Playing the hero: Does it rub off? 

© 2010-2014 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

What are the effects of video games? As I note elsewhere, it depends on the game.

Some violent games seem to make kids more aggressive immediately after play. They also seem to make people less sympathetic and responsive to victims of violence -- at least temporarily.

(For the details, see this article about the video games with violent themes. )

Other video games -- nonviolent games that cast players in the role of friendly helper -- are linked with better behavior. Kids who play such games are more likely to be helpful to others.

But do such prosocial games make people more helpful? And, if so, are the benefits trivial?

Or can the right play experiences prepare kids to act bravely--rescuing victims or confronting bullies?

A clever experiment suggests that prosocial games can indeed prompt people to act as good samaritans.

Researchers Tobias Greitemeyer and Sylvia Osswald assigned college students to play one of two video games:

  • Tetris (a puzzle game that lacks social content), or
  • City Crisis (a simulation game in which the player takes on the role of a rescue helicopter pilot who saves people from fires and other threats)

Each player sat alone in a room with a young female experimenter. The player was allowed to play for 10 minutes.

Then an interruption occurred--a deception staged by the researchers.

A young man (an actor working for the researchers) entered the room. He approached the female experimenter, and he seemed angry. He said to her:

“Ah, there you are! I was looking for you in the whole building! Why do you ignore me like that? Why do you do that to me? Now you have to talk to me!”

The man talked loudly, then shouted and kicked a trash can. He also pulled the arm of the woman, attempting to force her to leave the room with him. Throughout, the female experimenter acted passively. She repeated the same sentences in a quiet voice:

“Shush, be quiet please. I have to work in here, I cannot talk to you. You are disturbing the experiment. Please do not be so loud.”

How did people react? The researchers recorded whether or not each participant did anything to help the woman, like ask her if she needed assistance.

And the results suggest that playing City Crisis--the prosocial video game--made a difference. Ten out of 18 people who played City Crisis intervened. By contrast, only 4 of the 18 people who played Tetris did so.

It's a small study, and the results should be interpreted with caution.

For one thing, the study addresses only short-term effects.

For another, I wonder if playing a game like Tetris--which requires intense concentration--makes people less likely to pay attention and get involved in the world around them. Then again, it’s not clear that Tetris is any more engrossing than a simulation helicopter game.

But the results don't stand alone. Similar experiments suggest that playing violent video games makes people less likely to take a risk and help when they witness a person in trouble (Anderson et al 2010).

And a number of studies suggest that prosocial games make people more friendly, including a new video game experiment by Gunwoo Yoon and Patrick Vargas (2014).

These researchers randomly assigned 194 college students the role of Superman or Voldemort, and then, after only 5 minutes of game play (wherein players fought enemies in a virtual world), they asked the students to choose a food to give to a blindfolded stranger: Chocolate or hot sauce?

Players who'd portrayed the hero Superman selected more chocolate and less hot sauce. Players who'd taken the role of Voldemort showed the opposite tendencies (Yoon et al 2014)

So it seems reasonable to think that simulation and role-playing games can influence behavior. And why wouldn’t they?

It’s clear that what we think about affects how we feel and behave. This is true for intense emotional experiences, like viewing images of death. But the effect isn’t limited to extreme cases.

Research shows that merely reminding people of rudeness--by asking them to solve word puzzles that include words like “obnoxious,” “intrude” and “disturb”--makes people more likely to interrupt a conversation (Bargh et al 1996).

Perhaps, then, it's worthwhile to steer kids towards games with prosocial themes.

More information about the effects of video games

For more information about the benefits of playing video games, see this article about the effects of video games on the development of visual-spatial skills.

In addition, you can read about the effects of video games designed to teach math, critical thinking, and other academic skills.

Copyright © 2006-2021 by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.; all rights reserved.
For educational purposes only. If you suspect you have a medical problem, please see a physician.

References: The effects of video games on altruistic behavior

Anderson CA, Shibuya A, Ihori N, Swing EL, Bushman BJ, Sakamoto A, Rothstein HR, and Saleem M. 2010. Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in eastern and western countries: a meta-analytic review. 136(2):151-73.

Bargh JA, Chen M, Burrows L. 1996. Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71 (2): 230-244.

Bushman BJ and Anderson CA. 2009. Comfortably numb: desensitizing effects of violent media on helping others. Psychol Sci. 20(3):273-7.

Gitter SA, Ewell PJ, Guadagno RE, Stillman TF, Baumeister RF. 2013. Virtually justifiable homicide: the effects of prosocial contexts on the link between violent video games, aggression, and prosocial and hostile cognition. Aggress Behav. 39(5):346-54.

Greitemeyer T and Osswald S. 2009. Prosocial Video Games Reduce Aggressive Cognitions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 21(4):463-70.

Yoon G and Vargas PT. 2014. Know Thy Avatar: The Unintended Effect of Virtual-Self Representation on Behavior. Psychological Science, 2014; DOI: 10.1177/0956797613519271

Content of "Playing helper and hero: The effects of video games on our willingness to take risks" last modified 2014

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