Steven Kirsh and Jeffrey Mounts at SUNY-Guneseo in New York asked 197 students to play either 15 minutes of the violent House of the Dead 2, or 15 minutes of the game your Nan would approve of far more, Kayak Extreme.
After playing the video game, the students looked at 60 faces that gradually morphed over 2.4 seconds from a neutral expression into either a happy or an angry expression. The students’ task was indicate as quickly as possible whether the face was turning angry or happy. Typically on this kind of task, people are far quicker at recognising a happy face – a phenomenon that has been dubbed the ‘happy face advantage’.
The students who played the kayaking game showed the expected happy face advantage – they were 95ms faster on average at recognising when a face was morphing into a happy expression compared with an angry expression. By contrast, the students who had played House of the Dead 2, only showed a 2.5 ms advantage for happy expressions. This difference between the groups held even after the researchers controlled for the effects of the games on emotional factors like frustration and enjoyment.
The researchers said the violent game may have predisposed the students towards recognising threatening emotions. “This attentional bias may then increase the likelihood of acting aggressively by priming aggressive scripts or by limiting the processing of information which could reduce the likelihood of aggression,” they warned.
Kirsch, S.J. & Mounts, J.R.W. (2007). Violent video game play impacts facial emotion recognition. Aggressive Behaviour, 33, 353-358.
Link to recent Guardian opinion piece on psychological effects of violent video games.