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Can video games alter our behavior?

Our behaviors are shaped on a daily basis through our interactions with our environment, and even something as seemingly innocuous as a child’s video game could alter our behavior. However, the effect of gaming is not as straight forward as the media has led us to believe. If we expose ourselves to an environment, it could influence our attitudes, but it rarely dictates our behavior.

Let’s begin by looking at a few examples of psychology studies involving video games. First, we’ll see how video games can be bad for us, then how they can be good for us, and then discuss the interesting difference we observe between new and veteran gamers.

Pane and Ballard (2002) authored an interesting study using Hideo Kojima’s “Metal Gear: Solid®.” A group of male college students played the game with two different sets of instructions. The game had a few training missions, and the player could complete the missions by either using stealth, or aggression (shooting the enemy or using close combat). Each group had to complete a tutorial mission, but the group had different instructions. The first group was told to kill all the guards in order to proceed to the next stage, while the second group was not given any special instruction other than to reach the exit of the level (if they chose to, they could attack the guards, or sneak by). Afterwards, the participants played through five more training missions. 

metal gear solid

As expected, the players who were told to dispatch all of the guards in the first phase were more likely to use aggression to complete the remaining levels. We cannot say that made a player more ‘aggressive’ in the real world, though. Perhaps forcing them to kill the guards made that response more practiced, and easier. What about a real world change? 

The authors measured hostility levels after the participants finished playing the training mission and the additional five levels using the Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI). The authors found that the participants who made the highest number of aggressive actions in game had the highest levels of hostility according to the BAI.

Before anyone gets too bent out of shape, we’re not saying that this game forced someone to be hostile towards their fellow man. Hostility does not mean they are going to go on a rampage, but they may end up starting to have a few anti-social behaviors when they are primed by these environments. 

So games hurt us? Not so fast! 

Greitmeyer and Osswald (2010) authored a study using two of gaming’s finest classic titles – Lemmings®, and Tetris®. The authors wanted to show a few different things. First, not all games are doomed to cause bad behavior, and second, priming is only functional when someone has the chance to act!


In the game Lemmings®, the player is trying to help get all the lemmings to safety. The player is only able to advance to the next stages if they save most of the lemmings in the level. Since the goal of the game is achieved by saving and helping, no real violence involved at all (unless you kill the poor guys on purpose!!!); it’s considered a pro-social game. Anti-social, on the other hand, would be things that promote hostility and violence.

In this study, there were two groups. The first group played Tetris®, while the second group played Lemmings®. The Tetris® group was considered the ‘control’ group as Tetris® could not really be classified as pro or anti-social. Both groups would play the game assigned to them for a short period of time; then the real test began.

In the first version of the study, the groups would play their game and then a research assistant would ask the participant to fill out a survey. The research assistant would simply drop a cup of pencils all over the table near the participant. The researchers found that the Lemmings® group was significantly more likely to help pick up the pencils compared to the Tetris® group. 

In the second version of the study, the participants would finish playing the games then begin filling out the survey (with no pencils being ‘accidentally’ dropped). This time, a female research assistant would be sitting in the room with the participant while a male actor would enter the room. The male actor would begin to ask the female research assistant to come with him but she would ask him to leave. He would continue to get more and more aggressive (verbal aggression only). The researchers found that the Lemmings® group would ask the man to quit harassing the research assistant significantly faster than the Tetris® group.

Now you might be asking why they didn’t choose to compare a pro-social game to an anti-social game. They did, in fact, in the preliminary studies. They found that the difference in behavior was so vast, that it did not need to be reinvestigated each time. The authors wanted the reader to focus more on the potential positives of games instead of overly focusing on the negatives. So yes, anti-social games led folks to be less likely to act (even less likely than the Tetris® folks). 

