Video games, like internet and PC (personal computer) have made a big enough impact on cultures all over the world that they have sparked opposing opinions to emerge on their utility. Internet and PC was once seen as harmful to children’s psyche since any type of content (porn) is easily available on internet. But internet and internet connected devices have clearly won the culture war as the benefit of making any information accessible has outweighed the cost of there being too much unwanted information. Video games, on the other hand, haven’t had much success in convincing their usefulness to culture at large.
Video games now a days are more popular than ever but some stigma is still attached to them. Many believe that video games is for children, video games are immature, culturally irrelevant, and potentially hazardous to the psyche of those who play them. The “playing violent makes people more violent” is perhaps the biggest critique thrown against video games, and this argument is not without merit. Still, video games are not a single construct. Just like there are different types of movies, there are many different style of games that enables players to behave in virtual reality in unique ways.
The open world or “sandbox” is one genre of games where players are dropped into a virtual world and are given the freedom to behave however they want to as long as their behavior falls within the limit of what a particular virtual world allows. Grand Theft auto games are one of the more well known franchise of sandbox style games where although the players are handed a gun and all sorts of weapons, it’s up to them for whether they want to shoot and kill civilians roaming on the streets or refrain violent activities only to story mission games where they are required to use guns and other weapons. The interesting research question here in then with freedom to behave in any way one desires, do most choose to commit violent acts or do people carry over their sense of moral responsibility from physical reality to virtual worlds?
In order to investigate above noted research question in more detail Peng, Liu, and Mou (2008), researchers at Michigan State University, carried out a study with 40 participants who were divided into two groups and asked to play two different games for 70 minutes. Game 1 was The Godfather and Game 2 was True Crime: Streets of LA, both of which are rated Mature for violent content and fall into the category of being an open world game. Two weeks before actually playing the game the participants were asked to complete a survey about their physical aggressiveness. The participants were asked to play the game however they wanted to and their gameplay was recorded for content analysis. The game footage from all the participants was analyzed for frequency of violent interaction, nonviolent interaction, when violent interaction did happen the frequency with which players used natural means of violence (punch, kick), the frequency with which players used firearms, and how severe was the violent interaction. The simple hypothesis for this study was that people with aggressive personality play video games more violently.
The results of the study was consistent with the proposed hypothesis as participants who scored higher in test measuring aggressive personality played either of open world games more violently by engaging in more violent interactions and kicking, punching, and shooting other characters more often.
So, what’s the point? Shouldn’t it be obvious that aggressive people will behave more violently than non aggressive people? These results are intriguing because they stand in contradiction to what thinkers like Thomas Hobbs and Sigmund Freud have said about human nature. For Thomas Hobbs unless some authority figure steps in or social rules of conduct are implemented the natural state of human affairs is nothing less than chaos. Freud thought along similar lines regarding human nature and claimed that we are driven by pleasure principle where the “Id” wants all its desires fulfilled right here and now. In other words, for both Freud and Hobbs people are inherently bad and if they are put in a personal consequence free environment they will do bad things to others. But as this study shows, there were some participants who with complete knowledge that they were free to do whatever they wanted to in a virtual world nonetheless willfully restrained themselves from causing havoc. In an environment where our most basic needs have no meaning (food, water, shelter) it appears that not everyone is inherently inclined to cause destruction. For how long this pacifist behavior in a virtual world can maintained though is something that requires more research in order to be answered appropriately.
Peng, W., Liu, M., & Mou, Yi (2008). Aggressive people play violent computer games in a more aggressive way? Individual difference and idiosyncratic game-playing experience. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 11, 157-161.