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.

Relat­ed articles:


  1. Ron on June 10, 2010 at 7:21

    The link between video games and human behav­ior is a unique one. It would be great if peo­ple only fol­lowed the “pos­i­tive” in video games.

  2. Jennifer on June 11, 2010 at 5:35

    I believe the prob­lem with hav­ing pos­i­tive video games is that it does not keep the atten­tion of those who play the game — espe­cial­ly those who are young. The benign tends to get bor­ing. Per­haps video games that stim­u­late the mind, instead of the heartrate are the way to go. Just a thought.

  3. Kerry on June 16, 2010 at 10:26

    Great Post Thanks ~ Excel­lent Idea ~ “Stim­u­late the mind and not the Heartrate” :)

English About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.

English About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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