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Can video games inspire altruism?

(Editor’s Note: we are pleased to bring you this arti­cle thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Mag­a­zine).

Gam­ing for Good
Research sug­gests that games like Lem­mings, where the goal is to help oth­ers, inspire real-life acts of altru­ism.
– By Kyle Smith

For years, video games have been linked to aggres­sion and vio­lence, with researchers and media reports sug­gest­ing that vio­lent games have inspired or even caused vio­lent acts.

But a new study sug­gests that video games can be a force for good, find­ing that games with pos­i­tive objec­tives can actu­ally inspire peo­ple to per­form acts of altruism.

lemmings-435x285Over four exper­i­ments, Tobias Gre­it­e­meyer and Silia Oss­wald, researchers at the Uni­ver­sity of Sus­sex in Eng­land and Ludwig-Maximilian Uni­ver­sity in Ger­many, respec­tively, had par­tic­i­pants play either a “proso­cial” game—a game where the goal is to help others—or a “neu­tral” game, mean­ing it has no char­ac­ters with whom to inter­act pos­i­tively or neg­a­tively, like Tetris. Then the researchers placed the par­tic­i­pants in sit­u­a­tions where they had the oppor­tu­nity to help oth­ers, rang­ing from low-risk sit­u­a­tions, such as see­ing a dropped cup of pen­cils, to high-risk ones, like wit­ness­ing an angry ex-boyfriend harass an experimenter.

Gre­it­e­meyer and Oss­wald wanted to see if the par­tic­i­pants wee more likely to inter­vene after play­ing a proso­cial game such as Lem­mings (pic­tured), which tasks play­ers with ensur­ing the safety of a group of fatally stu­pid creatures.

The results, pub­lished recently in the Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity and Social Psy­chol­ogy, show that those who had played a game like Lem­mings were much more likely to help in low– and high-risk sit­u­a­tions than were those who had played a neutral-themed game.

The authors also inves­ti­gated why they might have seen this link between proso­cial games and proso­cial behav­ior. Essen­tially, they sug­gest that play­ing video games with proso­cial objec­tives fos­ters a proso­cial mind­set that makes peo­ple more will­ing to help others.

Accord­ing to a study cited in the paper, 70–85 per­cent of games involve some kind of vio­lence. So, although the con­tent of games can cause behav­ioral shifts in either an aggres­sive or altru­is­tic direc­tion, gamers are much more likely to expe­ri­ence the former.

The authors’ response to this dis­par­ity is a sim­ple one. “There is clearly a need for proso­cial video games that are highly attrac­tive to cus­tomers,” they write. “Con­vinc­ing the video game indus­try to cre­ate such games would be an impor­tant first step.”

– Kyle Smith is a Greater Good edi­to­r­ial assis­tant. Greater Good Mag­a­zine, based at UC-Berkeley, is a quar­terly mag­a­zine that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altruism.

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