Playing violent video games in 3D increases feelings of anger

Virtual reality is everywhere. Nan Palmero, CC BY

Science fiction author William Gibson said: “virtual reality is like mainlining television.” Virtual reality is no longer limited to the wealthy few who can afford it. It is also becoming more common in many forms of media, including video games.

Although virtual reality video games have provided stereoscopic 3D game experiences for years, the recent era of 3D films such as Avatar and Gravity has also changed the landscape for 3D video game play, and companies such as Sony and Microsoft have added 3D support to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

Whether violent video games are bad for us has long been a bone of contention. And playing video games in 3D makes everything seem more vivid and real. But while this is usually a good thing, how it affects us when these games are violent, may be a bad thing.

Along with my PhD student, Bobby Lull, we wanted to look more closely at the effect of violent video gaming in 3D. For a study to be published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture we conducted an experiment to test whether 3D can make the negative effects of video games, such as aggression and anger, more real and vivid too.

The participants were 194 college students, about two-thirds of whom were women. All of the students played the video game Grand Theft Auto IV for 15 minutes. Half were instructed to play violently – they were given unlimited weapons and unlimited ammunition and were told to kill as many people as possible in the game – and half played nonviolently, by going bowling.

Participants were randomly assigned into one of three groups to play the game on a regular desktop computer with a 17-inch 2D screen, a GeoWall with a 96-inch 2D screen or a GeoWall with a 96-inch 3D screen while wearing appropriate 3D glasses. A GeoWall is an interactive 3D stereoscopic projection system that uses two projectors, one for each eye.

After playing the game, participants reported their mood using a scale that contained 34 adjectives. Of these, just less than half (15) measured anger (words such as angry, annoyed and furious). For each adjective, participants indicated how they felt “right now, that is, at the present moment” using a five-point scale from 1 (very slightly or not at all) to 5 (extremely). We then summed the 15 adjectives to get an overall measure of anger.

Results showed that for those who played nonviolently, it didn’t matter if they played in 2D or 3D – their levels of anger were relatively low and unchanged. Those who played violently showed higher levels of anger than nonviolent players no matter how they played, in 2D or 3D. But those who played violently on 3D were significantly angrier than those who played violently on the 2D systems.

We found that anger was about 10% higher in the small screen-2D condition (desktop), 15% higher in the large-screen 2D condition (GeoWall), and 55% higher in the large-screen 3D condition (GeoWall).

We predicted that those who played violently in 3D would be more angry because they were more immersed in the violence. And after playing the games, we asked participants several questions to measure how immersed they felt in the game. For example, they were asked to rate on a seven-point scale how much they felt they “were really ‘there’ in the game environment”, from 1 (not there) to 7 (there) and how much they felt like other characters in the game were real, where 1 (not real) to 7 (real).

The results showed that people who played in 3D felt more immersed in the game than those who played in 2D – and that the immersion was related to the increased anger felt by those who played violently.

These findings indicate that the combination of violent content and immersive technology like 3D can be troublesome. We think this is something that needs to be considered by everyone involved from electronics manufacturers, video game developers, consumers, parents and content ratings agencies.