Physiological and emotional responses to violent events in an FPS game (Ravaja et al., 2008)

I recently learned the term science journalism and what I am doing approximate to that: Reporting on scientific findings for the general public, or in this case to gamers.

 Anyways, I was browsing in kotaku when an article in had made a reference to study about participants emotional and physiological responses to violent events. Since I’m still an undergraduate student, I am so busy with a lot of things that I feel that this blog is neglected…


The authors examined emotional valence- and arousal-related phasic psychophysiological responses to different violent events in the first-person shooter video game “James Bond 007: NightFire” among 36 young adults. Event-related changes in zygomaticus major, corrugator supercilii, and orbicularis oculi electromyographic (EMG) activity and skin conductance level (SCL) were recorded, and the participants rated their emotions and the trait psychoticism based on the Psychoticism dimension of the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire–Revised, Short Form. Wounding and killing the opponent elicited an increase in SCL and a decrease in zygomatic and orbicularis oculi EMG activity. The decrease in zygomatic and orbicularis oculi activity was less pronounced among high Psychoticism scorers compared with low Psychoticism scorers. The wounding and death of the player’s own character (James Bond) elicited an increase in SCL and zygomatic and orbicularis oculi EMG activity and a decrease in corrugator activity. Instead of joy resulting from victory and success, wounding and killing the opponent may elicit high-arousal negative affect (anxiety), with high Psychoticism scorers experiencing less anxiety than low Psychoticism scorers. Although counterintuitive, the wounding and death of the player’s own character may increase some aspect of positive emotion.

I read the article today, on the way to class. Judging from the comments at, it seems everyone had access to the article (normally, you’d need a subscription or university-sponsored access to get a journal article).  

So this study measured facial physiological and emotional responses to violent events in video games, i.e. injuring or killing an opponent and players’ character being injured or killed. It also appears that this study is part of a larger study. 

They gave some interesting and contrasting hypotheses: from a video game point-of-view (POV), killing opponents are a rewarding experience because it represents a success and is required (in some games) to advance in the game, so good feelings. However, from an outside of video games point-of-view, killing in our moral compass is simply wrong, so bad feelings. In addition, players’ character being injured or killer is a bad or punishing experience from a video game POV, so bad feelings or frustration in my case (my “nooos” annoy my brothers). Based on a previous study (Ravaja et al., 2006), however, it is also possible that in-game failure might elicit positive affect (no not joy, some other positive emotions) and given that players know it’s a game, they might see as challenging. Of course, this doesn’t apply to those who don’t see it as a game, but see as a personal injury to their abilities. Along with physiological data, they also examined psychoticism had a role in emotional responses to video game violent events.  


Participants:  36 Finnish undergraduates (26 male, 11 female, age range= 20-30). All players had at least a video game once a month.  


Video games used: James Bond 007: Night Fire as the violent game condition and super monkey ball 2 as the non-violent control condition. 

Mood during game playing: they asked participants of the following moods they felt during a play condition on a 7-point scale:

  • joyful, lively, enthusiastic (joy)
  • relaxed, calm (pleasant relaxation)
  • fearful, nervous (fear)
  • angry, annoyed, aggressive (anger)
  • depressed, tired, dull (depression) 

These moods were categorized during the analysis and were not (presumably) presented in that way and maybe they were in a random order. 

Psychoticism: used the Psychoticism scale of the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire- Revised, short form. 12 items were used and answers were a yes or no. 

Physiological data: Facial electromyographic (EMG) were used to assess participants’ positive (zygomaticus major), negative emotions (corrugator supercilii) and “positively valenced high-arousal emotions” (orbicularis oculi) (huh?). 

Electrodermal activity or skin conductance level measures arousal. 

The in-game images were recorded in order to synchronize with the physiological data. 


Participants have electrodes to them and are given a 7 minute resting period then they played four different video games in random order. Each video game consisted of three play sessions: a practice session and two play sessions (with different game difficulties). However, the mentioned games will only in the analysis. Participants were told that the best players would get a prize (free movie ticket), IMO everyone is at least given a motivation to play. 


General mood in game play: two moods seemed to differ significantly with each other: joy and fear. Being that joy is scored higher than fear, while fear scored higher than anger, depression or pleasant relaxation. 

Opponent injured event: increased arousal, a decrease in positive emotions in relation to the non-violent condition. However, there were no changes in negative emotions. With psychoticism, it seems that those who scored high compared to the lows showed less of a decrease in positive emotions, although one of the physiological measures was not significant (zygomaticus major). 

Opponent killed event: increased arousal, a decrease in positive emotions in relation to the non-violent condition. No changes in negative emotions. With psychoticism, it seems that the high-scorers showed less of a decrease in positive emotions compared to the low-scorers. 

Player character injured event: increased arousal, small significant increase in positive emotions, but is followed by a decrease. Negative emotions presented a decrease as well. 

Player character killed event: increased arousal, an increase in positive emotions and a decrease in negative emotions. 

