Cognitive Daily

ResearchBlogging.orgOne big problem with many of the studies of video game violence is that they compare different games. Sure, people might behave more aggressively after playing Carmaggeddon instead of Tetris — they’re completely different games! What would be more impressive is if we could simply remove some of the violence from a game and see if the violence itself — rather than, say, the game’s storyline — is what’s actually the root of the aggressive behavior.

Fortunately, the standard settings of Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance allowed a team led by Christopher Barlett to do just that.

They had avid gamers play Mortal Kombat on a Playstation 2 using one of four levels of bloodiness, from Maximum (where combatants not only bled profusely, but the blood pooled on the ground and could be realistically tracked around the combat arena when players stepped in it) to None (where even a brutal hit with a sword or other weapon would cause no bleeding).

Before and after the gaming session, players’ hostile thoughts and feelings were measured with a survey, and heart rate was taken at several points to measure arousal. Here are the results:

i-b88a3fe0f426bda7000b57fb36d3a2e9-barlett1.gif

As the game got bloodier, hostility levels after playing the game, especially compared to pre-game hostility, were significantly higher. The results for arousal were less clear-cut, but similar:

i-7b866b2699faf23656c71c7cc0e3e2f8-barlett2.gif

Arousal levels in the bloodiest version of the game were significantly higher later in the game than at the start of the game. However, this appears to be primarily due to a low initial arousal level. The researchers don’t offer an explanation for why this might be — perhaps the sight of so much blood was initially shocking, but as gamers became accustomed to it, it was arousing.

The researchers also analyzed how often players used a sword in the game, which inflicts more damage, and, they argue, is therefore a direct measure of aggression. Those in the bloodier conditions — Medium and Maximum — used the sword significantly more often than the Low and No-blood conditions.

The study was repeated among non-gamers, with similar results. Overall these results do suggest that the violence itself in a game is what leads to more aggressive behavior and attitudes. But there are some problems with the study. To me the “use of sword” in-game isn’t a real measure of aggression. Players know the game is make-believe and they aren’t really hurting anyone. This is different from other studies where participants believe they are actually hurting real people. We might speculate that similar results would be found in a case like this, but we can’t know for sure until an actual study is done.

Despite these problems, this study offers convincing evidence that violence itself, rather than other aspects of game-play, may be responsible for real-world aggressive behavior and hostile attitudes.

C Barlett, R Harris, C Bruey (2008). The effect of the amount of blood in a violent video game on aggression, hostility, and arousal Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44 (3), 539-546 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2007.10.003

Comments

  1. #1 khefera
    September 11, 2008

    i’m just a poor layman with a fondness for violent media, so can someone explain to me how they’re defining aggression? cuz all of the descriptions i see in these studies sound more like excitement or emotional involvement to me.
    i’m not trolling, i’m genuinely interested in the answer.

  2. #2 foolfodder
    September 11, 2008

    Surely if you get greater feedback from using a sword on the higher violence levels and the goal is to hurt the opponent in the game, then you’d be more likely to use the sword. Or am I missing something about how they’re measuring hostility?

  3. #3 SimonG
    September 11, 2008

    I’m not sure why this is interesting. Any entertainment that succeeds in involving its audience would leave them with some sort of emotional response. I can recall feeling quite pumped up after seeing a particularly good horror or action film. It scarcely seems surprising that people would feel get more involved when the games were more realistic/shocking. If these games were simply cold, rational exercies nobody would bother with them.

    What might be interesting would be to see how the arousal etc changed with time. Did people remain “aggressive” for hours afterwards, or is everybody back to normal after a nice cup of tea? Unless the games have a lasting effect it’s not terribly relevant.

  4. #4 Ray Crego
    September 11, 2008

    I’d like to second SimonG’s notion that playing a game with higher realism and more shocking visuals is similar to watching a particularly violent movie. If someone were to watch a movie about war that focused mainly on the soldiers when off the battlefield or some other depiction with little blood, it would not get the same physical response as watching the soldiers in some gruesome fight. I think “aggression levels” and heart-rates directly after one of these experiences is of little importance compared to some sort of long term reaction/effect, which there is little evidence of in studies, as far as I am aware.

  5. #5 Robbie Clark
    September 11, 2008

    I’m wondering if there isn’t actually an effect from the amount of feedback that the game offers at different levels of bloodiness. Having not played it myself I cannot be sure, but if there is greater visual feedback from actions when there is more gore in the game then it seems that at least some, if not most, of the effect is a result of that.

