Helping behaviors during videogame play (Velez & Ewoldsen, 2013)

John Velez (Ohio State University) mentioned this article when he gave his opinion on Jerabeck and Ferguson’s article some time ago. I originally wanted to compare the two studies, but they were not comparable on several respect. This study surveyed helping behaviours with other players. Velez noted that the data is quite old, I forgot how old, but at least 4 years old. Why was it not published earlier? A lot of priorities at the time.


Research suggests that video games are becoming a social activity. Previous research has neglected the complicated social context in which people now play video games. However, a growing body of literature suggests that playing violent video games cooperatively with others can attenuate their aggression-facilitating effects and increase prosocial behaviors between players. To better understand which types of social game play can foster helping behaviors between players and which players may be engaging in these helping behaviors during game play, the current study administered a survey to 252 students who self-identified as video game players. The results suggest that participants who reported playing cooperatively/competitively with other players were more likely to report engaging in helping behaviors during game play. Additionally, participants who reported being motivated to play specialized roles in group game play and have an altruistic personality were more likely to report engaging in helping behaviors during game play.

According to my database, this is the only survey study that examined prosocial behaviours within online gaming.

The appeal of video games grows beyond the visceral thrills of the senses and focuses unto the experiences of playing with others. Social play, from social networking-based games like to Words with Friends and console-based games, is now a fundamental design aspect for a majority of video games and quite certainly a requirement for high-budget games. A number of experimental studies show that cooperative gaming can foster prosocial relationships, prosocial behaviours, and most importantly, enjoyment.

Notwithstanding the fact that many videogames are violent and that player like to play and foster prosocial relationships with other players, this seems to run counter with the gist of violent videogame research. The caveat of this gist is that many studies relied or assumed single player experiences. You must admit that the Internet back then was not as fast or widespread as today. Nevertheless, whatever social videogame play studies would not necessarily proved the gist wrong about aggression as they are quite different areas. IMO, we still need to understand why people like to share their fantasies with other people’s mother or yelling at others for not doing “what they’re supposed to do”.

The authors noted that a dichotomy of cooperative and competitive gaming overlooks the complexity of the social interactions that video games now offer. A blend of cooperative and competitive gameplay can be found in many first-person shooters where two competing teams fight to win some objective, from scoring the most kills to capturing the most objectives. Thus, IMO, an examination of cooperative and competitive gameplay could be examined across different levels. The intrapersonal: comparing your past or best performance with your present performance. The interpersonal level: competing with individuals (teammates or other players) on some metric (e.g., kill scores, kill ratio, etc.). The intergroup level: competing with your group to another group (e.g., team scores).

The authors proposed to examine social gaming through the theory of Bounded Generalized Reciprocity which posits that a team member would behave toward others influenced by their self-interests, in this case, winning. The theory proposed that such self-interest for team members would have them behave positively toward each other and expect others to reciprocate, but does not behave the same nor expect any reciprocation from members of the opposing team. This is called the group heuristic. The theory further proposed that any positive behaviours for a team member can be reciprocated by another team member and not necessarily the one who benefitted. If a team member does not reciprocate such good will, they would be risk of being excluded from them and be labeled as a free rider or other similar terms.

The authors noted that a motivation, among others, for social game play is playing a specialized role, for example in MOBA gaming like carry, tank, jungler or support. They argued that playing a specialized role would mean players are interdependent with each other and the theory posits a greater degree of cooperation because of the expectations of reciprocity between team members. Furthermore, the interdependence would increase team members’ perceived responsibility as their role can influence others’ performance which boosts their efforts for helping their team.

I should note again that the study’s data is probably before MOBA was popular and, yes, I experienced the toxic competitiveness from League of Legends and it drained my motivation from play it again. But it is still interesting to examine as the theory of bounded generalized reciprocity involves expectations of reciprocity, in a future study we could examine MOBA players’ expectations of reciprocity and what violates their expectations (e.g., seeing a team member’s mistake as intentional). Furthermore, it would be interesting to see why some players feel they carry more weight for the team than others, in particular when they are in roles that they see are important, such as the carry. Conversely, it would be interesting to see how players about roles they see as less glamorous, such as support, and how they would perform.


Participants: 252 undergraduate students somewhere in Alabama. 63% of the sample was female.


Gaming expertise: participants rated their gaming expertise on a 7-point scale, from rookie to expert.

