Violent video games might make white people more racist

They can seriously mess with your brain.
They can seriously mess with your brain.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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You’ve probably heard that violent video games can make you more violent—and you’ve probably rolled your eyes at the news. But it’s more complicated than that: Playing violent video games can make Caucasian players have racist, intolerant thoughts. And it comes down to the race of the avatar in the game.

According to new research, white gamers who played with black avatars showed more aggression—and intolerance—after the fact. “It’s very troubling,” lead researcher Brad Bushman told Quartz, “but we found that embodying a violent, black character is more likely to increase your own aggressive behavior afterwards.” To test aggression, researchers had participants decide whether or not an unseen partner should be forced to eat hot sauce—after being told the person in question hated spicy food. Those playing with a black avatar gave their partners more than twice as much more hot sauce (115% more, to be precise) than those who’d played the same game with a white avatar.

Bushman has been vocal about the damaging effects of violent media throughout his 25 year career. “We’ve firmly established that violent media increases aggression,” he says, “and I think that in people’s minds, there’s a link between being black and being violent.” In fact, Harvard’s research on implicit bias—biases we hold onto unconsciously—has found that most people associate more negative feelings with black individuals. It’s an uncomfortable truth that indicates our world is far from post-racial. After playing a violent video game with a black avatar, participants showed more racial bias in both conscious tests (such as agreeing with statements like  “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.”) and tests for unconscious bias. “This just reinforces those stereotypes we’re carrying,” Bushman says.

While the researchers were disturbed at the connection between playing video games and feeling more racial bias, Bushman doesn’t think this is the main problem. “In 2010 we did a comprehensive review of every study ever conducted on violent video games,” he says, “and they really do increase aggressive thoughts. That’s just not good for you.”

And even though the evidence supports this connection, people don’t listen. “People love to play these games, so they don’t pay attention to research saying they might be harmful,” he says. “It’s like saying that your neighbor smokes three packs a day and has never gotten cancer. That might be true, but it doesn’t mean it’s good for your health. Playing games that raise your heart rate and blood pressure is questionable on its own, but they’re also decreasing your empathy and compassion. You’re forced to take the perspective of a violent person—a killer—and that’s not making you more empathetic.”

We asked Bushman about games like DayZ that, while violent, are tweaked to increase feelings of empathy: DayZ uses permadeath, where players only get one life and lose everything when they die. Also, the limited availability of resources forces players to understand that their survival can come at the cost of another player’s life. As a result, players have reported a much deeper emotional connection to other players in the game. “It certainly sounds like a step in the right direction,” Bushman says, “If games could be more realistic—no more respawning and coming back to life unscathed—they might not draw out as much of this negative behavior.”