Playing violent video games associated to playful biting thoughts (Bösche, 2011)

I heard something interesting from my colleague, Bobby, that the ethics process in Europe is more forgiving than here in the U.S. and faster too. I can certainly say the same thing from my alma mater.

Wolfgang Bösche (Technische Universistät Darmstadt) published an assumption-questioning article in Journal of Media Psychology. It is quite refreshing to read an article that actually test the theoretical assumption of media violence effects, for I lack the ability to think in such theoretical construction or criticism (i.e. I am an applied atheoretical social scientist). Anyways, Bösche is testing the cognitive route of aggression, and whether it is not just aggressive words that violent videogames prime.


Previous studies have shown that violent video games prime aggressive thoughts and concepts. Interestingly, positively valenced test stimuli are rarely used in this field, though they might provide useful information on the nature of the emotional response to virtual violence and its associative structure. According to the General Aggression Model (GAM) and its extensions (Carnagey, Anderson, & Bushman, 2007), normal negative reactions to violence are expected. Alternatively, playing violent video games might be construed as engaging in positively valenced playful fighting behavior. To test the potential of violent video games to prime positive concepts, N= 29 adult males played either a violent or a nonviolent video game for 20 minutes and were subsequently tested in a standard lexical decision task consisting of positive, aggressive, nonaggressive negative, and neutral target words. The data show that the violent video game primed aggressive concepts as expected, but also raised positive concepts, and did so independently of the participants’ history of playing violent video games. Therefore, the results challenge the idea that violent video games inherently stimulate negative concepts only.

There are times when I wished my blogging counts towards my grad school credits since it helps my scholarly knowledge in exploring the literature and across the field of communication.

As mentioned earlier, Bösche’s study tested the cognitive route of media violence effects. The cognitive route, as defined by the General Aggression Model, posited that as more exposure to stimuli would prime related concepts making them more accessible and faster to recall for the mind. For example, watching a murder scene would prime someone with forensic schema, like blood splatter, fingerprints, CSI, time of death, or other related cognitive schemas. The same is said for violent episodes in television or videogames. The more exposure leads to a stronger the link between stimuli and its associated cognitive concepts within the schema. Therefore, this kind of association between media violence exposure and aggressive thinking has been found in experimental studies. However, Bösche found a limitation in these studies is that data on other cognitive schemas, for example positive words, are rarely collected. This would be useful to see whether violent videogames prime other cognitive schemas besides aggression, it could be game-related schemas (IMO).

Desensitisation to violence is related in that the negative reactions to violence become blunted through repeated exposure. Bösche contend that the control condition in some studies are missing the theoretical point, because the experimental stimuli varied by “aggressiveness”, but its emotional valence remained the same, negative. So, he argued that looking at positively valenced words would provide some valuable insights at desensitisation. He further argued that given videogame sales are high, thus it must have been a gratifying experience. He argued that maybe some aggressions, like instrumental or revenge-motivated ones, are positively valence emotions.

Bösche went on to alternative explanations to why we might experience positive emotions in violent videogames. First, players do recognize the artificial and ludic nature of videogames, and sees it as a fun experience akin to “rough-and-tumble play”. Bösche argued that kind of play is important for developing social competence. He then mentioned Andrew Przybylski’s work that videogames are good motivators in that they satisfy some human needs, like autonomy, relation and competence.


Participants: 29 male German undergraduate students. Average age is 22.72 (SD = 2.23). 15 of those participants had played at least a violent video game the past week.


Lexical decision task: this is used to measure the valence cognitive schema. Participants are asked to respond whether the word they saw for a brief moment is a word or a nonword. An incorrect or non-response would prompt a tone of 300Hz whereas a correct one is at 1000Hz. Reaction time is used to assess cognitive accessibility, thus faster reaction times to a category is an indicator of cognitive priming. The words used are categorized into four categories: neutral (28 words), positive (28 words, e.g. blossom, happy), nonaggressive negatives (14 words, e.g. accident, embarrassing), and aggressive negatives (14 words, e.g. hate, murderer). Participants are randomly presented one of two sequential orders of blocks with pseudo-words mixed through the task. The first sequence is that the first block is neutral, aggressive negatives, nonaggressive negatives, neutral and then positives. The other sequence has the aggressive negatives and nonaggressive negatives switched places.

Videogame ratings scale: participants rate the videogame they played in terms of fun, frustration and burden on a 4-point scale.

Videogames used: I’ve got to wonder why he would these very old videogames… ZDoom, basically Doom and Blobby Volley, a videogame of blobs playing volleyball. He justified it quite succinctly that he is using them because they are comparable to the videogames found in the literature I found it hard to believe that Doom can be considered comparable and I’m more apt to use more recent videogames, like Unreal or one of the Call of Duty series.

I emailed Dr. Bösche regarding this issue, his responses were well articulated:

In my view, the cognitive effects of digital games are not a function of screen resolution, framerate, sample frequency and other fancy stuff. There might be a lower threshold to it, but that’s it. I think the games used are well above that threshold. Though there are some claims that the technical quality of the games play a role (for example, an amplifying one, making people even more aggressive or more primed towards aggression…) , I never came across a paper that actually proved it. There is a function of the content (if it is realistic what is going on, see Christopher P. Barlett and Christopher Rodeheffer, “Effects of Realism on Extended Violent and Nonviolent Video Game Play on Aggressive Thoughts, Feelings, and Physiological Arousal”, Aggr. Behav. 35:213–224, 2009; “For the purpose of this study, realism was defined as the probability of seeing an event in real life”), but not of its quality / granularity (see James D. Ivory1and Sriram Kalyanaraman, “The Effects of Technological Advancement and Violent Content in Video Games on Players’ Feelings of Presence, Involvement, Physiological Arousal, and Aggression”, Journal of Communication 57 (2007) 532–555; “Neither advancement nor violence had statistically significant effects on accessibility of players’ aggressive thoughts, but there is some tentative evidence that violent game content increased players’ state hostility”).
Yes, it would be nice to check if the results hold also for more recent games. However, I would not expect any substantial differences concerning the priming effects. The human cognitive system does not require “high definition” input.

