Killing is positive! (Lang et al. 2013)

Heart rate recordings by Ben Lewis-Evans (University of Groningen) who is not involved in this particular study

Annie Lang (Indiana University) is a name every grad student should know. In fact, one of her former graduate student is a faculty member at OSU (Zheng Joyce Wang). She is big because she developed the Limited Capacity Model of Motivated Mediate Message Processing (LC4MP) explaining how we pay attention to information, be it to a conversation, television or videogames. She is also one of the few who studied communication through psychophysiology.

So when her name came up and it involves videogames, then it must be important, although painful to read since I’m weak against psychophysiology research.


This paper reports a study designed to investigate whether playing violent video games elicits the psychological conditions theoretically required for media use to cause aggressive behavior. Specifically, the study was designed to examine whether these games elicit desensitization, facilitation, and disinhibition. Thus, does physiological arousal in response to violent activity decrease over time during game play, and is there a difference between novice and experienced game players (as would be expected if desensitization had occurred)? Do players experience positive emotional states when actively engaged in virtual violent behavior (fighting and killing opponents) – a necessary condition for disinhibition? Do game players frame their motivations in terms of self-defense and game success, as would be necessary for facilitation to occur? The results showed that playing first-person shooters did elicit these requisite patterns of cognitive, physiological, and emotional states. Violent game play is a positive, arousing, present, dominant experience, as required for disinhibition and facilitation. Experienced game players are less aroused than less experienced game players (as required for desensitization). Further, during a game-playing session, exploring and searching for enemies become less arousing, while fighting and killing become more arousing over time (as required by desensitization and facilitation).

Via Jamie Madigan, I learned that Michael Ambinder [see post, see article] whose mentor is Daniel Simons (University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana), another big name in psychology, used psychophysiology to help design videogames, such as Left 4 Dead.

The authors are seeking whether videogames elicits specific psychological conditions that are necessary causes, but not sufficient, for aggression as postulated by General Aggression Model. These conditions are desensitization, disinhibition and facilitation.

Desensitization is a process where stimuli, such as violent acts in a videogame, becomes less and less arousing and perceptions of  them as less and less violent. Arousal is used to measure this process of desensitization and the authors conceptualized arousal in three ways: emotional, physiological, and cortical. The authors would measure desensitization by arousal through heart rate monitoring and skin conductance as they argued that arousal is based on the activation of the sympathetic nervous system.

Disinhibition is where an act, say an aggressive act, elicits positive emotions which lowers inhibitions that would have stopped such acts. In other words, what is usually an aversive behavior has become something positive and rewarding.

Facilitation is where the media allow players to practice aggressive acts and this is typically through justifying aggressive acts, such as survival, rewards or self-defense.

The authors also investigated presence’s influence on arousal, disinhibition and motivation.


Participants: 38 undergraduate students, 24 men and 14 women. No other demographic information.


Physiological arousal: this is measured through skin conductance which indicates activation levels in the sympathetic nervous system.

Cortical arousal and attention: This is measured through heart rate which indicates activation levels in the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. It also serves as an indicator of attention where deceleration of the heart rate occurs.

Emotional response: Participants rated their emotional responses to specific events in two ways. The first way is reporting their emotions in three dimensions: emotional arousal (calm – aroused), valence (positive – negative) and dominance (in control – out of control). The second way is categorical emotions where participants rate specified emotions on a 10-point scale.

Presence: 2-items on a semantic differential scale.

Motivation and strategy: participants rated six goals on a 10-point importance scale. Some of these goals refer to staying alive, overcoming the opponent, getting to the next level, exploring the environment, avoiding opponents, and seeking out opponents.

Videogame used: Quake 2, PC version with keyboard. “Why couldn’t they use a more recent game?” I ask myself. I reason to myself that it’s besides the point as the authors are interested in certain actions, thus they are not interested in narratives, character companions or any new developments since Quake 2. Second, the game is still regarded a videogame, albeit an old one, and many of the fundamental elements of first person shooters is still present, it is after all an old relative to the Call of Duty, Halo, Battlefield series. Play time is 10 minutes.