  6. #6 huang
    September 11, 2008

    It’s obviously the more real the game is , the gamer will more focus on. nobody doubt this. just like some comedy film, if turn off the sound, audience barely laugh… if turn off the blood in such kinds of killing game, the gamer barely nervous,be honest, I think this is nothing about hostile and aggressive.

  7. #7 imr90
    September 11, 2008

    How many people were in each group? The fact that the bloodiest group had such low levels to start with, especially in the second part, makes me think that they may have had only one subject in each group. Did they repeat the measures after some time, say a week, with the subjects switched into different groups, maybe with different games so they don’t get used to it? How did they measure agressiveness? How were people assigned to groups? Not trying to be difficult, just rigorous.

  8. #8 Becca
    September 11, 2008

    Ah, but which “bloody” setting produced the highest scores?

  9. #9 JIA
    September 11, 2008

    Dave, your graphs exhibit one of the cardinal sins of information display: the y-axis does not start at zero, thus making the differences between bars look more significant than they really are. See books by Edward Tufte for more on this subject. Also, I don’t want to revive the debate on whether you should show error or significance measures, but can you at least post the number of subjects (n) in each group, to help us guess at the possible significance or lack thereof? Thanks.

  10. #10 kdin
    September 11, 2008

    Why are the “hostility” levels significantly different in the first graph in the Before Game bars? One would think that all gamers, given a sufficient sample, would have equal “hostility” levels *prior* to playing a game.

    Not knowing anything else, that graph would tell you that people about to play a bloody game are in fact less hostile than those about to play a medium game. So keeping the young hoodlums in a constant wait for the Maximum blood level would seem to be the way to go.

  11. #11 student_b
    September 11, 2008

    I also wonder about the differences in the starting conditions.

    You would expect the hostility level to be about even before the game on all four test groups. That they are so different points to a very small sample size.

    And honestly if the starting conditions are so different, I don’t see how you can conclusively show any effects on it.

  12. #12 Danniel
    September 11, 2008

    It would be interesting to have some sort of Milgram’s-like experiment followed by different levels of violence in a game or in different video games. A somewhat recent study did something similar to test the influence of violent passages in the bible and they did assert to have found a correlation.

  13. #13 FhnuZoag
    September 11, 2008

    JIA: Your complaint comes up every so often, but isn’t really a very good complaint. Whilst yes, not starting at the origin makes differences look more significant than the alternative, there isn’t a good reason to say that starting at zero would give a proper idea of the significance of changes.

    Consider, for example, heart rate, as given in the second chart. How probable is it for the heart rate to be close to zero? Asking for a significant looking difference on that sort of scale would make most psychological effects impossible to be seen. As other examples, we don’t plot temperature predictions on a chart starting at 0 Kelvin, we don’t begin world history at 14 billion BC, etc, etc…

    While certainly caution has to be taken, using a chart that has as its minimum zero invokes assumptions of its own, and is not automatically superior to a chart that magnifies to the area of interest.

  14. #14 De
    September 11, 2008

    I find it rather funny that I actually used this same article as an example in my Statistics class this summer. I am always trying to impress on students that they shouldn’t just accept numbers as facts, but should really understand what those numbers mean, and where the numbers came from. It is fine to say that “aggression increased”, but when that aggression is actually just the number of sword hits within the game (and not some action done outside the context of the game), it is hard to categorize it as a true measure of aggression in a way that is applicable to human behavior in real life.

  15. #15 janarius
    September 11, 2008

    I agree that the “use of sword” as a measure of aggression seems far-fetched since alternative explanations are easily formulated, like foolfooder and Robbie Clark said “get positive feedback and you learned to use sword more often”. IMO, the blood (or lack of) may be used by players to gauge the amount of damage they dealt, instead of looking at the opponent’s health bar every time. So, it’s possible to achieve similar results with different effects, say explosions or a numerical value (-50 HP).

    I do also wonder that while the strength of a punch is important, I wonder whether the number of punches may also be important. I would think that applies to angry players (watch Anakin or Luke Skywalker lose their cool), but who knows.

    @ Danniel

    They did that on video games, just ask Dr. Brad Bushman.

  16. #16 Brian
    September 12, 2008

    Every so often a study like this is done, and the results are fairly consistent: violent media (of any kind), leads to an increase in immediate measures of aggression/hostility.

    It makes sense from a physiological standpoint, if you’re encountering something that increases arousal, then you’ll see the impact of that arousal shortly afterward.

