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Video Games Can Encourage Positive Behavior, Too

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If violent video games encourage violent behavior, as a series of studies suggests, do prosocial games — those that reward helpful behavior — inspire players to act in more constructive, cooperative ways? A newly published paper, featuring studies of three different age groups in three different countries, suggests the answer is yes.

“Video games are not inherently good or bad,” concludes the team of 12 researchers led by psychologist Douglas Gentile of Iowa State University. Their findings suggest this popular form of entertainment “can have both positive and negative effects.”

The paper, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, begins with a survey of secondary school students in Singapore (adolescents in the equivalent of seventh or eighth grade). They listed their favorite games, the number of hours they spend playing them each week and how often the games involve a) helping others, or b) hurting or killing others.

They were then asked a series of questions to measure their emotional awareness and empathy for others. After controlling for several variables, “prosocial game exposure was positively related to prosocial behavior,” the researchers report.

The second survey was of fifth-, eighth- and 11th-grade students in Japan. They were asked how often in the past month they had played games in which characters help troubled people, or games in which friendship or a positive parent-child relationship was featured.

Finally, the youngsters were asked how often in the previous month they had acted in one of four specific helpful ways (such as “I helped a person who was in trouble”). The researchers discovered a strong relationship between playing prosocial games and self-reported prosocial behavior.

For the third study, the researchers conducted an experiment using 161 American college students, who were randomly assigned to play specific parts of one of six video games. Two of the games were violent (Ty2 and Crash Trinsanity), two were neutral (Pure Pinball and Super Monkey Ball Deluxe), and two were deemed prosocial: Chibi Robo, in which the goal is to make your family happy by cleaning up and helping out with the chores; and Super Mario Sunshine, in which players gain points by cleaning up a polluted island.

After playing one of the games for 20 minutes, participants were asked to assign a partner 11 puzzles to complete. They were told that if their partners completed 10 of the puzzles within 10 minutes, the partner would win a $10 gift certificate. They could choose puzzles from one of three difficulty levels, depending upon whether they were disposed to help their partner win the prize, or to place difficulties in his or her path.

The researchers found that “participants who played a prosocial game helped their partners significantly more than did either those who had played a violent game, or those who had played a neutral game.” Furthermore, “the violent gamers hurt their partners significantly more than did either those who had played a prosocial game or those who had played a neutral game.”

Taken together, the three studies found that “prosocial game play was significantly positively related to all four measured prosocial behaviors and traits” — helping behavior, cooperation and sharing, empathy and emotional awareness. These findings complement a 2008 study from Britain that found listening to songs with prosocial lyrics encourages charitable behavior.

According to Gentile and his colleagues, these results “make it clear how critical it is to separate amount of play from the content of play.” In other words, video game playing per se isn’t the issue: Rather, the important factor is the underlying messages contained in specific games.

“Content matters,” they conclude, “and games are excellent teachers.”