From Short Sharp Science

by Ewen Callaway, reporter

I was shocked the first time I watched my 12-year old cousin play Grand Theft Auto Vice City, an ultra-violent video game where the protagonist roams around a city, stealing cars and wreaking bodily havoc. I also averted my eyes through much of 300, a visually stunning yet exceedingly gruesome film about the battle of Thermopylae.

So it was with a certain measure of self-interest that I picked up a new paper claiming that watching horror films and playing violent video games makes college students less inclined to help those in need.

Other researchers have documented other negative effects of violent media, but none applied methods quite this… theatrical

Psychologist Brad Bushman, of the University of Michigan, and Craig Anderson, of Iowa State University, staged two scenarios to see whether on-screen violence has a desensitising effect on people.

In the first experiment, 320 students – half men, half women – played either a violent game or a non-violent game. Violent games included Carmageddon, Duke Nukem, and Future Cop. I’ve never heard of any of the non-violent games, but they certainly sounded the part: Glider Pro, 3D Pinball, Austin Powers and Tetra Madness.

After playing the game for 20 minutes, students filled out a survey assessing their experience. At this point, researchers played an audio recording of a simulated fight in the corridor outside.

The transcript of the faux fight tells the story:

First Actor: “You stole her from me. I’m right and you know it, loser.”

Second Actor: “Loser? If I’m a loser, why am I dating your ex-girlfriend?”

First Actor: “OK, that’s it, I don’t have to put up with this shit any longer.”

A chair-flinging tussle ensues, and Second Actor gets pummelled – “It’s my ankle, you bastard. It’s twisted or something.” And to make the ruse more convincing, the researchers kicked on the door a couple times.

Three minutes after the final groan – giving test subjects ample time to offer help – a researcher returned to the testing room and asked if everything was OK. If the volunteer mentioned a fight – only a handful did not – the researcher asked them to rate it on a scale of 1 to 10.

Students who played a violent game took nearly five times longer to help (73 vs 16 seconds), were slightly less likely to mention the mêlée (94 vs 99%), and rated it as less serious (5.9 vs 6.4 out of 10), compared with volunteers who played a non-violent game, the researchers found. The results are published in Psychological Science (DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02287.x).

Their movie experiment was only slightly less bizarre…

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