One of the most controversial topics here on Cognitive Daily is whether playing video games can lead to aggressive behavior or violence — and one of the most dramatic demonstrations of the impact of violent video games was a 2000 study by Craig Anderson and Karen Dill. In that study, participants played violent or non-violent games, and then were asked to play another “game,” this time against what they believed was a real person in a nearby room. In fact, there was no human opponent, and the game was rigged so that the player “won” half the time. The gamers were wearing headphones, and were allowed to administer a painful noise blast whenever they “won.” When they lost, the computer produced a noise in the player’s own headphones. Players who had previously played violent video games administered what they believed to be human opponents with significantly louder noise blasts than players who had played non-violent games.
But the Anderson and Dill study also made it clear that not all games are created equal: if some games led to more aggression than others, then perhaps some games could actually decrease aggression. A team led by Brian Meier designed a simple game to test this concept. 81 volunteers were shown words that randomly appeared in a corner of the computer screen. They had to click on each word, causing a new word to appear in its place. They were told to memorize these new words for a test later on.
In fact there was no test: what mattered was the sequence of words they were shown. For some players the words they clicked on were aggressive words like “hate” and “murder” half the time. These were nearly always followed by helpful words like “promise” or “share.” The rest of the time the words they clicked on were neutral, and half the time these words were followed by helpful words, and half the time they were followed by neutral words.
The rest of the players played the same game, with one difference — the aggressive words were replaced by random strings of the same letter, like “ssss” or “llll”. So some players were trained to expect calming, helpful words after aggressive words, while others never saw the aggressive words. Did any of this have an impact on aggression?
After playing this game, everyone played the same game as in the Anderson and Dill study, blasting what they believed to be a human opponent with a noise as “punishment” for losing. Here are the results:
The players who had clicked on aggressive words and were then asked to memorize helpful words chose significantly lower levels of noise to blast their “opponents.” A key to this study is that everyone saw just as many helpful words — the only difference between the two groups is that for one group, the helpful words followed aggressive words. So it appears that training people to expect helpful words after seeing aggressive words somehow influences them to behave less aggressively when confronted with real-world hostility.
The aggressive/helpful group also took significantly longer to set the noise level compared to those who saw neutral/helpful words. Could this mean they are stopping to consider the consequences of their actions?
The researchers suggest that a game like this might be used in therapy for people with aggression or anger-management problems. It makes some sense — if a game can train you to become aggressive, then a game could probably also train you to be less aggressive and more deliberative.
MEIER, B., WILKOWSKI, B., & ROBINSON, M. (2008). Bringing out the agreeableness in everyone: Using a cognitive self-regulation model to reduce aggression Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44 (5), 1383-1387 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.05.005