A Better World Through Video Games

By Darcy Cowan 15/06/2011

ResearchBlogging.orgOver the last few years evidence has been mounting that violence in the media and especially interactive media such as video games contributes to aggression displayed by individuals.[1] This ability to influence our behaviour in such a way is concerning and may undermine attempts to build a peaceful society that nevertheless respects a person’s right of autonomy and the ability to choose the entertainment in which we wish to partake[2].

If we accept that the entertainment we consume may have negative effects on our behaviour, (and much as I hate to admit it the evidence is pretty convincing) at what point do we decide that it is our responsibility to curtail these forms of entertainment for the greater good?[3] I’ll leave you with that to ponder ‘cos that’s not actually what I’d like to address, this is just the lead-in.

The research suggests that, like yawns, aggression is contagious. Bad stuff. But, what about positive feelings and outcomes? Can we propagate happiness and kindness in the same way? A recent paper suggests: yes.

“Remain Calm. Be Kind.” Effects of Relaxing Video Games on Aggressive and Prosocial Behavior‘ is the title of a paper recently published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. In it authors  Jodi Whitaker and Brad Bushman look at the effects playing different sorts of video games has on post game behaviour. The full paper remains locked behind a pay-wall but a decent overview is provided here. Essentially the researchers randomly assigned participants to either relaxing, neutral or violent games. The participants then had their levels of aggression or prosocial tendencies measured in one of two ways.

In the first experiment the subjects participated in a mock competition (not mock to them, they thought it was real) in which they had to push a button faster than their “competitor” If the competitor won the study participant chose an amount of money to give them. If the competitor lost then the subjects got to blast them with noise, and could choose how loud and long the blast was.

Predictably, those who had played the violent games hit their opponents with longer and louder sound blasts than those who played the neutral games, who in turn were more aggressive than the relaxed gamers. Conversely the most money was given to winners by the participants who played relaxing games.

The second experiment was a little more subtle. Post gaming the participants were given a questionnaire measuring their mood, once this was completed the participants were told the experiment was over. The researcher then asked for help sharpening pencils for another study, how many pencils the participants choose to sharpen was used as a measure of prosocial behaviour.

As you will have inferred, the (now) hippy-dippy gamers opted to spend more of their time sharpening pencils than their amped-up counterparts. Thus the world is made just a little bit better through the use of video games. Or at least there are slightly more sharp pencils than there would otherwise have been, that’s progress, right?

I’d like to know the full suite of games that were used in the studies but we do have one example from each category: “Endless Ocean” is one of the relaxing games, “Super Mario galaxy” is a neutral game and “Resident Evil 4” is, of course, the violent game. Now I know what you’re thinking, “that stupid scuba game couldn’t possibly be as much fun as blasting zombies!” well, apparently, it is. An independent group of students rated the entertainment and enjoyment value of each of the games and the researchers were careful to match the game ratings.

I doubt that relaxing and calming games are likely to supplant the violent kind in the gaming ecosystem any time soon but it is nice to see that people can be influenced in good ways as well as bad by media.

To plagiarise and butcher a quote from Homer Simpson:

“To video games! The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”

Whitaker, J., & Bushman, B. (2011). “Remain Calm. Be Kind.” Effects of Relaxing Video Games on Aggressive and Prosocial Behavior Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550611409760


1.Here’s a list of publications supporting a link between games and aggressive behaviour spanning couple of decades. Obviously more of a taster than a full list:

Bushman, B., & Gibson, B. (2010). Violent Video Games Cause an Increase in Aggression Long After the Game Has Been Turned Off Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2 (1), 29-32 DOI: 10.1177/1948550610379506

Gentile, D., Lynch, P., Linder, J., & Walsh, D. (2004). The effects of violent video game habits on adolescent hostility, aggressive behaviors, and school performance Journal of Adolescence, 27 (1), 5-22 DOI: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2003.10.002

Silvern, S. (1987). The effects of video game play on young children’s aggression, fantasy, and prosocial behavior Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 8 (4), 453-462 DOI: 10.1016/0193-3973(87)90033-5

Anderson, C., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E., Bushman, B., Sakamoto, A., Rothstein, H., & Saleem, M. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in Eastern and Western countries: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 136 (2), 151-173 DOI: 10.1037/a0018251

2. With the normal caveats of not harming anyone else or restricting their freedoms, yada yada. My point is how far up the chain do we determine that an action harms another?

3. As we do with other forms of potentially harmful behaviour eg speeding limits, driving blood alcohol limits etc.

Filed under: Psychological, Sciblogs, Science Tagged: behaviour, gaming, prosocial behaviour, Psychological, psychology, Science, Science and Society, Social Sciences, video games

0 Responses to “A Better World Through Video Games”

  • Hi Darcy,

    First of all – thanks for posting the links to these papers! Been meaning to take a look/read these for some time now to get a handle on their validity. And just to make my position (and bias) clear – I am an avid gamer in my spare time, and yes I probably tend more towards violent games than the calming sort (though I profess a great love for super mario galaxy).
    There are a few things I would like asked though – assuming this trend of violence and aggression is correct, how does it compare with other aggression promoting behaviours in terms of severity (i.e. violent films, books etc)? And why is, of all things, sharpening pencils used as an indicator of prosocial activity? Additionally,are you aware of any other publications of positive impact of games using different metrics? This last one is important to me particularly, as I often use games as a bridge to connect with the secondary school kids I do outreach with to find some common footing – but certainly don’t want to promote anti-social behaviour on their part.
    Also, just anecdotally, I’m a pacifist and can count the number of physical confrontations I’ve had in my life on one hand, despite logging hunderds (possibly thousands?) of game hours. That said, there are NEVER any sharp pencils in my house either.[oh and sorry of these questions are answered in the papers – I haven’t had chance to read them yet]

  • Some good points raised there.
    as an aside I also enjoy a good zombie blasting, though RPGs are probably more my thing.

