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Bringing Empathy into Play: On the Effects of Empathy in Violent and Nonviolent Video Games

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Abstract

While violent media has adverse effects on cognition, emotion and behavior, prosocial content promotes these variables in a prosocial way. Greater individual levels of empathy as well as increasing the level of empathy in media content typically foster prosocial behavior and reduce aggression. Two experiments replicated game content findings, and also showed that inducing empathy prior to a video game had a positive influence on behavior. However, under certain circumstances, inducing empathy before playing a violent video game may even have negative effects on behavior. As empathy is a common tool in prevention programs, the implications of these findings are discussed.
Bringing Empathy Into Play: On the Effects of
Empathy in Violent and Nonviolent Video Games
Christian Happ, André Melzer, and Georges Steffgen
Université du Luxembourg, Campus Walferdange, L-7201 Walferdange, Luxembourg,
{christian.happ, andre.melzer, georges.steffgen}@uni.lu
Abstract. While violent media has adverse effects on cognition, emotion and
behavior, prosocial content promotes these variables in a prosocial way. Greater
individual levels of empathy as well as increasing the level of empathy in media
content typically foster prosocial behavior and reduce aggression. Two
experiments replicated game content findings, and also showed that inducing
empathy prior to a video game had a positive influence on behavior. However,
under certain circumstances, inducing empathy before playing a violent video
game may even have negative effects on behavior. As empathy is a common
tool in prevention programs, the implications of these findings are discussed.
Keywords: video games; empathy; aggression; prosocial behavior.
1. Prosocial and antisocial effects of video games
In a recent overview, Anderson and his colleagues [1] confirmed that video game
violence exposure is positively related to indicators of aggression. Furthermore,
violent video game exposure was also significantly related to lower levels of prosocial
(i.e., helping) behavior and a decrease in empathy. Recent studies found that prosocial
video games reduce aggressive cognitions [2] and enhance prosocial behavior (cf.
[3]). These findings can be explained by the General Learning Model (GLM, [4]),
which addresses both negative and positive effects of media use and proposes that
games teach something to media users (regardless of content), and that the valence of
this content matters. In sum, video games as a medium with the highest level of
interactivity appear to provide the ground for both prosocial and antisocial learning.
2. Empathy, entertainment media, and behavioral consequences
Cohen and Strayer [5] define empathy as ”the ability to understand and share in
another’s emotional state or context” (p.988). The perception of the concept of
empathy varies from an emotional response to others’ feelings to the cognitive ability
to understand these feelings. In addition to these two often-used major components of
cognitive and affective empathy, a dimension for empathy in fictional contexts
broadens the concept [6]. Empathy is typically associated with positive effects like,
for example, a higher willingness to help others but negatively related to aggressive
behavior [7]. With regard to exposure to media violence, it has been shown that
playing violent video games increases physical aggression, but reduces affective
empathy [8]. Similar results have been reported regarding identification with
aggressive game characters, while shifting the focus towards the victim of violence in
the game may have a beneficial effect in terms of decreasing aggressive behavior [9].
Identification with a media or game character may therefore either foster or reduce
aggressive tendencies depending on the particular content. To date, however, only
few studies manipulated the level of empathy in media content and show indeed
positive, that is, aggression-reducing, prosocial effects [7].
3 Study 1: Empathy induction in a prosocial versus violent game
Based on the findings mentioned above, playing a prosocial video game should lead
to more prosocial and less antisocial behavior compared to a violent video game.
Similarly, reading an empathy-related text should lead to stronger empathetic
reactions and more prosocial behavior compared to a neutral text. Regarding the
interaction of both factors, it was expected that empathy might compensate for the
negative effects of playing a violent video game. All hypotheses were tested with one-
sided analyses of variances (ANOVAs). Eighty students (55% females, MAge=23.4)
read a bogus newspaper article on the beneficial effect of video games on memory
and were offered either no explanation (neutral condition) or this effect was attributed
to emotional involvement and empathy in video games (empathy condition). Next,
participants used the Nintendo Wii® game console to play either the prosocial video
game Trauma Center 2: New blood or the violent video game Manhunt 2 for 10
minutes. Participants were then allowed to take a reward for participating, which was
placed outside the lab. Finally, they were handed an envelope containing a
questionnaire, which completion would be optional and not controlled. This measured
their actual prosocial (returning the questionnaire) and antisocial behavior (“stealing”
more than one piece) in an externally valid way.
