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Interviewees: Richard Ryan and Andrew Przybylski, University of Rochester,
By Heather Mayer
Thrills, not kills
Facing an enemy soldier, you aim your gun and ask if he has any last words. Then you fire shot after shot until blood pours out and he crumbles to the ground. You collect his weapon and cautiously carry on. You only need to kill two more enemy combatants before making it to the next level. That’s right — it’s a video game.
Violent video games have been in the thick of controversy for what seems like an eternity. But there’s reassuring news for parents. A new study released today suggests that violence is not what attracts gamers.
In fact, the study found that even individuals characterized as "aggressive" by psychological surveys, who said they preferred violent games, got no more enjoyment out of playing violent titles than most gamers.
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“People like videogames because they (the games) introduce them to worlds where they can feel freedom and where they can feel a sense of accomplishment and competence,” says researcher Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester. “It just so happens that a lot of games that have those elements are also combat or war type games and include violence.”
The "elements" he refers to include setting goals, experiencing challenges, creating strategies and having control over a player’s actions.
Tag! You’re… Dead?
Previous studies have compared completely different types of video games (e.g.: a violent vs. a non-violent game), which meant that other factors in the games besides violence may have influenced results. So Ryan and lead author Andrew Przybylski altered the same violent video game to change solely the level of violence.
“What we really tried to do was make sure that any differences we detected in the games would be due to the difference in the violence content, not the interest value of the narrative or story that was behind it,” Ryan explains.
To do this, the researchers changed a violent video game from a killing game to a game of tag — allowing players to still have a sense of achievement without the graphic gore or violent premise. Instead of falling on the ground, bleeding, once the enemy was tagged, he evaporates, suggesting he is teleporting back to his home base, explains Ryan.
Using low and high levels of violence, the researchers discovered that video game users did not find more enjoyment with games that were more violent.
“There was no value added for violent content,” Ryan says. “Players did not enjoy games more because of the violent content; they enjoyed them because of the attributes… It’s the thrill of victory that’s thrilling, not the production of blood and gore,” he says.
Parents, Rest Easy; Manufacturers, Listen Up
Although the study looked only at volunteers age 18 and up, the researchers think their findings are encouraging for parents who worry about their children’s interest in violent video games.
“You can pretty much rest assured that your kid’s not into it because of the violence, per se, but rather because there’s some fun into that game,” Ryan says.
And, according to Iowa State University psychologist Craig Anderson, who was not involved in these studies, this research opens the window of opportunity for the video game manufacturers.
“(The research) illustrates a number of findings that should be very important to game developers,” says. Anderson, whose own research has found that video game violence can be a risk factor for aggression. “The video game industry is really missing a rather large segment of their potential market by focusing so heavily on violent games.… One could expand the game market by spending some more time and effort creating nonviolent games that also have these features that promote feelings of competence and autonomy.”
Those features, Anderson says, make video games great teaching tools.
Aggression Still Under Investigation
Even among subjects who scored high on traits that psychologists use to determine aggressiveness, increased violence did not correlate with more enjoyment playing video games, Ryan says.
“People who were high in aggressiveness, who just in general as a trait tend to be hostile or easy to anger, they had a preference for games and titles with more violence in them, but when they were actually playing those games, they did not enjoy them more than they enjoyed nonviolent games,” Ryan says.
Because the subjects varied in age, the researchers say they can’t generalize their findings to gamers under 18 years old. And the research didn’t look at whether video games make people more aggressive, Ryan explains. It only studied whether the aggression and violence in video games is part of the attraction.
Anderson still advises parents to take steps to monitor their children’s media intake.
“Parents need to take charge of their children’s media diet in the same way they take charge of their child’s food diet,” he says. “You don’t serve kids, or even teenagers, soda and chips for breakfast… but most people don’t seem to understand that the media diet plays a big role in who their child or adolescent eventually becomes.”
This research was published in "Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin," January 16, 2009, and funded by the University of Rochester Department of Psychology.
Elsewhere on the Web:
Congressman Wants Health Warnings On Violent Games—San Jose Mercury News
APA Statement calling for reduction in violent media, 2005
Video game ratings—ESRB
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