Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Video games can teach positive lessons, too.

Playing video games can promote positive behaviors.

TetrisPeriodically in this blog, I have written about positive and negative effects of video games. It is clear that video games can have both positive and negative influences on behavior. On the negative side, violent video games can lead to more aggressive behavior in general. On the positive side, playing action video games can make people faster and more accurate in other settings that require complex actions.

Here's another positive effect of video games.

A paper in the February, 2010 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Tobias Greitemeyer and Silvia Osswald looked at whether video games with positive messages can lead to more positive behaviors.

City Crisis gameNot every video game involves violence. It is possible to create games that have action, but in which the object is to help characters accomplish goals. For example, in one study, participants came to a lab and played one of two video games. The positive video game was City Crisis, which requires the player to fly a helicopter through a city to rescue people from buildings and to chase criminals. The game was exciting without promoting wanton violence. The neutral game used for comparison was Tetris, in which players have to fit geometric blocks into a well.

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The participants in the study played these games while a female experimenter looked on. After a while, a male confederate entered the room and played the role of an ex-boyfriend of the experimenter. He started harassing the women, saying that the woman had been ignoring him and that now she would have to talk to him. He talked loudly and kicked a trash can. If the participant made no move to help (such as saying something to the man or looking for another experimenter), the man left after 2 minutes. The measure of interest was whether the video game player helped the woman.

When people were playing the video game that involved helping other characters, over 55% of them chose to help the woman. When people were playing the neutral game, fewer than 25% helped the woman. The authors report four studies overall in this paper that suggest that people are more likely to be helpful when playing video games that promote positive behaviors than when playing either games that are neutral or violent.

To examine why people might be more helpful when playing positive video games, one study asked people to list all the thoughts they had while playing the games. People playing the positive video game wrote more thoughts related to helping than people who played neutral games. In addition, the number of these helpful thoughts predicted how likely people were to help later in the study.

So, this research suggests that playing video games that involve being helpful can promote helpful behaviors beyond the video games.

Of course, in the end the difficulty is getting people to play video games with these positive messages. But at least there is research to suggest that if people do play these games, it does have a positive effect on their behavior later.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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