Video games can promote virtuous behavior?

He’s crouched over the screen, slack jawed, beady-eyed, and quick on the trigger. He guns down one enemy, another, dozens of others. He chats with his teammates, talks trash and lobs a couple of “Yo Mammas.” He’s the typical videogamer as we all seem to visualize him in our minds eye.

Though a familiar stereotype, it may not be all that fair. Sure, there are a lot of gamers who love shooting things and blowing up stuff. But there may be just as many who love figuring out quests, building new worlds, or simply exploring. There are many types of games and many types of gamer personalities.

 

What type are you?

Creative games such as Minecraft encourage people to become builders and artist. Strategic games like Sid Meters Civilization attract those who enjoy outwitting and outmaneuvering rivals. Open-ended games like The Sims may be practically goal-free, yet inspire the devotion of players who enjoy the freedom of exploring a virtual life. Customizable worlds like the Civilization and The Elder Scrolls games develop communities of designers and programmers who freely create their own mods, scripts and graphics to expand these worlds unofficially. Online worlds such as Second Life and Glitch gain zealous fans who delight in socializing with other players in a virtual environment. All of these games can be intensely captivating, even addicting, without triggering the lust of blood.

You can discover your own game-playing personality by taking the online Battle Test of Gamer Psychology, which is based on the writings of artificial intelligence researcher Richard Battle. The test identifies four major gamer traits: Achiever, Explorer, Killer and Socializer. Every hardcore gamer embodies all four kinds of these traits to differing degrees, as signified by the Battle Quotient, which assigns a percentage score to each trait, adding up to 200 percent total, with no one trait exceeding 100 percent. For example, someone’s Battle Quotient breakdown may be 87 percent Killer, 53 percent Achiever, 40 percent Explorer and 20 percent Socializer.

 

Trait Descriptions

Let’s examine each trait a little more closely. An achiever describes a player who derives great satisfaction from attaining in-game rewards even when they are largely symbolic. Such as gamers value achievements such as high scores, high experience levels, badges, prize items and finished quests as contributing to their sense of prestige. And Explorer is more enraptured by the joy of discovery. Explorers thrive on discovering new areas, secrets, creative solutions to problems or new ways of playing or beating a game.  A socializer may enjoy playing the game itself but is more captivated by the social aspects of it. Socializer love meeting other players and interacting  with them within the virtual world – and sometimes outside of it. A killer, as self-defined, loves to engage in combat with human players and rack up lots of kills, causing chaos and destruction within the game world. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with having a killer gaming personality. People can and do have different personalities across real and virtual worlds. A shy nerd can be a socializer in a game, while a real-life nice guy can turn into a vicious Killer while playing. But right now, I’m interested in talking about how games can enhance a person’s good side in the game, and possibly, in real life. People often talk about the negative effects of video games. We’re here to talk about the upside. The existence of socializers is one indication that gamers are not all aggressive, anti-social types. There are actually people who get high in camaraderie and cooperation with other players but can this sociability in the game enhance ones sociability outside the game?

 

The Power of Pro-Social Gameplay

Yes it can, according to an Iowa State University (ISU) study. ISU media researcher Douglad Gentile, Ph.D, had 161 US student play one of six games. Some of them played cartoonishly violent games while others played pro-social (behavior intended to benefit other people or society) games that tasked them with helping others or cleaning up the environment. A third (control) group was given maze-solving games to play. After playing a game for 20 minutes, each student was asked to select 11 out of 30 puzzles of varying degrees of difficulty, knowing that a partner would be required to solve them. If successful, the partner would be rewarded with a $10-gift voucher. The students who had played pro social games were significantly more likely to help their partners win the reward by assigning them easy puzzles to solve.

Dr. Gentile also examined the connection between choice of games and pro social behavior in Singaporean and Japanese youth. Researchers asked 727 Singaporean middle-schoolers age 12-14 to name their three favorite games and tally the number of hours they played each game. They were also asked to recall how many instances in each game they where lead to help, hurt or kill other characters. Each kid was given a questionnaire that tested the kid's tendency to help others, do good deeds, or react in an aggressive manner. The researchers found that the kids who had performed more pro-social game activities were more likely to perform helpful acts and less likely to express aggressive behavior.

A similar study was carried out among 1, 820 Japanese gamers aged 10-17. After gathering data, the researchers revisited the participants three months later. They that those who had earlier reported playing more pro-social games still showed a greater likelihood of being helpful and caring, which suggest that the effects of positive gameplay mat be lasting. Of course, the researchers could not be certain that the gameplay was what brought about pro-social behavior. It could be that the "good" kids were simply drawn to pro-social types of games but the the result were compelling, nonetheless.

