After Aaron Alexis shot dead 12 people at the Navy Yard in Washington DC in September, media outlets were quick to highlight his reported enjoyment of violent video games. To many, this was just the latest example of how violent games can foster real-life aggression. There is research supporting such a link, although experts are far from reaching a consensus view on the matter. Take, for example, the letter written in September by a group of 230 scholars, calling for the American Psychological Association to adopt a more nuanced position on the nature of the evidence.
A refrain from many sceptical researchers in this field is that the situation is complex. To claim baldly that violent video games cause real-life aggression is an oversimplification, they say. Now a brief but elegant new study has done a useful job highlighting some of these intricacies.
Christian Happ and his colleagues recruited 60 students (20 men) with varied video gaming experience and had them spend 15 minutes playing the violent and bloody beat-em-up game Mortal Combat vs. DC Universe on the Playstation 3. Some of the participants played the morally good character Superman, while the others played the Joker, the baddie from Batman. Apart from that, the game experience was the same for all participants – their time was spent in hand-to-hand combat against a variety of other computer-controlled game characters.
Another twist to the experiment was that before the game began half the participants read a bogus Wikipedia article about their character, designed to encourage them to empathise with him. For those playing Superman, the article said how he’d come from a loving family. The Joker article described how he’d suffered abuse in his childhood.
After playing the video game, the participants looked at grids of faces on a computer screen and indicated how hostile they looked. Some of the grids contained angry faces, but the crucial test was how hostile the participants rated the grids that contained all neutral faces. The key finding here was that participants who’d played the Joker were more likely to perceive hostility in neutral faces (a marker of an aggressive mindset), as compared with the participants who played Superman.
Another test was an old favourite known as the “lost letter technique”. As the students left the lab, they saw a stamped and addressed envelope on the floor outside. Those who’d played Superman in the violent game were 6.2 times more likely to post the letter or hand it in to the researchers, as compared with those who played The Joker (the rates were 20.7 per cent vs. 3.3 per cent, respectively).
These results show that the effects of playing a violent game aren’t straight-forward. Apart from anything else, the effects clearly depend on the moral nature of the fictional character that players embody. Note though, that we can’t say that playing as Superman actually boosted levels of prosocial behaviour because it’s possible rates of returning the letter were still lower for these students than they would have been had they not played the video game at all. It’s a shame there wasn’t a baseline control condition to shed light on this.
That the influence of this violent game varies according to the character played was made even more apparent by the back stories, which were designed to encourage empathy towards the characters. For those students who played as Superman and read about his childhood, their perception of hostility in neutral faces was lower than for those who didn’t read this detail. By contrast, students who played the Joker and who read about his upbringing were more likely to see hostility in neutral faces, as compared with those who didn’t read about his past. In other words, the effect of the violent game differed according to the character the students played, and this difference was amplified when they were encouraged to empathise with their character.
“As media violence is suspected to lead to a violent and desensitised personality in the long run, a closer analysis of the presentation and choice of video game characters becomes increasingly important,” the researchers said. “Future research should not only study the violent content of games, but also the role empathy, its mechanisms, and how it may be used to induce positive and long-lasting behavioural effects that might even lead to beneficial changes in personality.”
Happ C, Melzer A, and Steffgen G (2013). Superman vs. BAD Man? The Effects of Empathy and Game Character in Violent Video Games. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking, 16 (10), 774-8 PMID: 23745616