Relaxing videogames and prosocial behaviours (Whitaker & Bushman, 2011)

Endless Ocean

Exactly one month ago, news about Jodi Whitaker and Brad Bushman’s (Ohio State University) started to flood on about and I relegated myself to the confines of my office battling out the end-of-quarter war. The outcome of the war was a set of headaches and a blown cognitive motivator. Anyways, I liked the simplicity of this study and the writing is a relief to my recent reading of a book that used obscure language.


Research shows that violent video games increase aggressive behavior and decrease prosocial behavior, but could relaxing video games have the opposite effects? In two experiments, participants were randomly assigned to play a relaxing, neutral, or prosocial video game for 20 min. In Experiment 1, participants competed with an ostensible partner on a competitive reaction time task in which they could behave in an aggressive manner (by blasting their partner with loud noise), or in a prosocial manner (by giving their partner money). In Experiment 2, participants reported their mood after playing the video game. After the study was over, they could help the experimenter by sharpening pencils. Compared to those who played violent or neutral video games, those who played relaxing video games were less aggressive and more helpful. Playing a relaxing video game put people in a good mood, and those in a good mood were more helpful.

The night scenery at the Oval were quite beautiful with the fireflies glowing around.

The theoretical background of the study is based on mood management theory which posited that individuals in a good mood or positive affect (e.g. being happy or peaceful) are more likely to behave more prosocially (e.g. helping others). Previous studies support this argument using relaxation techniques and calming music. The reason that good mood leads to increase altruism is that the individual is motivated to prolong or maintain this mood and helping others support this mood.

Experiment 1

Participants: 150 undergraduates, average age is 19.6 and 46% are men.


Aggression and prosocial behaviours: The competitive reaction time task. The partner is tasked to press a button, when cued, as fast as possible. They do this 25 times or trials with an ostensible partner. Before each trial, the participant is asked to set the noise level and how long the noise should the participant win and how much reward money they would give to their “partner” should they lose.

Videogames used: Endless Ocean and the fishing mini-game in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess are used as the relaxing videogames. Super Mario Galaxy and Wii Sports Resort are used as the neutral videogames. Resident Evil 4 and No More Heroes are used as the violent videogames. All of these videogames are played on the Wii and playtime is set at 20 minutes. The participants were asked to rate the videogames in terms of how entertaining, enjoyable, relaxing and violent it is.

Videogame preferences: Participants were asked to name their three favourite videogames.


Individual participants are randomly assigned to play one of the videogames. After a 20 minute playtime, they are then tasked to the competitive reaction time task. Then, the small questionnaire and debriefed for suspiciousness.


A 3 (game type) X 2 (gender) ANOVA was conducted to investigate differences in aggressive and prosocial behaviours in the competitive reaction time task. They found what was expected in that there were significant differences between the conditions where the violent condition participants displayed the greatest aggression whereas those relaxing condition showed the least and that men were aggressive than women, but they found no interaction effects. In terms of prosocial behaviours, they also found significant differences between conditions where those in the relaxing condition gave out the most money than those in the neutral or violent condition; curiously men were also more generous than women. The participants’ listing of their favourite videogames as a measure of habitual exposure to violent media did not have any significant effect as a covariate.

Experiment 2 was a replication of the experiment 1 with some additional measures, such as measuring mood and using a different prosocial measure.

Participants: 116 undergraduates, average age is 19.4, 39% are men.

They used the same videogames as in experiment 1.

Affect: 18 items of different emotional states, ranging from boredom, joy, pride to sadness. Answered on 9-point scale.

Prosocial behaviours: Participants were kindly asked to sharpen pencils for the researchers, no rewards were given. The number of sharpened pencils implies the level of prosocial helping.


The same ANOVA analysis using the number of pencils sharpened as the dependent variable revealed similar results to experiment 1 in that those in the relaxing condition (M = 5.11, SD = 4.27) sharpened more pencils than the other conditions (neutral: M = 3.72, SD = 2.11; Violent, M =3.97, SD = 2.53). However, gender was not a significant main effect, nor were there any interactions.

