Of all violent video games, first-person shooters are viewed as the biggest problem because of the perspective taken during gaming: the first-person standpoint makes it seem as if the player is performing the behaviours on-screen. Coupled with the fact most first-person shooters centre on killing opponents (in often violent ways), it's no wonder older generations are calling for a ban on violent games.
But a study published recently in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking shows that playing violent games actually has positive social effects.
One often-ignored reality is that just as there's no proof violent movies cause violence, there's no proof violent gaming begets violence. But there's mounting evidence that violent games change individual behaviour (PDF). Although most often this carries a negative connotation, the reality is that any type of competitive challenge — including athletic — has a transformative effect on our bodies.
(Credit: FirstPerson Shooter)
The fact is that these biological changes are normal responses when faced with competition. Selection has hard wired our bodies over countless generations to respond to competition. Throughout evolutionary history, individuals that were better competitors had greater access to both resources and mates.
Even today, our instinctive competitive nature spills over into the virtual world, where games, violent or otherwise, evoke this evolutionary response.
But during human evolution, those individuals who formed alliances or worked together were more successful than individuals working independently. Our evolutionary history hints that even in the virtual world, our biochemical and cognitive responses may not be as one dimensional as to only have negative social effects.
Tit for tat and Halo 2
One way to assess an individual's likelihood to offer voluntary beneficial behaviour, or pro-social behaviour, (that is, behaviour benefiting others or society as a whole) is through a simple, yet well-studied, tit-for-tat social dilemma mechanic.
The rules of the exercise are simple. You're given some money and can either keep it for yourself or give it away to someone. Keeping it ensures that you have some money, but obviously provides no benefit to the other individual. But if you give some money away, the rules of the game state that the receiver gains double what was given.
Tit for tat plays with the idea of double or nothing.
(Credit: Jonathan Dy)
In this way, psychologists create a unequal dynamic between having and giving, allowing measurement of pro-social behaviour.
The interesting aspect of tit for tat is that priming individuals in different social contexts, such as elevating one's height to increase a perspective, or introducing a concept of god watching, increases pro-social behaviour.
To examine whether different competitive contexts in violent first-person shooters can affect the level of pro-social behaviour, David Ewoldsen and colleagues (PDF) used Halo 2: a first-person shooter set in a future world, where players fight against aliens. If you don't know the game, the trailer below gives a taste.
The researchers paired 119 individuals (85 per cent male) familiar with Halo 2, then placed them in separate rooms where they played for 15 minutes in one of three different competitive scenarios:
Direct competition, in which players were forced to kill one another in multiplayer mode
Indirect competition, in which players individually attempted to progress further than their opponent
A cooperative approach, in which individuals worked together to progress as far as possible.
After 15 minutes, each individual's level of pro-social behaviour was measured using the tit-for-tat game. Each player was given four dimes and asked how many they would give their partner over 10 separate rounds.
To control for the three scenarios outlined above, a final group of individuals played the tit-for-tat game before playing their 15 minutes of Halo 2.
The ingenious part of the design is that all individuals played the same game for the same amount of time, but differed in whether they:
Killed avatars representing another human individually
Killed computer-controlled enemies individually
Killed computer-controlled enemies cooperatively.
Even though none of the individuals was allowed to communicate with one another while playing, those who played cooperatively were significantly more likely to share their money with their partner than individuals in all the other groups (including the control group).
From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that partners were more willing to help one another out, as they were working towards a common goal.
There were no differences in pro-social behaviour between all other groups. And before you ask: no, there was no difference in behaviour between the sexes. But the sample size for that test was pretty small. It would need to be near an equal sex ratio to determine that effect. So I suggest that more women start playing first-person shooters to get at this question!
Gamers: the last hope
The above results are interesting in a few ways. They show that positive and negative social behaviours are expressed depending on the context in which individuals play. This is heartening, as it demonstrates that careful game planning by designers can ensure minimal negative social effects, and potentially even positive ones.
But it's simultaneously disheartening, because such findings demonstrate the level of subconscious control that video games, especially violent ones, can have over our behaviour.
(Credit: William Doran)
Understanding our evolutionary history can help in understanding our responses and, potentially, our desires to play certain games. What these results suggest is that rather than condemning violent games in general, we need to enter a debate to ensure games move towards a more positive direction.
Gaming in the last decade has become more socially interactive. Nine of the 10 top-selling Xbox 360 games in the US in 2011 had online multiplayer components. Although most first-person shooters still contain online components that involve killing other players, some games, such as Mass Effect 3 and Gears of War 2, involve modes where players cooperatively battle waves of computer-controlled enemies to survive as long as possible.
As gaming becomes more mainstream, understanding the effect games all genres have on us becomes increasingly more important. With great power comes great responsibility — and it's great to know that some developers are now stepping up their game.
Michael Kasumovic receives funding from the ARC for his research on evolution and behaviour. Other than still seeing himself as an avid gamer, Kasumovic has no affiliations with the gaming industry.