    Anyway. To take things in order, I have only dipped my toe in this literature. Enough to come to the conclusion that there is a real effect here but not enough to know whether violent written fiction (or non-fiction presumably) also carries the same risks. I know that Films and television do seem to have similar effects with regard to promotion of aggression. An important point to note here is that I use the term aggression to refer to the effects. This is not synonymous with violence. I think that’s an important thing to remember.

    Also I’m not aware of any work that has been done of mitigating the aggressive effects of this trend with regard to presentation or thoughtful discussion about the consequences of violent behaviour. Perhaps that is the proper way forward.

    The sharpening pencils thing, yeah, a bit random I’ll grant you. But I think the main point here is the time and effort required of the participants rather than the specific activity. In essence the theory goes that the greater the individual’s prosocial tendencies the more time/effort they will be willing to expend to help a person.

    They may equally well have asked the participants to hand out flyers for charity (one expects) as sharpen pencils.

    With regard to corroborating evidence. The researchers note that this is probably the first study of it’s kind. Owing to the fact that non-violent video games are the exception rather than the norm. Even racing games tend to have some aggressive elements. So I would be looking for replication of this result in future.

    Finally, I too avoid violent confrontation despite being a fan of violent media. Again aggression may still be the key point here, as the participants weren’t asked to go and pick a fight. The measures were more subtle that that. Personality may make the difference between that aggression becoming violent behaviour (obviously this is more complicated than a simple causal relationship) and it being expressed in other ways, or indeed, suppressed.

    Interesting stuff.

  • Hi Darcy

    A great artical as usual, but I can’t help but be skeptical about the conclusions that the researchers have drawn about the participants reactions to their particular treatment (calming, neutral, violent). Being more willing to blast the other person with loud sound or being less likely to want to spend time performing a repetitive task mayn’t be indicative of aggression. A voilent game is likely to include a lot of action, and tense moments of possible death or survival and as such would certainly raise the excitement level of the individual. Could it not be more likely that a more stimulated person would be less inclined to spend an extended period of time sharpening pencils than a person who was in a more subdued state, making the individuals post-experience reaction more one of attention span than of pro or anti social tendencies? The blasting of loud sound likewise seems, to me, to be the sort of behaviour expected from an excited person.

    The second thing is, as you pointed out, whether there is any actual link between any aggression caused by the gaming experience and violent acts thereafter. Aggression can also be positive and cathartic when it isn’t violent. I’m sure you’ve seen the following scenario; everyones had a few beers and the tekken/mortal-kombat tournament is really heating up, each players life bar has diminished to a sliver, the next blow landed will win the match, button mashing is becoming intense, and the screaming and matriarchal-slanders are growing louder and more frequent from both the players and onlookers. The atmosphere in this circustance tends to be both very aggressive, and overwhelmingly positive. These experiences are releasing, and in most situations probably don’t lead to antisocial behaviour being directed towards the victor or his opponent. Have you found any papers done on the potential for violent gaming to reduce the likely hood of physical aggression through stress relief?

    Finally, it’s not uncommon to read of a violent offender having been a fan of violent video games prior to an offence, but it gives cause to wonder whether the person is violent because they play games, or whether they play violent games because those games appeal to their basic nature, could it be that people are becoming more aggressive in general (due to some sort of overcrowding effect perhaps)? I just thought about this as recently a work collegue and I were talking about whether being a politician makes a person dishonest, or whether the job itself is more likely to appeal to more ruthless persons.

    Admittedly all of this is coming from someone who loves a fair few violent games.

  • Some good stuff there Matthew.

    Ok, first point. Yeah, I have to say the excitement (or arousal level) is a potential confounder here. That’s one reason that I’d like to know exactly which games are used – is Mario cart as “exciting” as resident evil, what about the other games?

    Second, I’m not aware of papers looking at video games as stress relief but I am aware of work that shows the “cathartic” violence (like punching a pillow etc) corresponds to increased rather than decreased aggression. So I don’t actually think that’s a real starter. (should dig that up for a follow-up post)

    Finally, you’ve hit the nail on the head regarding the arrow of causation. With co-relates like that are we sure we have things the right way around, or missing a common factor? Perhaps the link is completely spurious and we can’t tell ‘cos we are picking out particular examples that suit our purposes. All good questions and we should be wary of coming to hasty conclusions.

    Always good to dissect this stuff from every angle. Thanks

  • Interestingly, I just watched this TED talk today! Wondering if you’ve seen it. Not much real science, but possibly enjoyable.