Studies find violent games boost pain tolerance, and in-game cooperation nixes aggression

Do first-person shooters boost gamers’ pain tolerance? One study says yes.

In universities nationwide, researchers are still prodding the effects of video games on human players. Do games make us violent or agressive? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Do they have positive effects? How do they influence us? How long do those influences last after we set down the controller and walk away?

At Keele University, researchers Richard Stephens and Claire Allsop had 40 volunteers play first-person shooter video games, and then studied their pain thresholds afterward. The volunteers also played a non-violent game for comparison. After both games, the players stuck their hands in ice-cold water (ow). The volunteers were able to keep their hands in the cold water 65% longer after playing the FPS than after playing the nonviolent game.

Their explanation?

The increased pain tolerance and heart rate can be attributed to the body’s natural ‘fight or flight’ response to stress, which can activate descending pain inhibitory pathways in the brain reducing sensitivity to pain.

Hmm. Stephens and Allsop have also studied how swearing affects subject’s pain tolerance — and apparently tossing out a few cuss words also makes a plunge in icewater more tolerable.

Although some news reports are saying the FPS findings show video games have positive benefits, I’d like to add a few caveats: one, this is a very small study, and may or may not be a study of people who play FPS games regularly. Two, there’s nothing that says higher pain tolerance is better than lower pain tolerance. There are times you might want it (while in labor, for example — can you imagine birthing women playing Call of Duty during contractions?) and there are times you might want extra sensitivity.

That said, there’s nothing saying that triggering the fight-or-flight response in the safe confines of video-game make-believe is good or bad, either. It causes a certain physiological response, but that response is not lasting. What we could perhaps use is larger studies on how much of the time gamers spend in that fight-or-flight mode, and the long-term affects on their health.

Two studies at Ohio State University recently examined how cooperative modes in violent video games affected gamers. In one study, researchers David Ewoldsen and John Velez had 119 college students play Halo II with a partner. In some of the groups, the students competed with their partner, while in others, the pair cooperated. Afterwards, the players engaged in a real-life “tit for tat” scenario to see how they would react to competitive or cooperative behavior from their partner — and found that those who cooperated in the game were more likely to cooperate in reality, too.

In their second trial, Ewoldsen and Velez had 80 Ohio State students play video games with people wearing t-shirts from University of Michigan, Ohio’s rival university. The pairs played Unreal Tournament — some as rivals, and some as cooperative teams. Afterwards, real-life tests revealed that the cooperative players were more likely to be cooperative away from the games, while rival players were less cooperative.

Velez said:

“You’re still being very aggressive, you’re still killing people in the game – but when you cooperate, that overrides any of the negative effects of the extreme aggression.”

Again, these are small and limited studies of young people, and we don’t know whether they are regular gamers or folks who have never seen Halo II or Unreal Tournament before in their lives. Gender and ethnicity may also be factors.

Of course, seeing these studies side by side, I wonder if the cooperative players in the Ohio State research showed the same fight-or-flight response and increased pain tolerance seen in the Keele study.

Despite the limitations, it’s clear that video games’ affect on players is complex — as complex as any other activity humans enjoy. If we’re going to keep studying this, we need bigger, more longitudinal, more comprehensive studies that reject the biases of the past and seek neutral explanations and analyses of this popular pastime.


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