    There ARE some longitudinal studies of video game playing, and they basically fail to demonstrate any long-term impact of game-playing (regardless of the game being played). Look up Dimitri Williams for examples. Unfortunately there aren’t too many of these studies, despite their obvious relevance!

    Long story short: every study of video-game violence will show an increase in aggression shortly after playing. It’s unlikely anything else is there.

    Also, kudos to FhnuZoag for the nice rebuttal to the graph issue. The real problem is the highly-variable baseline between groups… what’s up with that?

  17. #17 Eamon Nerbonne
    September 12, 2008

    I presume a “maximally” violent game is more graphic than a lower setting. This is somewhat problematic, if you want to find causes – it’s unsurprising that a version of the game which shows your actions to have more dramatic impact will be both more exciting and bias actions towards those choices which have more impact – especially since that seems to be part of the point of the game.

    In other words, the research shows the game is functioning, and very little else. Further, the graphs aren’t confidence inspiring – why are the pre-test results so variable?

  18. #18 Letraix
    September 12, 2008

    Wouldn’t it be useful if these studies were designed with the help of gamers? There are so many more useful metrics than “hostility” and heart rate, which, as pointed out, are pretty meaningless without a time frame attached to them.

    What about a more sandbox approach where the player has more freedom to choose in-game activities? In something like Grand Theft Auto, the player chooses activities and methodologies, though most missions can only be completed through violence. Perhaps a study where the players are monitored before and after violent missions, especially in terms of their choice of activity. I find the most telling expression of violence-potential is the use of gratuitous in-game violence. Slaughtering “civilians”, remurdering corpses and blowing up police cars are probably not healthy expressions of anything. Unless they have some virtual cathartic value? (recent study somewhere says maybe not? can’t remember…)

    That said, the frustration engendered by even the most challenging video game pales almost to nothing when compared with the horror of a few hours trying to use MS Word as anything other than a glorified notepad. In fact, perhaps the subjects could be tasked with generating appendix headings in Word, with a control group doing nothing, and another group playing Manhunt or something equally violent. I’m betting the Word group leads the hostility stakes. A video game you can always put down, but if that report needs to be ready on Monday morning, it’s just you, Word and two requests-for-help to MS per lifetime.

    On second thought this is probably an irresponsible suggestion. I fear the Word group might end up splitting heads for real.

  19. #19 g364
    September 12, 2008

    From a practical standpoint the key question is whether exposure to violent media increases the likelihood of an individual committing a violent act (or for that matter committing antisocial acts in general, such as lying, that are not criminal).

    For example, we prohibit even purely animated kiddie porn (made with no real humans) on the basis that it could encourage adult viewers to commit real child molestation, an effect that to my knowledge has not been demonstrated.

    Adult porn (using real adult humans, but no children) was at one time prohibited on the same basis, but as a practical matter is unregulated today with apparently no ill effects (aside from a possible increase in carpal tunnel syndrome:-)

    It seems to me that the way to go at this would be to find matched groups that differ only in their exposure to violent media. This would appear to be exceptionally difficult. However I can see a way to do it, as follows:

    Three juvenile detention facilities, ideally with similar physical settings, rules, and of course inmate populations. In one facility, the youth are allowed to watch whatever they like on TV and play any video games they choose. In the second facility, there is only G-rated educational fare available on TV and in games. In the third facility there is no TV and there are no video games, though there is radio for news along with newspapers. In all facilities, music with lyrics describing illegal acts is not available.

    Now compare the three groups in terms of total number of disciplinary infractions over a one-year period, and number of infractions in each of a few specific categories such as “technical,” “substantive but not violent,” and “violent.”

    This should produce a fairly usable set of findings. If the juveniles commit a given number of infractions, and more violent acts, in the detention setting, they are also likely to do so when free in society at-large.

    It would also be useful to try some pre/post designs once the findings above become clear. For example, if kids exposed to violent media exhibit more violent behaviors, does taking away the media reduce the violence? If kids who do not have access to violent media are given access, does their level of violent behavior change? And perhaps most interestingly, are there “paradoxical cases” where specific individuals’ behavioral trends are the reverse of those found in the majority of their peers?

    Last but not least, it would be interesting to do the same type of studies with adult prison inmates.

    Comment: from a societal and policy standpoint, where I stand is: There should be no difference in policy between sexual media and violent media. Either both types should be permissible, or neither type should be, but it is sheer hypocrisy of the worst kind to permit one and not the other. Either both types enable people to “get their impulses out of their systems” harmlessly, or both types “encourage the behavior,” but to assert that one is harmless and the other harmful, in the absence of conclusive empirical findings, is sheer nuttery of the type that puritanism is notable for. IMHO, puritanism is a psychiatric or psychosexual disorder and ought to be treated as such.

