Sunday, November 18, 2012

Games that Heal

I remember watching my friends play the PC game Doom as a child, and blowing away demons with semi-automatic weapons in a mad dash to the end of the level. This adrenaline-filled experience is probably something most researchers would call the induction of anti-social and aggressive behavior through play. But this is not the whole experience of video-games and many players recognize that some games which promote “pro-social” behavior (games which focus on saving humanity), can make players more empathetic human beings.


The Positive Side of Video Games



There is a growing body of research that shows how priming the brain to experience a pro-social behavior can actually help induce pro-social mental states. (Greitemeyer, Tobias, & Osswald, 2011:122) One example of this includes a study done in 1995 where participants were “primed” or given help-related words every day, and were more likely to exhibit helpful behavior throughout the day (ibid). Nelson and Norton (2005) found that participants primed in the category of “superhero” were more likely to help and volunteer for service. Similarly, a video game which places an individual in the role of hero, or savior, might prime the prime towards acting to help other classmates in need, thus inducing pro-social behavior (ibid).

How Games Heal and Harm


On the flipside of this conversation, games have also been shown to promote aggressive thoughts, affect, and behavior; priming the brain for the anticipation of negative interactions. Playing video game relative to neutral (in terms of violence) might increase hostile expectation bias (Bushman & Anderson, 2002) and state hostility and anxiety levels (ibid). These effects were explained by the General Aggression Model which claims that aggressive media contents activate an individual’s internal states, including cognition, affect, and arousal (ibid). This model however has recently been combined with GLM model or General Learning Model which basically claims exposure to media of this kind might induce both aggressive and pro-social behavior depending on the content of the game (ibid).

How Games Help Educators

Behavioral issues ranks as one of the top-most concerns for teachers leaving the Teaching profession. Moreover, it is also one of main causes of student discontentment at school. Behavior has mostly been tackled with in the form of developing a teacher-student relationship, fostering respect between both groups, and using role playing and teaching to facilitate student learning. However, the prospects of doing this combined with regular class instruction, meetings, etc. seems incredibly daunting for most instructors. Video-games that simulate and induce pro-social behavior offer the chance for instructors to give students “clinics” that might help prime their brains for good actions in the real world, without direct instruction. The burden is then placed on the student and their engagement with the virtual program rather than the teacher.

Examples in the Classroom

There are a variety of team games that can help students develop positive social relationships in the physical world. An earlier study showed the power of these pro-social games (by examining products from The Game Factory) to help students develop empathic feelings and positive relationships (Street, Hoppe, Kingsbury, and Tony Ma., 2004). However, video games which combine physical and virtual presence have great promise for helping students develop ethical behavior on and offline. Really, any game with a team or cooperative focus can help students to develop these attributes.

Games with problem-solving components, or moral choice segments, in which players have to make choices about how to best play the game could include a classroom component where students discuss their strategies and ultimately vote on the best way to play. In this way, team-based gaming, or cooperative gaming (where students are paired) can provide opportunities for students to help each other out, build relationships and ultimately succeed in school.

Next week:

We will explore gaming communities, and the controversy over the creation of ulterior personalities and virtual lives that replace our “ordinary” ones.


Works Cited:

Greitemeyer, Tobias, and Silvia Osswald. "Playing Prosocial Video Games Increases The Accessibility Of Prosocial Thoughts." Journal Of Social Psychology 151.2 (2011): 121- 128. Academic Search Premier. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

Street, Hoppe, Kingsbury, and Tony Ma. “The Game Factory: Using Cooperative Games to Promote Pro-Social Behaviour among Children.” Australian Journal of Educational & Developmental Psychology, v4 p97-109 2004. University of Newcastle. School of Education, Callaghan, NSW 2308, Australia. e-mail:; Web site:

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