As expected, the violent video game led to less prosocial behavior (M=10%) than
the prosocial game (M=31%; χ²(1)=5.52, p=.02, d=0.70). Similarly, Manhunt 2 led to
more antisocial behavior (M=1.29, SD=1.42) than Trauma Center (M=0.77, SD=0.96;
F(1,76)=3.47, p=.03, η²=.44). In other words, people playing the prosocial Trauma
Center were more likely to take just the amount of reward they were allowed and
were more likely to deliver the envelope. Hence, prosocial media content was shown
to trigger prosocial behavior while violent media content triggered antisocial
behavior. However, regarding the newspaper article participants read (empathy-
related or neutral), no significant difference was observed for prosocial behavior
(MEmpathy=20.5%; and MNeutral=19.5; χ²(1)=0.01, p=.57) or antisocial behavior
(MEmpathy=1.12, SD=1.38; and MNeutral=0.95, SD=1.07; F(1,76)=0.27, p=.60). When
looking at the interaction between game and text, the analyses for antisocial
(F(1,76)=0.56, p=.46) and prosocial behavior (F(1,76)=2.39, p=.12) were also
nonsignificant. However, it seemed that the empathy-stimulating text (compared to
neutral) fostered prosocial behavior after the prosocial game (from 25% to 37%
helpers), but led to less helping after the violent game (from 16% to 5% helpers).
4 Study 2: Empathy induction and playing perpetrator or victim
In Study 2 empathy was induced by means of a short clip. It was expected that
watching this clip prior to playing a violent video game should increase players’
moral concerns and foster their prosocial behavior. In addition, we assumed that the
role of the character would play a role: Compared to playing the victim from the
previous clip, playing the perpetrator should result in stronger levels of moral
concerns in the game. In addition, prosocial behavior was expected to be highest for
participants, who had seen the empathy-stimulating clip and played the victim. All
hypotheses were tested with one-sided analyses of variances (ANOVA). Eighty
students (69% females, MAge=21.8) either watched a neutral (excerpt from “The Last
Emperor”) or an empathy clip (an emotional kidnapping sequence from the movie
“Street Fighter–The Legend of Chun-Li”). Next, participants played either the victim
or the perpetrator from the clip in the corresponding video game Streetfighter IV using
the Sony PlayStation©3 console for 15 minutes. At the end, participants were
remunerated 5 Euros in coins and told that a donation box for a good cause would be
placed outside the lab. Whether and how much participants donated were used as
indicators of prosocial behavior.
Results for prosocial behavior and moral concerns were in line with our
expectations. Participants who had watched the empathy clip donated more often
(M=85%) than those who had seen the neutral clip (M=68%; χ²(1)=3.38, p=.06,
d=0.42), however, slightly failing to reach significance. Participants in the empathy
clip condition also reported having more moral concerns (M=1.80, SD=0.88) than
those in the neutral condition (M=1.35, SD=0.62; F(1,76)=7.75, p=.00, η²=.09). It
appears that a short clip was sufficient to entail changes in the perception of a violent
video game and significantly affected people’s decision to engage in prosocial
behavior.
When looking at the interactions between type of clip and game character, only for
those playing the victim, the empathy clip led to an almost significant raise in
donating behavior (χ²(1)=3.58, p=.06, d=0.63). Because experiencing either a victory
or a loss may have additionally affected the players, their status as winner or loser
was added as an additional variable. This 3-way-interaction was significant with
respect to the amount players donated (F(1,72)=4.18, p=.04, η²=.06). Having
previously played the victim led to five times higher donations (M=3.00, SD=1.41)
compared to players of the perpetrator (M=0.60, SD=0.34). In contrast to our
expectation, it appears that the effects of empathy largely depend on the game
character and the game outcome.
5 General discussion and concluding remarks
Study 1 replicated findings (e.g. [1]) that prosocial game content triggered
prosocial behavior whereas violent content led to antisocial behavior. With regard to
empathy, a fictitious text was not powerful enough to foster prosocial behavior after
playing a “good” (i.e., prosocial) game, or to increase detrimental effects after playing
a “bad (i.e., violent) video game. In Study 2, with a stronger induction, however,
empathy induced through a video clip had a substantial impact: This clip shown prior
to playing a beat ‘em up game led to more prosocial behavior and an increase in
moral concerns after playing the game. The interaction of clip and game character
showed the differential effect empathy induction could have. While empathy
induction had the expected effects on player’s feelings (i.e., moral concerns), winning
in the “bad guy” condition led to even less prosocial behavior. This finding, for
example, is in line with earlier findings of higher identification with mean characters,
which leads to more violence [9]. However, it is still unexpected as empathy is
generally promoted as a help-oriented tool aimed at reducing aggression and fostering
prosocial behavior [10].
In sum, the present study corroborates a very differential role of empathy in the
media context. Further research in this field is urgently needed, as our findings
challenge the conventional characterization of the nature of media content. Evidently,
simple classifications in either “good” or “bad” forms of entertainment media are
overly shortsighted.
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... So far, only few studies have directly compared the effects of video game characters 5,12 that differ with regard to users' perception of their morality (good vs. evil). 5,13,14 The present study was designed to close this empirical gap. Compared to a positive hero character, playing the evil villain should therefore lead to more hostile perception bias and less prosocial behavior after the game (Hypothesis 1). ...
