Physiological arousal, noise blast & state hostility in relation to differences between desktop vs. virtual reality gaming (Arriaga et al., 2008)

I suppose Jack Thompson and other fear mongers might’ve had a panic attack when they heard VR goggles were available and thought up the dangers when combined with video games. For example, the enhanced visuals of the goggles capture the complete attention of a person which would further blur the boundaries of reality and fantasy making people act out violent behaviours they learned from supposed “ultra-realistic murder simulators”. However, VR goggles have been in existence for more than 20 years and yet we still use our television screens for our pleasure. Whatever the disadvantages of the VR goggles may be, it’s worthwhile to check out how VR goggles might mediate people’s gaming experiences. Here’s a recent study by Arriaga et al. who conducted a complex experiment on participants’ experience playing video games with a VR headset.

Abstract

This study was conducted to analyze the short-term effects of violent electronic games, played with or without a virtual reality (VR) device, on the instigation of aggressive behavior. Physiological arousal (heart rate (HR)), priming of aggressive thoughts, and state hostility were also measured to test their possible mediation on the relationship between playing the violent game (VG) and aggression. The participants—148 undergraduate students—were randomly assigned to four treatment conditions: two groups played a violent computer game (Unreal Tournament), and the other two a non-violent game (Motocross Madness), half with a VR device and the remaining participants on the computer screen. In order to assess the game effects the following instruments were used: a BIOPAC System MP100 to measure HR, an Emotional Stroop task to analyze the priming of aggressive and fear thoughts, a self-report State Hostility Scale to measure hostility, and a competitive reaction-time task to assess aggressive behavior. The main results indicated that the violent computer game had effects on state hostility and aggression. Although no significant mediation effect could be detected, regression analyses showed an indirect effect of state hostility between playing a VG and aggression.

Besides measuring for aggressive thoughts, behaviour and emotions. They also tested for fear-related thoughts because previous studies have found that it is associated to television violence. It makes sense since people who see such violence in television, in particular from the news, would view the world as a scary place and become more scared. They were also looking whether the increased immersiveness of VR would lead to an increased in participants’ identification with the main character of a game.

There were previous studies on VR settings and video games, most notable is the research conducted by Jim Blascovich, of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Basically, he found a positive interaction between the game’s VR setting and violence content and participants’ aggression. But, other studies did not find such interactions. Of course, the studies are not identical to each other in some aspects. Nevertheless, most studies have found that VR made people perceived the game more realistic, felt more immersed and involved, and identified with their avatars more strongly.

The bottom line is, VR or no VR, violence in video games has an effect on people’s hostility and aggression. However, there are plenty of reasons why the results ended up like that.

Method

Participants: 148 Portuguese college students from various places in Lisbon. 55.4% and 46.6% are female and male, respectively. Average age 23 years. 49.3% of the sample reported not playing any video games. Such a large percent, IMO, could be attributed to being college students having less time for video games, most women never played video games and possibly due to cultural attitudes on gaming. I thought it was unusual at first, so I looked around and found one article that had found similar results (Ogletree, 2007). However, looking at the standard deviations of game playing from other studies on college students, it still seemed unusual. Some participants’ data were not analyzed due to technical failures during testing.

Measures

State Hostility Scale: 35 questions answered on a 5-point scale.

Video game experience: questions on a 5-point scale about their competence, immersiveness and identification with the character in the video game experiment.

Physiological arousal: er… not going into detail. I don’t understand it myself.

Emotional Stroop Task: This is related to the colour stroop task and I recommend you try it before moving on, as you’ll understand the latter part. This is used to measure how accessible certain emotions are when performing a task. In this experiment, they’re looking for emotions related to aggression and/or fear. Basically, you read some words, some of which are related to either fear (e.g. scared) or aggression (e.g. kick), and you are to say the colour of the ink that the word is printed on. The more accessible the related emotion is, the longer you take to say the colour of the ink. It’s quite a creative way to measure emotion priming.

Aggressive Behaviour: A time-reaction test where participants blast a tone before an opponent does. This is known as the Taylor competitive reaction time test. Participants were also given the choice of setting the noise level they’d blast their opponents. I believe Dr. Christopher Ferguson of Texas A&M University was critical of the validity of this test (Ferguson, 2007).

Games used: They tested out several games to choose for their experiment and they used Motocross Madness and Unreal Tournament. Both games are similar on 14 dimensions: satisfaction, pleasure, excitement, discomfort, competence, boredom, disorientation, difficulty, frustration, involvement, game action, identification with the game character, game realism, and sense of presence. Furthermore, both games are capable to play on VR headsets. An interesting note is that only 15 and 17 participants had prior experience with Motocross Madness and Unreal Tournament, respectively. Several thoughts ran through my mind, Portuguese students play less than their American counterparts; the games are too old and are replaced by their newer versions which explains the low number of participants who had previous experience with them. However, depending on when the experiment was conducted, this could be a mistake on the part of the experimenters who did not ask whether the participants had played newer versions of the same game. They also used Tetris Classic as a baseline measure before the experiment proper.

VR headset used: The I-glasses SVGA 3D PRO. The visual is at 800X600 resolution screen. Not sure if it’s good enough or very ugly and I don’t know how a VR set is like. It is possible that it can be uncomfortable, may induce eye strain, unfamiliarity with the VR headset might be a potential distractor and visual tracking might be confusing.

