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Video Games Impact Your Feelings in Real Life

What happens in the game doesn't stay in the game.

Most people are unaware of how big the video game industry has become. Successful video games cost less to produce than the average Hollywood blockbuster yet gross far more in sales. Worldwide, the video game industry made literally twice as much as the film industry in 2013 ($70.4 billion to $35.9 billion).

With an estimated 59% of the population playing video games, it’s time we paid more attention to their psychological impact, especially since the most popular video games tend to be violent role-playing action games. Players in these first-person-perspective adventures assume the role of a character, load up on weapons (or powers) and fast vehicles, and embark on a journey in which they typically achieve their goals by amassing a significant body count (alas, video game designers are not big on diplomacy).

A variety of previous studies have demonstrated that violent video games can increase aggressive behavior, but now a new generation of researchers is investigating whether the choices people make while playing video games can impact pro-social behavior as well. Specifically, whether acting immorally within the context of the video game can induce feelings of guilt and whether such feelings then transfer to the real world.

One recent study demonstrated that committing an immoral act in a video game caused players to feel guilt and shame, especially players who were more absorbed in the game, and who identified more with their on-screen characters.

A different study demonstrated a similar response—that immoral actions committed by players within the game elicited feelings of guilt—but then went a step further. The study also found that players who acted immorally and felt guilty as a result, became more sensitive to similar moral issues in real life. For example, when players took actions and made choices that were unfair or uncompassionate in the game, it triggered feelings of guilt that led them to be more sensitive to issues of fairness and compassion in real life.

As video games become ever more ubiquitous and sophisticated, our analysis of their impact needs to advance as well, and become more nuanced. Yes, they have negative impacts but positive ones too (read fellow blogger Art Markman’s article about visual processing).

Further, the ability of video games to evoke strong emotional responses offers a glimpse into a future of potential psychological interventions that could use role-playing gaming environments to create a new category of interventions and treatment programs for tackling hard-to-treat issues such as anger management, impulse control, enhancing empathy, and others, which would be an exciting possibility indeed.

You don’t have to wait for a video game to treat common psychological injuries. Check out, Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

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Copyright 2015 Guy Winch

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