I was a little surprised this morning when I read an article on wired.com about a new report by Dr. Niklas Ravaja, a researcher with the Center for Knowledge and Innovation Research at the Helsinki School for Economics. In it, Dr. Ravaja and his colleagues report that when the emotional states of video game players were monitored with several tiny sensors, they felt a release when they were killed but experienced distress when they killed another character in the game. (Disclaimer: The paper, entitled The Pyschophysiology of James Bond: Phasic Emotional Responses to Violent Video Game Events, is unavailable to read in full online unless you pay for it. Everything I know about the report comes from other articles about it, not from my firsthand knowledge of the paper’s contents. I’m not finding much in the way of scholarly critical response to the paper.)
At first, this conclusion seems backwards. When you kill another character in a game, you’ve eliminated your opposition, so you should feel a sense of victory, right? And when you’re killed, it means you’ve lost, and what feels good about losing? Dr. Ravaja theorizes that this is because even when we operate in a virtual world like a video game, our real-life sense of morality doesn’t entirely switch off. Although we know intellectually that we didn’t really just kill someone, we feel a little bad about it. When we die, we’re relieved from the stress of playing.
This was surprising to me because so much past research has suggested that violent video games desensitize a player, blurring the lines between a virtual world of no consequence and a real world where murder holds many, many consequences. Like Dr. Ravaja, I’m a little relieved at the implication that gamers aren’t completely turned off when their games are turned on. Given the fact that violent video games aren’t going to disappear, I find the new perspective to be somewhat comforting.