Feb 272008
ResearchBlogging.orgCourtesy of Kotaku I learned of an article on the response of players to violent (and non-violent) video games out of a Finnish lab (1). The study has garnered attention because its results seem to contradict popular rhetoric that games encourage violence and desensitize their players to it. What Ravaja et al. found was that players of a first-person shooter had negative emotional reactions to killing or wounding opponents, and a positive emotional reaction to “dying” in game. These results seem odd, but I feel they’re reasonable and hint at interesting avenues for future research.

First, the methodology. The authors of this paper used several physiological measurements in combination with subjects’ reports of emotional experience and a personality test. In the case of the physiological measurements, skin conductance level (SCL) was used to assess general arousal, and EGM recordings of muscle activity determined positive (zygomaticus, orbicularis oculi) and negative (left corrugator) emotional valence. The researchers studied 36 students (70% male) aged 20-30 playing three (one “training”, two “play”) 5-minute sessions of James Bond 007: Nightfire or Super Monkey Ball 2. If I’m reading the “Event Scoring” section right some of these players had good reason to be frustrated: it looks like someone managed to die 8 times (although it’s not clear whether this refers to a single 5-minute play session or a sum over both).

So, what did the Ravaja et al. observe? SCL appeared to increase after every kind of game event, though not uniformly so. This suggests basically that in-game events are stimulating, which is probably good news for the developers. Then the authors try to use the EGM data to parse exactly what kind of emotional response the player is having to various in-game events. The researchers find that zygomaticus and orbicularis oculi activity decreases in response to killing an opponent and increases in response to the death of the player. As one might expect, corrugator activity increases in response to opponent deaths and decreases in response to player death. The negative emotional valence was attenuated in players who had high Psychoticism scores on the personality test. Player self-reporting of emotional experience suggested that the primary emotion felt during play was fear, with lesser numbers reporting pleasant relaxation, anger, or depression (probably that guy who died 8 times). Players also reported strong feelings of joy. However, it is not clear whether these reported emotions come exclusively from the Nightfire test or include the Monkey Ball results. As gamers are well aware, different games can produce vastly different emotions.

What are we to make of all of this? Well, the first thing is to remember not to take this too seriously. The sampling here was very limited and included only a single day of play. Moreover, it did not involve anyone under the age of 20. So, we cannot gain any information here about long-term desensitization to violence, developmental effects, etc. It would be foolish to draw very general conclusions here. The games used do not sample all of the genre space and do not include extreme visuals. However, we can take away a few ideas that can be explored in future research.

First, it would seem that a player’s reaction to in-game violence depends on his or her own personality. Negative responses to opponent deaths were slightly attenuated in individuals who had higher than average psychoticism scores (this does not indicate that they were psychotic). This suggests a common-sense idea, namely that whatever negative emotional effects games produce can be reduced by positive context. Similarly, negative contexts will exacerbate negative effects. Emotionally healthy people who play games will probably have emotionally healthy responses to them. However, again, this is something that needs to be examined more thoroughly in children and adults.

Second, these results may point to part of the nature of the entertainment experience. Remember that one of the primary emotions reported by players was fear. First-person shooters and other twitch-style games rely on a sort of catharsis for their emotional impact. Anxiety is developed and sustained throughout a level as danger is repeatedly encountered, often building to a fever pitch with a very difficult boss fight of some kind. The end of the level is accompanied by a quick easing of that anxiety, a release of the held breath, that may produce a positive emotional response. The authors suggest that a form of that relief may also be occurring when the player “dies”, mitigating or overwhelming the negative emotions associated with failure. In this regard it is somewhat regrettable that the study limited the play time. It would have been interesting to compare the emotional response to successful completion of a level with the emotional response to “death”. The authors also suggest that failure in a ‘fake’ context might be associated with a positive challenge. One caveat with the “player dies” result is that this was the least-sampled condition.

And what are we to make of the negative emotional response to the deaths of enemies? Well, it suggests that one of the central assumptions of the “murder simulator” argument, that games associate positive emotions with violent acts, is not necessarily true. One might also conclude that even digital people seem like people, and that some gamers therefore feel they have transgressed even when they kill an AI character. However, player attitudes towards virtual opponents are likely to be strongly determined by context. It would be interesting to see if these results would be recapitulated if the researchers were to, say, set the difficulty to a very high level and force the player to play until the level was completed. It would also be interesting to compare player responses between “killing” a standard enemy and a difficult boss. Also, it’s important to remember that these techniques measure facial movements, not emotions themselves. Perhaps the players are just wincing as a reflex, without any higher emotional thought about it.

Ultimately, this study is too small and too limited to be ultimately probative as regards even the short-term emotional effects of playing video games (remember, the total play time for each individual game was only 15 minutes). The unexpected emotional responses to player and opponent deaths, however, suggest at least that there is a great diversity of emotional responses to video games. From a scientific standpoint it will be interesting to see how further research develops these findings into a more coherent view of response.

From a gaming standpoint, it will be interesting to see if developers try to calibrate games to play off these responses. In a certain sense this has already happened: Shadow of the Colossus is an example of a game that (occasionally) worked to inspire a feeling of guilt about killing your enemies. Will this research inspire designers to take that a step further, to actively try to make players feel unhappy about killing their enemies? Will players respond to such an approach?

1. Ravaja, N., Turpeinen, M., Saari, T., Puttonen, S., Keltikangas-Järvinen, L. (2008). The psychophysiology of James Bond: Phasic emotional responses to violent video game events.. Emotion, 8(1), 114-120. DOI: 10.1037/1528-3542.8.1.114

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