Can a Video Game Make Someone Nice?
The Positive Impact of Pro-social Games

By Karl M. Kapp / November 2012

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As game-based learning grows in popularity, questions arise as to the effectiveness of games to change learner behaviors and attitudes. Questions arise, can video games influence attitudes? Can playing a video game improve customer service or even more basically, can playing a video game make someone "nice"? That is a question posed in 2010 by a pair of researchers from Germany and the United Kingdom named Silvia Osswald and Tobais Greitemeyer. They wanted to determine if playing a prosocial game would result in a person exhibiting prosocial behavior outside of the game environment. In other words, could playing a video game make a person nicer?

To find the answer, the researchers conducted a number of interesting experiments placing the subjects of the experiments in positions to assist, or not assist others shortly after they played, a prosocial video game. Two of the experimental results are recapped be low.

In every instance, individuals who played a prosocial video game were more willing to help than those who did not play prosocial games. This has serious implications for organizations that don't just want to create games to provide content knowledge to players but who want to influence learners to perform in certain ways such as providing positive customer service experiences or positively portraying the values of the organization.

Experiment One

The first experiment was designed to examine the impact of prosocial, aggressive, and neutral video games on spontaneous, unrequested assistance. The researchers used a common research measure of spontaneous, unrequested assistance; they "accidently" spilled pencils on the floor and observed whether or not the subjects assisted in picking them up.

First Osswald and Greitemeyer randomly assigned subjects ranging in age from 19 to 43 to one of three video game conditions. The prosocial game was Lemmings, in that game the object is to help a group of animals, called lemmings, to safety. The basic objective of the game is to guide the lemmings through a number of obstacles to a designated exit and save the required number of lemmings to win. During the entire game, the goal is to save as many lemmings as possible and the behavior of saving lemmings was deemed a prosocial behavior by the researchers.

The aggressive game was Lamers, which is the exact opposite of Lemmings. In Lamers, the player has an arsenal of weapons and attempts to destroy as many Lamers as possible so they do not reach their intended destination; if enough Lamers are destroyed, the player wins.

The neutral game was Tetris. Tetris, for those who may not know, is a puzzle game with a number of random shapes the player manipulates to complete a solid row of blocks.

After a subject played a video game for eight minutes, the researcher came into the room, acted as if they were reaching for a questionnaire, and spilled a cup of pencils. The researcher then waited five seconds to see if the subject would help. It turns out that the subjects who played the prosocial video game were more likely to help pick up the pencils than those who had played the neutral or aggressive game. In total 18 subjects played the prosocial game and 12 (67 percent helped to pick up pencils, 18 subjects played the neutral game and six (33 percent) helped with the pencils. Of the 18 subjects who played the aggressive game, five (28 percent) helped. Most subjects who played the prosocial game exhibited prosocial behavior; they helped to pick up the pencils [1].

Experiment Two

In another experiment, Osswald and Greitemeyer wanted to take into account two variables that may have confounded earlier experiments. First, they wanted to eliminate the possibility that not all prosocial games fostered prosocial behavior. Maybe Lemmings was just an effective prosocial game, so they switched the Lemmings game with another prosocial game called City Crisis to see if that would make a difference. City Crisis is a helicopter simulation where players assume the role of a rescue helicopter pilot. The object of the game is to save civilians from fires that spring up around the city.

Second, picking up pencils is low risk to the individual. The researchers wanted to see if subjects would react in a prosocial manner if they were in possible physical danger. So they upped the stress level of the experiment.

In the experiment 36 students, ages ranging from 19 to 43, were assigned randomly to one of two groups. One group played the game City Crisis for eight minutes and the other group played Tetris for 10 minutes. Each of the two groups was overseen by a female researcher. After 10 minutes a male researcher came into the room posing as the female researcher's boyfriend. The researcher/boyfriend proceeded to enter the research area, ignore the subject, and approached the female researcher. He then said, "Ah, there you are! I was looking for you in the whole building! Why do you ignore me like that? Why do you do that to me? Now you have to talk to me!" The researcher/boyfriend talked loudly, then shouted, kicked a trash can, and finally he pulled the arm of the female researcher to force her to leave the room with him.

Meanwhile, the female researcher, playing the part of the girlfriend, reacted reservedly and passively. She always repeated the following sentences with a low voice: "Shush, be quiet please. I have to work in here, I cannot talk to you. You are disturbing the experiment. Please do not be so loud."

Osswald and Greitemeyer wanted to see whether or not the research subject would intervene. An intervention could be saying something to the female researcher (�"Do you need help?") or saying something to the boyfriend/researcher ("I think you need to leave."). In the group that played the prosocial video game 56 percent intervened (10 out of 18) in the group that played the neutral video game only 22 percent helped (4 out of 18).

The researchers concluded that playing video games with prosocial content is positively related to increases in different kinds of prosocial behavior. Participants who had played a prosocial video game were more likely to help researchers pick up spilled items, were more willing to assist in further experiments, and were more likely to help an individual being harassed. The conclusion that prosocial games have an influence on prosocial behavior has been repeated in other studies [1].

Discussion of Results

It is clear from the two experiments conducted and reported by Osswald and Greitemeyer that activities from the video game translated into activities outside of the game environment. Prosocial activities within the game encouraged prosocial activities in the physical world. The findings of Osswald and Greitemeyer are not isolated.

