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The College of Liberal and Fine Arts

Virtual Violence

The Complex Effects of Video Games

Video games have come a long way since Pac-Man first gobbled his way across arcades around the world. Far beyond the basic graphics and simple rules of an earlier era, today’s games are filled with rich animation and complex — often violent — plot narratives, raising questions about the impact that exposure to these games has on the human psyche and on human behavior.

A link between violent video games and aggression has long been hypothesized by researchers, but studies seeking verifiable effects of exposure to graphic imagery have proved inconclusive. One UTSA professor has taken a more nuanced approach to this lingering question, with results that shed new light on the topic.

Dr. Chad Mahood, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, acknowledged the difficulty of conclusively demonstrating how violent video games could lead to real-life violence, given the inability to enter into a person’s inner thought processes. Instead, Dr. Mahood has focused on the issue of frustration, and the likelihood that gamers will experience this feeling when they enter a virtual world filled with little more specificity into what I try to do with my work. One example of that is video games and frustration.”

The purpose of his experiments – which began in 2006 at the University of California- Santa Barbara (UCSB), where he earned his Ph.D. – was to illustrate degrees of frustration in playing video games, frustration that could be a gateway to more extreme reactions.

“Really where I wanted to go with this is that a game might not be violent at all, but feelings of frustration could still create a problem.”

To test his hypothesis, he offered UCSB students extra credit to participate in a study in which they were exposed to games featuring varying degrees of obstacles during one-hour sessions. Afterwards, the students filled out questionnaires to ascertain the level of frustration they experienced. A scoring system of one to seven given to personal statements – “I find it difficult to control my anger,” for instance – helped separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of honest replies, Mahood said.

A large sample size and an eye toward statistical anomalies – any participants assigning the same number for all the questions were discounted altogether, for example – further ensured the integrity of the testing. Depending on their exposure to disparate variables – either violent or merely frustrating – participants were then assigned into four quadrants for more focused examination.

“My research doesn’t blame video games for crimes but examines frustration as part of the mix,” Mahood said. “I don’t think there is any instance of someone playing video games who directly went out and did something violent as a result.”

What he did find is that real-world environmental considerations – the quality of a person’s family life or employment status, for example – combined with the type of video game play tends to affect the level of personal frustration reported after a gaming session. The post-game survey was worded in a way to elicit personality traits as well, Mahood said.

Mahood manipulated participants’ experiences to test his theory, exposing some to rudimentary offerings from early video games (such as a James Bond-themed game with primitive graphics in which the player shoots at clearly visible enemies) to more modern versions presenting higher and more complex layers of obstacles.

“In some of these games, it was very difficult to shoot enemies and in others you can’t find the enemy,” Mahood explained.

To further assess real frustration as a result of video game exposure, he exposed some participants to both violent games and those designed to exasperate the player rather than to incite violent feelings – the more advanced levels of Tetris, for example.

“There is absolutely no violence involved in Tetris,” Mahood noted. “It’s just putting blocks together. Either you get very frustrated by it or not. As a condition of examples of frustration, we started with a bunch of blocks at the bottom of the screen and started off at level ten to add to the frustration. We set it high enough so that even if participants were Tetris-experienced, it would still be difficult to clear all the levels.”

Mahood has long been fascinated by the potential effects video games have on personal behavior. He launched his first study as a doctoral student at UCSB, and then undertook a second, related study in 2010 at Ohio State University, where he was an assistant professor. After coming to UTSA in 2011, he started his third study on the subject. He presented his findings this past Memorial Day at the International Communication Association conference – considered a premier forum for scholars – held this year in Phoenix.

“I was able to both support prior research and add to it,” Mahood said. “Violent games lead participants to feel more aggressive and think more aggressive thoughts. We’ve confirmed that, and it’s still true. It’s been established clearly and I don’t disagree with that. But it’s also true that frustration also makes you feel more aggressive and think more aggressively.”

In one study, Mahood found even more nuanced effects of gaming exposure, including feelings of guilt, shame and remorse. That part of his research focused on games with plot lines that included tormenting or humiliating characters depicted as homeless members of society, for example, or those involving the killing of innocent victims.

This aspect of Mahood’s research showed that not all violent video game play has negative effects, illustrating that graphic violence does not always lead to aggressive behavior. What’s more, when players were asked to cooperate in a violent video game with someone who differed from them, they actually displayed less aggression after game play. The upshot: Video games could actually play an important role in intergroup conflict resolution.

“Games today have more complex narratives and drama. The realism is far beyond what it was even ten years ago. There are also many stories engaged in complex moral reasoning,” Mahood explained. “My overall goal is to have a more complex and more nuanced look at how video games affect people than what’s out there.”

To this end, Mahood is revising a pair of manuscripts for publication. He has previously published articles in several peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Mass Communication & Society, Health Communication, the Journal of Current Issues & Research in Advertising, and Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, and has presented his work at conferences.

At 36, Mahood has personally seen the evolution of games from simple graphic offerings to today’s complex animated platforms. He attests to their role in increasing his own frustration during his lean years, a period when he took menial jobs to pay the bills while pursuing his education, giving anecdotal evidence for his theory that it is a person’s environment and circumstances, more than solely the games, that affect mood and behavior.

But by his own admission, the jury is still out on whether or not actual violence can be attributed to violent video games. In examining the heightened sense of frustration games can yield, Mahood has opened a new window into our understanding of the interplay between video games and behavior.

“When video games use violence so casually, it could be a problem,” he said. “The potential is there for concern.”

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