Researchers discover relation between violent video games and cognitive aggression

A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Connecticut shows that the use of a realistic gun controller versus a normal handheld controller in violent video games increases a player’s cognitive aggression.

Assistant Professor-in-Residence Rory McGloin, Associate Professor Kirstie Farrar and Ph.D. student Joshua Fishlock, all of the Department of Communication, are the researchers involved with the study. The experiment measured how the level of realism in the type of game controller affects the output of aggression in a single player video game with violent contexts.

The inspiration for the study came from McGloin’s own line of research, as well as his combined efforts with Farrar. They were interested in seeing how contextual features of violent video games affect aggression, noting the pervasiveness of violent games being played everywhere on home consoles. The most popular motion-capturing controllers are gun-shaped in many arcade games, which are hard to obtain in a laboratory and aren’t currently that popular with at-home gaming systems. Thus, the study is not one of many.

“This study is the first of its kind. (We’ve) really only seen one or two others out there,” McGloin said.

The study included 488 undergraduate students, a sample size two-to-three times larger than what is typically seen in this sort of research, McGloin said.

Student subjects entered a room alone, and were assigned to either a handheld controller or a gun-shaped controller. Each subject played two sessions of a shooting game, lasting between 10 to 15 minutes. After completing both sessions, students were asked to answer a series of battery questions, reporting their levels of immersion in the game, its realism and their cognitive aggression, McGloin said.

One of the battery tasks showed words with missing letters, and asked students to fill in the blanks to complete what they thought the word could be. For example, the sequence “K ­I­__ __” resulted in word responses like “kiss” or “kick,” McGloin said.

“We found that two times the amount of aggressive words were given by the gun–conditioned group,” McGloin said.

The results showed that students who played with the more realistic controller reported a more natural experience, as well as higher levels of immersion and realism in the game, supporting the researchers’ hypotheses. One hypothesis that feelings of immersion predict cognitive aggression fell short of the expectations, but the results were still significant, according to UConn Today.

“We measured both (controllers), and the results showcase the causal impact of the gun controller was far greater than the regular one,” McGloin said.

Even if an individual has never shot a firearm before, it would not be difficult for them to point a realistic gun controller and shoot in a video game. A handheld controller requires a certain degree of learning in terms of figuring out which button or combination of buttons shoots the virtual gun – and these learned skills wouldn’t transfer if given instructions to shoot a real gun. In this respect, the study showed that the use of the gun controller just felt more natural, McGloin said.

Though gun control is a hot topic these days, the study was not biased in any way for or against guns. Rather, it was conducted to test how different aspects of gaming affect the player(s). The main purpose coming from the results was to raise awareness for both parents and gamers in order to help them understand that it’s more than just the game itself that can cause aggression.

“The results in terms of science suggest it’s not just the games, it’s how we play them,” McGloin said.

Further plans for the research involve testing bigger and more realistic controllers, doing more with virtual reality games and getting more participants into the lab in the same simulation—thereby testing how subjects react when they play against another human in the same room.

McGloin noted that this was only one study with one sample, and it is not being deemed as entirely conclusive. And while there have been theories about this kind of research in the past, McGloin believes this new study now provides empirical evidence for those theories.

“It’s important to note that these findings are not biased toward guns,” McGloin said. “But from a social standpoint, these findings do suggest the danger that guns still impact emotional aggression.”


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