Helping Out After Grand-Theft-Auto

Violent video games had no measurable effect on how helpful someone is after playing

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) The popularity of video games may lead many parents to wonder how the games affect their children. Does a violent game make kids aggressive? Does a "friendly" game teach helpfulness?

In a recent study, neither of these possibilities occurred. Video game type did not affect players' helpfulness.

Participants playing violent or "helpful" games did not act any differently when it came to helping or not helping during an experiment.

The participants were undergraduate students, not children, so the results may be different for kids.

However, this study did not show evidence that playing violent or nonviolent video games hurt or helped a person's willingness to help others.

"Use your best judgment in choosing video games."

This study, conducted by Morgan J. Tear and Mark Nielsen, both of the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland in Australia, looked for relationships between playing violent video games and helpful behavior in real life by the players.

These researchers noted that past research has shown that players were more helpful to those around them after having played a "prosocial" video game. "Prosocial" means promoting the idea of helping others and contributing to the benefit of society.

Yet studies have also shown no effect on helpful behavior after players had played violent video games.

Because these studies were older, the researchers wanted to test this experiment with more current video games that are more realistic and make players feel more involved in the game.

The authors tested the influence of different video games in three experiments with mostly white undergraduate students, aged 17 to 33, but mostly in their early 20s.

In the first experiment, 64 undergraduates played one of four different video games:

  • Grand Theft Auto IV, considered an "anti-social" game in this experiment because "...players engaged in violence towards other members of a society often for no defensible reason, for example, stealing cars, damaging property, running over innocent civilians, running away from and killing police." All the weapons in the game were made available at the start of the playing session.
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops, selected as a violent comparison game because the actions "...[reflect] a morally defensible intent to survive, or avoid death," especially in the zombie mode that the participants played in this experiment.
  • World of Zoo, selected as a "prosocial" game because players must create a successful zoo exhibit " taking care of animals by feeding, cleaning, and playing with them."
  • Portal 2, selected as a non-violent comparison game because it's a puzzle game but requires use of a gun-shaped tool to interact with the virtual world" that shoots "portals instead of bullets."

The participants were randomly assigned to play one of the four games for 20 minutes and then filled out a questionnaire about their frustration, arousal and interest while playing.

Then, they were asked to fill out a series of further questionnaires, supposedly for a "different" study, just before the experimenter pretended to forget he had to rush away for an appointment on the other side of campus.

As the experimenter gathered his many books, folders and belongings, including a cup of coffee, he "accidentally" dropped a bunch of pens and muttered under his breath.

If, within five seconds of waiting, the participant picked up at least one pen for the experimenter, the participant was regarded as acting helpfully.

In analyzing the results of the experiment, the research "...failed to find evidence that playing video games affects prosocial behavior."

Among those playing Grand Theft Auto IV ("anti-social"), two players helped and 14 did not. Among those playing Call of Duty ("violent"), six helped and 10 did not.

Among those playing the zoo game ("prosocial"), three helped and 13 did not. Among those playing Portal 2 ("nonviolent"), five helped and 11 did not.

The researchers then conducted two more experiments. In the second one, 64 participants played either Grand Theft Auto or Portal 2 and again were watched to see if they helped pick up "accidentally" dropped or knocked over pens.

The participants' questionnaire after this game took less than a minute, compared to the five to ten minutes the other experiment's questionnaire required.

This difference was to test whether the "effects" of the video game wore off in those five to ten minutes. The pens also fell differently, closer to the video game player.

Again, though, there were no major differences in whether the participant helped based on the game they were playing. In fact, in both pen scenarios, more participants playing the anti-social Grand Theft Auto helped than those playing the non-violent Portal 2.

In the third experiment, 32 undergraduate students played one of two older games: the pro-social game Lemmings in which the player must save lemmings from dying, and the violent game Lamers, in which the player must kill as many characters as possible.

After eight minutes of playing, the pens were "accidentally" dropped. Among those playing the violent game, 11 helped and five did not. Among those playing the prosocial game, nine helped and seven did not.

"Three experiments failed to find a detrimental effect of violent video games on prosocial behavior, despite using contemporary and classic games, delayed and immediate test-phases, and short and long exposures," the authors wrote.

This study was limited because it involved a small number of participants, and the participants were all adults, not children.

In any case, no major differences showed up in whether individuals helped or didn't help based on the type of game they played.

"Research on the effects of video game play is of significant public interest," the researchers wrote. "It is, therefore, important that speculation be rigorously tested and findings replicated."

This study was published July 3 in the journal PLOS ONE.

The research did not use external funding. The authors declared no conflict of interests.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
July 3, 2013
Last Updated:
July 30, 2013