Video games and online gaming have only increased in popularity since the early days of Pong. Unfortunately, not all gaming content has stayed as innocent as ping-pong. Many mainstream games are growing more and more violent. While parents and educators worry about the effect of intimate interaction with violence, albeit artificial violence, gaming apologists have argued the violent games are a victim-less method of blowing off steam.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison wanted to test the cathartic effect of video games, especially violent video games. Half of the study’s 82 participants (all undergraduate students) were asked to play another video game– one designed to be nearly impossible to complete. However, the researchers led the participants to believe they should be able to finish the game in ten minutes. The results matched the title of the game– “Maximum Frustration.” Then, all 82 participants were randomly assigned to play either a violent or a nonviolent video game for about twenty minutes and afterwards record their thoughts in a survey.
The frustrated participants all enjoyed their (second) game more and were motivated to progress further in the game. This progress understandably lessened their frustration and increased their feelings of competency. Interestingly, the frustrated players reported enjoying their game time more than the non-frustrated players. This association held true regardless of video game content.
What about the violence? The key factor seemed to be whether or not the players enjoyed the violent video game. The players rated their enjoyment as “high” were more likely to have a “hostile attribution bias.” This term describes one’s perception of being wronged or inconvenienced. For example, when cut off in heavy traffic, an individual with hostile attribution bias would likely think of the other driver as an inconsiderate jerk. On the other hand, someone without hostile attribution bias may assume the other driver just did not check the car’s mirrors. Unsurprisingly, individuals with hostile attribution bias are more likely to respond with hostility and/or aggression.
The researchers concluded video games may help some blow off steam, but violent video games can significantly impact the way we perceive others. Furthermore, believing that everyone is “out to get me” will encourage a victim mentality which is still more harmful.
Some of the study’s findings may be due to personality differences. Because the hostile attribution bias only increased in individuals who said they enjoyed playing the violent video game, these individuals may be predisposed to aggression and therefore were more likely to perceive others as hostile and find satisfaction in aggressive acts. However, chronic exposure to violent video games could exacerbate or encourage violent tendencies in individuals with these tendencies.
The study corroborates other media research in a significant way: content matters. Whether in screen time for toddlers, social media use among teens, and the effect of violent video games, the quality and content of the media determines the effect on the users. Parents must realize that screen time is not created equal and teach kids to be critical consumers.
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