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Professor studies game controllers, hostility levels

February 20, 2013


Kevin Williams has been a gamer since the Atari 2600 came out, but he doesn’t play as much as he used to.

As a parent and associate professor in Mississippi State University’s communications department, he said he did not have the time for games he once had, and when he did play, he was often playing for a purpose. One of his research specialties is the effect of violent media on consumers, and he is looking for games that will stand up to the rigor of scientific procedure.

“I have the variables in (my) head first, and then the (issue becomes) assigning a game that matches those properly,” Williams said. “I do a lot of that thinking on my own, playing the games and testing them myself. When I feel I’ve got one that will work, then I do a pilot test with 30 people or so. I ask them questions about the game itself. Did it frustrate you? Did you enjoy it? I’m looking to see if the game matches on everything except the thing I want to change.”

Williams conducted a study, published in the January 2013 issue of Mass Communication and Society, showing that motion controls slightly increased feelings of hostility that test subjects reported after playing violent video games compared with traditional game controls, but subjects did not report especially high hostility in either case.

For decades, video games have used handheld controls where players’ thumbs do most of the work, but Nintendo’s Wii has ushered in a new generation of games that respond to motions players make with the Wii Remote in one hand and its Nunchuk accessory in the other. Wii’s sports games turn the controller into a virtual baseball bat, golf club or bowling ball. Other games can turn it into a virtual weapon.

When Williams began his study in 2009, he said he needed a violent game that let players choose between traditional and motion controls, letting him isolate motion controls as a variable with all other conditions controlled. At the time, he said, the game that fit the study best was not a shooting game like “Call of Duty,” but rather “Punch-Out!!”, a boxing game the Entertainment Software Ratings Board rated suitable for children ages 10 and up.

“(A key facet) I wanted was motion control that truly was imitative,” Williams said. “Some of these games, you have motion control... and the motions you have to do aren’t intuitive. The ‘Punch-Out!!’ game was very easy in that area. If you wanted to punch, you punched. I could tell you how to play the game in about 30 seconds.”

Williams said in a press release that his study did not measure violent behavior; it asked 70 male undergraduate and graduate students to rate feelings of hostility on a five-point scale. The highest hostility score subjects could receive was 20, Williams said in the release, and on average, test subjects had five-point scores with traditional controls and six points with motion controls.

“People assume that we’re measuring behavior, but hostility is an emotional reaction — an anger response,” Williams said in the release. “As researchers, we can look at anger, hostility, aggressive thoughts and beliefs, but as for true violent acts, it’s almost impossible to get at why people do what they do.”

As such, Williams said he considered it “scapegoating” when media outlets pointed to video game violence as a potential cause for violence in the real world. He said he believed media as a whole, including TV and film, had become more violent, and this increase may have consequences in the long run.

“But I’m not a believer that going out and playing ‘Grand Theft Auto’ for a couple of weeks will make you take somebody’s life,” Williams said. “I think there are short-term effects; I think they’re small effects. In any of these school shootings, in almost none of those cases was the only problem (the fact) that the kid was an avid gamer. They felt isolated. In many cases, they had gotten off their meds. Their parents didn’t have great relationships with them. (There were) just a host of really important factors.”

Williams’ published article was entitled “The Effects of Video Game Controls on Hostility, Identification, and Presence.” Stephen Perry, editor of the journal, said he believed there may be a relationship between video game violence and real-world violence, but it was not a case of uniform cause and effect.

“There are some individuals who, because of other psychological traits that they possess, may be more susceptible to to video game content,” Perry said. “I don’t think (violent games) should be banned, but I think it’s important to know what the potential side effects of these are for parents, video game developers and criminal justice officials.”

Perry said Williams was a frequent contributor and one of the top researchers of video game violence. He said he had not seen anyone else publish research attempting to isolate motion controls as a variable.

“I think it is definitely a direction that further research could investigate,” Perry said. “Anytime you have one study that starts (making) findings on an effect, it’s something others will want to look into more deeply. I expect other researchers will continue in this line of research, and Dr. Williams probably will also.”

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