We have all seen the news stories about the deleterious effects of playing violent video games. And every time a new M for mature title is released (e.g., Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty), the same old story is recycled. The news agency brings out a few experts who point out that there is now a large body of laboratory and field research that clearly suggests that playing violent video games increases hostility and aggression.
Well it is certainly true that studies suggest that a steady diet of violent games (and violent media in general) can lead to antisocial behavior. And this research, along with common sense, is precisely why many parents including myself do not let our young children play extremely violent games. The problem with these stories is that they appear to contribute to a general sense that most or all video games are bad for us, or at least of no real social value. In fact, these news stories rarely if ever focus on the more recent body of research that highlights social benefits of gaming. And this research has some important implications.
Games can be Prosocial
If playing antisocial (e.g., violent) games can lead to antisocial behavior, it makes sense to propose that playing prosocial games can lead to prosocial behavior. And research supports this proposal. For example, in a series of experiments published this year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Tobias Greitemeyer from the University of Sussex and Slivia Osswald from Ludwig-Maximilians-University found some very fascinating effects in support of the prosocial gaming leads to prosocial behavior hypothesis. Across all of the experiments, the researchers found that participants who had just played a prosocial game (e.g., Lemmings) compared to those who had just played a neutral game (e.g., Tetris) were more likely to engage in helpful behaviors such as picking up a box of pencils spilled by the experimenter or agreeing to volunteer to take part in additional research without any further compensation.
While these studies certainly supported the hypothesis being tested, the prosocial behavior being displayed was fairly trivial.
However, in another experiment in this series of studies, the researchers observed a much more powerful demonstration of this effect. In this study, participants played a prosocial or neutral video game and were then exposed to a situation that truly tested their willingness to help others. Specifically, the experimenters cleverly staged an encounter in which an upset ex-boyfriend walked into the laboratory during the experiment to confront his ex-girlfriend who happened to be the experimenter. Of course, this was all part of the study, but to the participant it appeared as if the experiment has just been disrupted by a disgruntled ex-boyfriend. The ex-boyfriend ignored the participants and started to harass the experimenter (his ex-girlfriend).
The researchers were interested in whether or not participants would intervene and help the experimenter who was being harassed. The effects were pretty striking. Ten out of the 18 participants who had been playing the prosocial game intervened to help the experimenter. However, only 4 out of the 18 participants who had been playing the neutral game intervened. In other words, 8 minutes of playing a silly but prosocial game in which you guide cute little lemmings safely to an exit appeared to increase the likelihood that people would stick their necks out for a stranger (the experimenter) who was being harassed by an ex-boyfriend. Again, the participants had no idea that this was part of the study. In fact, in all of these studies, the participants thought they were taking part in research testing the enjoyment factor of classic video games.
Why is this research important? And why do we need more of it?
It is perhaps obvious as to why it was and is still important to examine the potential neurological, psychological, and social effects of exposure to violent video games. In my opinion, it is also critical to more seriously examine the effects of socially positive gaming experiences as well as gaming experiences that are complex (not simply violent or non-violent).
First, such research could further challenge the claim that video games are inherently antisocial by demonstrating that it really depends on the game. In fact, an examination of a list of the 25 best-selling video game franchises indicates that only 4 of the games on the list are explicitly violent (Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, WWE Smackdown vs. Raw, & Resident Evil). The rest of the list is comprised of sports, racing, simulation, and silly cartoonish games featuring characters such as our favorite plumber and hedgehog. In other words, the notion that kids are being fed a steady diet of violent games was unsubstantiated. And research highlighting potential positive benefits of gaming further suggests that the news media should be more nuanced in their coverage of the connection between gaming and social ills.
Second, I think future research by psychologists and sociologists (as well media coverage) needs to consider the fact that video games are increasingly complex, and not merely antisocial or prosocial, violent or non-violent. Think about this. For the last couple of decades, video game critics have warned us about the dangers of playing violent video games, especially as they become increasingly realistic. Yet, as the popularity of video games has increased and the violence become more realistic, we have not seen dramatic increases in violent crime. In fact, national statistics suggest that violent crime has been decreasing for some time. In other words, the world did not go the Hell when Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty started breaking sales records. Why not?
As I pointed out at the start, there is an empirical link between violent gaming and aggressive thoughts and behavior. I suspect that modern civilization has not gone down the toilet as games have become more popular and graphic, in part, because kids and adults are not simply playing games that promote violence. They are playing games with violent content and games with no violent or even prosocial content. Plus, there are many other social influences and contexts shaping their thoughts and behaviors (e.g., television, friends, family, etc). Also, many games have both antisocial and proscial elements within the same game. And some of the more popular games such as Fable II and the new bestselling Red Dead Redemption (from the makers of Grand Theft Auto) have built in rewards and punishments for pro and antisocial behavior.
In Red Dead Redemption, for example, it is true that a lot of the game is violent. However, the violence has context and consequences, as it does in real life. For example, if you just shoot a random civilian, your honor ranking in the game goes down, you become less liked by people in the town, and a bounty is often put on your head. If you intervene and help a person in distress (e.g., a woman being assaulted), your honor ranking goes up, you are often financially rewarded, and you become more liked by people in the town.
In other words, the violence is put into a real moral context. Much of the research focused on violent games has used games in which the sole purpose of the game is to walk through levels killing as many targets as possible. There are certainly still games like this, but an increasing number of games with violent content focus on adding moral dilemmas and social consequences. Thus, it is possible that the effects of video games on behavior are more complex than once believed.
In short, like all social influences, video games can be neutral, good, bad, and often a mix of all of the above. Scientists need to more carefully consider this fact. And as games continue to evolve scientists will have to continually reassess their research questions to fairly reflect the broader picture of video gaming. In addition, news agencies will have to quit dusting off the same old stories of how video games are a plague threatening to create a generation of sociopaths. Games have been around for some time now and have become one of the most popular forms of entertainment, and this epidemic of mass violence has yet to materialize.