Participants are hooked to the skin conductance and heart rate monitors. They were given a training session on how to play Quake 2 on the PC. Then, the participants played for 10 minutes or until they’ve killed six opponents. Afterwards, they completed the questionnaires and thanked for their services.

Remember, the authors are interesting in four specific actions : hunting (i.e. looking for the opponent), seeing (i.e. spotting the opponent), fighting, and killing. Hunting and fighting can be minutes-long whereas seeing and killing are micro-seconds long. With six opponents for participants to kill, they have six episodes for each actions. Participants were asked about their emotions for each action across the episodes.


The analyses are conducted by repeated-measures ANOVA. It should be noted that psychophysiological analysis are conducted on the fighting and hunting actions as seeing and killing are very brief moments compared to the former.

The authors’ hypothesis regarding desensitization is that more experienced gamers would display less arousal during play and over time decreases. Increases of arousal should occur during fighting actions, when conditions for facilitation are occurring. Their results from skin conductance supports this hypothesis in that over time arousal decreases, and increases when fighting occurs. However, there were no differences between experienced and lesser experienced participants. Heart rate results showed only a main effect in that increases occur during fighting, and decreases occur during hunting, the latter indicative of greater attention. Participants reports of their arousals follows a similar pattern in that seeing the enemy is highly arousing, followed by fighting, hunting, and then killing as the least arousing action.

The authors’ hypothesis regarding disinhibition are that participants will report positive emotions when engaging violent actions. In the valence dimensional reporting of emotions, the results revealed that all actions were felt positively with killing as the most positive whereas hunting as the least positive. Other findings include that men reported greater levels of positive emotions, especially during the fighting actions. The dominance dimension of emotions, participants pretty much felt in control, especially when at the killing moment than hunting, seeing or fighting. The categorical emotion revealed that killing was less emotional and that there were more positive emotions rather negative ones.

The authors’ hypothesis regarding facilitation is that occurs when players’ violent actions are justified in terms of self-defense or success. The analysis from participants’ reporting of their motivations and strategies revealed that exploring motivations were more important than game-related motivations.

Finally, the authors argued that these effects would be influenced by presence. Results revealed that men reported feeling more present than women, but it has nothing to do with gaming experience. Furthermore, they found that greater feelings of presence is associated to greater physiological arousal through skin conductance and greater self-reported arousal.


The take home message is that first-person shooters do appear to elicit the psychological and emotional states for disinhibition and desensitization. These psychological conditions are necessary for behavioural effects, namely aggression. But, they may not be sufficient to drive aggression as I wildly surmise (perhaps the authors did argue in their paper, but I may have missed it) that managing players’ psychological states would minimize the elicitation of aggressive behaviours, specifically with fight-or-flight responses.

A particular importance to videogame research is that action matters and that are emotional and physiological state change according to the situation. When you see your opponent, a big red exclamation mark blows up and our emotions are driven up for a fight. In addition, the authors found inconsistencies with previous studies regarding the motivations of game-playing in that motivations in their study did not have an influence on emotions felt by the participants. They argued that specific games (genres) play a larger role in defining strategies.

The authors listed several limitations. One limitation is the unequal gender ratio of the sample, no surprise. They used one videogame, Quake 2. So, it would be interesting to try out MOBA-type games whether our physiological state makes us do risky actions.

Lang, A., Bradley, S. D., Schneider, E. F., Kim, S. C., & Mayell, S. (2012). Killing is positive!: Intra-Game responses meet the necessary (but not sufficient) theoretical conditions for influencing aggressive behavior. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 24 (4), 154-166. DOI: 10.1027/1864-1105/a000075

One thought on “Killing is positive! (Lang et al. 2013)

  1. Wonderful site. Plenty of useful information here. I am sending it to some friends ans additionally sharing in delicious. And of course, thanks for your sweat!

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