How Do Video Games Affect Our Cognition and Behavior?

by | Aug 4, 2021 | Technology, The Big Question

On any given evening, one may be in the mood to collect fruits and fossils, drive recklessly and buy flashy clothes or shoot zombies in an apocalypse — all of which can be done through a video game console. But how do these virtual activities affect players in real life?

Jorge Peña, associate professor in the UC Davis Department of Communication, investigates cognition, affect and behavior in virtual environments. Here, he highlights some of his findings regarding video games’ effects on real-world behaviors.

Why do we play video games?

We may turn to video games for a variety of psychological-based reasons, namely intrinsic motivation and wishful identification. “They may serve needs for entertainment, connecting to others, autonomy, and feeling good about ourselves and our skills,” said Peña. 

Exploring worlds and adventures unavailable in the real world allows us to do and be things we cannot in real life. We may identify with certain characters or aspire to be like them. 

“We’re more likely to vicariously learn more from people or media characters that we identify with,” Peña added. One line of research also shows that action games may affect players’ visual and mental acuity in real life, such as keeping track of different targets, identifying targets among distractors and tasks involving hand-eye coordination. 

One line of research shows that action games may affect players’ visual and mental acuity in real life.

Video games can affect social attitudes

Video games can even shed light on empathy and feelings toward other groups. Peña has studied how perspective affects these feelings.

In a recent study, he studied how video games influence people’s willingness to help immigrants. Using a game known as an empathy simulator named “Papers, Please,” participants played as an immigration officer in a totalitarian regime. Peña measured participants’ views about immigrants at the baseline, randomly assigned them to “Papers, Please” or a similar game in which the protagonist is a newspaper editor, and measured their views toward immigrants after playing the game.

He found that participants who played as immigration officers checking immigrants’ papers were less willing to help immigrants the more they played. Due to the perspective that players took during gameplay, their social attitudes and empathy toward the plight of immigrants were decreased compared to a control group.

In another study, Peña explored how interactions in virtual reality can decrease prejudice against Latinos. The more that participants in virtual reality use similar language and imitate a Latino character’s communication style, the more they decrease their stereotyping against that character.

“I’m excited about the idea of providing a space for people to find common ground and communicate and to leverage that opportunity,” said Peña.

Avatar characteristics can influence players’ behaviors

Peña has found that video game avatars can affect our physical activity. “If you have a health-related game where you’re trying to influence people to eat healthier or exercise more, the more they identify with a video game character,” said Peña.

Video game avatar examples: "normal" and "obese"

Avatar examples from study by Jorge Peña.

In one study, Peña randomly assigned participants to play an interactive exercise game in which players’ physical movements were tracked and matched to their avatar. Participants increased their physical activity when their character was thinner and decreased their physical activity when the character was obese.

On avatar appearance and players’ attitudes, Peña also found that characteristics such as clothing and height can affect players’ behaviors. In the virtual environment, participants whose avatars dressed in black tended to be more aggressive in their judgments and assessments of others than those in white. In a different study carried out at Stanford, participants whose avatars were taller than their actual self acted more assertively.

The Proteus effect

A phenomenon known as the Proteus effect describes what happens when the behavior of an individual is influenced by the characteristics of their avatar. The roles that players adopt when immersing themselves in a video game — and the accompanying characters, story, and virtual environment — allow them temporary glances into different perspectives or different life experiences than their own. Having interactions with other characters in a game while playing as a virtual avatar, for instance, can grant players the opportunity to take the identity of someone else and act differently than how they normally would.

When Peña asked participants to create avatars that were either hero or villain versions of themselves, he also asked them to administer shocks to an AI character in a game. The heroes in the experiment were less likely to shock the AI character than the villains, and they said they felt more guilt when doing so.

“Due to the Proteus effect, the superheroes felt they had to think their own way and not follow what other people tell them. [The shocks] made them feel guilty because they were not supposed to follow authority,” said Peña.