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Video Games and Aggression: Context Matters

• May 25, 2010 • 2:00 PM

Assuming the role of a violent policeman in a video game softens one’s judgment of police brutality in real life.

Playing a violent cop in a video game makes one more likely to identify with and feel sympathetic toward violent cops. That finding from a newly published study is less than shocking, but it may help explain why the debate about video games and aggressive behavior has yet to be definitively settled.

As Miller-McCune.com reported in March, the preponderance of evidence strongly suggests players of violent video games are at greater risk of engaging in aggressive behavior. But some researchers continue to insist that consensus viewpoint is mistaken, and the relationship between virtual-world and real-world behavior is tenuous.

Writing in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, an international research team (University of Southern California, Michigan State University and Sungkyunkwan University of South Korea) led by USC’s Kwan Min Lee presents evidence that could explain why different researchers report different results. They find a strong link between playing a violent game and justifying violent behavior. But activating it requires a fairly precise match between real-life circumstances and the virtual world one has been inhabiting.

Lee and his colleagues describe an experiment in which 96 undergraduates (average age 20) played the video game True Crime for two hours. In the game, participants played the role of a rogue Los Angeles police officer who uses any means necessary to catch criminals, including excessive violence and risking the lives of innocent bystanders.

Afterward, the participants read reports of four real-life incidents — two of which involved crimes committed by police officers, while the other two featured “generic criminals.” One described a police officer convicted of beating up a gang member and then covering up the incident; another reported on a case of severe police brutality in which a man mistakenly considered a cop killer died in custody. The civilian cases involved two car-theft incidents — one in which the criminal struck the vehicle’s owner before escaping, and a second in which he hijacked the car and stabbed the owner.

The test subjects were asked to rate each story on a variety of scales. How harmful, horrible and intolerable were the perpetrators’ actions? To what degree were they immoral, unjustifiable and unwarranted? And presuming they were convicted, how long a jail sentence should they serve?

“Participants who played the role of a violent police officer in the video game judged real-life police officers who committed crimes of similar severity to be less negative,” the researchers report, “whereas participants who did not play the game had similar judgments of the police officers and the generic criminals.”

“Participants who played the role of a violent police officer in the video game also meted out lesser jail sentences to real-life police officers who committed crimes than generic criminals who committed crimes of similar severity,” they add.

To Lee and his colleagues, these findings suggest that, through a process of desensitization, “virtual experience through role-playing media can influence people’s attitudes and judgments towards similar roles in real life.” However, they found this effect is only significant when gamers are asked to judge real-life individuals who match the persona they adopted in the virtual world.

“This might explain some of the inconsistent findings (of past studies regarding) the impact of playing violent video games on attitudes towards violence,” they write.

Lee and his colleagues believe their research has at least one clear practical implication: “The jury selection process should take into account potential jury members’ virtual and well as real-life experiences.” Being a video game fanatic won’t get you off a jury, but playing a game that mimics the specific case before the judge may very well — and rightly so. That PlayStation may be creating unconscious prejudice.

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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