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The Benefits of Prosocial Video Games

By — Video Game Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 17, 2010

Parents and caregivers are often concerned about the amount of time children spend playing video games as well as the content of the games played. The research demonstrates that parents should be concerned:  Amount of play is associated with poorer grades and health, and game content is associated with children's behaviors.  For example, there is a growing body of research demonstrating that violent games increase children's aggressive thoughts and behaviors.  It is important, however, to realize that game content can also bring benefits.

The connection between video games and prosocial behavior

If violent games(defined as characters intentionally harming other characters) can increase children's aggressive behaviors, then it stands to reason that prosocial games (defined as characters caring for each other and helping each other in non-violent ways) could increase children's prosocial behaviors.  Although there is far less research on this topic, the early studies suggest that prosocial games do increase prosocial behaviors, both in the short-term and in the long-term.  For example, in one experimental study, older adolescents were randomly assigned to play a violent game, a neutral game, or a prosocial game for 20 minutes.  After playing, they were given a task where they could help or hurt another student.  If they played the violent game, they were more likely to harm the other person, but if they played the prosocial game, they were more likely to help the other person.  This demonstrates a causal short-term effect, where the game caused an immediate change in helping and hurting behavior.  In a longitudinal study where children were followed for several months, those who played more prosocial games at the start had changed to become more prosocial in their behaviors later on.  This demonstrates a likely long-term effect.  In fact, prosocial games have been associated with higher empathy toward other people, higher cooperation, increased helping behaviors, and decreased aggressive thoughts.

These effects should not be surprising.  Every parent knows that children get better at anything they practice.  This is why it is so important to learn the details about the content of games before letting children play.  If children practice being alert for aggression and responding aggressively in games, they will be more likely to respond aggressively when in a situation where aggression is a possible response.  If they practice paying attention to other people's feelings and helping them, they will be more likely to respond with empathy and caring, and will be more willing to help when in a situation where helping is a possible response.

Game ratings and inclusion of violent and/or prosocial behaviors

Note that simply using the game ratings will not tell you if the game includes violent or prosocial (or both) behaviors.  Between 31% and 64% of E-rated ("Everyone") games include some violence, with almost half of those not having it labeled on the box, and about 90% of other game ratings including violence. Therefore, it is important to get information from game websites where players talk about the games, or at alternative rating sites such as www.mediawise.org or www.commonsensemedia.org.

For more information regarding the positive and negative effects of video games visit www.DrDouglas.org

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