    And while we’re at it, let’s add a few more groups to the research designs above, where sexual media are and are not avaiable. Let’s not attempt to prevent the subjects in all groups from engaging in solo masturbation, but only control for their media exposure while in confinement. Know what? I think the incidents of violent behavior will be reduced when age-appropriate porn is available and people masturbate more often. And the reason for that is simple: the dopamine and endorphins produced by sexual orgasm are known to have tranquilizing effects.

    I can imagine the puritans will freak out if the latter turns out to be true, but really, they should go get counseling rather than inflicting their attitudes on the rest of us.

  20. #20 Ollock
    September 12, 2008

    I’m also interested in the apparent reduced hostility level before the maximum setting game (and also in the minimum setting game). Were subjects aware of what version they would be playing before this measurement was taken? If so, perhaps those at the ends of the scale were less “hostile” because they felt they knew exactly what to expect?

    Reduced heart rate early on in the Maximum game is also rather odd — though I may have some context from personal experience. I notice that when watching films with very heavy gore, such as zombie movie, at the beginning I am almost completely insensitive to the level of gore, as it’s so foreign to my normal experience that it just seems unreal to me. As for later building of arousal, I’m not sure of that. Anyway, if my experiences are typical, perhaps someone who has been in combat, emergency rescue, or another situation that involves high levels of real-world blood and gore would have higher heart rates at the get go.

    @g354: Your comment about violence vs sexuality requires a value judgement. As far as I am concerned, you can have as much (consensual) sex as you can get if that’s what you want, as long as it’s done safely and responsibly — but hurting people is a Bad Thing. There are others who disagree with me on that, but I don’t know if there’s really an objective way to judge the morality of gratuitous violence vs wildly promiscuous sex.

  21. #21 Gregory Bloom
    September 13, 2008

    I like how anticipation of maximum bloodshed lowers pre-game hostility.

    It would be more realistic to compare a shooter game with an aggressive sport. I find that, aside from a lack of exertion, I feel exactly the same adrenaline/aggression when competing in a first person shooter as I used to back when I played racquetball. I’d bet a doughnut that any competent measure of post-game aggression would reveal that the amount of post-game aggression is proportional to the adrenaline released during the game, whether it is a shooter game or a faced-paced sport.

  22. #22 Terry
    September 17, 2008

    khefera wrote:

    “i’m just a poor layman with a fondness for violent
    media, so can someone explain to me how they’re defining
    aggression?”

    In this post Mr. Munger writes:

    http://scienceblogs.com/cognitivedaily/2005/04/the_influence_of_media_violenc.php

    “The report takes sharp aim at the notion that aggression
    is not bad. Most studies define “aggression” as behavior
    intended to harm another person. So when Tiger Woods attempts
    to drive the green on a short par-4, that wouldn’t meet the
    psychological definition of aggression.”

  23. #23 Terry
    September 17, 2008

    Eamon Nerbonne wrote:

    “it’s unsurprising that a version of the game which
    shows your actions to have more dramatic impact will
    be both more exciting and bias actions towards those
    choices which have more impact – especially since
    that seems to be part of the point of the game.”

    You, and other commenters seem to be forgetting
    that the researchers were using 2 ways to gauge
    aggression:

    1. the amount of sword use
    2. “players’ hostile thoughts and feelings were
    measured with a survey”

    You could argue that the amount of sword use
    increased with the increased blood because
    the increased blood acted as positive feedback.

    But as it turned out, the increased blood
    was also associated with an increased the level
    of hostility.

    Why that would be I don’t know.

    But if you are going to impale someone with
    a sword, I would think it would be easier to
    do if you are filled with hate.

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that war
    propaganda seeks to portray the enemy (sometimes
    accurately) in the worse possible light.

  24. #24 Terry
    September 17, 2008

    g364 wrote:

    “Three juvenile detention facilities, ideally with
    similar physical settings, rules, and of course inmate
    populations. In one facility, the youth are allowed to
    watch whatever they like on TV and play any video games
    they choose. In the second facility, there is only G-rated
    educational fare available on TV and in games. In the third
    facility there is no TV and there are no video games, though
    there is radio for news along with newspapers. In all facilities,
    music with lyrics describing illegal acts is not available.”

    “Now compare the three groups in terms of total number of
    disciplinary infractions over a one-year period, and number
    of infractions in each of a few specific categories such as
    “technical,” “substantive but not violent,” and “violent.””

