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.”

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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

Footnotes:

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
http://spp.sagepub.com/content/2/1/29.full.pdf+html

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
http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.120.746&rep=rep1&type=pdf

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
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0193397387900335

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
http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2010-03383-001

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.