about the future consequences of their actions, the researchers are hopeful that participants – for example young offenders – will make better decisions in the present, thus refraining from becoming involved in crime in the first place. Researchers use VR and smart phone applications to allow at-risk juveniles to interact with a version of themselves 10 years in the future, i.e., with their "future self". The study investigates whether interactions with the future self can stimulate forward thinking about the consequences of their behavior in the present.

"A lot will happen in the next few years," the magazine quotes the founder of MAXLab Freiburg, Jean-Louis van Gelder, who is director at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law. For an overview of the research program of the Department of Criminology headed by van Gelder, of ongoing projects, and for recommendations on further reading please visit

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