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Games to blame? A test to find the truth

Thursday 15th May 2014

Too much time playing the computer game Doom was one of the many things cited by those rushing to lay blame in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre. Violent games were also brought up after the Virginia Tech killings and other shooting deaths. (Wikipedia’s got its own separate entry for video game controversies alone).

Sam Payne, a 26-year old Master’s student at Massey University, has played violent games for a long time yet never gone on a rampage. That got him thinking – is the blame on games really warranted?

“It certainly gets talked about in the media a lot that so-and-so did this thing, and they had a history of playing violent video games,” Payne says. “I was just interested in what the truth of the matter was.”

He’s using several scientific measures to see if there’s any link between aggression and violent games, including attaching wires to gamers’ faces to record their smiles and frowns and testing their decision-making in a moral dilemma.

“There are a lot of aspects to this study that have never been done before. I’ve never found any studies in the academic literature that have used electromyography, which is the EMG facial sensors. There are a few other techniques that I haven’t seen used before: the grip-strength measure as a measure of aggression, I haven’t seen how moral decision-making is affected by violent games in this way.”

Payne’s not sure what he’ll find, but says he’s already challenging people’s beliefs.

“Certainly there is a perception out there that if you play a violent game that’s going to make you more aggressive, but I also suspect that’s true of a lot of things,” he says.

“Even if I find playing a violent video game does make someone more violent, there are other things that weigh into that: to what degree does it make them more violent, what benefits are there to playing games as well - socialising with friends over the internet, or team-work, or things like that. So this is just a little microcosm of the bigger picture.”

Doctor Peter Cannon is a lecturer in psychology at Massey University who’s helping Payne with his study. Dr Cannon’s research tends to focus on the relationship between emotion and judgements, and he’s particularly interested in the moral-decision making aspect of Payne’s research.

“It’s a really critical time for kids to develop that sense of morality,” says Dr Cannon. “The brain is changing very rapidly as they go through the teenage years. This is why it’s important for us to look at morality in kids and violent games.”

“Often it’s the details that matter, so in a study like Payne’s it’s very well controlled, it’s very well thought out, and it’s the little things that make the big difference, that make the study that Sam’s doing scientific.”

Payne needs more 13- or 14-year old participants in his study, particularly female gamers. They need to be able to visit the Massey University campus in Albany, Auckland, with a parent or guardian, where they’ll play a video game and undergo tests. Anyone interested can contact him at sampayne@gmail.com.

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