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Empathy in violent video-games can reduce or increase anti-social behavior

University of Luxembourg

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Credit: Palgrave Macmillan

The provocation of anti-social reactions in players of violent video games has been observed in experiments by psychologists for many years. However, research at the University of Luxembourg suggests that it is not only the violence of the game, but also the context that influences behaviour.

"Merely being exposed to violent scenes in video games is not enough to provoke anti-social reactions, our research has shown," explained Dr André Melzer, Senior Lecturer in psychology at the University of Luxembourg. "If players take the role of pro-social characters in violent or gory games then this will tend to influence them to behave in a pro-social fashion," he added. "Conversely, having people identify with violent and murderous characters can have a negative effect on behaviour." Thus the standard therapeutic approach to counteracting angry and violent behaviour by seeking to induce empathy must take this into account.

These findings arise from experimental studies with around 230 people. Subjects played the violent Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe game. Some took the role of the pro-social character Superman, while others were the anti-social Joker. In another test, subjects played the role of a surgeon in the gory but benevolent game Trauma Center: New Blood, or they were a murderer in the brutal horror game Manhunt II. After about 15 minutes play, real life behaviour was tested.

Participants were for example told they could help themselves to a free sweet or pen. It was pointed out that taking more than one would deprive others of this little treat. Those who had played the anti-social roles were twice as likely to take more than one item (i.e. steal) than the controllers of pro-social characters.

On leaving the psychology lab where the tests had taken place, gamers also found an apparently lost (but deliberately placed) envelope on the floor. Those who had just played positive roles were seven times more likely to hand the envelope into reception than those who had been acting violently on-screen.

"These effects will not necessarily be long lasting in the vast majority of people," said Dr Christian Happ, who conducted much of this work as part of his PhD thesis. "However, those with a greater tendency to act in an anti-social fashion may have this behaviour reinforced by prolonged use of violent games".

This research has now been brought together in a book entitled: "Empathy and Violent Video Games: Aggression and Prosocial Behavior" by Christian Happ and André Melzer and published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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