... 16 Empathy is also applicable to the fictional context (fantasy empathy 17 ) and has been demonstrated to play an important role in media perception. 5,18,19 Shifting the focus towards a victim in a video game, for example, enhances empathy in players. 12 Based on these findings we expected in our study, that inducing empathy leads participants to perceive the violence in the game as less justified (Hypothesis 2). ...
Thesis
Full-text available
Within this body of research, the current thesis demonstrates that a) inducing empathy before playing a violent video game can have both expected and contradictory effects and that b) a scale of media-based empathy facilitates and revises the measurement of empathy in the media context. Consuming violent media is neither a sufficient nor a necessary factor to explain violent behavior in media users. Instead, it is only one factor among others. However, this thesis claimed to consider empathy not only as a conditional pertinent protective factor when using media (i.e., empathy induction; Manuscript #1 & #2), but also as a general disposition in users (i.e., MBE; Manuscript #3). Contrary to suggestions by other research groups (e.g., Mar, Oatley, & Peterson, 2009), individual differences in media-based empathy may indeed be responsible for empathic reactions to fictional media use. The general pattern of relationships suggests, that even though similar to traditional empathy, MBE is a unique trait variable and reflects independent components of empathy (e.g., immersion in video games). Based on our current understanding, MBE examines a yet underappreciated personality trait in media users and thereby contributes to the research of media use and media effects. Moreover, empathy with a media protagonist is no longer only considered a determinant of the entertainment experience (see Ritterfeld & Jin, 2006; Zillmann, 1991). Instead, a short, modest text- or clip-based empathy induction before game play can influence the effects of playing video games. While this approach has been tested for other factors before (e.g., activated self; Jin, 2011), this thesis explores the impact of experimentally induced empathy in the video game context for the first-time. In other words, focusing on the own character or adding emotional content to the storyline of a video game via pregame narratives can both ameliorate and enhance the deleterious effects of violent video games on prosocial and antisocial behavior. These findings stress the relevance of focusing not only on the content but also on situational and personality factors in users (e.g., MBE; see Gentile & Bushman, 2012) as well as interacting content factors (e.g., empathic storyline for a violent villain character; see Gentile, 2011) when exploring media effects. Even though the findings reported in this dissertation can be theoretically integrated into the structure of the General Aggression Model (GAM; Anderson & Bushman, 2002a), the results are better understood within the newly developed Differential Susceptibility to Media use Model (Valkenburg & Peter, 2013). As mentioned above, our findings regarding state empathy and trait MBE perfectly fit into this model as this model´s central focus is susceptibility factors like the ones identified in the present research. Testing the DSMM model in comparison to other more established theoretical models of media effects is a task for future studies. The appropriateness of applying theoretical frameworks of traditional empathy to empathy in the media context is debatable and should be tested in the future. The results presented in this thesis underline the importance of conceptually separating both constructs. In the media context, the available information, the target, and the form of interaction differ (e.g., Barrett-Lennard, 1993). Media interactions are frequently idealized and empathy is therefore felt more easily (see Westermann, Spies, Stahl & Hesse, 1996). Furthermore, the media user needs imagination, as the characters may be fictional and the available information in the media is regularly presented only in excerpts (see Mar & Oatley, 2008). Batson (2009) advocated eight equally legitimated interpretations of the term empathy in the real world context. As this confusion regarding the term empathy and its interpretation and measurement has not yet been fully solved for traditional empathy, this complexity is expected to be even larger in the media context, due to all potential empathic interactions between real and fictional people in real or fictional contexts. Nonetheless this dissertation broadens the horizon of potential moderators in media effects research. The important question how a specific media user reacts upon specific media content can be predicted more precisely when exploring the empathic potential of the media content and the media-based empathy in the user.
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To address the longitudinal relation between adolescents' habitual usage of media violence and aggressive behavior and empathy, N = 1237 seventh and eighth grade high school students in Germany completed measures of violent and nonviolent media usage, aggression, and empathy twice in twelve months. Cross-lagged panel analyses showed significant pathways from T1 media violence usage to higher physical aggression and lower empathy at T2. The reverse paths from T1 aggression or empathy to T2 media violence usage were nonsignificant. The links were similar for boys and girls. No links were found between exposure to nonviolent media and aggression or between violent media and relational aggression. T1 physical aggression moderated the impact of media violence usage, with stronger effects of media violence usage among the low aggression group.
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Previous research has documented that playing violent video games has various negative effects on social behavior in that it causes an increase in aggressive behavior and a decrease in prosocial behavior. In contrast, there has been much less evidence on the effects of prosocial video games. In the present research, 4 experiments examined the hypothesis that playing a prosocial (relative to a neutral) video game increases helping behavior. In fact, participants who had played a prosocial video game were more likely to help after a mishap, were more willing (and devoted more time) to assist in further experiments, and intervened more often in a harassment situation. Results further showed that exposure to prosocial video games activated the accessibility of prosocial thoughts, which in turn promoted prosocial behavior. Thus, depending on the content of the video game, playing video games not only has negative effects on social behavior but has positive effects as well.