Do violent video games really make us violent?
Two lecturers at the University of Huddersfield have uncovered new research that contradicts a wide stream of consciousness in the media.
Drs Simon Goodson and Sarah Pearson, who both lecture in Psychology, have revealed how playing a sporting video game is more emotionally evocative than a violent one.
Comparing brain activity from participating gamers, the team compiled data for the differing genres of video game to see how certain events in the game stimulate the player.
As Simon explains, the idea for the experiment derived from greatly over-exaggerated media scoops, suggesting violence is stimulated by aggressive video games:
“There was an assumption among reports that because a game didn’t include any violence that it wouldn’t make people aggressive. But just look at people who play Tetris and how angry they get.
“We looked at a violent game and a driving game. We found that driving made people far more emotionally aroused than the violent one, so we thought we should check it out. We did this on a bigger scale and indeed found that driving makes you more emotionally aroused than shooting something.”
With the gamer wearing a facial mask – called an EEG net – covered in small space-age like electrodes, Simon and Sarah are able to record and follow brain patterns as they are stimulated by events on screen. The equipment used is state-of-the-art medical apparatus from the US, and is valuable not only in monetary worth, but to the pair’s research:
“We received equipment from America which is used in hospitals, studying patients with epilepsy and memory problems,” Simon outlined. “We decided to try a football game next, because nothing evokes the nation more than football.
“Once again, a sporting game made people far more emotionally aroused and aggressive than other genres. In fact we’ve had people swearing at us, swearing at the game, swearing at the referee. If you watch a clip of England fans when they lost to Germany in the World Cup, their reactions are similar to the behaviour of the game player.”
As games become more and more realistic, with graphics packages improving in quality after every release and plotlines placing the gamer in a role of reality, so the emotional attachments to games increase. However, some violent games are still so superficial that the gamer is less attached to the action on screen:
“Because video games mimic things in real life, so you experience more ‘real life’ emotions. That’s why driving and football are so much more emotive. Video game style violence is something not many people are familiar with in real life. You usually get to kill soldiers or aliens, which makes it a bit too superficial. Some people even report that playing violent games calms them down, almost relaxes them.”
The research has also been something of a hit with Simon’s students, who see the advantages of learning something not just set in a text book:
“They like it because it’s real research. Sometimes they’re too detached or too engrained with theory and it becomes too abstract. This is something people can actually relate to. Whatever people say about video games, it’s one of the biggest media platforms on the planet now; it’s popular among students.”
It’s all good and well writing about a Doctor’s new research findings, but to get a real sense of how Simon’s study works, you’ve got to try it yourself.
And so this is what this reporter did, feeling slightly nervous as Sarah wrapped the large EEG net around my cranium before attaching each individual electrode to the skin.
As soon as the mask was plugged in to a monitor the results were astounding. The lines on screen look similar to a heart rate monitor, which rises and plunges per beat. Each electrode has its own line, so when I smile certain lines rise and plunge to show movement.
Interestingly, when this reporter saw the Liverpool FC team crest almost selected before playing a football game, the brain lines on the monitor flared in anger: evidently emotion is harder to conceal than I thought.
Indeed, comparing the two games – Pro Evo 2009 and Gears of War 2 – proved Simon’s research correct. England versus Germany, and my brain reacted badly when I let a German through to score. A few seconds later, and my pre-meditated lunge on a German striker was met with much brain pleasure, which soon turned to fuzzy disgust as the referee showed John Terry a red card.
Over on Gears of War 2 however, my brain was hardly active at all. Maybe it’s because I am to shooting games what Scooby Doo is to James Bond; I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. The monitor showed that when being shot at I was mildly peeved, but interestingly there was absolutely no change in brain activity when I was taking it out on an enemy alien.
Maybe blood lust is something one can only find on the more realistic football pitch.
At any rate, Simon and Sarah’s results go some way to disprove the media’s assumption on violent games. Simon was hard to stress that their findings are not a statement that violent games are harmless, nor are sports games going to turn you into a mass murderer:
“It’s not that people go out and commit acts of violence because of video games. We simply found that people are more emotionally aroused and attached to sporting games rather than shoot-‘em-ups.”