In a study led by Douglas A. Gentil from Iowa State University with researchers from around the world, the findings indicated video games in which characters help and support each other in nonviolent ways increase both short-term and long-term prosocial behaviors.

The research team reported on three studies conducted in three countries with three age groups. In a correlational study, Singaporean middle-school students who played more prosocial games behaved more prosocially. In two longitudinal samples of Japanese children and adolescents, prosocial game-play predicted later increases in prosocial behavior. In an experimental study, U.S. undergraduates randomly assigned to play prosocial games behaved more prosocially toward another student. These similar results across different methodologies, ages, and cultures provide robust support indicating that prosocial games can positively influence prosocial behavior [2].

Research supports the conclusion that game-based learning, when provided in a positive prosocial context promotes prosocial behavior. This means by having employees playing prosocial games, it may be possible to have their behaviors translate into prosocial interactions with customers. Prosocial game-based learning can positively influence attitudes and interactions front-line employees may have with clients and other stakeholders.

Research into Practice

The results of the research provide two implications for using prosocial gaming techniques to promote positive and desired behaviors of employees within an organization. These implications can be used by instructional designers to create learning games that promote positive behavior.

The first is games can convey more than simple knowledge. Often when games are considered as a training tool, the focus is on the content. The experiments described above indicate that more than knowledge can be conveyed or instructed through a game; attitude and a willingness to help can also be a result of a well-designed instructional game.

The second is the activities within the prosocial game used to promote prosocial behavior do not have to be exactly correlated to the desired behaviors. In the first experiment, the person was saving Lemmings; and in the second a person saved individuals in a city from fire. The in-games activities did not correlate with the demonstrated out-of-game behaviors-helping to pick up pencils or intervening on behalf of a harassed individual. It is possible to develop games with prosocial elements that do not necessary correlate with on-the-job tasks and still obtain positive results.

Resources and References

The experiments outlines within this article are from the following sources:

[1] Greitemeyer, T. and Osswald, S. Effects of Prosocial Video Games on Prosocial Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 98, 2 (2010), 211-221

[2] HAlbert K. Liau, Angeline Khoo, Brad J. Bushman, L. Rowell Huesmann and Akira Sakamoto Douglas A. Gentile, Craig A. Anderson, Shintaro Yukawa, Nobuko Ihori, Muniba Saleem, Lim Kam Ming, Akiko Shibuya. The Effects of Prosocial Video Games on Prosocial Behaviors: International Evidence From Correlational, Longitudinal, and Experimental Studies. Pers Soc Psychol Bull 35, 6 (2009), 752-763.

About the Author

Karl M. Kapp, Ed.D. is a professor of instructional technology at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA and a consultant to many learning organizations. He is author of several books including Gadgets, Games and Gizmos for Learning and is co-author of Learning in 3D. His latest book, upon which this article is based, is called The Gamification of Learning and Instruction.

© 2012 ACM 1535-394X/12/11 $15.00

DOI: 10.1145/2398996.2399242



Comments

  • Mon, 04 Mar 2013
    Post by Peter Orton

    That a pro-social game can highten pro-social behavior immediately after playing the game is no surprise. Nor is it any big deal. A large research literature on "priming" indicates that ANY pro-social activity will prime immediate pro-social inclination. And it's a heckuva lot cheaper and easier than designing/building a game to have subjects, say, read a pro-social story or watch a short pro-social film if one desires merely to produce in the subjects immediate post-experiment pro-social effects.

    The big questions, which Dr. Clark raises so well, are do games transfer lasting skills to the workplace and, if so, are the learnings worth all the time and expense it takes to build an effective instructional game? Important questions to ask, answers to which -- at least to this instructional designer -- still remain unclear.

    One interesting finding from recent gaming-for-learning studies: Gamers may behave in game situations very differently than if confronting those same situations in real life. For example, just the size of one's game avatar influences a gamer's behavior, as having a larger avatar inclines a gamer to bolder moves and more risk-taking than having a smaller avatar. (Go figure!) And what of the many other elements will alter a gamer's otherwise real-life behaviors?

    Kudos to Ruth Clark for initiating this insightful conversation, and to Karl Kapp for continuing it!

  • Thu, 14 Feb 2013
    Post by Karl Kapp

    Thomas, Thanks for the comment. I think the researchers tried to compensate for the different levels of engagement in the games when they used two different games as pro-social games. This was done so that they could eliminate a particular game as causing the behavior.

    Additionally, a number of studies have been done which reinforce the impact of pro-social gaming and at least one was long longitudinal. More research does need to be done before a definite answer but it seems to be leaning in the direction that the content of the game, if positive, can have positive impacts on players outside of the game.

    See a blog post I wrote which provides some more studies Using Games and Avatars to Change Learner Behavior

  • Sat, 19 Jan 2013
    Post by Thomas

    It can be discussed that there is a connection between the subjects engagement to the game and his/her awareness to his/her surroundings, more so then the connection between pro social behavior and aggressive or neutral games. Tetris for example asks for the player's continues attention and is a very engaging, learn forward, game. A second study where a players pro-social behavior AFTER the game-sessions is compared would make the argument more compelling.

ADDITIONAL READING

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Games can teach more than knowledge, they can influence attitudes and behaviors.
  • Prosocial video games increased a person’s willingness to: 
    • help others pick up items they dropped. 
    • intervene when a person was being treated poorly.
  • The impact of prosocial games on behavior can be both short and long term.