Kill bandits or save people?

Author: Gere Stowe

You got game? What kind? Choosing your video games, like choosing your friends, may affect the kind of person you become, a study led by Professor Darcia Narvaez with students Bradley Mattan, Carl MacMichael and Mary Squillace suggests.

Recently the psychologist and her students examined the effects of three kinds of video games — violent, neutral and helping — on a group of 116 undergraduates.

While earlier studies have shown a link between playing violent video games and aggression, few have examined the flip side. Gamers in the Narvaez study faced conditions in which they either had to kill bandits, save sick people by giving them medicine or collect bags of gold before mice snatched them.

The participants then completed stories that were set up as potential conflict situations to measure whether they would respond violently, helpfully or neutrally. The stories involved a car accident, a messy roommate and a woman who asks her thrifty friend to go on a vacation in conflict with the friend’s budget goals. The players also reported their psychological arousal before and during the game and after completing the story.

As expected, those who saved the dying gave more pro-social responses when they completed the stories, listing their imagined motives and actions for the protagonist. As a rule, the “savers” thought the protagonist would have more concern and empathy for others.

One unexpected result was that in every case aggressive responses outnumbered pro-social responses, although much less in the helping condition. Researchers suspect that the helping video may have suppressed violence more than it encouraged pro-social acts. It also may be that participants have a culture-induced bent to aggression and hostile expectations.

Narvaez and her students argue that pro-social behaviors can result from practice, whether in real-life situations or in video games that cultivate ways of understanding the world. Positive moods can lead to generous acts, they suggest, that in turn can generate more positive moods which broaden the person’s perception that such behavior and the resulting strong social connections it yields will be beneficial.

“Aristotle may have been correct in pointing out the importance of selecting one’s friends and activities carefully,” the report concludes. “They help a person develop sensibilities and habits for either virtue or vice.”