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Gaming can Save a Life

An often contended ideal is that video games more often promote violence and deviant social behavior changes. Much of the media and popular psychological research points to this, however evidence provides that games in fact can provide quite the opposite.

Colt Whitaker, Blogger

March 15, 2010

8 Min Read

Gaming can Save a Life

By Colt Whitaker

When one thinks of video games and the ability they hold to change behavior, and affect potential behavior, the possible outcomes are often thrown to the dark corner of the mind where violence, aggression, indignation, vengeance, and our blood lust is stored.

At least this is the common stereotype portrayed by studies, such as, “Video Games and Aggressive Thoughts, Feelings, and Behavior in the Laboratory and in Life” (Anderson and Dill, 2000), or perhaps the more exuberant title, “Violent Video Game Feeds Aggression in Kids in Japan and U.S.” (Science-Daily Nov. 4, 2008).

However, video games with positive behavior changes and behavior effects are rarely mentioned such as the game Re-Mission and more commercial games such as Harvest Moon or Endless Ocean. Video games like other  form of media, be it a book, television, newspaper, word of mouth, magazine, or even a simple drawing, can instill and teach us new ways to react, either enhancing our social behaviors or destroying and replacing them with less desirable ones. In today’s society, video games are to be used as a pro social tool to enhance positive behavior change and potentially save lives.

First, the ugly- it has been observed by studies (Barlett, Harris, Baldassaro 2007), that violent video games have a strong correlation to increased aggressive behavior in players (Anderson & Dill, 2000). A study done by Anderson and Murphy (2003) indicated on average that the more violent a video game is the more aggressive tendencies and behaviors are portrayed.

Can a game with violence still portray a positive message however? One game seems to prove so. The game Re-Mission, which takes on the generic third person action perspective, but applies a different twist to the action shooter norm of games such as Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (Playstation3 2007).

Re-Mission is a game where players control Roxxi, a Nanobot who is within the body of a young cancer patient with commonly diagnosed forms of cancer found within young adults and adolescents. These can include acute lymphoblastic leukemia, acute myelogenous leukemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and brain tumors. In the game, it is the players’ job to destroy cancer cells and manage common treatment side effects such as bacterial infection, nausea, and constipation within the virtual patient via Roxxi and her "arsenal of weapons" such as cancer medication, stool softeners and antibiotics. To win, players control Roxxi to ensure that virtual patients engage in positive self-care behaviors.

In a recent study done by Kato, Cole, Bradlyn, and Pollock (2009) it was indicated that even with a violent schema for a video game, it can still have a positive behavior modification. Patient adherence to prescriptions is an ongoing battle that is faced by the medical community. Nowhere is this discourse more prevalent than with young adults and adolescents, especially when diagnosed with a serious disease such as cancer.

Especially difficult is keeping a young adult or adolescent on a strict medical regiment when it is self treatment such as oral chemotherapy. In a recent study done by Kato, et al (2009), entitled “A Video Game Improves Behavioral Outcomes in Adolescents and Young Adults With Cancer: a Randomized Trial”, a positive correlation was found to increase adherence to self-induced treatment regiments.

What was the cause of this result? The video game Re-Mission. Three hundred seventy five male and female participants in the study were each given a computer. The computer had one or two games on it depending upon whether participants were in the control or intervention group. For the control group, a Shuttle SB51G minicomputer contained a single commercial game for the participant to play, Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb. While the intervention group’s computers contained not only this commercial game, but also the intervention game Re-Mission.

Even with the emphasis placed on destroying cancerous cells with arm cannon reminiscent of MegaMan’s own Mega Buster. A pro-social behavior was evoked from intervention participants. A 16% increase in adherence to self-treatment regiments was indicated by the results. These results indicate that given the right design, a game can save, or in some instances, prolong a life for someone to enjoy fully and to the best possible extent. What of a generation though? Can a video game have this same pro-social behavior effect.

It is unclear at this point if these pro-social behavior adaptations can extend to an entire generation through the media of video games. There is no lack of confidence or ingenuity though. Food Force, a game released by the United Nations in 2005, has tackled the issue head on . Food Force (www.food-force.com) is a game designed to introduce people to the structural difficulties of dispensing aid to war zones.

Another game, called A Force More Powerful released in 2006, (www.a forcemorepowerful.org) is designed to teach the principles of nonviolent strategy to players. Available free to the public, these games have found a substantial audience. Food Force, has been download by four million players, a number that rivals commercial games such as the First Person Shooter series Halo, (Xbox, Xbox 360 and PC), or the sand box crime series, Grand Theft Auto (Xbox, Xbox 360, Playstation 2, Playstation 3, PC, Nintendo DS, and recently announced for the PSP).

Champlain College’s own Emergent Media Center is currently engaged in the development of a pro-social behavior game. The project, entitled Empowering Play (http://www.emergentmediacenter.com/unvaw/index.html), focuses on the issue of violence against women. Still in the development stage, the game uses a football (soccer), mechanic to deliver its message of reducing violence against women to players of the electronic game.

With games becoming a vastly popular and accessible media in recent years it is hard to deny their power for social change and behavioral modification on players and people alike. In some instances, it can bring about an unwelcome behavior change, such as increased aggression in its players, revenge motives and increased aggressive responses to stimuli according to some studies (Anderson Dill 2000, Anderson Murphy 2003).

In others, it can bring about a pro-social behavior to increase their chances of survival, longevity and a better life. Hopes and aspirations are high that these pro-social habits and behaviors can be passed on to entire generations through the powerful media of games. It is with game projects such as Empowering Play, Food Force, A Force More Powerful, Re-Mission, and more commercial main stream games such as the Harvest Moon series, we begin to see that games are not a conduit purely for aggressive behavior modifications or messages.

That video games are not all about violence and the destruction we cause when dispatching that Cog in Horde mode for Gears of War 2 (Xbox 360), or that assassination in Halo 3 (Xbox 360) last night. That at times, it is also about changing behaviors towards women in a developing country through Empowering Play(EMC game project), dispensing aid to a war torn nation, or cultivating life from the smallest of seeds and starting a family (Harvest Moon Series, multiple consoles).  

Works Cited

Iowa State University. "Violent Video Game Feed Aggression In Kids In Japan And U.S.." ScienceDaily 4 November 2008. 2 October 2009 http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2008/11/081103180252.htm 

Clive Thompson “Saving the World, One Game at a Time.” New York Times July 23, 2009: Print, Electronic web post. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/23/arts/23thom.html?pagewanted=1&ei=5090&en=5737158797091966&ex=1311307200&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss

Pamela M. Kato, Steve W. Cole, Andrew S. Bradlyn, and Brad H. Pollock
“A Video Game Improves Behavioral Outcomes in Adolescents and Young Adults With Cancer: A Randomized Trial” Pediatrics, Aug 2008; 122: e305 - e317.

Anderson, Craig A., and Karen E. Dill "Video games and aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the laboratory and in life." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 78.4 (2000): 772-790. PsycARTICLES. EBSCO. Web. 2 Oct. 2009.   

Anderson, Craig A., and Christine R. Murphy "Violent video games and aggressive behavior in young women." Aggressive Behavior 29.5 (2003): 423-429. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. EBSCO. Web. 7 Oct. 2009. 

Barlett, Christopher P., Richard J. Harris, and Ross Baldassaro "Longer you play, the more hostile you feel: examination of first person shooter video games and aggression during video game play." Aggressive Behavior 33.6 (2007): 486-497. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. EBSCO. Web. 7 Oct. 2009.

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