Can video games help combat unwanted social attitudes?


The effect of video games on the social, affective and cognitive development of children and adolescents is of concern since they have become one of the main forms of entertainment at an early age. As an extreme case, the Chinese government limits minors’ access to video games, although with little success .

The addiction of young people to video games is undoubtedly worrying. In Spain, 14 million people use them daily and in generation Z (those born between the end of the 90s and the first decade of the 2000s) daily consumption rises to 70%.

It is therefore one of the favorite entertainments of young people, to the point that the video game industry now moves more money than cinema and music combined . But are they really harmful? Can they be beneficial?

Harmful for the development of young people?

We know that many video games make the player engage in violent , xenophobic or sexist behavior . For example, a recent study identified that playing the video game Street Fighter II promoted slightly more aggressive attitudes right after playing than a video game like Tetrix .

However, studies on the effects they promote on behavior are inconclusive. There is no research that has shown that video games promote aggressive behaviors that last over time or that really transfer to everyday contexts.

In any case, to counteract these possible antisocial behaviors associated with the use of video games, a movement has emerged, called Games for change (“games for change”, in Spanish), which designs video games to promote prosocial attitudes among young people, without losing This is the playful component that characterizes them . A sadly current example would be PeaceMaker , in which players must make decisions to de-escalate the war conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

It’s not enough to just play

PeaceMaker has been used in educational research with good results . However, these positive effects do not occur simply by playing. For example, playing PeaceMaker while adopting positions consistent with one’s own identity even slightly reinforces, rather than reduces, negative attitudes toward the other community .

However, when playing the position contrary to the player’s beliefs, the distance between the parties involved in the conflict is reduced. Therefore, it is conflict and reflection on one’s actions that seems to contribute to moderating, if not changing, one’s attitudes and values.

Promote the socialization of young people

To promote social learning with video games, it is necessary to accompany the game with educational activities that promote reflection. Something similar happens with Papers, Please , another prosocial video game, whose purpose is to raise awareness about immigrants .

In Papers, Please the player is a customs agent who must allow or prevent the passage of immigrants following the regulations of an authoritarian state. These immigrants tell of the difficult circumstances under which they need to cross the border, generating various moral dilemmas between compliance with the rules and attention to the needs of these people.

But research shows that playing customs agent in Papers, Please does not change young people’s attitudes about immigration nor does it promote moral reflection. Contrary to the purpose of the game, players simply follow the rules to continue passing screens.

How can we turn Papers, Please into an educational activity with moral content? To achieve this, we asked university students to play in pairs and, after a dialogue, make joint decisions about certain events with moral consequences .

Playing like this, the couples explained moral content in 44% of their dialogues, well above the 5% we found in a previous study of individual spontaneous play.

Dialogues about moral dilemmas

Moral reflection arose above all when the dialogue made explicit the conflict between the norms and the immigrant’s situation. We also observed greater moral activation when interacting directly with immigrants, by increasing empathy with them and consequently other emotions such as fear or grief, which mediated their speeches.

However, due to the very dynamics of the game, which requires respecting the rules of the State to stay alive, these moral reflections did not always lead to actions consistent with those moral values, based on empathy and respect for the rights of immigrants. .

On some occasions, complying with the rules of the game caused both physical and psychological suffering for the immigrants. For example, we can point out the case of a refugee who did not have her papers in order but indicated that if she did not cross the border she would be executed in her country. In this case, it is evident that the moral decision would be to allow this person to pass, despite obtaining a sanction. However, players often preferred to follow the rules and not make distinctions with the personal situations of immigrants.

The moral content of the game lies precisely in that conflict between respect for values, embodied here by immigrants, and compliance with the rules, a very frequent conflict no matter how little we open our eyes to our environment.

Even so, we appreciate an intention to make moral decisions, even when this implied a sanction within the framework of the game, as reflected in this dialogue in which two participants agree to break the rules for the good of an immigrant:

– Then what do we do? I would let her in.

– Let’s see, if I were “machine learning”, I wouldn’t let her in, but that’s why it’s important that there are people at customs.

Play with conscience

Therefore, in addition to the content of the game, it is important to consider how or why it is played. As has been pointed out in these lines, dialogue between players can be a useful tool to promote prosocial attitudes in video games like Papers, Please that deal with moral dilemmas but that by themselves are not capable of making the majority of their players reflect.

However, it should be noted that Papers, Please is not the only game focused on promoting moral conflicts in players. For example, This war of mine is another game that can be referenced. This game puts the player in the position of facing various moral conflicts while acting as a civilian in the middle of the Balkan war. Thus, once again the dilemma arises of making questionable decisions or acting well, even at the risk of suffering the consequences of one’s own actions.

This fact leads us to reflect that perhaps families, teachers or institutions should not think so much about prohibiting or restricting video games, but rather about promoting greater awareness about their choice and use through dialogue, not only between players but between all of us. , about the effects of video games on our society.

Video games arrived more than 30 years ago to stay, but their recreational component should not make us forget the educational possibilities that these resources have to make us think about the stories and events they show us.

Author Bios: Beatriz Cabellos Elipe is a Researcher and Juan Ignacio Pozo is a Professor of Basic Psychology, specialized in Learning Psychology at the Autonomous University of Madrid