The influence of solitary and cooperative violent video game play on aggressive and prosocial behavior (Jerabeck & Ferguson, 2013)

John Velez (Ohio State University) mentioned this study and I got curious enough about it to write a blog post. Jessica Jerabeck (now at University of Houston) and Christopher J. Ferguson (Stetson University) have published an article in Computers in Human Behavior. Upon further investigation, it turns out to be the first author’s Master’s thesis.


Research on video games, aggression and prosocial behavior remains inconclusive. Examined cooperative and solitary play of violent and non-violent games. Violent games had no impact on aggressive or prosocial behavior. Playing cooperatively reduced aggression even in violent games. Research examining the issue of video game violence influences on aggression continues to be debated within the scientific community. Thus far, no consensus has been reached regarding the influence of such games. This study adds to the prior literature by examining how violent video games may promote prosocial or aggressive behavior when played either cooperatively or alone. Results indicated that violent content in video games had no influence on prosocial behavior, aggressive behavior, or self-perceptions of empathy. Playing cooperatively was associated with less aggressive behavior, whether games were violent or not.

I asked John Velez for his comments about the study.

The authors discussed weaknesses in the violent videogame research in their introductory review. One entire section on measuring aggression, namely the reaction time task and the confound on whether the task measures aggression or competitiveness or both. Another section about whether videogames’ effect on aggression is derived from its violent versus competitive feature. Furthermore, they discussed the motivation of playing these violent videogames and argued that players are motivated by social desires in connecting with others, also competitive with each other. Another motivation is that videogames allow male players to experience various emotions and exploring their male identity both in conformity and unconformity with masculinity within a safe space (Jansz, 2005). However, I disagree on that motivation as we should consider the online social dynamics, how other male players enforce masculinities and how they react to unconformities. But I digress.

The authors discussed how context alongside with content may help shape behavioural, affective and cognitive outcomes. They referred to previous studies that supported the idea that cooperative play in videogames can decrease aggression, although the authors argued that much of these studies looked at prosocial or non-violent videogames. One study (Ewoldsen et al., 2012) used Halo 2 to examine cooperative versus competitive play and found those in cooperative play were more cooperative in subsequent tasks.

So what is this article going to contribute to the literature? The authors sought to examine differences in content and context in videogames and examine how they affect both aggressive and prosocial behaviours in one experimental setting.


Participants: 100 undergraduate students somewhere in Southern Texas. Most of the participants are Hispanic, average age is 21.21 (SD=4.75).


Videogame engagement: Participants rated the videogame they played in the experiment on a 5-point scale for several items: fun, exciting, challenging, frustrating. Whether they played it before and how likely they want to play it again.

Self-perceived empathy: the Interpersonal Reactivity Index is a 28-item on a 5-point descriptive scale that measures trait/dispositional empathy. However, the authors seemed to treat as a state measure. I’m confused…

Aggressive behaviour: The hot sauce task. Participants were asked to choose a hot sauce for the other participant to drink. They can choose from a selection of 4 Asian hot sauces, from the least hot to the most hot. Participants were allowed to sample the sauces to see how spicy they are.  They choose Asian hot sauces because their sample consisted of Hispanic undergraduates, so they are less familiar with Asian hot sauces. This is a variant of the original hot sauce paradigm, the original has one hot sauce and the participant choose the quantity of the hot sauce given to some other unseen participant. In this version, they are not told how much to give, but at what spiciness level. I’d like an explanation for this variant.

Prosocial behaviour: The prisoner’s dilemma task. The two participants are given tokens and were asked to choose to cooperate or defect. The outcome varied based on the decisions between the two participants. If participant A chooses to defect, while participant B chooses to cooperate. Participant A gets the tokens whereas B loses the token.  Participants play five rounds of the prisoner’s dilemma.

Videogame used: Three videogames are used. Borderlands is used as the violent (antisocial) condition, Lego Star Wars III is used the violent (prosocial) condition and Portal 2 is used as the nonviolent control condition. These games can be played cooperatively by having the participants play in the same room using the same screen (i.e. split-screen play) or in solo mode where they played on separate consoles, screens and facing away from each other, but in the same room. Participants were not encouraged nor discouraged to interact with each other. Play time is 45 minutes.

I’m confused… How is Lego Star Wars III is a violent videogame? Its rating is E+10, the violence is exploding lego blocks in contrast to the goriness of Borderlands, which is rated M for Mature. I’m also surprised that they have not mentioned any pilot testing or some justification in treating as the same in terms of violence, but I also like to see how they are different in terms of antisocial and prosocial. Unless it is the framing, Borderlands is about bounty hunters and Lego Star Wars is about good guys versus bad guys. I’m not sure if it is a strong manipulation. Furthermore, Borderlands’ gaming structure give the freedom to play cooperatively, but one player can carry the game alone while the other player can loaf around. The playtime is 45 minutes long which is longer than the traditional 10-20 minutes given in other studies. Krcmar and Lachlan (2009) examined play time for this kind of experiment and found that longer play time increases aggression, but levels off after much longer play time, say 30 minutes. The authors argued such lengths as aggression from shorter play time may be a result of frustration.

