The link between violent video games and aggressive thoughts and behaviors is firmly established. But newly published research finds such games may also produce another troubling effect: Boosting players’ bias against minority groups.
In his latest look at this contentious topic, psychologist Tobias Greitemeyer of the University of Innsbruck in Austria presents preliminary evidence that the popular games may exacerbate ethnocentrism, at least among male players.
“Violent video game play may not only increase aggression on a societal level, but, as the present research suggests, it may also contribute to intergroup hostility,” he writes in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Greitemeyer describes two experiments. In the first, the participants—231 Austrians, most in their 20s—filled out two questionnaires: one measuring aggressiveness, another ethnocentrism. In the first, they responded to statements such as “Given enough provocation, I may hit another person.” In the second, they expressed their level of agreement with such assertions as “Most other cultures are backward compared to my culture.”
"Overall, there was a clear trend that intergroup bias displayed by males was more strongly affected by violent video game exposure (compared to females)."
They also named their three favorite video games, the amount of violence they contained, and how many hours per week they spent playing each. The answers were averaged to provide a measure of exposure to violent video game content.
The results: “violent video game exposure was positively related to ethnocentrism,” Greitemeyer reports. What’s more, this held true even when the participants’ general level of aggression was taken into account.
Of course, that experiment showed correlation, not causation; It’s possible people who are more ethnocentric also, coincidentally, spend more time playing violent video games. To test whether the gameplay itself had an impact on beliefs, Greitemeyer conducted a second experiment, which featured 99 students from an Austrian university.
For 15 minutes, participants played one of two video games: the non-violent Flipper (a pinball game), or the violent Call of Duty 2, in which the player takes on the role of an Allied soldier during World War II, shooting enemies in combat.
They then switched to what they were told was an unrelated task: A series of 25 trials in which “they would compete with an opponent to see who can press a mouse button faster after hearing an auditory cue.” After a winning round, participants could “punish” their opponents by blasting white noise at them. The loudness and length of the sound were measured as an indicator of the players’ aggressiveness.
Half of the participants were told their opponent (which was, in fact, a computer) was a fellow Austrian; the others were told he was a native of Serbia. That ethnicity was chosen because Serbians are heavily represented among immigrants in Austria.
The key result: The most aggressive group consisted of men who played the violent video game, and then competed against a “Serbian.” Compared to men who played the non-violent game, or those who played the violent game and then competed against a fellow Austrian, they blasted the noise louder and longer following a win.
Importantly, this effect was limited to males. Regardless of which game they played, female aggressiveness did not increase when their opponent was described as an outsider.
“Overall, there was a clear trend that intergroup bias displayed by males was more strongly affected by violent video game exposure (compared to females),” Greitemeyer concludes. “Inasmuch as males are more attracted to playing video games than females, this tendency is of special concern.”
The reasons for this link aren’t entirely clear, but previous research suggests a possible mechanism. Since the 1950s, psychologists have noticed that frustrated or unhappy people often “displace aggression onto stigmatized out-groups,” Greitemeyer writes. A 2012 study confirms that anger leads to increased ethnic bias among men.
Meanwhile, a variety of studies have found playing violent video can evoke feelings of anxiety, anger, and hostility. Greitemeyer argues this cumulative evidence suggests “the effects of violent video game play would be more pronounced" when one comes into in conflict with an outsider.
That's precisely what his experiments found.
Greitemeyer is careful to note this study provides only “initial evidence” for his thesis, and much more is needed. Nevertheless, it offers one more reason to be concerned about the popularity of violent video games, and the impact they may be having on players’ minds.