Knowledge about video games and its impact on priming aggressive cognition (Glock & Kneer, 2009)

Hardcore gamers have their idiosyncrasies that make non-gamers (i.e. most girls, parents and old people) tilting their heads left and right. Gamers speak a unique vocabulary (e.g. teabagging, gg), perceive the virtual world in a different way (e.g. understanding gaming physics) and anticipating your opponents’ moves (i.e. Starcraft pro players). The ever-nagging question, this generation, is does this kind of thinking makes them more aggressive? In the veins of moral maniacs, does this rot the core of their moral character?

Kou Ichinomiya (Arakawa under the Bridge) is skeptical of this study

Sabine Glock (University of Luxembourg) and Julia Kneer (University of Cologne) had published an article investigating whether being primed about violent video games among German players and non-players would lead to higher access to aggressive thoughts. At first, I felt scooped that someone had a similar idea I had. After reading, I felt relieved, but disappointed at their methods and it did not even come close to answering these questions. Well, at least they’ve done some research so I don’t have to. This could be one of my first priorities when I start grad school (huh… when do I start?).


Because of recent school shootings, there has been a broad public discussion on whether playing violent digital games causes aggression. Current empirical findings of media violence research on aggression are ambiguous. It is also unclear whether the positive correlation is due to active playing or to media reports. Media reports may lead people who do not play (nonplayers) to associate violent digital games with aggression, while active players (long-term players) may have differentiated knowledge structures. Therefore, we conducted an experiment to investigate the relationship between the concepts “violent digital game” and “aggression” for long-term players and nonplayers. Long-term players, nonprimed, and primed nonplayers performed two lexical decision tasks before and after playing “Unreal Tournament.” While priming “violent digital game” activated the concept “aggression” for nonplayers, active playing had no impact at all. The individual knowledge about these games had stronger impact on psychological responses than playing a violent digital game.

I have trouble using Connotea’s clunky and slow interface, its shameful search engine couldn’t even find an article based on its title or author, just tags. I’m switching to CiteUlike, I wonder if it’s better than Connotea.

The authors based their experiment on priming theory or the associative network models to test the idea that gamers’ aggressive cognitive schema are influenced by the violent content in video games. The basic principle idea of priming theory goes something like how mental concepts, ideas, images and memes are structured into units and are interconnected. The strength between these connections is based on repetition or how similar they are. For example, a gun enthusiast’s concept of gun would have many connections to other similar cognitive units, say model names of guns, specific guns in memory (say their first gun or the gun that turns a little to the right, etc.), gun conventions, gun safety procedures, gun maintenance, etc. Whereas for a teenager, his concept of gun would have fewer connections and perhaps connections to some distorted units. For example, guns are loud or recoilless as seen in movies and television. Desert Eagles are the best ones. Guns are violent tools. Seeing a gun frightens him. Guns kill people. In short, a mental unit activates nearby units within our mental map.

In the case of violent video games, it is currently society’s rotten apple among the older generation at least. Ask any non-gamers about violent video games and what you get is the most likely following: School shootings, atrocities committed in video games, the Hot Coffee mod scandal, the various news articles of kids’ misbehaviours divesting their responsibility unto video games and ultimately “violent video games cause violence”. They mostly get their information from the media. “Ridiculous!” as gamers respond in disgust to these news media, what they think of video games is far different as it is quite diverse and socially shared among others, and thus violence in video games take on a different meaning within their semantic map. Perhaps it is weakly associated to our aggression script and it has stronger connections with something completely different? As the authors reported an earlier study by Ladas (2003), gamers are more focused on competition, success, thrill and the joy of simulated power and control and (IMO) a little bit of ego stroking. Therefore, they theorized that gamers’ game-specific concepts (e.g. levels, dps, etc.) are strengthened when playing violent video games and subsequently weakening the connection to their aggressive schema.

So, the authors set out to test their hypotheses: priming non-gamers their image of “violent video games” and have them play a violent video game should increase their accessibility to their aggressive schema. Having non-gamers play a violent video game without priming should still increase their aggressive script. Gamers with extensive experience with violent video games should not have any changes in their accessibility to aggression schema due to their extensive exposure to media violence.


Participants: 48 German undergraduate students. All participants are men because recruiting enough girl gamers is a very difficult task to get any significant results. The 48 participants are separated into two groups based on video game experience. The Gamer group consisted of 16 students who played at least 3 hours per week and for at least 6 months, their average is 12.8 hours per week and their history of gaming is 7.7 years, respectively. They had some trouble getting some gamer participants. The non-gamer group consisted of 32 students who have no experience playing violent video games. Average age is 23.


Lexical Decision task: they created their own version of the lexical decision task (in German) and tested it out in a pilot study. They came up with words for each for the following categories: aggressive (e.g. crueal, malicious, etc.), antiaggressive (e.g. warm and peaceful), and filler. They included 40 nonwords in the list. They created two lists (a total of 70 words, with 10 words for each category) to counter-balancing purposes. The task consisted of the participant determining whether the word (randomly shown) is a German word or not, as quickly as possible. The response time is then used to determine if their aggressive schema is primed or not.

Video game used: They wanted to use Wolfenstein 3D. Unfortunately, German law prohibits Nazi-related content and they, instead, used Unreal Tournament. They wanted to replicate a previous study using the same game, but that would just cause a confounding effect, that I will call the retro-gaming effect: video games that are not on par to today’s standards (in every respect of game design) will likely lead to different reactions (i.e. nostalgia among gamers or boredom). This could potentially interfere with whatever variable a researcher is trying to investigate.

