Developer’s We Need Your Help

There are amazing things happening with new advances in graphics and interfaces as technology improves and enthusiastic gamers have recently been introduced to convincing virtual reality with stunning visuals. There are videos of people playing these virtual reality games reacting in laughter, awe, and fear to playing these increasingly realistic games that have become fully immersive. Imagine some of the games today such as Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, and Minecraft some of which not only have marvelous graphics, but now also an added element of realism that is so immersive, so real, and so elaborate that the action may as well be taking place in real life. It has long been debated whether or not video games cause violence, but with such convincing options in virtual reality, there are now endless possibilities when it comes to the effects these games can have. Some people think video games do not affect players in the real world despite the evidence, and some people think developers should have an ethically responsible duty for the content of games because evidence has shown positive behavioral effects on users such as an increase in prosocial behavior, as well as negative traits such as a decrease in empathy and an increase in aggression.

There is plenty of evidence and accusations on how video games and other violent media affect consumers in negative ways, but recent developments indicate there are also positive behavioral effects on users such as an increase in prosocial behavior. Prosocial behaviors are often defined as helping behaviors that are done mainly for the benefit of the recipient with little regard for selfish gain by the person helping. For example, in a study done by Happ, Melzer, and Steffgen, “[p]articipants who played the hero character (Superman) showed more helping behavior and less hostile perception bias than those who played the evil Joker” (Happ, Melzer, & Steffgen, 2013, p. 776). The prosocial behavior was measured after participants of a study in which players were evaluated on their empathetic responses to a perceived bad guy when exposed to a backstory of bad circumstances that may explain villainous behavior or just a neutral background of both Superman and Joker. Prosocial behavior was indicated in the response of the test subjects in which a letter was dropped, fully addressed and stamped, that could easily be seen, and was not mentioned to be part of the study outside of the lab area, then counted as prosocial if the letter was either given to the addressee or the experimenter. This may indicate that it is not only negative effects that would result from gameplay, but also indicates empathy in the case of bad behavior if such behaviors could be rationalized through a backstory of wicked circumstances. This seems to show that developers could, in fact, affect behavior in more positive ways, as well as have the ability to inspire empathy and even rationalization of bad behaviors. It appears as though video games could be a great tool for emotional and social development as long as they are created with intent and attention to detail to encourage more positive actions. Greitemeyer and Osswald, “…presented evidence that exposure to prosocial video games increased the accessibility of prosocial thoughts, which may instigate prosocial action” (Greitemeyer & Osswald, 2011, p. 126), and that reinforces the idea for developers taking responsibility by writing positive storylines to show video games in a more encouraging light. This study demonstrated that prosocial thoughts were found to be more accessible through an experiment where reaction times were measured to either aggressive or prosocial words after playing an aggressive or prosocial game. The findings were dependent on the game played with either quicker reactions to aggressive words if the aggressive game was played or a faster reaction to prosocial words if the prosocial game was played, which indicated a priming effect. Essentially, if you are put into a negative frame of mind you will react quicker to negativity and if put into a positive frame of mind you will react quicker to positivity. It should be clearer that shunning the idea of being ethically responsible and continuing to churn out violent games will not have good consequences.

A commonly featured negative aspect in studies of video game use is a decrease in empathy of players who play violent games. There was a recent analysis that concluded violent video games and exposure to those games can lead to increases in aggression while decreasing empathy (Fraser, Padilla-Walker, Coyne, Nelson, & Stockdale, 2012). The analyses were concluded using many types of studies such as randomized experiments in which children were randomly assigned violent or non-violent games and their resulting behaviors were observed, cross-sectional surveys were utilized in which time was spent playing violent games was recorded and compared to self- reported acts of aggression, and longitudinal survey results were analyzed in which several measures of violent media were assessed for frequency and then compared to measures of aggressiveness. Most gamers who are adolescents are still developing and the most susceptible according to a study by Shin and Ahn who assert that “[p]laying video games do not require game players to allocate mental resources to understand other agents, and this can lead to prolonged inactivity of the social brain” (Shin & Ahn, 2013, p. 602). Video games do not require players to think about understanding the actions of other players, so, therefore, social interactions are not practiced as if they would be regularly with in-person social exchanges. These findings mean that if care is not taken and the gameplay is extended beyond a reasonable period where they are not utilizing or cultivating these skills that it may affect the emotional brain development of key social abilities in teenagers, such as cognitive empathy. A lack of skills or a decline in cognitive empathy makes it harder for those affected to accurately recognize and understand the emotional state of others through visual cues. If reading the emotions of others is difficult it could lead to various misunderstandings, some of which could culminate into episodes of aggression.

