Video game kindness may make kids nicer

Over time, children who played violent games became less likely to show empathy and behave in helpful ways, whereas those who played prosocial games became more empathetic and helpful. (Credit: Rob Blatt/Flickr)

When children are exposed to helpful and caring behaviors through video games, television shows, and movies, they are more likely to act that way in the real world, regardless of culture, new research shows.

A new study measured the influence of prosocial media and video games on the levels of empathy and helpfulness of thousands of children and adolescents in seven countries: Australia, China, Croatia, Germany, Japan, Romania, and the United States.


“Most of the media effects research has been done in Western Europe or the US and focuses only on one country at a time,” says Sara Prot, graduate student in psychology at Iowa State University. “In our study, we wanted a large international sample to be able to test these effects across different cultures.”

Greater exposure to prosocial media—video games, movies, or TV shows that portray helpful, caring, and cooperative behaviors—results in higher levels of prosocial behavior, according to the study published in Psychological Science.

While some small differences between cultural groups when comparing countries exists, the overall effect is similar for each group.

“One of the difficulties in doing cross-cultural comparisons is that the measures of prosocial behavior may not be as culturally appropriate for one culture as for another,” says Craig Anderson, distinguished professor of psychology and director of the Center for the Study of Violence.

“What is most interesting to me is that despite the inherent difficulty with cross-cultural research, we found essentially the same types of significant effects across cultures; it’s just that these effects were somewhat stronger in some cultures.”

Prosocial and violent games

To build upon the results of the cross-cultural study, researchers also measured video game use of more than 3,000 children and teens in Singapore schools over a two-year period.

Students were asked to list their top three games, time spent playing, and the amount of prosocial and violent content. The data were collected at three different time frames with children in third, fourth, seventh, and eighth grades.

The study showed behavior is influenced by the type of games children play. Students were asked questions about how they would feel if a family friend was sick or if they would spend money to help those in need. They also reported how often they performed various helpful behaviors.

Over time, children who played violent games became less likely to show empathy and behave in helpful ways, whereas those who played prosocial games became more empathetic and helpful.

Media are a strong influence on children when they are developing and learning social norms, says Douglas Gentile, associate professor of psychology.

Parents to peers

“Children at this age are beginning to make the shift from parents to peers. It’s really at this age when all those rules about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behavior are very malleable. They’re trying to pick up cues as they’re becoming part of a peer network and then adapting their behaviors to fit.”

The changes happened across time, researchers note, with earlier game play predicting later behaviors. This extends previous research that has examined short-term causal effects of prosocial and violent media.

The majority of games participants listed in the study included some prosocial content, but most popular games tend to be violent, researchers say. For example, children may indicate that they are helping other characters in the game, but they may be helping fight a war or performing other violent acts.

It’s important for parents to understand the same game can have some “helpful” content but also be primarily a violent game, and that such violent games produce harmful effects on players. One the other hand, they note that nonviolent games with lots of prosocial content produce positive effects on children and adolescents.

Researchers at the University of Tsukuba, Japan; National Institute of Education, Singapore; Ochanomizu University, Japan; University of Zagreb, Croatia; University of Potsdam, Germany; Beijing Normal University; West University of Timisoara, Romania; Kantogakuen University, Japan; and Macquarie University, Australia, contributed to the study.

Source: Iowa State University