Furthermore, Unreal Tournament is a competitive-type video game as it bears similarities to sports, such as matches, teamwork and achievements. This is a potential confound since the authors did not describe what goes on in the game. Could they be playing a match or just mindlessly shooting waves of bots? How do the participants feel and think during playtime?

So, they might need a violent video game that focuses solely on killing others and with gore, say Manhunt, God of War, Gears of War, or Madworld. These games’ theme are about unjustified violence… Great, I just ranted. Well, this shows the complexities of video games.


Participants are tested individually. All gamers and 16 non-gamers (randomly selected) are informed that the study is to investigate “the relationship between violent digital games and response latencies” (to aggressive words, I presume?). This is their way to prime the concept of “violent video games”. At first, that’s sounds like a weak priming stimulus, isn’t it? Maybe they’re just priming participants’ own concept of violent video games. However, the authors risk not knowing what these participants’ concept of violent video games is and go on the assumption that they heard of violent video games from the news. It is possible that the experimenters themselves primed the idea that violent video games should lead to higher access to aggressive thoughts and it has nothing to do with the news. Additionally, the gamers were informed of the study because all of them played violent video games. Continuing, the other 16 non-gamers were only informed that they were in a social psychology experiment.

The participant is then tasked to complete the first lexical decision task. Then play Unreal Tournament for 30 minutes. Non-gamers were given an additional 20 minute tutorial to familiarize themselves. After the 30 minutes of play, they then complete the second lexical decision task. They then complete demographics, debriefing and kick off the lab grounds.

I wonder if there’s a problem in informing the participants of the student before the first lexical task, wouldn’t the mere mention prime the non-gamer participants’ aggressive schema? Wouldn’t this priming cause gamers to respond in social desirable way by slowing their response to aggressive words?


Their analysis found that prime non-gamers responded more quickly to aggressive words (M = 498.68ms, SD = 63.41) than antiaggressive words (M = 614.95, SD = 78.85) and faster than unprimed non-gamers (M = 655.31, SD = 137.82) and gamers (M = 750.60, SD = 164.10). In particular, the primed non-gamers response latency to aggressive words was faster before (M = 527.5, SD = 84.36) and after (M = 469.86, SD = 61.56) playing. Well, I guess that answered my first question and supported the first hypothesis that priming “violent video games” increase access to aggressive schema. What would be interesting for future studies is to test older vs. younger adults and their attitudes towards violent media and have them play UT and see how they fare in the lexical decision task. This could mean that media violence effects may simply be a function of social priming.

Their second hypothesis posited that playing a violent video game should prime their aggressive schema. This was not supported as there are no significant differences in the response latencies between aggressive words and antiaggressive words, nor before (M = 685.33, SD = 147.41) and after (M = 625.29, SD = 144.42) playing among the unprimed non-gamers. Well, this is interesting that there was no aggressive priming from the violent video game. However, the authors contend their results’ conflict with the literature may be due to difference in data analysis methods. Such methods include “aggression accessibility index”, and comparing data between violent and nonviolent video games. Okay, but at least they had a pre-post design. And the unprimed non-gamer results are sufficient as a control group. Well, 16 participants is hardly a control group, but hey it’s something to knock an egg open.

Gamers responded more slowly to aggressive words (M = 791.17, SD = 178.54) than antiaggressive words (M = 704.67, SD = 147.80) before playing. After playing, they showed no significant differences in response time towards aggressive words (M = 710.03, SD = 171.94) and antiaggressive words (M = 684.11, SD = 178.75). Instantly, I thought this might be due to social desirability and the authors had also mentioned it to explain such results. Well, this answers my second question. Alternatively, this is probably due to the weak priming stimulus I mentioned earlier. Better yet, this is probably the most indirect evidence that Unreal Tournament may have prime game-specific cognitive schemas, if only they had something to measure such schema. The authors suggested in the future investigating if gamers are suppressing their response to aggressive words.

Their take home message is that gamers think differently while playing violent video games. Their aggressive schema is suggestively not primed and something else is being primed despite being told about violent video games in the news media.

An important implication from this study is that people’s aggressive thoughts affected by violent video games are guided by their knowledge about violent video games and their personal experiences. If people’s perception of violent video games changed as rich interactive literature, instead of simple murder simulators, by rectifying sensationalist news reporting, raising awareness, producing narrative-driven video games, like Brothers-in-Arms and, importantly, bringing the video game experience to everyone as possible. Perhaps violent video games wouldn’t be so bad after all.

However, a game-specific cognitive schema does not absolve violent video games in affecting aggression. One troubling implication could be that game-specific cognition might generalize into other situations or situations that look similar to video games. Perhaps, that aggression schema is rewired to a gaming schema. For example, some gamer soldiers in the battlefield might feel like they were in a video game. This calls for a study into exploring whether game-specific schema is primed in non-ludic situations.

I call shotgun on this project on exploring the video game and the first person shooter cognitive schema.

Glock, S., & Kneer, J. (2009) Game over? The impact of knowledge about violent digital games on the activation of aggression-related concepts. Journal of Media Psychology, 21 (4), 151-160. doi: 10.1027/1864-1105..21.4.151


2 thoughts on “Knowledge about video games and its impact on priming aggressive cognition (Glock & Kneer, 2009)

  1. Pingback: The net-generation: Implicit strategies concerning protection of FPS games (Kneer et al., 2012) | VG Researcher

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