Numerous studies have found that playing violent video games can lead to aggressive thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors, but less is known about the many factors that influence this association. Additionally, the majority of research has been conducted on college aged students.
In 2007, Developmental Psychology published a study that investigated the role of one possible factor, wishful identification.
The study was conducted by Elly A. Konijn, Marije Nije Bijvank, and Brad J. Bushman.
In their study, Konijn and her colleagues tested “whether playing of violent video games is more likely to increase aggression in adolescent boys who identify with violent characters than in adolescent boys that do not.”
Wishful identification refers to the desire to emulate the behavior and persona of a character or person.
“Adolescents are especially likely to look for role models to identify with because they are in the process of developing their own identities,” explained Konijn and her colleagues.
The study tested 99 adolescent boys from the ages of 12 to 17 with lower educational ability. Those with lower educational ability were chosen because they are more likely than their peers with higher educational ability to consume violent media.
In the study, the boys were randomly assigned to play one of twelve video games for twenty minutes. The video games consisted of three realistic violent games, three non-realistic violent games, three realistic non-violent games, and three non-realistic non-violent video games.
After having played the video game for twenty minutes, the boys then played another game.
“Participants were told that they and their ostensible partner would have to press a button as quickly as possible on each of 25 trials and that whoever was slower would receive a blast of noise through a pair of headphones.”
The boy who had won the trial determined the loudness of the noise, which varied in ten levels from no noise to 105 decibels. They were also told that levels 8, 9, and 10 could cause permanent hearing damage to their partner.
Unknown to the boy playing the game, the other participant was actually a research assistant and did not receive any blast of noise.
After finishing the reaction time game, the boys completed a number of questionnaires to assess their level of wishful identification with the main character in the video game, their level of immersion in the game, and how realistic they thought the game was.
Those “who strongly identified with violent video game characters exceeded level 8 noise, even though they were told that noise levels 8-10 could possibly damage their ‘partners’ ears.” This blast of noise was delivered on the very first trial, before the boys had themselves been ‘blasted’ with noise, suggesting that it was unprovoked aggression.
Furthermore, the boys tended to identify with the character in the game more if they rated it as being more immersive and more realistic.
“This is important because wishful identification with violent characters is the opposite of empathy for violence victims. If players would focus attention on the victims rather than on the perpetrators of violence, the detrimental effects of violent video games might be reduced.”
Konijn, E.A., Bijvank, M.N. & Bushman, B.J. (2007). I wish I were a warrior: the role of wishful identification in the effects of violent video games on aggression in adolescent boys. Developmental Psychology, Vol 43, No 4: 1038-1044.