2. If I used more recent games, there would have been the problem of possible alternate explanations of the results. For example, one could say that fancy graphics (maybe in combination with violent content) prime positive concepts. Therefore, in this case one could not attribute the positive priming to the violence specifically. The data could have been just turned down by the argument that I added positive priming by additional graphic features / advanced game mechanics et cetera. To conclude, the main finding that also positive cognitions were primed and that this was omitted / forgotten in the original studies could not be made if I used recent games. Using recent games could introduce possible confounds, and I just wanted to omit that problem.

Indeed, the relevance of graphical realism on the cognitive effects of video games doesn’t seem to make sense since our cognitive aspect is primarily concerned with the content. Think of it as the super-ego or some Freudian part of the conscious that can only see its own view of the world. So, a good question where does graphical realism would have an effect? I believe the more automatic or unconscious variables, such as attention, flight-or-fight responses or affect, would be associated with graphical realism.

Second, they should be easy to master, no question about that. Third, they should be well received by the gaming community so as not to bore gamer-participants. I understand that Doom might be popular due to nostalgia, but I’m leaning that other FPS games would have greater popularity. However, I’m not sure what goes in Germany’s gaming community and that perhaps Doom is still popular there. Fourth, both games are competitive. Okay, I think, although participants are playing Doom through story mode and not deathmatch.


Participants are randomly assigned to play either ZDoom or Blobby Volley. Playtime is 20 minutes. Then they do the lexical decision task. Simple isn’t it?


Analysis of data is conducted through a two-factor mixed ANOVA, with age, computer use, videogame playing per week, violent videogame play as control variables (they’re non-significant).

The results showed that participants responded to the neutral words slowest. Main effects were found for word type (i.e. positive words were fastest with aggressive words in-between), but no main effect for game type. An interaction effect was found in that aggressive negatives words as well as positive words have the fastest reaction scores among the violent videogame group.

Another analysis was conducted by looking among the 15 participants who had played a violent videogame in the past and found the same results.

As for the videogame ratings, differences were found in that the players rated both videogames as more fun than non-players. But there are no differences between the videogames among the players. As for the non-players, they rated the violent videogames as less fun than the nonviolent videogame. No significant differences were found for frustration or burden.

No analysis was conducted on whether the fun rating is a significant variable. The author addressed this concern, that if the non-players rated the violent videogame as less fun, then slower lexical scores for positive word and faster negative nonaggressive words should reflect this as well. But, the results showed no such thing.


Miya Tachibana (Amagami SS) playfully bites her brother

Take home message: violent videogames not only prime aggressive negatively-valenced words, but also positively valenced words as well, by theoretical extension our aggressive and positive thoughts. The author interpreted this that players understand the virtuality of violence in videogames and see them as “rough-and-tumble play” and that such play would explain why playing violent videogames is an enjoyable experience. So, we might have players who are, actually in a good mood with aggressive thoughts in mind.

/rant on/ Hmmm…. maybe that’s the same for football or hockey fans, that winning, sport aggression and competition put them in an aggressively good mood. Hey, why not check if participants are more extraverted, more social (e.g. inviting others, from one to the number of facebook friends, to a match or some fun activity) or perhaps more celebratory (e.g. maybe they’d buy their friend some beer or pizza, etc.). If that put them into a good mood, perhaps it might affect their self-esteem, must ask John Velez. /rant off/

The author addressed a number of limitations of this study. First, sample size of the participants and the videogames. Really now, I might’ve rejected the study based on the age of the videogame, but then it just shows that no matter the age of a medium, it still showed media effects and the assumption questing study was really interesting. I might assign it to an undergrad for replication… Furthermore, the structural characteristics of the videogames (e.g. pacing, difficulty, complexity) were not controlled for, except for violent content. Second, the priming of positive words might be due to arousal and the author went on a lengthy discussion how hard it is to disentangle arousal from aggression and how it is debatable to find something an activity that is neither arousing and aggressive nor aggression not associated with activity.

Third, the male-only sample might not be generalizable to the other gender because male are more aggressive and that half of the sample consisted of players who played a violent videogame in the past week. The author contended that if virtual violent acts are interpreted as “rough-and-tumble play” then videogames should be enjoyable regardless of gender. A final limitation is about the methodological limitation of the lexical decision task, whether the positions of the blocks might influence the results.

Bösche ended the paper by mentioning LAN parties and videogame social events where gamers get together in a friendly and competitive environment and “is not known as a hotbed for outbreaks of melees or other violent behaviors”. And some expressed their willing to cooperate in similar future studies.

Bösche, W. (2010). Violent video games prime both aggressive and positive cognitions. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications , 22 (4), 139-146. doi: 10.1027/1864-1105/a000019

2 thoughts on “Playing violent video games associated to playful biting thoughts (Bösche, 2011)

  1. Pingback: Playing violent video games associated to playful biting thoughts … | industry, blog, iphone, app, creative, games, programming, project, various, criminalminds

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