Effect of repeated exposure: increasing arousal when the players’ character is killed at multiple instances. But no other violent events had significant effects.


update (29/02/08) Discussion


Looking at slashdot and the comments to the article (so many…), one commentator had given a good critique(FreelanceWizard (889712)):


…which is that the authors are basing their conclusions on the premise that physiological responses are purely indicative of specific emotional states. This is a position people like Ekman take as well, and it’s easily falsified. Russell reviewed the literature around 2000 or so and found that, in fact, emotional displays are at least somewhat socially motivated and don’t always equate to specific emotions in a one-to-one fashion (especially in speech). To put it more simply, you may smile because you’re happy, but you might also smile because you’re being sarcastic, because you’re covering up frustration, etc. However, this study rests on the assumption that people only smile because they’re happy — period. (In all fairness, they’re not exactly talking about smiling here, but the principle is the same.)

So, sure, if you’re willing to accept that premise, then this study is great. If not, it’s just another in a long line of studies that suggest, but do not convincingly prove, what emotions can be generated by particular events. Really, this study just again points out how insanely difficult it is to get to a “ground truth” of what emotions people experience.

I agree with the commentator that the physiological data cannot correspond with specific emotions or moods. On a related note, the participants were asked the degree of the moods they felt during game play, not what they felt emotionally at specific game events. So the anxiety players felt during game might be normal because they are anticipating future obstacles or events to happen and they are preparing for such events. Since the authors did not asked what participants felt when an opponent gets injured or killed, we cannot for certain that the players felt empathic towards others (resulting in anxiety). From the physio data, it is possible that they felt aggressive or anger or hostile during that brief moment (as you can see, it’s very broad and uncertain). In effect, the physiological result could be in line with current research in psychology.


A common criticism from gamers is the degree of realism a video game has. My response is that what was termed realistic five years ago is no longer realistic today. Technological advances push the boundaries of computer graphics and our perception of computer realism. If our perception of computer realism is constantly changing, then no study in research would have any value at all in our view. However, in social science research, there are still significant results to what researchers look for despite the changes in video games. This suggest that something fundamental than graphics is at hand.


Another criticism I read in gamepolitics is the distance from the participants and the tv screen, I’m sure it is to prevent eye strain and video games are meant to be fully engaging to the players, so players won’t draw their attention away from the screen or else it would be a problem, both for the researchers and the game (a boring game is a dead game).


Now it is a relief that video games do not elicit positive emotions during violent events, giving support against Dave Grossman’s argument of training cold-blooded killers. However, Grossman’s argument rests upon some conditions that I think of:

  1. That killing is rewarding, I should add explicitly, extrinsic and highly rewarding. e.g. killing others in a VG will garner you scores and that the points are shown in a highly rewarding manner. Not killing where the reward is continued survival.
  2. Sanitizied violence, e.g. an event that won’t disturb players (references needed), but with all the blood and screams I think we’re doing a good job.
  3. and what Ravaja et al. noted is that what players would feel should also be rewarding and positive. However, from this study it might be hard to elicit positive emotions.

Now this is what I think on the top of my head.


Now on to the strangest part of this study is the positive affect felt when the players’ character is injured or killed. For now, I can’t really say anything for certain. The authors’ explanation is that positive affect might have been “relief from engagement”, sounds counter-intuitive to all of us. I sent an e-mail to ask them about my alternative explanation: could the feelings felt be surprise or excitement or even had no differences between pre-event and post-event affect as compared to the opponent events. In any case, I would see this result as tentative and maybe a WTF?! moment.

Update (01/03/08): I received their responses and yes it is possible the players felt might have been excitement, so what is conclusive is that positive emotions were felt during player death and injury. However, it is speculative on what specific emotions were felt at that time.


As for psychoticism, it’s like they just throw it in for curiosity sake. But it does seem an interesting moderating factor in VG effects.


As for desensitization, I should say that physiological or emotional desensitization to violent video game events does not occur in the immediate or short term. However, this does not disprove desensitization theory as IMO is a long-term process and is not evident over the course of fifteen minutes play time of this study.


Well this is all I could say at this moment.

Ravaja, N., Turpeinen, M., Saari, T., Puttonen, S., & Keltikangas-Järvinen, L. (2008). The psychophysiology of james bond: Phasic emotional responses to violent video game events. Emotion, 8(1), 114-120.

Ravaja, N., Saari, T., Salminen, M., Laarni, J., & Kallinen, K. (2006). Phasic emotional reactions to video game events: A psychophysiological investigation. Media Psychology, 8(4), 343-367.


2 thoughts on “Physiological and emotional responses to violent events in an FPS game (Ravaja et al., 2008)

  1. “it seems everyone had access to the article (normally, you’d need a subscription or university-sponsored access to get a journal article).”

    Or someone on Slashdot posted then entire study. ;)

    That’s how I read it.

  2. @ Jabrwock
    Oh that’s interesting! Sorry about my pingback comment on gamepolitics, if you can shortened it, then I thank you and again sorry.

    @ readers

    I am currently preparing an oral presentation that due on feb. 28, so my comments will be delayed.

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