    “This should produce a fairly usable set of findings. If the
    juveniles commit a given number of infractions, and more violent
    acts, in the detention setting, they are also likely to do so
    when free in society at-large.”

    I think that’s an excellent idea! I hope someone does do
    a study like that.

    Researchers did do a somewhat similar study, in that
    kids who didn’t reduce their TV/video game usage were
    compared to kids who did:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11177057?dopt=Abstract

  25. #25 FhnuZoag
    September 17, 2008

    “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that war
    propaganda seeks to portray the enemy (sometimes
    accurately) in the worse possible light.”

    Oddly, though, war propaganda tends to do the opposite of these gory depictions – rather, they tend to sanitise things, so that wars appear less bloody but instead righteous and abstract. Dehumanisation is the key, instead of increased (hyper-)realism.

  26. #26 Terry
    September 18, 2008

    FhnuZoag wrote:

    “Oddly, though, war propaganda tends to do the
    opposite of these gory depictions – rather, they
    tend to sanitise things, so that wars appear less
    bloody but instead righteous and abstract.
    Dehumanisation is the key, instead of increased
    (hyper-)realism.”

    Well, I definitely agree with you here.

    I think the reason for this is that war propaganda
    not only seeks to encourage hatred of the enemy,
    but also to portray the “good guys” as good, and
    blood on the floor would detract from that portrait
    (i.e. make the “good guys” look bloodthirsty).

    But to go beyond the war propaganda to actual
    hurting or killing an opponent the fighter needs
    to break their personal inhibitions against hurting
    or killing another human being (even an electronic one).
    It would seem that hatred and hostility are effective
    tools for doing so.

    What’s very interesting about this study, is that
    the players had no reason to feel hostility towards
    their opponent. (There was no back-story about how
    the opponent had somehow wronged the player.)
    Yet to win the game, the players had to force
    themselves to keep playing despite the disturbing
    blood. The players must have known that hostility
    would help them win despite all the blood. Or
    perhaps the increased hostility was a completely
    instinctual or unconscious reaction to the
    circumstances.

    Perhaps there is another reason for this reaction.
    But I do think this does a good job of explaining
    *why* the players would score higher on the hostility
    rating the bloodier the game.

  27. #27 Richard Osborne
    September 18, 2008

    There’s quite a bit of evidence that engaging in a violent activity raises agression levels. There’s almost none that demonstrates that these levels are maintained, and that there is a causal link between short-term agressive engagement and long-term behavioural shift.

  28. #28 Terry
    September 19, 2008

    Richard Osborne wrote:

    “There’s quite a bit of evidence that engaging in
    a violent activity raises agression levels. There’s
    almost none that demonstrates that these levels are
    maintained, and that there is a causal link between
    short-term agressive engagement and long-term
    behavioural shift.”

    If you played a game of basketball once or twice
    it probably wouldn’t have much of an effect on
    you. But if you played basketball regularly
    it would have long-term effects, namely that
    you would gradually get better at basketball,
    and it would increase your fitness and coordination
    level.

    So it would make sense that exposure to violent
    media over and over and over again would increase
    aggression on a long-term basis.

    But just because something “makes sense” doesn’t
    make it true.

    Luckily there are a number of correlational studies
    looking at the long-term effects of repeated
    exposure to violent media.

    For example:

    “CHILDHOOD EXPOSURE TO MEDIA VIOLENCE PREDICTS
    YOUNG ADULT AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOR, ACCORDING TO A
    NEW 15-YEAR STUDY”

    http://www.apa.org/releases/media_violence.html

    “Offers a look at a study that reveals that
    television violence makes children more aggressive
    and these more aggressive kids turn to watching
    more television to justify their own behavior.”

    http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/pto-19920701-000011.html

    “Watching Wrestling Positively Associated With
    Date Fighting, Say Researchers”

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/05/010503092632.htm

    Unfortunately correlational studies are far from perfect.
    Which is why I think g364’s idea for a before and after
    study in a juvenile detention facility is such a great idea.
    The results would be more conclusive, and (just as important)
    the study idea is doable and practical.

  29. #29 Tkmann
    October 19, 2008

    I play very violent video games like Gta IV and Gears of war In gears of war the multiplayer is fun i will get very angry when some 12 year old kid is talkin crap and kicking my butt on a video game at 3am. its mainly the jerks on there that make me angry i try my best not to take out and pent up agression out on people because of happenings else where in life. People get on there and turn into the biggest jerks (saying it lightly) out there i wouldnt be violent at all if people would change.

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