Types of social game play: participants rated how often they played, on a 7-point frequency scale, games competitively, cooperatively or cooperatively with a group competing against another group.

Motivations for social game play: Based on a 2007 dissertation, participants rated their motivations for social game play on 7 items on a 7-point frequency scale. Some of the motivations include: Playing with others… “is more fun/enjoyable than playing alone”, “is a better experience than playing alone”, “is more interactive than playing alone” and “allows me to have a specialized role within the game”.

In-game helping behaviors: From the same 2007 dissertation, participants rated how often on a 7-point frequency scale on 2 helping behavior items (e.g., “assisting them with my character in the video game”) and 4 verbal helping items (e.g., “verbally giving them suggestions to improve their play”, “point out things that they may not see”).

Altruism: The authors argued that altruistic people are more helpful than less altruistic ones. They’ve used the altruism scale from the International Personality Item Pool. 10 items on a 7-point accuracy scale.


The authors conducted hierarchical regressions to examine whether playing cooperatively with a team resulted in greater in-game helping than playing in cooperative or competitive game play. With gaming experience, gaming expertise and gender as control variables, they found that playing cooperative with a team lead to greater helping in-game behaviours. In regards to verbal helping, they found that expertise and playing cooperatively in a team lead to greater verbal helping.

The authors conducted hierarchical regressions to examine whether the motivations of social game play, specifically playing a specialized role, lead to greater in-game helping. With gaming experience, gaming expertise and gender as control variables, they found that motivation to play a specialized role lead to greater helping in-game behaviours. In regards to verbal helping, they found that expertise, but not the motivation to play a specialized role lead to greater verbal helping.

As for altruistic personality. With gaming experience, gaming expertise and gender as control variables, they found that altruism was not a significant predictor for in-game helping behaviours, but it was a significant predictor for verbal helping along with expertise.


The take home message is that playing in a team against another team, players would help others behaviourally and verbally. Furthermore, if a player is knowledgeable, they would help others by giving useful tips. I should note that this not say about team work, group coordination or leadership. Nevertheless, the theory of Bounded Generalized Reciprocity did predict that when you are in a group that serves your interest (i.e., winning), you are going to cooperate with your team members and expect the same, hence the group heuristic. This is especially true when you like playing under specialized roles, that feeling of being in a unique position that can determine the fate of your team. Although, IMO the feelings may differ on how you like the role you are given. I prefer being a support than a carry.

The authors cautioned  that the study is correlational and my take on their limitations is that some helping behaviours in the study seem less applicable to some genres. I think they should gather more information on in-game prosocial behaviours in some genres, starting with the MOBA-type games.

As you noticed, I made connections between this study and player experiences in MOBA-type games. Here are some thoughts from reading this study. The group heuristic may be hindered if players’ motivations are more selfish. As noted in the comic above, some players may be motivated to win on their own to carry the winning blow for the team (and for their ego). In my limited experience, a good number of players wanted to play carry rather than support or tank, this lead to lower cooperation and higher likelihood of angry messages whenever mistakes are made. Some may forcefully order other players to do what they want them to do.

The group heuristic in MOBA could explain why some players would be hostile (i.e., sending angry messages or reporting the “offending” player) and are less likely to help a team member. When a team member makes a mistake, some players would perceive it as intentional, but this is likely due to correspondence bias. This also happens when a team member violates another member’s helping expectations, for example not using their ultimate skill at the right time or used it in a wrong way. In another situation, I laned with a player who orders me not to kill any of the creeps because their champion is a carry and does so without reciprocating my support. Whenever my partner’s champion is killed, they blamed me for not supporting them, but I cannot support my partner with a low levelled champion. In this situation, we have a team member who expects help from others, but does not or is unconcerned of reciprocating that help. There might be some factors leading to such unfair expectation. Perhaps playing an important role, such as carry, meant that the help received is an investment of future success, although I think this brings about feeling of entitlement. Thus, the group heuristic could turn into a double-edge sword resulting from cognitive biases and perhaps other psychological mechanisms.

In any case, I now wonder if there are any games researchers that specifically study Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games. This study could jump start a lot of interesting studies.

Velez, J. A., & Ewoldsen, D. R. (2013). Helping behaviors during video game play. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 25 (4), 190-200. DOI: 10.1027/1864-1105/a000102


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