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Videogames: helping human evolution since 1983

Of all violent videogames, 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…

Historically, strong competitors have had greater access to both resources and mates. studio.catastrophe

Of all violent videogames, 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 violent games change individual behaviour. 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.

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 that 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 prosocial behaviour, (that is, bahaviour benefiting others or society as a whole) is through a simple, yet well-studied, tit-for-tat social dilemma mechanic.

The rules of the excercise 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. Jonathan Dy

In this way, psychologists create a unequal dynamic between having and giving, allowing measurement of prosocial 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 prosocial behaviour.

To examine whether different competitive contexts in violent first-person shooters can affect the level of prosocial behaviour, David Ewoldsen and colleagues 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% male) familiar with Halo 2, then placed them in separate rooms where they played for 15 minutes in one of three different competitive scenarios:

1) direct competition, in which players were forced to kill one another in multiplayer mode

2) indirect competition, in which players individually attempted to progress further than their opponent

3) a cooperative approach, in which individuals worked together to progress as far as possible

After 15 minutes, each individual’s level of prosocial 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

arukasa

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 prosocial 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 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 video games, especially violent ones, can have over our behaviour.

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 ten top selling Xbox 360 games in the USA 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.

Some developers have even switched focus in attempts to help society either through teaching or through carrying important cultural messages.

As gaming becomes more mainstream, understanding the effect games of all genres have on us becomes increasingly more important. With great power comes great responsibility – and it’s great to know some developers are now stepping up their game.

Join the conversation

27 Comments sorted by

  1. Ian Donald Lowe

    Seeker of Truth

    Michael, thanks for the article but I think I need to remind you that the average age of video gamers is 30 and the average age of game purchasers is 35. Considering that children may start playing video games of one type or another at a very young age, this gives a very wide range of age groups that play video games. The call for bans on violent games are coming from outside the gaming community, not simply "older generations".

    Social cooperation is more prevalent in Massively Multi-player Online…

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    1. Michael Kasumovic

      Lecturer, ARC DECRA Fellow at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Ian Donald Lowe

      Hi Ian,
      I agree, threre likely would be a very different result from MMORPG players as that is a very different community. I'm not too familiar with the research going on in that field, but you would expect different relationships and the "evolution" of reciprocity. Online interactions provide a new perspetive in the evolution of human social interactions which I think can be really telling if studies are done properly.

      The main focus I tried to make here was to show that the association between aggression and the genre we seem to fear the most (first-person shooters) is not as simple as we might think.

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  2. Geoff Russell

    Computer Programmer, Author

    I'm unclear of the take home message here ... perhaps violent video games played in multiplayer mode simply make you a more effective gang member? Have they been used by soccer hooligans for training perhaps? Have Syrian hit squads used them for team bonding?

    The abstract of the article you describe is in no doubt about the impacts of violent video games played in single user mode.

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    1. Ian Donald Lowe

      Seeker of Truth

      In reply to Geoff Russell

      "The abstract of the article you describe is in no doubt about the impacts of violent video games played in single user mode. "

      And neither are you, obviously. For myself, as a video-gamer for more than 30 years, I take all these studies with a big grain of salt because they are usually motivated and funded from a position of prejudice and as such, the results are usually skewed or flawed.

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    2. Michael Kasumovic

      Lecturer, ARC DECRA Fellow at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Geoff Russell

      The games were played in single player and multiplayer (both cooperatively and competitively). This is the first study that I know of that compared the different modes in a single game, thereby controlling for the actual gaming experience. Further, by controlling for gamer experience, they could factor out frustration.

      An excellent start in this differicult research area filled with personal preconceptions.

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  3. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    It's a shame the experiment wasn't done with the aliens taken out of the equation. They should have used an FPS like CoD to see whether co-operating to kill humans made a difference.

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    1. Michael Kasumovic

      Lecturer, ARC DECRA Fellow at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      True, there is that mode in one of the earlier CoD games that has the option to pit two individuals against one another that would have allowed the authors to substitute CoD for Halo. That's one of the problems with this kind of research; picking the games is tricky and usually involves prior knowledge of the games, which they might not have had.

