Empathy

The good, the bad, and the ugly

War Games: What Are They Good For?

It all depends on your personality, background and how you play the game.

World of War Craft
According to the popular media, the increasing use of violent video games is turning our young into violent criminals. Take the infamous mass-murderer Anders Breivik, for example. This year, a Norwegian court was told how he trained for the big day using World of Warcraft and Call of Duty. A correlation between habitual playing of violent video games and real-life violent behaviour appears to be well-established – but as many of us tell our students relentlessly – correlation does not prove causation. Could there be something else going on here?

Whitney Gunter and Kevin Daly’s recent study used data collected from 6567 8th graders in Delaware to investigate whether playing violent video games actually caused a range of behaviors including violence and non-violent but deviant behaviors such as skipping school, stealing or cheating, and substance abuse. For the first part of their study, they looked for straightforward correlations between gaming and behaviors – and the results were unsurprising: boys who played violent video games were over 60% more likely to commit either violent or non-violent deviant behaviors or engage in substance abuse than those who didn’t. Girls showed a similar but lesser trend.

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For the second part of the study, Gunter and Daly looked again at these relationships using ‘propensity matching’. Basically, a score derived from all the data about a student was used to match pairs of students with closely matching personalities and backgrounds. After matching pairs of gamers and non-gamers in this way the results look very different. Now, boy gamers are not significantly different from non-gamers. The difference is also reduced for girls – but girl gamers remain significantly (26%) more likely to get into a group fight and 66% more likely to carry a weapon than girl non-gamers.

What this suggests is that there are other factors linking playing of violent video games with violent behaviour and the causal link between the two is, at the very least, much weaker than generally thought. The matching process used dozens of pieces of information about these school kids – about their home and family, school, their own and their friends’ behaviors. Some or all of these factors explain the likelihood of 8th graders having violent and non-violent deviant behaviour more than whether or not they play violent video games. The results also suggest that girls may be more susceptible to the influence of violent games than boys.

In the same issue, Tobias Greitemeyer, Eva Traut-Mattausch and Silvia Osswald looked at the effect of single-player gaming compared to cooperative gaming in pairs. They found that playing violent games in pairs rather than singly increased players cooperation in a follow-up task. The authors suggest that playing cooperatively increases trust and empathy. This is good news, since 76% of teenagers game interactively with other gamers using, for example, massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) — such as Breivik’s favourite, World of Warcraft.

Personally, Minesweeper is the nearest I have been to a violent video game, and my daughter favours games that dress princesses and design cakes. But if one day she turns round and says ‘Hey – I want to play this really cool war game…’ maybe I should take a chill pill and try playing it with her.

Gillian Ragsdale, Ph.D. is an Associate Lecturer in biological psychology with the Open University, in the U.K.

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