The real key thing to stress here is that a behavior was primed and it was given a chance to be expressed almost immediately. Just like with subliminal priming, one should aim to “strike while the iron is hot.” When something is freshly primed, it should be more likely to change behavior. This study was not intended to test the duration of the effect, just the presence of the effect. Regardless, I feel that priming a behavior, then allowing it to occur in such a staged manner is actually even stronger than any priming effect alone. By expressing these behaviors, we would form contingencies of self worth around them, and begin to defend our actions. We would probably decide that the reason we were helpful was not because a game planted the idea in our head, but because we feel good when we help others. I’d love to investigate this idea of “priming leading to further priming” but that’s for another day!

So we can see how gaming can be good or bad. Some games like Valve’s hit “Left for Dead®” have a mixture of these behaviors.


In this game, four human survivors are battling through hordes of zombies to find supplies and safety. Some enemies completely disable you and unless your teammates come to save you, you cannot possibly escape. This game really emphasizes cooperation above all other factors. Failure to cooperate means your team will definitely fail. I believe that a game that rewards cooperation, more so than being accurate with a gun, would end up having a more pro-social effect than more neutral or hostile games. If I was given the chance, I’d love to investigate it! However, this is my speculation. The only way to survive is with teamwork! This example was to simply show that not all games are easy to classify as pro or anti-social.

Finally, I mentioned something about new versus veteran gamers. Glock and Kneer (2009) did a bit of research on the difference the games have on these players using the game “Unreal Tournament®.”



This game is quite violent. While the image does not display it, body parts are often flying across the screen, heads are being blasted off, and mayhem is everywhere. New players to these games are often caught up in the aesthetics instead of the goals.  This is a very important difference – the presence or absence of goal oriented behaviors!

Participants in this study who had never played the game were asked to play it for a period of time. Afterwards, participants were tested and the researchers found that new players had an activated aggression construct. This may sound strange, but it’s just like the Glass Slipper Effect discussion – word pairing were displayed, and when pairing words related to aggression, you will respond faster when the aggressive construct is primed as it causes the least dissonance. 

What about the veteran gamers? In this study, these gamers didn’t necessarily play Unreal Tournament®, they just played games in general. The authors found that there was no effect for the veteran group. Playing this extremely violent video game did not cause their ‘aggression’ construct to become primed at all. How should we interpret this?

In my opinion, it looks like veteran gamers are focused more on goal oriented behaviors than anything else. For example, a veteran player may think, “for me to maximize my score, I need to get into this position, place my mouse curser here, and ensure I control the resources (ammo/health).” A novice player may simply think, “Oh man, head shot!! Blood everywhere!” 

The difference here is that the veteran player cannot afford to be distracted with the visuals, they are focused on where they need to be, where they should aim, which spots pose a threat, and how they should respond to it. It’s not just about blood and gore, it’s about strategy once a player has enough experience to conceptualize it. Until that time, however, the aesthetics will probably change their behavior.

In conclusion, games can influence your behavior! Pro-social behavior, anti-social behavior, any behavior really. We must be careful what sort of environments we allow ourselves to experience. That said, once we have enough experience, the effects of that environment are completely mediated as we begin to use more goal oriented behaviors. 

So is gaming good or bad? Neither, of course!  I’d say it’s a bad idea for parents to let their 8 year old kid play a mature rated game. Those things have ratings for a reason – pay attention! Gaming should be done responsibly, just like any other form of media. It’s not evil, it’s not bad, it doesn’t force us to do anything, but we should be aware that it has the potential to change our attitudes! Please folks – game responsibly!

As for me, I’m off to play some Team Fortress 2!



Greitemeyer, T, & Osswald, S. (2010). Effects of prosocial video games on prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology98(2), 211-221.

Panee, C, & Ballard, M. (2002). High versus low aggressive priming during video-game training: effects on violent action during game play, hostility, heart rate, and blood pressure. Journal of Applied Social Psychology32(12), 2458-2474.

Glock, S, & Kneer, J, (2009). Game over? The impact of knowledge about violent digital games on the activation of aggression-related concepts. Journal of Media Psychology, 21(4), 151-160.


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