Effects of a violent video game depend on whether you're Superman or the Joker

Posted on November 19, 2013

After Aaron Alexis shot dead 12 people at the Navy Yard in Washington DC in September, media outlets were quick to highlight his reported enjoyment of violent video games. To many, this was just the latest example of how violent games can foster real-life aggression. There is research supporting such a link, although experts are far from reaching a consensus view on the matter.

Christian Happ and his colleagues recruited 60 students (20 men) with varied video gaming experience and had them spend 15 minutes playing the violent and bloody beat-em-up game Mortal Combat vs. DC Universe on the Playstation 3. Some of the participants played the morally good character Superman, while the others played the Joker, the baddie from Batman. Apart from that, the game experience was the same for all participants - their time was spent in hand-to-hand combat against a variety of other computer-controlled game characters.

Another twist to the experiment was that before the game began half the participants read a bogus Wikipedia article about their character, designed to encourage them to empathise with him. For those playing Superman, the article said how he'd come from a loving family. The Joker article described how he'd suffered abuse in his childhood.

After playing the video game, the participants looked at grids of faces on a computer screen and indicated how hostile they looked. Some of the grids contained angry faces, but the crucial test was how hostile the participants rated the grids that contained all neutral faces. The key finding here was that participants who'd played the Joker were more likely to perceive hostility in neutral faces (a marker of an aggressive mindset), as compared with the participants who played Superman.

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Source material from British Psychological Society


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