An even more dramatic experiment was organized by social psychologist Tobias Greitemeyer and Sylvia Osswald. Their study involved college students who were asked to play  one of two video games: Tetris, the famous  block puzzle game, or City Crisis, a simulation game that had the player flying a helicopter to perform rescue missions and police support operations.

The experiment was setup so that a young female researcher would be present in the same room as the player. In the middle of the gameplay, a male actor playing the role of the researcher's ex-boyfriend would come inside the room. The actor angrily asks the female researchers why she speak to him. The researchers ask the man to stop disturbing her while she is working. The "ex-boyfriend" reacts by yelling, kicking over a wastebasket and then pulling the woman by the arm in trying to force her to leave the room with him. If the game player fails to respond within two minutes, the actor leaves the room.

The experiment's objective, naturally, was to observe whether the game-playing student would do anything to help the female researcher, such as confronting the ex-boyfriend or calling campus security. Greitemeyer and Osswald found that the students who were playing City Crisis actively stepped in to help the woman in 55 percent of the cases, while those playing Tetris came to her aid in only 25 percent of the cases. The study tested 36 students, a sample that maybe to small to make the experiment altogether conclusive. But the experiment results are notable in how they illustrate the apparent positive effects of pro social games compared to neutral games. In fact, Greitemeyer and Osswald believe that the experiment shows that: “There is clearly a need for pro-social games that are highly attractive to customers."

 

Virtual Society, Actual Virtue

A number of pr-social video games exist. And they may not be the games you expect. Among them are role-playing and sandbox games such as Fable, Fallout, Knight of the Old Republic, and The Elders Scrolls series. These games wherein your in-game reputation can change depending on whether you follow the path of good or that of evil.

Take the Fallout series, for example. These are games Set in a post-apocalyptic future that has a lawless, only civilized, Wild west bend to it. They are bloody and violent but not amoral. In Fallout, you wander through its dark futurescape and encounter characters asking you to do them a good deed such as rescuing a lost loved one or retrieving vital supplies but without your feeling obligated to do so. You are free to play a bad guy, killing and stealing your way through the game.

Speaking from personal experience, however, the lure of playing a hero is a strong one. I can't explain why because positive karma and a good reputation are not significant-enough effects in the game to account for the pull of doing good. I suspect that I simply find it satisfying to do good deeds even if they are for imaginary people, and I believe that many other gamers feel the same way. My hypothesis is that even a simulation of society can prompt us to regulate our social behavior. When playing Fallout, you may know that you're in an imaginary world, yet the social pressure to do good can remain very real.

 

Not All the Time

But even a good guy in Fallout is bound to end up doing some killing and looting. For a more purely pro-social experience, we may have to look at less violent sandbox like The Sims, Second Life and Glitch. The Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games - meaning you interact with characters controlled by human players. You may be in a simulated space, but you are moving in an actual society, where etiquette matters and bad behavior can hurt real people's feelings. And yes, these games have "griefers" who actively enjoy hurting and annoying fellow players. But the thrill of "griefing" is short and fleeting. To get more out of such games, you have to be a social player.

I haven't played Second Life, but I played Glitch for several months. Set in a cartoony world where cute Glitches run around petting pigs and massaging butterflies, it is a game that relies heavily on the player community to stay interesting. While there are quests to fulfill and crops to farm, you will also be attending a lot of virtual parties thrown by fellow players. Glitch gamers also love giving gifts to their in-game friends, and even total strangers. The game actually has an item called "random kindness" that can be used to lift another Glitch's energy or mood.

Glitch is a virtual world where kindness and generosity flourish, abetted by gameplay mechanics that nudge players to work together, build a community, and actively socialize and make friends. I don't know of any other game wherein you are constantly thinking of ways to do nice things for other players. I think it helps that Glitch (which is not a game for kids) provides people with such adorable-looking avatars. For some reason, it is easier to like cartoon characters that flesh-and-blood humans. But as we have seen, learning pro-social behavior in a game may lead to pro-social in real life. So the cartoon world of Glitch may be making the real world a nicer place.

Games that make the world better. Just a little bit, perhaps, yet that's something. We're so used to thinking of video games as an anti-social pursuits. But the world of gaming has changed, and with it, the type of people who regularly play video games. The popularity of MMORPGs and sandbox games has seen the rise of players who care as much about socializing and community-building as wreaking havoc.

So the question is: It is time for us to change our all-encompassing stereotyping of gamers. Sure, a representative number of them could be nice, friendly . . . and even virtuous.

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