A kid sits down in front of the TV to enjoy an afternoon of video games, grabbing the handheld controller and traveling into a virtual reality. In that world, however, there are no punishments for gunning down fellow human beings, stealing cars, assaulting women, or stabbing passerby. Many people argue that this is just a game, and therefore presents no real world implications, but is it really possible to easily shift from violently massacring people on a screen to living a daily life according to peaceful social norms?
“Shooting in the Dark,” a *New York Times *article**published February 11, discussed the possibility that it’s not. The article considered recent claims that violent video games could be to blame for extreme acts of violence such as those that took place in Newtown and Aurora. Because such acts are very rare, it is difficult to study them in a rigorous way, so researchers are left to try to determine the association between violent video games and aggressive behavior from lab experiments, long-term studies in schools, or analyses of correlations between things like playing time and aggression. Some such studies, such as one done at Brock University in Ontario, have suggested that there is an association between greater playing time of violent video and higher levels of aggression over time.
The New York Times article claims that these “lab experiments confirm what any gamer knows in his gut: playing games like ‘Call of Duty,’ ‘Killzone 3’ or ‘Battlefield 3’ stirs the blood,” While there is a consensus that playing aggressive games leads to at least some short-term aggression in gamers, there is much less agreement on the long-term effects of such habits. Many scientists disagree with the argument that adolescents engaged in intense video games are more likely to exhibit aggression over time.
There is, however, also a possibility that video games can promote altruistic behavior in players—just not video games like “Call of Duty” or “Grand Theft Auto.” Stanford researchers Jeremy Bailenson, associate professor of communication, Robin Rosenberg, clinical psychologist, and Shawnee Baughman, communications student, recently discovered that video games designed to teach people to “do good” could teach people to exhibit more empathy in the real world. As the first study ever to suggest this possibility, this experiment is garnering international attention. Dr. Rosenberg explained to the British newspaper The Times, “Whereas much research has been done on whether and how violent video games can lead to aggressive behaviour, this is the first study to document that the next technology in video gaming — virtual reality — has the potential to facilitate prosocial behaviour by allowing players to become superheroes.”
The experiment was done in Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Laboratory. Each participant put on goggles, entered the simulator, and was instantly brought into a virtual reality. The players were randomly separated into two groups; one group was given the superhuman capability of flight, while the other group was simply flying in a helicopter as a passenger, but all players were flying above a virtual city. All participants were told that somewhere in the city there was a diabetic child who desperately needed an insulin injection that the player had. The experiment was rigged so that no matter what the participant did, after two minutes, he or she found the child. After the game was over, the participants were asked to undergo a short interview with a researcher. The interview questions were not important; what the researchers really wanted to observe was how the subject reacted when the interviewer knocked over a cup of pens.
This action is a typical laboratory method of gauging empathy, determined by how quickly a subject begins to help and how many he or she picks up. The Stanford experiment found that the participants who had just had the flight superpower immediately began to help pick up the pens, while who had flown the helicopter were slower to begin helping and also picked up around 15 percent fewer pens on average than the superpower group. Some subjects who had flown in the helicopter did not even help at all. Even though all the participants had found the sick child, that experience did not produce the same feelings of empathy in both groups; this finding demonstrates that the specific ability to use one’s virtual superpower to save a child did the trick.
One of the researchers, communications student Shawnee Baughman, explained to the Review, “Virtual reality is about creating experiences. In our study, we manipulated two independent variables: the type of flight (super-powered or helicopter) and the task (touring or saving a child). Varying these options allowed us to see which type of experience was the most powerful in the eyes of the participant. As it turned out, the most powerful experience was not saving the child but having the virtual ability to fly.” It is unclear exactly what is at work here, and in an article published on the Stanford website, Professor Bailenson explained that the researchers “want to have a more precise understanding of *why *this occurs.”
Baughman expressed the same sentiment when she spoke to the Review. She explained that precisely because there are many possible explanations for why the ability to fly is so powerful, the group is going to run a follow-up experiment.
“We theorize that by giving participants the power of flight, we are priming them with ‘Superhero’ thoughts and thus encouraging them to be more empathetic in the real world. When given an ability so closely associated with empathy and goodness, people cannot help but adopt those thoughts and behaviors. The follow-up study, which is beginning just this week, will attempt to answer these questions more thoroughly. We’ve adjusted the original experiment to try to uncover the mechanism by which people are changing their behavior.”
The study is already eliciting responses from people familiar with the superhero industry. According to The Times, the researchers shared their findings with Paul Levitz, the former President of DC Comics, one of the largest companies operating in the American comic book market. Levitz offered his opinion to The Times on the connection between superpowers and empathy observed in the study: “People familiar with superhero tropes implicitly know that after a character discovers a newfound superpower, the character’s task is to decide how to use it — for personal gain or for the greater good. Perhaps that implicit knowledge was operating in the current study, leading super flight participants to decide unconsciously and perhaps automatically to use their power for good.”
There are not too many video games on the shelves today that give players the option to use their virtual powers for good instead of for shooting, assaulting, and stealing. If only “Call of Duty” were about the moral duty to choose good over evil.