Your pain is none of my violent gaming business (Fraser et al., 2012)

I previously posted a study from the family psychologist Sarah Coyne’s (Brigham Young University) study on videogames as a source of conflict among couples. This study where Coyne is a co-author follows the same theme with empathic concern towards strangers, friends and family members.3MrmX


Exposure to media violence, including violent video gaming, can have a cognitive desensitization effect, lowering empathic concern for others in need. Since emerging adulthood offers increased opportunities to volunteer, strengthen relationships, and initiate new relationships, decreases in empathic concern and prosocial behavior may prove inhibitive to optimal development during this time. For these reasons, the current study investigated associations between violent video gaming, empathic responding, and prosocial behavior enacted toward strangers, friends, and family members. Participants consisted of 780 emerging adults ( M age = 19.60, SD = 1.86, range = 18–29, 69% female, 69% Caucasian) from four universities in the United States. Results showed small to moderate effects between playing violent video gaming and lowered empathic concern for both males and females. In addition, lowered empathic concern partially mediated the pathways between violent video gaming and prosocial behavior toward all three targets (at the level of a trend for females), but was most strongly associated with lower prosocial behavior toward strangers. Discussion highlights how violent video gaming is associated with lower levels of prosocial behavior through the mechanism of decreased empathic concern, how this association can affect prosocial behavior differently across target, and finally what implications this might have for development during emerging adulthood.

This winter semester I will be learning structural equation modeling so I can understand what all these numbers are about, like what the hell is RMSEA?

Their theoretical basis is desensitization theory which posited that frequent exposure to a stimuli leads to less and less intense response. For example, being expose to violence for the first time is frightening, but as one is frequently exposed, the more one gets “used” to it. The same applies for phobias, seeing a spider is terrifying, but seeing more spiders quite frequently can lead to a habituation and thus desensitization. An unfortunate side effect is that the fear and anxiety is just dulled away, sounds good, but a necessary factor for empathy is being able to take the perspective of others, including feelings of hurt which desensitization dulls it out. Without those emotions, the likelihood of prosocial behaviours is lessened.

Prior studies have found that violent videogames decreases prosocial behaviours. Within the empathy literature, the authors argued that empathic concern is a factor leading to prosocial behaviours and argued that empathic concern is a mediator between violent videogame exposure and prosocial behaviours. Simply put, you need a reason to act nice, one of those reasons is being concerned about the pain of others because you feel for them. That being said, I am aware that a good portion of gamers have set up charities and are actively engaged in civics. It is quite a conundrum that you might have gamers who play violent videogames and yet are charitable people. I would argue that perhaps uses and gratifications theory might provide some explanations. I reckon that some people might play videogames in a rather maladaptive manner who don’t give a damn about the world around them whereas others would harmoniously integrate videogames into their lives, taking cues from the dualistic model of passion, self-determination theory, and mood management theory.


Participants: 790 undergraduate students from four universities. The participants are part of an ongoing project called Researching Emerging Adults’ Developing Years (READY). Average age is 19.6 (SD=1.86), there are 547 women and 243 men. The participants were surveyed online.


Violent video gaming: Two items. Participants were asked how many days in the past year they played (1) overall videogames and (2) violent videogames on a 6-point frequency-days scale. The authors argued that people’s judgement of violence corresponds neatly to expert judgement so they did not ask the titles. Fine… but I am interested in what is the most popular videogames during data collection. (mind you the most popular in my sample is usually Call of Duty and football games).

Empathic Concern: the empathic concern subscale from the Interpersonal Reactivity Index. It consisted of 5 items using a 5-point “like me-not like me” scale.

Prosocial behaviours: 15-items from some prosocial measure’s subscale of kindness/generosity. These  15 items were broken down into three target subscales: strangers, friends and family members. So… 5 items for each target? I’d ask for more, but an online survey means brevity.


The authors prefaced the main results with a series of descriptive statistics and a structural equation model showing that they can proceed with the main results. One unsurprising descriptive is that 81.5% of female respondents did not play violent videogames at all. The authors did something that confused every time I read it is they reversed the empathic concern scores so they can demonstrate that ‘high’ low empathic concern is negative associated with prosocial behaviours.

The authors examined whether empathic concern acts as a mediator between violent videogame play and prosocial behaviours using structural equation modeling. They controlled overall videogame play in the model. They checked for gender differences and found none or more technically two path constraints led to model fit reduction. The final model is shown below.

fraser et al

As you can see, violent videogame play has a direct and negative effect on prosocial behaviours towards family members whereas there are indirect effect through low empathic concern to prosocial behaviours towards strangers and friends. The authors conducted more analyses using the same paths but looking at one prosocial target at a time. What they found is that associations between low empathic concern and prosocial behaviours towards strangers is stronger than the relations for friends and family members. In contrast to the overall model, the indirect effects of violent videogame play for women are marginally statistically significant (p < 0.07). IMO, I might attribute that to low power due to the relatively small number of women who play violent videogames. Nevertheless, it is cautiously suggestive that the relations are kind of true regardless of gender.

