In a surprising twist to the long-debated topic of video game violence, a recent study suggests that playing violent video games might actually decrease stress hormones in some players. Contrary to popular belief, the study found no increase in aggressive tendencies, indicating a more complex relationship between video game content and player responses than previously thought. The findings have been published in the scientific journal Physiology & Behavior.
For years, the impact of violent video games on behavior has been a contentious subject. Past research has often pointed towards a potential increase in aggression and stress among players of these games. This belief has fueled ongoing debates among parents, educators, and policymakers regarding the suitability of such games for young audiences. Motivated by these discussions and inconsistencies in previous findings, researchers embarked on a new study to explore the physiological and psychological effects of violent video games more comprehensively.
“I am interested in this topic as I am a gamer myself. Since I was little, I was fascinated by video games and the virtual worlds. I played because it was fun, because I enjoyed the competition, to enjoy good stories, but also to relief some stress of my daily life,” said study author Gary L. Wagener, a doctoral researcher at the University of Luxembourg.
“When I started my studies in psychology I was interested in research, and especially on video game effects. I started to notice that there were large inconsistencies in the research on violent video game effects, with some researchers claiming that playing violent video games increases aggressive behavior, while other researchers showed that this was not the case. I did not enjoy the media depiction of violent video games that did not reflect this still ongoing debate and therefore I decided to investigate violent video game effects myself.”
The study involved 54 male participants. These individuals were recruited through various channels including university mailing lists, social media, and advertisement posters. Each participant was randomly assigned to play either a violent or non-violent passage from the popular video game “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End” for 25 minutes.
To measure the effects of gaming, the researchers employed several innovative techniques. They assessed participants’ levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) and testosterone, both before and after gameplay, using saliva samples. Additionally, to gauge personality traits, participants completed questionnaires assessing the “Dark Tetrad” – Machiavellianism, psychopathy, narcissism, and everyday sadism. Finally, an Implicit Association Test (IAT) was used to measure aggressive tendencies.
The results were quite unexpected. Contrary to what many previous studies have suggested, the researchers found no significant change in testosterone levels in either group. More strikingly, cortisol levels actually decreased in the group playing the violent game. This suggests that, rather than increasing stress, playing the violent game might have had a relaxing effect on the players.
Moreover, using the Implicit Association Test, the study evaluated aggressive cognition – essentially, how likely participants were to associate themselves with aggressive thoughts or behaviors. The results showed no significant difference between the group that played the violent game and the group that played the non-violent game. This indicates that short-term exposure to video game violence might not influence a person’s aggressive thoughts or tendencies as much as some earlier research has suggested.
“We set out trying to test if violent video game play increases aggression, which we hypothesized based on prior literature on the topic,” Wagener told PsyPost. “We thought that the inconsistencies in the literature on this topic might be due to prior negligence to take factors like personality of players and physiological effects into account. What was surprising for us in the end was that playing a violent video game had no effect on aggression whatsoever, even taking physiological effects and personality into account but it provided even beneficial physiological effects.”
The personality trait of Machiavellianism – characterized by manipulation and a focus on self-interest – was found to moderate this effect. Participants with higher levels of Machiavellianism who played the violent game showed a more pronounced decrease in cortisol. This finding indicates that the response to violent video games may vary based on individual personality traits. In contrast, other traits in the Dark Tetrad, such as sadism, psychopathy, and narcissism, did not show any significant moderating effects.
“The average person should take away from this study that there is no clear picture that violent video games are harmful for players,” Wagener said. “They do not necessarily increase aggression in any way but can even have positive relaxing effects for players.”
But the study, like all research, includes some limitations. “We can only generalize the effects in this study for the video game we chose,” Wagener explained. “However, in our Media and Experimental Lab at the University of Luxembourg, we continue this research and try to use different materials in all our experiments to be finally able to generalize these findings more broadly in the medium.”
Another constraint was the focus solely on male participants. The study was limited to men to reduce variability and control factors like menstrual cycles and oral contraceptives, which could influence hormonal levels. But this leaves open questions about how women might respond to violent video games.
Looking to the future, the researchers suggest that more comprehensive studies, including female participants and larger sample sizes, are needed. Such studies would provide a more detailed understanding of the complex relationship between video game content, physiological and cognitive responses, and different personality types.
“This study was only a stepping stone for more research on violent video game effects that are part of my PhD studies at the University of Luxembourg,” Wagener said. “So, stay tuned for more (hopefully) interesting findings that we may be able to report in the future.”
The study, “Games, hormones, and “dark” personalities: Dark tetrad and the effects of violent gaming on aggression, cortisol, and testosterone“, was authored by Gary L. Wagener, André Schulz, and André Melzer.