Playing prosocial videogames decreases schadenfreude (Greitemeyer et al., 2010)

I originally started this post months ago, but it got buried under a lot of work and grading. Now that the winter quarter ended and weirdly enough, I found this study and recent events to have some relations. So bear in mind, my thoughts seem fragmented since they were written over several weeks.

An internet example of schadenfreude

Of the 8 videogame studies that Tobias Greitemeyer (University of Innsbruck) had published, this is what I ended up posting about: an experiment demonstrating prosocial videogames can decrease schadenfreude. His studies deserve posting and yet I never got around until a curious construct shows in the title. This study was published in the December issue of Emotion, although the email alert was just after new year’s day. As for the image, there’s a tumblr site: Ignorant and Online that documents postings.

Abstract

Past research provided abundant evidence that exposure to violent video games increases aggressive tendencies and decreases prosocial tendencies. In contrast, research on the effects of exposure to prosocial video games has been relatively sparse. The present research found support for the hypothesis that exposure to prosocial video games is positively related to prosocial affect and negatively related to antisocial affect. More specifically, two studies revealed that playing a prosocial (relative to a neutral) video game increased interpersonal empathy and decreased reported pleasure at another’s misfortune (i.e., schadenfreude). These results lend further credence to the predictive validity of the General Learning Model (Buckley & Anderson, 2006) for the effects of media exposure on social tendencies.

One of the most difficult aspects of grad life is self-discipline. There are so many things to do, and a single distraction can derail any carefully laid schedule.

Schadenfreude is defined as feeling pleasure at another’s misfortune. This is an unfamiliar concept, originating from Germany, that I need to explore and elaborate to myself. It’s different from apathy because it’s defined as indifference to another’s misfortune. It’s not exactly the opposite of empathy, as the authors noted in a footnote that empathy involves a social orientation that’s missing in schadenfreude. How related conceptually is schadenfreude to aggression, specifically the affective side? Can it be related to relational aggression? I guess that one difference I could think is that schadenfreude does not necessarily motivate people to harm others for pleasure, which would be sadism. For sure, it would decrease prosocial behaviours since those high in schadenfreude will most likely sit and laugh.

The media research literature (through a quick google scholar search) revealed its obscurity in that field, but is quite well researched in psychology, mainly through social comparison theories. Some media psychology textbooks did not make any mention of schadenfreude nor did the construct gain any attention in the communication literature as a quantifiable construct. I’d better talk about this with the faculty, if it deserves some merit.

Study 1

Method

Participants: 56 German undergraduate students. 28 female and 28 male. Average age is 29 years.

Measures

News vignette: They took a May 2007 news article from the Online Spiegel about Paris Hilton going to jail due to reckless driving. Participants were asked to respond about their feelings about Paris Hilton on three items: schadenfreude, relief and happiness. Responses were on a 7-point Likert scale. Remember they asked these feelings in German, I don’t think there’s an effective English translation for schadenfreude. These are combined to form their schadenfreude variable.

Essay vignettes: Two essays from “another participant” (e.g. who doesn’t really exist, but don’t tell the participant). One essay is about a relationship break-up, the other is about a broken leg during an intramural game. Both essays are apparently about the essay writer’s misfortunes. So, the participants were asked how they feel about the suffering “participant”: how sympathetic, compassionate, and soft-hearted, response on a 7-point Likert scale. These are combined to form their empathy variable.

Videogames used: Lemmings as the prosocial videogame and Tetris as the neutral videogame. Playtime is 10 minutes. The videogames were rated by the participants to ensure that the games were properly matched on difficulty, differentiated by prosocial content, and controlled for liking the game. Answered on a 7-point agreement scale.

I can see why Lemmings is a prosocial videogame since the player is tasked to helped a bunch of lemmings to safety. But, it’s past its prime and should look for other prosocial videogamaes, like Chibi-Robo!. Well, the good thing is that at least participants did not have any prior experience with lemmings, so at least we can control for past experience.

Results

Initial analysis using t-test revealed that players (M = 2.13, SD = 1.46) who played Lemmings, the prosocial videogame, reported less schadenfreude than those who played Tetris (M = 3.35, SD = 1.39), the neutral game.

