1 Comment »Posted on Thursday 18 June 2009 at 5:35 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Psychology


Much of the scientific research in to the effects of video games on players’ behaviour concludes that violent games promote aggression. Gamers (including myself) often dismiss these findings, resulting as they nearly always do from poorly designed studies. One infamous experiment used the length of time a person held an air horn down before and after gaming as a measure of aggression – nonsense.

I doubt gamers would say the same of this latest piece of research, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, which shows that playing “prosocial” games can encourage people to be more helpful and considerate to others. Douglas Gentile, an Iowa State University psychologist, was lead author:

“Dozens of studies have documented a relationship between violent video games and aggressive behaviours,

“But this is one of the first that has documented the positive effects of playing prosocial games.”

The paper presents the findings of three separate studies conducted using different scientific methods and an different countries. This, says the authors, is the best way to establish the true effect of video games on behaviour.

One study asked young teenagers in Singapore to list their favourite games as well as filling out behavioural surveys. Those who played violent games were more likely to hurt others, but players of prosocial games were more likely to help others. Whilst this is useful data, you can’t prove a causal link with this kind of research – did the games make people behave this way, or did their behaviour make them choose certain games?

The second study comes closer to an answer. Nearly 2,000 Japanese children aged 10 to 16 completed two surveys, three to four months apart. Those who increased their exposure to prosocial games became more helpful when questioned later.

Finally, a group of US college students were assigned to play a prosocial, violent or neutral game. They then had to assign puzzles of varying difficulty levels to a partner, who stood to win $10 if they could complete them all. Those who played prosocial games were more likely to assign easy puzzles, whilst hard puzzles were the choice of the violent game players.

I found reading this research very interesting, and it challenged my opinions. The scientists involved weren’t on a “games are evil” crusade, and instead conducted a series of well designed studies that show video games can have both positive and negative effects on players’ behaviour.

It’s easy for me to dismiss those who would attack video games as nothing more than murder-training simulations. It’s harder to do so when they claim positive effects. As the paper concludes: “Video games are not inherently good or bad, just as any tool is not inherently good or bad.” In future, whether I’m on a one man crime spree in Grand Theft Auto, or spring-cleaning a house in Chibi Robo, I’ll be sure to think about the effect games can have.

Gentile, D., Anderson, C., Yukawa, S., Ihori, N., Saleem, M., Lim Kam Ming, ., Shibuya, A., Liau, A., Khoo, A., Bushman, B., Rowell Huesmann, L., & Sakamoto, A. (2009). The Effects of Prosocial Video Games on Prosocial Behaviors: International Evidence From Correlational, Longitudinal, and Experimental Studies Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35 (6), 752-763 DOI: 10.1177/0146167209333045

  1. One Comment

  2. Excellent post!

    Your description of the first study leaves me wondering how ‘hurting others’ was operationally defined within the behavioral surveys used to assess aggression. Further what magnitude of effect sizes are we talking about in these studies

    Regardless of these questions I will say that it is fantastic to see what appears to be rigorous research on video-games in such a reputable journal like PSPB. Although it would be nice if researchers moved away from (or at least explored questions other than) the impact of video-games on aggression-I suppose examining their effect on prosocial behavior is the best we can hope for at present.

    By Keith Dowd on Tuesday 23 June, 2009 at 4:37 am

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