Procedure

So participants have electrodes attached to them where their physiological state is continuously monitored. Before they start the experiment proper, the experimenters asked to participants to listen to some quiet music and to play Tetris for about 2 minutes each in order to get their baseline heart rate. Afterwards, participants are randomly assigned to either play the violent video game (Unreal Tournament) or the non-violent game (Motocross Madness) and whether they play with the VR headset or on a computer desktop with a regular monitor. Half of the sample either played the violent or non-violent game, half of the sample either played their game with a VR or on a desktop computer. Game playtime is 7 minutes; hmmm… it’s probably way too short for the VR condition since they might spend all their efforts familiarizing with it. Afterwards, they were asked to complete the state hostility scale, the video game experience questionnaire and the emotional stroop task in that order. Finally, they performed the aggressive behavior test. The procedure is done in one hour on average. Not bad.

Results

An interesting aside is that, in the entire sample, they found significant negative correlations between participants’ perception of competence with perception of immersiveness and state hostility. Basically, those who reported higher perceived competence reported lower scores for perceived immersiveness and lower scores on the state hostility scale. It makes me think that perhaps higher scorers on perceived competence were less distracted by the graphics and content of the video game and were more focused on their performance. But, this cannot be generalized because we don’t know if it is the effect from one or all of the factors.

Are VR headset lead to increased perceived immersiveness and identification with the main character of a game? No significances or differences found. IMO, this is probably due to participants’ unfamiliarity with VR headsets. Nevertheless, there was one significant relation between the non-violent video game and character identification that is participants in the non-violent identified with the character more than those in the violent video game. The authors reasoned that characters in Motocross Madness are more believable than those in Unreal Tournament.

Do fear or aggression is more accessible after playing a violent video game and whether VR headsets are a mediating factor? Not a single statistical significance found at all. The authors reasoned that the way they administered the emotional stroop task might affect their results, since the emotional stroop task is administered after the state hostility scale which contains aggression semantics which could potentially prime participants to think aggressive thoughts, thereby potentially influencing the emotional stroop task. Again, the participants’ unfamiliarity with the VR headset might explain the lack of significant differences. In addition, since there were no differences between factors for fear-related emotions. In the authors’ opinion, it might have to do with the participants’ age since they reasoned that children might be more likely to be scared when exposed to violent media than adults do. IMO, I think that priming of fear-related constructs for adults would be based on more on the game’s setting and genre. So I believe a horror-themed game would do the trick in priming fear thoughts than Unreal Tournament, which looks more like a bloody sports game.

Physiological arousal, do violent video game with VR headset increase participants’ heart rate? Averaging heart rate at each minute, they found only one statistical significance. Those who played with the VR headset, regardless of game content, had higher physiological arousal than those playing on the computer desktop. There are more details, but I don’t know what to make of. There was no significant correlation with physiological arousal and aggression or state hostility since physiological states do not necessarily mean one thing in one’s mind.

State hostility and video games: a positive correlation between violent video games and state hostility. Furthermore, those who played on desktop computer reported higher scores than those in the VR headset. Again, possible unfamiliarity with the VR headset. No other factors were significant.

Aggressive behaviour: a positive correlation between violent video games and aggressive behaviour. But, VR or no VR has no significant effect to it at all nor does gender.

In summary, VR headsets today are not going to be popular overnight and anybody who tries them out won’t show any behavioural or emotional differences, except for a racy heart. However, the question is still worthwhile if we find a good sample of people who regularly uses these headsets. Nevertheless, the content of the game seem to matter to most.

Another point to consider is the design of the current generation of video games compatibility with VR headsets. Although, I have limited knowledge about VR headsets and their use in games, but I believe that most game developers don’t really bother design game that fully utilize VR headsets and those that do have some annoying flaws for gamers that would render the prospect of playing with a machine stuck to your eyes moot. I believe that a VR game, a game specifically designed to be played with VR headsets in combination with a motion capture control scheme (like an advanced Wiimote), would present a possible paradigm shift in gaming, but also a clear differentiating point for psychology research between today video games and tomorrow new media gaming technology.

A final point to consider is how VR video games are played in other studies and how if affects the results. Persky and Blascovich (2007), mentioned earlier in this post, had found statistical differences. However, one point of contention is that they designed their own video game, that was simple to play and was designed to be compatible on both desktop and VR settings. Glaring differences between their study and this study here is that Persky and Blascovich allowed the VR participants to move their physical bodies in order to move their virtual bodies allowing a greater sense of immersiveness, but also allowing a more intuitive game experience for the participants. In addition, the setting, controls and objectives of the game were very simple in comparison to Unreal Tournament and Motocross Madness.

It’s nice to check out new peripherals that have potential uses in video games and possible effects. But studies on new technologies not yet adopted by the public should not be used as a warning sign of danger to society, health or whatever one’s fears to abuse by some fearmongers.

Arriaga, P., Esteves, F., Caneiro, P., & Monteiro, M. B. (2008). Are the effects of unreal violent video games pronounced when playing with a virtual reality system? Aggressive Behavior, 34(5), 521-538.

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