What we can learn from violent video games

Video games that feature violence may contribute to antisocial and aggressive behavior, as any number of research studies will tell us. But why are games like that appealing in the first place? A new study out of the University of Freiburg says that storytelling may play a role, especially if it allows players to engage in meaningful choices to play the game.

“The motivation to engage in and enjoy video games corresponds with principals that apply to human motivation in general,” says Daniel Bormann of the University of Freiburg. For instance, successful game franchises

  • offer a spectrum of meaningful choices to shape the game’s narrative and environment
  • encourage players to experience social connectedness & meaningful social interactions
  • provide carefully balanced challenges

If video games meet those needs, the game player is more motivated and his or her well-being is enhanced by the more immersive experience. Research is published April 9 online in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. Here’s the remainder of the press release:

Immersed in Virtual Worlds and Minds: Effects of In-Game Storytelling on Immersion, Need Satisfaction, and Affective Theory of Mind

Daniel Bormann of the University of Freiburg and his colleague Tobias Greitemeyer wanted to explore … whether storytelling fosters immersion and changes how players are able to assess the mental states of others (called “theory of mind”). Immersion, Bormann says, “is characterized by an experience you might have enjoyed while watching your favorite movie for the first time – the sensation of being transported to another time or space, as though you are taking a real journey, or the feeling of being emotionally impacted by the protagonist’s fate.”

To test the role of in-game storytelling, the researchers randomly assigned participants to play one of two video games. In the first game Gone Home, the player slips into the role of a female American college student, arriving home after a year abroad. The player comes upon an empty house and has to use various clues to figure out what happened to her missing family members. For the control condition, the game was Against the Wall, in which the player has to climb up an infinite wall by interacting with the bricks, in surreal but human-made surroundings. Apart from a brief description of the environment and goals, the game provided no narrative elements.

For the game rich in storytelling (Gone Home), researchers provided one group of participants the game developers’ instructions and provided a second group of participants instructions to register, memorize, and evaluate various properties of the game. After 20 minutes of gameplay, all participants completed a task in which they assessed facially expressed emotions. The researchers used this task to evaluate the players’ capacity to apprehend others emotional states (theory of mind). The players also completed a survey to assess the amount of immersion and need satisfaction they experienced while playing.

As published today in Social Psychological and Personality Science, the researchers found that narrative game elements contributed to a more immersive video game experience. They also found that being immersed in a game’s story supports players in perceiving opportunities for meaningful choices and relationships. And they found that the narrative elements affected theory of mind.

“Although the effects regarding theory of mind were relatively small, we were excited to see initial evidence for the short-term enhancement through in-game storytelling,” Bormann says. “Importantly, this effect was specific to the condition in which participants actively engaged in the games narration, while the mere exposure to the narrative video game did not affect theory of mind, in comparison to playing a neutral video game.”

Together, the results suggest that in-game storytelling contributes to a more immersive and satisfying video game experience while also fostering skills that are useful to players on a day-to-day basis. While more work needs to be done to examine these effects, Bormann says that long-term work on narration in video games could yield promising opportunities.

“If further research could reveal how exactly in-game storytelling affects theory of mind,” he says, “clinicians and software developers could utilize this knowledge to develop tools to aid the treatment of disorders characterized by social-interaction impairments, like autistic disorders.”