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There are a lot of unique aspects to being a Dragon — among them the possibility you might get recruited to play Xbox for a psychological study.

“We recruited student participants from computer science, art, math, and game classes, and even in the hallways and the cafeteria on campus,” says Dr. Vanessa Hemovich, assistant dean of faculty development and associate professor of psychology at DigiPen. Those student volunteers, along with Dr. Hemovich’s student research assistant, generated the data for her new research paper, “It Does Matter If You Win or Lose, and How You Play the (Video) Game,” published this year in the academic journal Games and Culture. Dr. Hemovich’s study took a novel approach to a long-contested topic in the field — the social impact of violent video games (VVGs).

A headshot of DigiPen Psychology Professor, Dr. Vanessa Hemovich.
When it comes to research on violent video games, Dr. Vanessa Hemovich says that, “Unfortunately, sensationalistic news is sometimes more attention-grabbing to read about than scientific truth.”

“There has always been a tendency to blame media for society’s behavioral outcomes and youth development, but statistically speaking, youth violence and aggression has been on the decline for the last two decades, and their media consumption is way up. So that argument doesn’t seem to have much validity,” Dr. Hemovich says. “Today, researchers are just beginning to consider other aspects of VVGs, also found in other game genres, like competition against other players, losing, high cognitive load, frustration, and group dynamics.” Dr. Hemovich’s study took a look at a few of these less frequently considered variables to see whether they, rather than violent content, had more of an impact on pro-social behavior.

The 41 DigiPen students who volunteered were randomly assigned to one of four study conditions. After being led to a room with an Xbox 360, they were asked to play a 10-minute session of either Wolfenstein: The New Order, marketed as a violent first-person shooter, or Bit.Trip Runner, a non-violent arcade-style rhythm game. The control group played either game under normal circumstances, but the experimental group were asked to play with a large piece of white paper taped to the middle of the screen, purposefully obstructing 40 percent of their view to induce difficult play conditions. During each 10-minute play session, the research assistant unobtrusively recorded how many times players died or failed to complete in-game tasks. Once the session ended, the research assistant pretended to accidentally knock a cup of 20 pens off a desk, discretely recording how many the players helped pick them up — a classic research measure of pro-social behavior. The assistant then had players complete an exit survey, reminded them they’d been entered in a raffle for a PlayStation 4 for participating, and then exited the lab.

The games industry is inviting more psychologists with research backgrounds to help educate and inform the industry from the inside out.

So what did Dr. Hemovich discover? Unsurprisingly, players with obstructed screens died and failed in-game tasks far more often than those without — but the actual content of the game itself had little effect over player behavior. “Fewer pens were retrieved by participants under conditions with paper covering their screens while playing either a VVG or a non-VVG. More pens were retrieved by participants without paper covering their screens while playing either a VVG or non-VVG,” Dr. Hemovich’s study reports. Repeated in-game failure and achievement loss were far more meaningful indicators of social outcomes than violent content.

In shifting focus away from one genre of games, to exploring elements of games that span genres, Dr. Hemovich’s research is one part of a movement to change the academic discourse on video games. “This research explores pro-social elements of video games which has only just moved into the spotlight in recent years because, unfortunately, sensationalist news is sometimes more attention-grabbing to read about than scientific truth,” Dr. Hemovich says. Indeed, playing video games has recently been linked to a number of social and cognitive benefits for players, like stronger visual perception, information processing, and task persistence. Video games have even found medical applications in pain management and addiction treatment. Given that Dr. Hemovich’s study showed repeated in-game failure can lead to lowered pro-social behavior, it also suggests pro-social behavior could be increased by certain in-game variables as well. DigiPen alumni at thatgamecompany happen to be on the front lines answering that question, helping explicitly design the studio’s new game, Sky: Children of the Light, to make players feel more compassionate and altruistic.

“That is the next phase of research,” Dr. Hemovich says. “We are only just beginning to ask questions like what impact does a win-loss ratio have on pro-social gaming behaviors? How long does it last? Hours or days? Years? Right now, the research is in its infancy, so to speak, and in science it can take a decade or more of longitudinal study with robust methodological experimentation to begin to learn how to answer those questions.”

Far from a cloistered academic topic, game studios have been investing more in answering those questions as well. “The games industry is inviting more psychologists with research backgrounds to present talks at their studios and hiring Ph.D.s who specialize in qualitative and quantitative methods, data management, and basic psychological principles around user research to help educate and inform the industry from the inside out,” Dr. Hemovich says. Between DigiPen’s new Psychology minor, specialized User Research study track, and Dr. Hemovich’s leadership, it won’t be surprising if DigiPen graduates help drive that industry-wide transformation.