      There is, however, interesting psychological work suggesting that children understand that violence in video games is not real regardless of whether you are killing humans or aliens. Nonetheless, an intersting question.

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  4. Harvey Westbury

    Not being a dinosaur

    The main thing lacking in this article, in my opinion, is common sense. A notion that there any positive aspects of violent video gaming, something that is so obviously psychologically and socially crippling, is the stuff of fantasy.

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    1. Ian Donald Lowe

      Seeker of Truth

      In reply to Harvey Westbury

      Help! Video games have made me violent and psychologically and socially crippled. QQ

      ROFLMFAO!!!!

      Seriously Harvey, you really don't know what you are talking about.

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    2. Geoffrey Edwards

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Harvey Westbury

      "The main thing lacking in this article, in my opinion, is common sense.'

      I would imagine that the main thing lacking in the article is the part where it slavishly reflects your own prejudices. Appeals to commonsense, in general, are appeals to common misperceptions.

      "A notion that there any positive aspects of violent video gaming, something that is so obviously psychologically and socially crippling, is the stuff of fantasy."

      If ithe effects are so obvious one wonders why people bother spending the time researching. Do retired research scientists also retire their critical faculties?

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    3. Anthony Ervin

      Mathematics Teacher at New South Wales DEC

      In reply to Harvey Westbury

      Soory Dudes,

      Have to agree with Harvey. I gamed way too much cod etc. Your gonna wake up one day and realise you have wasted a lot of your life in its prime. Possibilities lost, careers damaged/ruined and relationships broken. There is an incredible real world out there people. Go get it, enjoy it, see a band...meet people etc.... make love.....

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    4. Grant Phillips

      project officer

      In reply to Harvey Westbury

      @ Harvey

      I completely disagree with you

      Common sense puts all of your preconceived bias, cultural and environmental experiences together to form one person's version of 'common sense'.

      So, common sense has no place in science and if it did, science wouldn’t exist. Since the answer to everything question would be obvious.

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    5. Ian Donald Lowe

      Seeker of Truth

      In reply to Anthony Ervin

      Sorry to hear that Red.
      Doing anything to excess or to the point where it begins to be detrimental to your quality of life is never good, whether it is playing video games, exercising, drinking water, gambling, drinking alcohol or anything else you can think of really. Moderation is always the way to go.

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    6. Geoffrey Edwards

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Anthony Ervin

      I think the important point here is captured in your second sentence

      "I gamed way too much..."

      "too much" means exactly what it says. Any activity engaged in to excess, and to the exclusion of all else, is probably counter productive.

      I cycled a lot in my twenties - my relationships suffered because I was always intent on going to bed early to get up and train. My studies suffered - I chose cycling over my degree. My work life suffered - I was tired and uninterested. I lived for the bike.

      Cycling, in moderation a healthy and enjoyable pursuit, when indulged in to excess did for me what excessive gaming did for you.

      Engaging in those activities you suggest - socialising, seeing live music, making love - were not prevented by gaming. They were prevented by 'too much' gaming.

      I work, study, read, walk in the sun, have drinks with friends, scratch the cat, and contemplate my navel ... and I also game.

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    7. Anthony Ervin

      Mathematics Teacher at New South Wales DEC

      In reply to Ian Donald Lowe

      Ian,

      Don't be sorry, it's all good now that I broke the addictive nature of these games. Enjoying life as it should be, you can forget how amazing sunshine feels. Etc.

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    8. Anthony Ervin

      Mathematics Teacher at New South Wales DEC

      In reply to Geoffrey Edwards

      Thanks Geoffrey,

      You are right and in hindsight that does make perfect sense. I guess we can provide a cautionary example to some who also indulge too much in one activity. Variety really is the spice of life right. Yeah I hate cliche's too but well they are often true.

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  5. Ian Donald Lowe

    Seeker of Truth

    I would also like to point out that there is no real violence in video games, it is all virtual.
    I am not my avatar.
    There is far more real violence in physical contact sports such as football. A game may have graphic representations of violence but the actual game is still just a game of wit and skill and no-one get's physically hurt in the game at all. Please keep that in mind.

