Like many young adults, my friends and I grew up shooting bullets into each other’s heads. Our favorite video game, the Nintendo 64 classic Goldeneye, had simple rules: Whoever kills his friends the most wins.
Extreme virtual violence like this has been a major source of controversy throughout gaming’s history, and a central point in the ongoing debate about video games’ lasting effects on behavior. A growing body of research suggests violent gaming increases feelings of hostility, which, critics argue, could lead to real-life aggression—short tempers, fights, or worse. But one dimension of violent gaming that researchers are just beginning to explore is multiplayer. Does playing against other people—instead of sitting in a room alone, blasting through hordes of computer-controlled enemies—change how we process violent digital acts?
Being attuned to another player could encourage a more sympathetic attitude, or at least pressure people into more socially acceptable mindsets.
It would appear so, according to a new study in Computers in Human Behavior. Psychologists at the University of New Brunswick, in Canada, recruited 60 mostly male gamers, ages 19 to 26, to play the popular first-person shooter Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. For 20 minutes, each participant either gunned down waves of computer characters on a solo mission or played alongside another gamer in one of two multiplayer scenarios: cooperative, in which the two participants worked together to fight baddies, or a head-to-head competitive battle, with no computer enemies. After playing, participants took tests that measured their perceptions of the game’s violence and their own levels of aggravation.
While previous studies have shown that cooperative gaming encourages players to get along, theories of competition suggest that gamers pitted directly against each other should feel just as hostile as when they battle the computer. But the study’s results showed the opposite: Head-to-head players rated the game as less violent and reported feeling less aggravated than solo players. Multiplayer gaming never encouraged hostility, regardless of context.
The researchers suggest a few explanations for this surprising result, including the possibility that gamers “tend to gauge violence in a quantifiable manner"; killing a single player over and over, that is, may not be as shocking as killing an endless barrage of different computer-controlled characters. But the effect also may have less to do with the in-game multiplayer experience and more with actual interpersonal interaction. Being attuned to another player could encourage a more sympathetic attitude, or at least pressure people into more socially acceptable mindsets.
Whatever the reason, the researchers argue, “the interpersonal context of violent video game play should no longer be ignored.” The social intricacies of modern multiplayer gaming—especially online—are just too complex to be lumped together with solo gaming’s effects. For now, that means my friends and I can rest easy. The worst consequence of an adolescence spent annihilating each other may be just a little sleep deprivation, not a lifelong aggressive bent.