John Velez says this:

Overall, I’m a fan of this study. I appreciate that this study was the first to use more than one cooperative game and I think more studies should use this rigorous methodology. I think it opens an interesting question about cooperative game play. Are all cooperative games created equal? From my own experience with the games used (i.e., Borderlands, Lego Star Wars III, and Portal 2) it can be argued that the cooperation in these games are of different breeds, particularly Portal 2. The puzzle solving format of Portal forces players to cooperate in order to progress through the game where, in the other games, the cooperation occurs in a more natural and organic manner. Likewise, the ways in which one can cooperate in these games, I would think, differ greatly. When I scrolled down to the results section to see if these possible different “styles” of cooperation would have varying effects I was a little perplexed to see that the authors didn’t report the interactions between “Game Type” and “Cooperation”. I guess we can assume the interactions were non-significant but I would still like to see them as well as some means and standard deviations for each of the 6 cells. This information is important because it is possible that the “style” of cooperation in one of the games drove the results of the study and not cooperation in general. Although the trends in the data do not necessarily suggest this, we can’t be sure. This is of course, just me being nit-picky and curious. This also makes me wonder if we should start pre-testing the “cooperativeness” of video games beforehand. When I read that several games were going to be used I assumed a pre-test had been done to match the cooperative modes on cooperativeness.

I really like that this study examined pro-social and aggressive behaviors and I know how much of a hassle that must have been. Definite kudos for taking that on. However, I’m a little skeptical about the findings regarding pro-social behaviors. Looking at their measure of pro-social behaviors (and I could totally be wrong about this) it looks as if participants engaged in a repeated PD game (i.e., 5 rounds) and had only two options for each round: Cooperate or Defect. Dichotomizing cooperation doesn’t sit well with me, especially in repeated PD games. There are two main reasons for this. The first being an issue of variance. With only two choices per round I would think any effect would be hard to find. The second reason deals with my understanding of reciprocity and the role it plays in repeated PD games. In short, my concern would be that when someone defected once it would persist for both players for the remaining rounds. Basically, once someone’s trust is violated they would not be willing to cooperate again which may wash out any cooperation. Giving people more options than just absolute defect or cooperate (i.e., you have 4 dimes for each round and any number can be donated or kept) would avoid this and would provide the necessary variance to measure something as complicated as pro-social behaviors in repeated PD games.

I 100% agree with the authors when they assert that context may play a more important role than content and I look forward to seeing more work from them.


Pairs of participants were randomly assigned to play one of the three videogames and randomly assigned to play cooperatively or separately. Play time is 45 minutes. After that, they performed the hot sauce task in separate rooms and then the prisoner’s dilemma task together. As they recruited 100 participants for what is a three games and 2 contexts condition. It seems that there would be 16 participants per cell. Not sure if it is good enough to detect any sort of effect.


The authors analyzed the data through ANOVA with some covariates, such as game enjoyment, and competitiveness as the games differed on these factors.

Their analysis revealed that participants who played cooperative across all videogames were less aggressive (M=1.8, SD=0.73) in terms of choosing the level of spiciness in the hot sauce task than those who played solo (M=2.16, SD=0.87). Their analysis for prosocial behavior revealed no significant results. Their analysis for self-perceived empathy revealed no significant results.

I must point out that a 3 X 2 ANCOVA with 100 participants roughly equates to 16 participants per cell. This is a rather underpowered study, but this is flavoured by the context of  a Master’s thesis. You can’t get your ideal sample size with a deadline (and my Master’s thesis is similarly a wreck).


The take home message is that two people playing together and sharing a screen are less aggressive towards each other. On the other hand, they did not found any associations with prosocial behaviours unlike previous studies.

The authors speculated why cooperative play in violent videogame would have protective effects on aggressive behaviours. They argued that the social context (i.e., play with another person) is more crucial than game content in influencing emotions. They argued that players seek out action videogames as a means for social bonding with others and thus relieving stress. Going along this reasoning, the games provide opportunities to work together in overcoming challenges fostering bonding and relaxation. IMO, the idea could be true for some games, but less likely in highly competitive games, such as MOBAs, where gaming stats (e.g., wins vs. loss ratio, ELO ranking) seemed important to these players. Second, the social bonding might be a hit and miss if you consider whether you will end up playing with a nice player or an asshole online. Third, online versus offline play runs on different social dynamics. People’s self-presentation concerns would be more salient in physical proximity of another person, although their results in cooperative vs. solo play do support the idea of social bonding. Furthermore, I recall no studies that examined the prevalence of physical co-play. How often an individual invites or get invited to play with others? Do they prefer inviting offline or online friends? Do they eat healthily or chug down those mountain dews? What are the conveniences or inconveniences between real life versus online meetups? How does a LAN party versus split-screen play affect social bonding? These questions would lay down important information for future studies on social bonding.

The authors identified limitations in their study. The authors observed that some participants, particularly the skilled ones, were frustrated with their less skilled partners. In a manner similar to how technical support guys help their technologically-hapless coworkers, they offered verbal tutoring. If that doesn’t work, they played the game on their own as much as they can, then they give some verbal tutoring to their partner while their characters wait. One participant even took control of their partner’s controller and played their game. This sounds like prosocial behaviour, albeit in a educational manner. The authors argued that such unbalanced pairing would have the gamer participant report negative experiences in the study and such experiences might want them to “get back at them”. Evidently, the data does not support such contention. I’d like to add from what missing and useful details in the article is who are they partnered with? Was it a female partner (yes, yes, maybe they’re relying on stereotypes for their gaming judgment)? Are the gamers more patient to them? Do the gamers actually care about their gaming experiences that is limited within the confines of the study? I doubt they’d be patient when something important is on the line (e.g., a rare item in Borderlands). So, the authors suggested a pilot study to match participants on their experiences with videogames. Do you mean a pre-test like what Mike Schmierbach and company did?

Jerabeck, J. M., & Ferguson, C. J. (2013). The influence of solitary and cooperative violent video game play on aggressive and prosocial behavior. Computers in Human Behavior, 29 (6), 2573-2578. DOI:10.1016/j.chb.2013.06.034
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One thought on “The influence of solitary and cooperative violent video game play on aggressive and prosocial behavior (Jerabeck & Ferguson, 2013)

  1. Pingback: Helping behaviors during videogame play (Velez & Ewoldsen, 2013) | VG Researcher

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