In the overall model, overall videogame play was controlled for and the authors explained at length what this means. They noted that overall videogame play was negatively correlated with low empathic concern among men only, something that didn’t show up in the correlation analysis which is called a suppression effect. Hmmm… very interesting and very relevant when you think about videogames’ content diversity. Overall videogame play consists of both non-violent and violent videogames, since they parsed out violent videogame independently from overall play in their structural equation model, we have a clearer picture that only violent videogame play have a adverse and indirect impact on prosocial behaviours, nevertheless other types of videogames can have a beneficial impact as well. That would indicate a solution of balancing a media and social diet, I added social when you consider online play with well-behaved people versus trolls.


The take home message is that violent videogame play’s adverse impact on prosocial behaviours towards strangers, friends or family members is mediated by our empathic concerns towards them. You play some violent videogame, it affects your concerns for others which in turn affects how you would behave prosocially towards others (strangers, friends or family). Nevertheless, the other way is suggestively possible when looking at overall videogame play that could include prosocial or group-oriented play.

The authors noted that these associations are quite weak and it is a correlational study, remember it was an online survey of undergraduate students. The strongest mediated associations is that of strangers. The authors argued that empathic concern’s role in terms of helping out your family or friends is smaller since social mores about established relationships obligates you to help out, they are expected to be and is quite habitual, unless you explicitly hate each other. On the other hand, helping strangers requires a different set of conditions where empathic concern has a greater role in which emotions can push us to help strangers in need.

In the context of emerging adulthood, which is the authors’ speciality, the concern about violent videogames’ adverse impact on empathic concern would affect these college students opportunity to develop a mature, other-oriented identity which is a key factor for reaching adulthood. I might add that other sociological factors, such as materialism and the increasing rise of narcissism have a role too (see Jean Twenge). On the other hand, it is possible that today’s emerging adults are helping in their own way through the internet, such as giving advice on forums, tweeting causes they support, donating money to a cause, etc. The authors added other factors themselves, such as parent-child relationship as a possible mediator between violent videogames and prosocial behaviours towards family members.

The authors listed their study’s limitations. It is correlational, most of the sample are women (547 vs. 243), college students which may not generalize to those who did not attend college. So why not study them? Do you realize this calls for additional resources? We might need to pay compensation to working young adults to come to our campus or we drive to them and ask them our questions. An online survey might alleviate a bit, but we have to contend about those who don’t have internet access and advertising our study to a specific population or general population yet again requires grant-level funding. That is if you can convince the granting agency or the public to fund such a project and we could get slaps from some hypocrites.

The authors did not discussed at length about the social context of violent videogames. This is important as social media is woven into today’s emerging adults’ life so should the social impact of videogames be discussed. I’m not familiar with computer-mediated communication research, but the Social Identity Model of Deindividuation Effects (SIDE) comes to mind that could explain some of this study’s results. As interpersonal communications in videogames are diverse, the adverse parts are players who trash talk like crazy or is normative in some videogames. For example, League of Legends is known for vitriolic communications due to the game’s structure for high competitiveness. No research has been done on differences of interpersonal communication on non-violent vs. violent videogaming, but anecdotally, there is a lot of harsh language and nasty behaviours from players in violent videogames. SIDE posits that players whose identity is anonymous would self-categorize and behave according to the norms of the environment. When such aggressive behaviours are accepted online, this could “bleed” into other contexts as it is learned into their cognitive schema which can lead to lower empathic concern. Going along with the authors’ reasoning, emerging adults would miss out opportunities to help others and develop their mature identity because they are frequently involved with people who aren’t exactly model citizens.

A second consideration is what some videogames offer for moral opportunities, recent research examined moral choices in videogames and how players behave morally within those videogames, specifically role-playing games. This makes me wonder how morality is developed through first-person shooters, although I suspect they prime dehumanization instead. Could it be possible that individuals with a heavy diet of dehumanization tend to be more aggressive? Could some dose of moral choices or just the presence of morality in videogames can serve as a protective factor in violent videogames effects?

Fraser, A. M., Padilla-Walker, L. M., Coyne, S. M., Nelson, L. J., & Stockdale, L. A. (2012). Associations between violent video gaming, empathic concern, and prosocial behavior toward strangers, friends, and family members. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 41 (5), 636-649. DOI:10.1007/s10964-012-9742-2


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