Finally, the most important reason developers should be ethically responsible for the messages their games send is an increase in aggression. Hasan, Bègue, and Bushman found that “… participants who played a violent video game were significantly more aggressive afterward than were participants who played a nonviolent video game. Violent game players gave their ostensible partners louder and longer noise blasts through headphones than did nonviolent game players” (Hasan, Bègue, & Bushman, 2013, p. 68). This shows how a violent video game can have at the least, short-term displays of aggression, possibly caused by the agitation of a high-stress situation and how they were willing to inflict increasingly uncomfortable stimuli on their perceived partners. There may have been many reasons why their partners perhaps did not act as expected, but as mentioned previously playing video games does not require contemplating motives of other actors and it then becomes easy to act aggressively towards those around us. It has been, “…confirmed that violent video games can increase aggressive behavior—but they also indicate that certain safeguards can be employed to reduce such unsavory outcomes” (Gitter, Ewell, Guadagno, Stillman, & Baumeister, 2013, p. 353). As the research in this paper shows, there is a great hope that positive behaviors can be inspired, reinforced, and encouraged using video games as long as proper care is taken by those creating these powerful tools. Evidence shows games are able to nurture prosocial attitudes that developers could take advantage of and do a great service to the public.

Indeed, while not everyone who plays violent video games will suffer adverse social effects, there should be more ethical awareness by game creators of the messages these games send. It is now known that video games can foster positive behavioral developments such as an increase in prosocial helping behaviors as well as adopting undesirable behaviors such as lack of empathy and aggression. If the video games we see on the screen a few feet away can have this powerful of an influence on our psyche, just imagine how detrimental or uplifting the futures of children could be with virtual reality and an ever-changing landscape of technology gaining more momentum into full immersion. It must be accepted that the future of the youth is not just up to parents. Developers, there are many great stories that can be told with games that will elicit the best qualities out of people and make the future more utopian, all that needs to be done is to take responsibility for the power wielded.

Anderson, C., Berkowitz, L., Donnerstein, E., Huesmann, L. R., Johnson, J., & Linz, D. (2003). The Influence of Media Violence on Youth. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 81-110.
Fraser, A., Padilla-Walker, L., Coyne, S., Nelson, L., & Stockdale, L. (2012). Associations Between Violent Video Gaming, Empathic Concern, and Prosocial Behavior Toward Strangers, Friends, and Family Members. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 636-649.
Gitter, S. A., Ewell, P. J., Guadagno, R. E., Stillman, T. F., & Baumeister, R. F. (2013). Virtually justifiable homicide: The effects of prosocial contexts on the link between violent video games, aggression, and prosocial and hostile cognition. Aggressive Behavior, 346-354.
Greitemeyer, T., & Osswald, S. (2011). Playing Prosocial Video Games Increases the Accessibility of Prosocial Thoughts. Journal of Social Psychology, 121-128.
Happ, C., Melzer, A., & Steffgen, G. (2013). Superman vs. BAD man? The effects of empathy and game character in violent video games. Cyberpsychology, Behavior And Social Networking, 774-78.
Hasan, Y., Bègue, L., & Bushman, B. J. (2013). Violent Video Games Stress People Out and Make Them More Aggressive. Aggressive Behavior, 64-70.
Shin, D., & Ahn, D. (2013). Associations between game use and cognitive empathy: a cross-generational study. Cyberpsychology, Behavior And Social Networking, 599-603.