ANOVA analysis showed only a main effect where game type was significantly associated with empathy.  Regression analyses showed that prosocial content and schadenfreude was marginally significant. Game type and gender were found to be a significant predictor for empathy, no surprise there. But other predictors, such as liking of the game, aggressive content, difficulty showed no difference between the games nor are they significant predictors for schadenfreude nor for empathy.

The authors cautioned some limitations from the first study, Paris Hilton may deserve for her misfortunes. The authors argued that schadenfreude was more likely to occur if such misfortune was deserved rather than undeserved. So, they examined whether one’s “karmic” misfortune might interact with videogame content.

On second thought, it may be because Paris Hilton is a foreigner and that (leaping out of my mind with the earthquake in Japan) foreigners are treated differently, or more harshly, than native celebrities or individuals, maybe an in-group versus out-group conflict effect.

Study 2

A conceptual replication of study 1 with some adjustments, Dieter Bohlen, a German celebrity, replaced Paris Hilton. They included an anti-social videogame, called Lamers, which is the opposite version of Lemmings, they have to use violent means to prevent lamers from getting to the exit. I’m surprised they managed to find something like that, although from the youtube video, it looks like a cheap parody of the game.

Participants: 61 German undergraduate students. 39 females and 22 males. Average age is 23.

Results

T-test analysis for schadenfreude revealed that prosocial condition has the lowest score (M = 0.73, SD = 0.81) in contrast to the neutral (M = 1.47, SD = 1.62) or antisocial condition (M = 1.65, SD = 1.78), however there were no score differences in schadenfreude between the neutral and antisocial games. As for empathy, the same pattern was found and they did not include the numbers. As mentioned earlier somewhere in the post, empathy and schadenfreude are not exactly related to each other and this is reflected that there are no correlations between empathy and schadenfreude scores.

When looking at the other variables, like difficulty, liking, content, and participant gender and controlling for them. Game type is still a significant predictor for schadenfreude. However, game type was a non-significant predictor empathy, this time it’s the aggressive content that became significant for empathy scores. The authors argued that it may due to using only one item (where did that come from?) and the reliability is low. Other limitations is that they were surprised that the antisocial condition did not differ from the neutral condition and perhaps (IMO) that Lamers isn’t antisocial enough, maybe some blood or rewarding cues for violent actions might jolt it up, and that the participants played for 10 minutes which is relatively shorter than the norm of 15 minutes of playtime.

Discussion

With these experiments, we know that schadenfreude and empathy are not related in any significant way. We know that prosocial and antisocial videogames have different effects on both of the outcome variables and that means prosocial in-game interactions would have as much effects as antisocial in-game interactions (IMO). Okay, that’s not good enough to make that last claim, but hey we got something.

There are some limitations to keep in mind about this study. The sample size is relatively small, limited number of videogames since they used one videogame per condition and old ones at that, and that prosocial content in Lemmings may not have been really prosocial since the average score is 2.29 on a 6-point scale. Also, their empathy measurement’s reliability is relatively low. They used well-known people (i.e. singers, celebrities) in their misfortune vignettes for their schadenfreude scale, but they did not measure with ordinary people’s misfortune. So, it may be worth a look at how people’s schadenfreude level towards ordinary people or perhaps their friends. Or in more recent events, towards different societies suffering a natural disaster.

The authors suggested some directions for future studies. Why does prosocial videogames promote empathy and schadenfreude? Is it because prosocial videogames makes prosocial thoughts more accessible? Is schadenfreude more likely to manifest if one’s misfortune is of deserving? One suggestion that I had to dig up an article is to look at gender-typed empathy and prosocial behaviours, whether boys are more apt to act friendliness, engaged and assertive, while girls are more helpful, sympathetic and compassionate. Perhaps, boys and girls respond more strongly to prosocial videogames that conform with their gender socialization of prosocial behaviours. Another suggestion is the setting of the videogame, I doubt that a remorseful assassin would elicit schadenfreude, perhaps more empathic priming.

Well, it’s important to look into schadenfreude since we, as of this writing, comment who deserve their punishment and who deserves our sympathy. Like the Zangief kid or the earthquake in Japan.

Greitemeyer, T., Osswald, S., & Brauer, M. (2010). Playing prosocial video games increases empathy and decreases schadenfreude. Emotion , 10 (6), 796-802. doi : 10.1037/a0020194

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