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Can Non-Violent Video Games Dampen Our Humanity?

That’s the tentative conclusion of two researchers, who report that frequent players of immersive games are apparently less sensitive to pain.
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The evidence that playing violent video games promotes aggression, and perhaps even ethnocentrism, seems fairly conclusive. Better, one could conclude, to stick with non-violent games—perhaps ones where you assume the role of an avatar and navigate through a virtual world.

But wait. Newly published research provides tentative evidence that even that variety of video gaming can have a negative impact, desensitizing players to both their own discomfort and the suffering of others.

“The point of view that we adopt during video gaming appears to have implications that extend beyond the virtual experience, into real life,” conclude psychologists Ulrich Weger of the University of Witten/Herdecke in Germany, and Stephen Loughnan of the University of Melbourne in Australia. They contend that taking on the “mechanistic and robotic characteristics” of an avatar can influence one’s feelings and behaviors away from the computer screen.

"Avatars in today’s role-playing games often have automaton-like, robotic characteristics ... including a mechanistic inertness, rigidity, and a lack of emotionality and warmth."

In the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, the researchers describe a series of experiments that provide evidence for their theory. The first featured 39 male university students, who first filled out “an extended demographic questionnaire that assessed their average number of hours of video gaming per week.”

Then, to assess their tolerance of pain, participants were asked to remove as many paper clips as they could within 30 seconds from a basin filled with ice-cold water. The researchers found a correlation between playing time and tolerance for the cold burn produced by the water: The more hours the participants spent playing video games, the more paper clips they retrieved.

The second experiment featured 46 students, each of whom began by spending seven minutes playing a non-violent video game. Half played a first-person immersive game “in which they acted in a virtual 3-D world through the eyes of a robotic avatar.” The others played a puzzle game.

They then performed the paper-clip-retrieval task from the first experiment. Finally, participants viewed five photos of people expressing emotions with their facial expressions. They “rated the experienced emotion of those people on a seven-point scale, from extreme pleasure to extreme displeasure.”

The results: People who had just played the immersive game removed significantly more paper clips than those who played the puzzle game. What’s more, they “attributed a more indifferent experience to people depicted as experiencing displeasure.”

In other words, they were less sensitive to their own pain, and they tended to downplay the pain they saw on other people’s faces.

What’s going on here? “Avatars in today’s role-playing games often have automaton-like, robotic characteristics ... including a mechanistic inertness, rigidity, and a lack of emotionality and warmth,” Weger and Loughnan write. Assuming such a role—especially if those qualities remain consistent from one game to another—could easily lead to “the activation of mental scripts,” they add.

“The more that these gamers play, and the more diverse the playing context, the more likely they are to adopt new forms of experience and behaviour that can then also generalize and be extended into real life.”

The researchers aren’t suggesting policing of such games, or anything of the sort. (For a vivid fictional meditation on the moral issues surrounding virtual immersion, check out Jennifer Haley’s chilling play The Nether.)

But they do “suggest that individuals reflect on the impact of their immersive gaming practice on their own experience.” Given the increasingly vivid nature of the virtual world, they write, all of us would profit from “working on our awareness of what it really means to be human.”