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    1. Michael Kasumovic

      Lecturer, ARC DECRA Fellow at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Ian Donald Lowe

      Whether or not anyone gets hurt is irrelevant. Studies show that your body increases the production of hormones associated with aggression and individuals harbour more aggressive thoughts when in competition regardless of whether the competitive scenario is rugby, arm wrestling or video games. Although individuals vary in the level of their response, you cannot ignore the fact that violent video games result in biochemical changes in your body. This is well established.

      We aren’t going to get anywhere in this discussion of the role of violent video games if we simply argue that competition in a virtual world is different than the real world. Especially since studies show that this is not the case. Studies like this one are necessary because they demonstrate that relationships between violent video games and biochemical changes are more complex than we currently understand, and surprisingly, that they can even have positive effects.

      I ask that you also please keep this in mind.

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    2. Ian Donald Lowe

      Seeker of Truth

      In reply to Michael Kasumovic

      Michael, perhaps you missed my last comment, which is close to the bottom of this page?
      I hope you will read it and comment upon it because I think I cover quite a few of the major issues with video gaming in general as I see them, based upon my experiences within various gaming communities.

      I hope you will find some interesting and useful points there worth considering. This small comment about the nature of virtual violence was aimed mostly at those with little or no practical experience or understanding of video gaming but a strong and fixed position nonetheless. It was never intended to denigrate your work or trivialise real issues and concerns.

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  6. matt sawkill

    logged in via Twitter

    Not trying to be that pedant guy, but the Mass Effect series (and Gears) are technically "third-person" shooters.

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  7. Sophie Vasiliadis

    logged in via Facebook

    This paper is interesting, but the implications are limited. The study further removed itself from a real-life scenario by keeping the same pairs in the social dilemma task. It also didn't delay the social dilemma task to see how long this effect lasts. This prevents any broader conclusions such as 'engaging in collaborative experiences is associated with greater likelihood of prosocial behaviour'. Instead, all it says is that a collaborative experience shared between two people will make them more inclined to again collaborate immediately after the experience.

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    1. Michael Kasumovic

      Lecturer, ARC DECRA Fellow at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Sophie Vasiliadis

      Results from early research is always limited, but it opens the door for future research, like how long the effects last as you suggest.

      I agree that extrapolating towards the long term is impossible with these results alone, but isn't it interesting that only 15 minutes of gaming affects immediate prosocial behaviour? I hope future studies pick up where this study left off.

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    2. Sophie Vasiliadis

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Michael Kasumovic

      Yes. 15 minutes is a very short period of time. It strongly suggests that this area needs to be further examined.

      I can't help thinking about what the findings, and similar findings in future, suggest for the increasingly individualistic societies we live in. For the education system that is more competitive in terms of grades, but less competitive in sports (everyone gets a trophy for 'participating') and in either situation, rarely truly collaborative. Is this additional evidence that increased individualism will promote anti-social behaviour? I think schools and workplaces are starting to become more collaborative, but overall, most countries (West and East) are individualistic societies.

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  8. Ian Donald Lowe

    Seeker of Truth

    In the interests of balance, graphically violent video games can increase violent tendencies in those with a type of disposition, call it mindset if you like but there are some dangerous games out there that can harm vulnerable people because they have certain elements in them that entice the user to play far more than they should, even if the "violence' is abstract. The real warning sign is not playing these types of games I will try to describe some of the seductive elements that should sound a…

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  9. Emma Anderson

    Artist and Science Junkie

    Correct me if I'm wrong but I get the impression that this research area is quite narrow, both in terms of the types of games studied and the variable (usually "violence") in question. As though the game actually controlled the personality of the player, or only violent games of specific styles or genres were capable of modiifying personality or the capacity for violence. Or even the technological version of games.

    What's the difference between paintball and call of duty?
    What's the difference between skyrim and larping?
    What's the difference between big brother (tv show) and second life?
    How is Facebook any less of a game, and World of Warcraft, any less of a social networking site?
    Do radio shock jocks cause more/less/equal community violence than Halo 2?

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