May 22 2012

Video Game Violence

A recent study looking at the correlation between video game violence and real world actions found a significant correlation, and that’s what the authors were hoping to find. The study was not looking at the propensity for violent video games to increase real world aggression or violence, but rather as a training tool.

Researchers compared several groups – playing a video game involving shooting at a human, shooting at a target, and non-shooting game, and also the shooting games either used a realistic gun-controller or a standard controller (like a joystick). They then had each group shoot a real gun at a human mannequin. They found that the group who played the video game involving shooting at humans with a gun-like controller had the highest accuracy overall including the most head shots. In the nonviolent shooting (using a target) there was not much of a difference between the gun vs non-gun controllers. The non-shooting video game did slightly worse overall on accuracy but significantly lower on head shots.

The results are not that surprising. Essentially they show that using a video game simulation of an activity does improve the real world skill, and the more similar the video game (in this case using a gun-like controller) the better the training. I was a bit surprised that the gun vs non-gun was not significantly different in the target shooting game.

The authors of the study discuss two factors at work here. The first is mechanistic transfer – the transfer of skills from one task to another, in this case from video game performance to real world performance. They also note Thorndike’s 1932 theory of identical elements: the more identical elements there are between two tasks, the greater the mechanistic transfer of skills. In this case, the more closely the video game controller and experience mimicked the real world task of shooting a gun at a humanoid mannequin, the greater the benefit of the training.

This all sounds like common sense, and it is, but not everything that makes sense turns out to be true, so it’s good to have experimental verification. Further, there is a growing industry of products making essentially the opposite claim, that games can transfer skills in a more general way, not limited to the specificity of identical elements. This is the “train your brain” marketing phenomenon, the notion that doing a certain cognitive task will make you more intelligent in general.

To state this another way – how far do skills learned through training (whether video game or other types of tasks) transfer to other tasks? They certainly improve the task itself, but they don’t seem to increase overall intelligence – but where do we draw the line in between? This is still an open question and the subject of research, but at present it seems that the skills do not transfer very far. A large study I wrote about two years ago showed that video game training skills did not transfer to the general category of cognitive ability – such as memory, language skill, problem solving, or visual skill. Subjects performed better in the specific task they practiced, but this did not transfer to different tasks involving the same kind of cognitive skill. In my opinion this was a stake in the heart of the “brain training” industry.

Given that it has been recognized since the 1930s ala Thorndike that identical elements matter when task training, it seems like the current flirtation with generalized brain training is a temporary aberration, in my opinion largely brought about by the marketing of brain training products. The current study is in line with the classic view that if you want to improve your skill in a specific task you will want your training to be as close as possible to the real thing.

The second effect the researchers claim is at work in their study is operant conditioning. Subjects who were rewarded for hitting the target, especially with a head shot (which resulted in an instant kill) were more likely to aim for the head in the real-life situation – they performed the behavior for which they were recently rewarded. Their increased accuracy may have also made them more likely to shoot for the smaller target – the head vs the torso. The authors did not bring this up, but I also wondered while reading this study if exposure to the violent video game also reduced any inhibitions against doing violence against a humanoid (even if mannequin) target. We know from prior research, for example, that physicians lose their inhibitions of causing pain while performing a necessary procedure, like blood drawing.

The evidence that video game violence causes real world violence is an issue for another blog post, but the quick bottom line is that the evidence is mixed and controversial. There are some correlations, but not enough to establish cause and effect.

What this study is really about is training and transfer of skills from video games. It supports what common sense and prior research all indicate – transfer of skills is optimal when the training most closely resembles the task being trained.

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