The effects of video games on social behavior: Games that promote helpfulness

The effects of video games, good and bad

Video games often get bad press, but there is evidence that video games can benefit kids in several ways. It appears that opens in a new windowplaying certain action video games can improve visual-spatial skills, and video games seem a opens in a new windowpromising tool for teaching academic subjects.

two kids playing video game at a desk, looking happy and intense

But what about the social effects of video games? Research opens in a new windowsuggests that playing violent video games makes people feel more aggressive and less sympathetic towards victims.

Do “prosocial” video games–games that feature characters helping each other–make kids friendlier? Douglas Gentile and his colleagues make the case that games can encourage kids to be more sympathetic and helpful. Here’s the evidence.

The link between video games and prosocial behavior

Singapore study: Kids who play “friendly” video games have a sunnier outlook

Researchers in Singapore surveyed 727 middle school students, asking kids to

  • name their three favorite video games,
  • estimate how much time they spent playing each game, and
  • rate how often players help—or hurt—each other in the games

Next, researchers tested each child’s prosocial attitudes and behavior. Kids were asked whether or not they agreed with a series of statements (e.g., “I feel happy when I share my things with others”). Kids were also asked to interpret several social scenarios (e.g., “what would it mean if someone broke your watch?”)

The results? Kids who spent more time playing prosocial video games reported more prosocial behaviors. And when presented with the social scenarios, these kids were also less likely to attribute hostile intentions to other people.

By contrast, kids who spent more time playing violent video games showed fewer prosocial traits and were more likely to attribute hostility to others.

Teasing apart cause and effect

We might expect a link between games and prosocial behavior for several reasons. Maybe playing prosocial video games makes kids friendlier. But causation could work the other way, too. Kids who are already prosocial might prefer to play prosocial games.

Gentile’s team has conduced other research to help tease apart cause and effect.

In a study of Japanese kids, researchers interviewed students in the 5th-, 8th- and 11th grades at two different points in time (Gentile et al 2009).

Students who said they spent more time playing prosocial games (at Time 1) went on to report more acts of prosocial behavior (at Time 2). The interviews took place 3-4 months apart, so it seems that playing prosocial video games predicted an increase in prosocial behavior over time.

Similarly, a study conducted in Singapore interviewed over 3000 children and adolescents at three different time points over a span of two years.

Playing prosocial games at the first time point predicted a small increase children’s empathy at the second time point, and this, in turn, was linked developing more cooperative, helpful attitudes by the study’s end. Kids who spent more time playing violent video games showed the opposite pattern (Prot et al 2013).

Finally, in the U.S., researchers conducted a controlled experiment (Gentile et al 2009). They randomly assigned college students to play either

  • a prosocial game (Super Mario Sunshine or Chibi Robo)
  • a violent game (Ty2 or Crash Twin Sanity)
  • a neutral game (Pure Pinball or Super Monkey Ball Deluxe)

Students were allowed to play for 20 minutes. Immediately afterwards, researchers assigned students another task, one that cleverly tested the students’ willingness to help others.

Would you make it easy or hard for another person to win $10?

To answer this question, researchers asked the students for help creating a puzzle test. They explained to the students that the test would be given to someone else–a test-taker who would have 10 minutes to solve 10 puzzles. If the test-taker succeeded, he would win a gift certificate worth $10.

Students were presented with 30 puzzles to choose from–10 easy puzzles, 10 puzzles of intermediate difficulty, and 10 hard puzzles. Which puzzles should be included on the test? Students could help the test-taker by choosing more easy puzzles, or hurt the test-taker by choosing more difficult ones.

As predicted, playing prosocial video games had an effect. Compared with students who’d just played violent or neutral games, students who’d played the prosocial games chose more easy puzzles. And the more prosocial content there was in the game, the stronger the effect: More helpful game situations led to more helpful behavior in the real world.

What about students who played violent video games? They didn’t just choose fewer easy puzzles. They also chose more difficult ones.

More experiments on kids confirm the effect

The puzzle experiment suggests that video game content has an effect on the behavior of college students. What about kids?

In 2012, Muniba Saleem led a study of 191 kids (aged 9-14 years) that replicated the methods of the college student experiments, and the researchers got similar results. After playing the prosocial game, Chibi Robo, kids were more likely to assign their partners easy puzzles and less likely to assign them difficult puzzles.

And what about physical acts of kindness? What about bravery?

Choosing puzzles to help a stranger earn cash seems a relatively passive way to help. Is there evidence that prosocial video games can make us more physically responsive to people in trouble?

Intriguing experiments suggest that people who have been playing prosocial video games are more likely to intervene when they see a victim targeted by aggression. Read more about it in my article, opens in a new window“Playing helper and hero: The effects of video games on our willingness to take risks.”

The takeaway

Many people are worried that video games make kids anti-social. But it seems that the effects of video games depend on the details. As Douglas Gentile and his colleagues conclude, content matters.

For more information about the potential for video games to make kids more aggressive, see this article about the opens in a new windoweffects of video games with violent themes.

For information about encouraging prosocial behavior, see this article on the opens in a new windowthe perils of rewarding kids for being helpful and my opens in a new windowresearch-based tips for fostering empathy in children.

Reference: The beneficial social effects of video games

Gentile DA, Anderson CA, Yukawa S, Ihori N, Saleem M, et al. 2009. The effects of prosocial video games on prosocial behaviors: International evidence from correlational, longitudinal, and experimental studies. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 35(6): 752-763.

Greitemeyer T and Mügge DO. 2014. opens in a new windowVideo Games Do Affect Social Outcomes: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Effects of Violent and Prosocial Video Game Play. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2014 Jan 23. [Epub ahead of print]

Prot S, Gentile DA, Anderson CA, Suzuki K, Swing E, Lim KM, Horiuchi Y, Jelic M, Krahé B, Liuqing W, Liau AK, Khoo A, Petrescu PD, Sakamoto A, Tajima S, Toma RA, Warburton W, Zhang X, and Lam BC. 2013. Long-term relations among prosocial-media use, empathy, and prosocial behavior. Psychol Sci. 25(2):358-68.

Saleem M, Anderson CA and Gentile DA 2012. Effects of prosocial, neutral, and violent video games on children’s helpful and hurtful behaviors. Aggressive Behavior 38: 281-287.

Written content last modified 12/13

image of kids playing video game at desk by istock / tylim