General MacArthur once opined that it would take a battle against aliens from outer space to unite humans on earth. This is an intriguing idea that plays at the heart of many social psychological approaches to reducing prejudice. That is, the more we can come to conceptualize “us” and “them” as part of a common group (e.g., humans), the more we bring the other group “into the fold” and embrace them as one of us (Gaertner & Dovidio, 2000).

A recent study led by a PhD student (Paul Adachi) at Brock University tested this idea empirically (see Adachi, Hodson, Willoughby, & Zanette, in press). In our study, Canadian university students played a violent shooter game (Call of Duty: Black Ops) against zombies, our conceptual equivalent of non-human “aliens.”  When played in a multi-player mode known as Cooperative Zombie, the goal is to work together with another player to slay as many zombies as possible. Our critical experimental tweak involved having some participants believe that they were playing against a University of Buffalo student (i.e., an American), and others playing against a student from their own university (Brock University) and thus an ingroup member. These universities are located in cities near the Canada-US border, and thus it is relatively easy to tweak this intergroup mindset.

Playing this cooperative shooter task with a (supposed) American teammate produced sizeable and significant decreases in prejudice toward both University of Buffalo students and Americans as a whole. Such effects were not found when supposedly playing against an ingroup (Canadian) teammate and did not lead to improvements in attitudes toward other outgroup targets (e.g., ethnic minorities). The intervention, therefore, was specific to the outgroup of the gaming partner. This suggests tremendous potential for video games to be more widely used to both study and reduce intergroup prejudices.

Several aspects of this study are worth noting. First, our participants played with an outgroup member, and their common target was a fictional group (zombies). Other research has shown that playing a violent video game against an outgroup (e.g., Arabs) has increased prejudice toward that group (Saleem & Anderson, 2013). This highlights the importance of cooperation per se for reducing prejudice. Second, the intergroup context we used was competitive in nature, yet not ridden with strife or hostility. Canadians and Americans are, after all, natural allies. Nonetheless, Canadian attitudes toward Americans are often not as positive as many Americans believe. Furthermore, different national groups (e.g., Americans, Canadians, Brits, Germans, French, Australians) routinely fight as allies in present-day conflicts, yet can often hold negative attitudes and stereotypes about each other and can certainly feel superior to their allies. Our results suggest that pre-battle training with an allied group, in a virtual context, can provide a means through which to improve attitudes and bonding with allied outgroups, prior to actual activity in the field (in much the same way that simulated intergroup contact can pave the way for positive, actual contact, see Crisp & Turner, 2013).

Critically, such findings are not intended to endorse violent video games. Rather, they suggest that we can employ existing technologies to simulate intergroup contexts in much the same way that we can simulate flight procedures and other dangerous exercises. Additionally, these findings are consistent with recent evidence (Adachi & Willoughby, 2011a, 2011b) that video game violence itself might not be the entirely to blame for negative outcomes (e.g., aggression). Rather, it might be the context that is particularly relevant (i.e., how the game is played). As we’ve seen here, playing cooperatively with another group, even in a violent setting, can exert positive effects on attitudes toward that cooperating group.  

References and Suggested Readings:

Adachi, P., Hodson, G., Willoughby, T., & Zanette, S. (in press). Brothers or sisters in arms:  Intergroup cooperation in a violent shooter game can reduce intergroup prejudice. Psychology of Violence.

Adachi, P. J. C., & Willoughby, T. (2011a). The effect of violent video games on aggression: Is it more than just the violence? Aggression and Violent Behavior, 16, 55-62. doi:10.1016/j.avb.2010.12.002

Adachi, P. J. C., & Willoughby, T. (2011b). The effect of video game competition and violence on aggressive behavior: Which characteristic has the greatest influence? Psychology of Violence, 1, 259-274.  doi:10.1037/a0024908

Crisp, R.J., & Turner, R.N. (2013). Imagined intergroup contact: Refinements, debates, and clarifications  In G. Hodson & M. Hewstone (Eds), Advances in intergroup contact (pp. 135-151). London, UK: Psychology Press. Paperback: 978-1-84872-114-2; Hardback: 978-1-84872-054-1

Gaertner, S. L., & Dovidio, J. F. (2000). Reducing intergroup bias: The Common Ingroup Identity Model. Philadelphia, PA: The Psychology Press.

Hodson, G., & Hewstone, M. (Eds.) (2013). Advances in intergroup contact. London, UK: Psychology Press. Paperback: 978-1-84872-114-2; Hardback: 978-1-84872-054-1

Saleem, M., & Anderson, C. A. (2013). Arabs as terrorists: Effects of stereotypes within violent contexts on attitudes, perceptions, and affect. Psychology of Violence, 3, 84-99. doi:10.1037/a0030038

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