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Breaking the Link Between Video Games and Aggression

• July 15, 2013 • 4:00 AM


New research suggests playing violent video games on motion-capture technology (think Wii) does not increase one’s propensity to engage in aggressive behavior.

The link between violent video games and aggression has been firmly established, and there was good reason to think that motion-capture technology would only make things worse. After all, wouldn’t literally raising your arm to strike someone in the virtual world create a hostile mindset that could easily leak out into real-world behavior?

Well, it’s not true, at least according to one newly published study. A research team led by Eric Charles of Penn State Altoona finds that this increasingly popular type of video gaming does not lead to increased levels of aggression.

“While we found evidence suggesting that violent video game play with analog controls might lead to slight increases in aggressive behavior,” the researchers write in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, “no such effects were found for players using motion-capture controls.”

“Motion-capture technology requires greater physical expenditure. There is evidence that people are less violent after short periods of exercise or exertion.”

Motion-capture, the researchers note, is the “now-ubiquitous technology that allows movements of the player’s body to be translated into movements of the characters in the game.” Given that this ability increases players’ sense of immersion into the virtual world, Charles and his colleagues began their research by suspecting it would “strengthen the relationship between violent video games and violent behaviors.”

In one of their experiments, 87 students spent 20 minutes playing the violent Wii video game Punch-Out!! Half did so in “classic” mode using analog controls, while the other used an updated version utilizing motion-capture technology (which is to say, they physically mimed punching someone as they played).

Immediately afterwards, they took a test designed to reveal aggressive thoughts, including a word-completion task where they were given sets of letters such as “ki–,” which they could complete as either the violent word “kill” or the non-violent “kiss.” They also played a quick-reaction-time game in which they could “punish” their opponents by blasting loud noises at them at any level up to 95 decibels.

To their surprise, the researchers found “greater aggression demonstrated by players using analog controls.”

In another experiment, the researchers report, “Participants who played a violent video game with analog controls were more aggressive in the middle part of the (blast your opponent with sound) game.” But those who played that same violent game with motion-capture controls were “indistinguishable from those who played the non-violent game.”

“This strongly suggests that playing violent video games with motion-capture controls does not increase aggression levels,” the researchers write.

A final experiment confirmed these results. It found participants in a competitive, multi-player violent game who used motion-capture controls “showed no increase in aggression beyond baseline measures.”

The researchers aren’t sure why this particular way of playing games seems to negate the aggressive impulse.

“One potential explanation is that motion-capture technology is more cathartic than analog video-game play,” they write. “A related explanation is that motion-capture technology requires greater physical expenditure. There is evidence that people are less violent after short periods of exercise or exertion.”

Then there’s a third possibility, which Charles and his colleagues are leaning toward: That the link between violent video games and aggression “is far more fickle than most admit.” The next step for researchers, they write, should be to find potential triggers of aggression by looking as “specific aspects of video game play” in “much finer detail.”

“Contrary to the fears of industry critics, this research suggests that newer technologies, which create a more realistic experience, will not necessarily increase aggression in video game players,” they conclude.

“The majority of published studies show small effects of violent video game play on violent behavior, but this study adds to those showing that such effects may be quite fleeting.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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