As for affect, it was found that inducing a positive affect or mood via playing relaxing videogames lead to greater prosocial behaviours.


The take home message is that relaxing games are relaxing and promotes prosocial behaviours according to the experimental measures used. Incidentally, Kotaku blogged, two weeks later, a related post asking readers what videogames they play to relax, the sort of videogames they play after a stressful and tiresome day. Any videogames made by thatgamecompany (e.g. Flow, Flower, and Cloud), Harvest Moon, The Undergarden, Chime among others corroborate the study’s results. Some readers mention others videogames that seemed surprising, such as Morrowind, inFamous series, Civilization 4, Tropico 3, Lego Island 2, Katamari Damacy, GTA4 and Portal, although I observed that these games are played in a sandbox context or played after mastery, in the case of Portal. The commonalities I noted are the games are slow pacing (e.g. turn-based or low APM), have relaxing or transcendental music, involving nature (e.g. Flower, The Undergarden, Flow), and simplicity (graphic-wise, control-wise and surprisingly repetitive grinding).

Shiki-Tei (PS3)

From these observations, the nature setting is a significant factor to consider in prosocial behaviours which was evidenced by Netta Weinstein’s (University of Rochester) experimental work on natural environments and generosity (2009). Furthermore, Self-determination theory would also posit the need for autonomy as one of the pillars in psychological well-being, the sandbox nature of some videogames would seem to support that. The videogames used seem to differ according to the environmental setting where the relaxing games are in nature settings whereas the violent ones are in non-natural environments (urban or square blocks of grey and brown). That book with the complicated language I mentioned earlier wrote something interesting about Japanese design philosophy, “the house and the environment are conceived as fluidly interdependent”. I imagine that Japanese game designers tend to blend nature and human environments following this philosophy, it might explain why we see walking mushrooms, neko girls, mythological creatures and wildlife as common characters. This is contrasted with European design philosophy “where the building acts as a barrier against nature”, so there are less integration betweeen man and nature, like sunlight or grass, that are depicted throughout a Western-developed videogame (I am going waaay over my mind). Whatever insight I got is that perhaps we should consider a harmony-with-nature philosophy in videogame design.

For a game design point-of-view, integrating relaxing activities in the game might be appealing to some parents wishing to “cool down” the arousing and violent content. Some example activities might be like chilling out in the base, having some conversations with NPCs at the local bar, doing some virtual relaxation or reading the newspaper. I can imagine some videogames might accommodate that, but not others due to one possible design factor, game time. Now imagine a game where it is fast-paced, like Modern Warfare 2, it is like playing 24: No time to relax because you are racing to stop a terrorist plot. The narrative and ludological design goals would not be able to accommodate relaxing elements, it would be awkward. Now if the game time is longer or paced at a slower rate, then perhaps players can relax in doing something else.

Besides relaxation and from a mood management theoretical perspective, inducing a good mood or affect would lead to increases of prosocial behaviours. Now we have empirical evidence for relaxation, we also need to consider other positive mood inducing elements. Claire Dormann (University of Ottawa) and Robert Biddle (Carleton University) wrote an article on humor in Simulation & Gaming in videogames which would be an interesting read (I haven’t read it).

Whitaker, J. L., & Bushman, B. J. (2011). “remain calm. be kind.” effects of relaxing video games on aggressive and prosocial behavior. Social Psychological and Personality Science . DOI: 10.1177/1948550611409760

2 thoughts on “Relaxing videogames and prosocial behaviours (Whitaker & Bushman, 2011)

  1. First off, great post. I think that finding video games that are relaxing and that promote prosocial behaviors would be great. Too many games get people worked up and wanting to smash things. I’m not saying these games are bad, I’m just saying having some variety would be great.

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