Realistic Gun Controllers in Video Games Foster Aggressive Thoughts

Rory McGloin and Kirstie Farrar with a video game on March 12, 2015. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Rory McGloin and Kirstie Farrar with a video game on March 12, 2015. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

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Rory McGloin and Kirstie Farrar with a video game on March 12, 2015. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Researchers Rory McGloin and Kirstie Farrar of the Department of Communication, with gun-like video game controllers. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

A new study by a group of UConn researchers has found that when people use a realistic gun-like controller to play violent video games, they are more apt to develop aggressive thoughts.

According to research reported in the Journal of Communication, when a simple controller is replaced by a more realistic motion-capturing gun controller for playing violent video games, the rate of cognitive aggression – a measure of the accessibility of aggressive thoughts – nearly doubles.

Assistant professor-in-residence Rory McGloin, along with associate professor Kirstie Farrar and Ph.D. student Joshua Fishlock, all of UConn’s Department of Communication, focused on the role that realistic-looking and feeling gun-like controllers play in first-person shooter games that are overwhelmingly violent in nature and which involve the use of firearms.

The UConn study is particularly significant because it focuses specifically on the pairing of violence with the presence of weapons, unlike previous research on violent video games that has been more general in nature.

‘Triple whammy’

The combination of seeing a gun on the screen, being exposed to gun violence in the game, and using a realistic gun to take part in the violence is what the authors refer to as being a ‘triple whammy’ of effects.

“Our findings provide compelling evidence that the use of realistic controllers can have a significant effect on the level of cognitive aggression,” says McGloin. “The results also found that using a realistic gun controller increased perceptions of the game’s realism, and also led players to feel more immersed in the experience.”

While the researchers acknowledge that cognitive aggression is not a measure of current or future behavior, they say that research by others has found it to be a useful predictor of long-term aggressive personality change.

Our findings provide compelling evidence that the use of realistic controllers can have a significant effect on the level of cognitive aggression. — Rory McGloin

McGloin explains that there has traditionally been a gap between a user’s mental model of real-world behavior and the world of video games. This is due, in part, to the way that traditional controllers don’t mimic natural behaviors, such as swinging a racket or throwing a punch.

From a theoretical standpoint, he says, a controller that allows the use of existing mental models from the real world should allow users to more easily match their actions to their virtual environments. The study’s findings support this hypothesis.

“We all have mental models of our surroundings,” McGloin says, “and the more realistic a game is – using human figures instead of ‘monsters’ or ‘aliens’ and using a realistic ‘gun’ instead of a joystick – the easier it is for game players to feel immersed.

The study utilized 488 undergraduate students who were randomly assigned a controller with a low degree of naturalness (a traditional joystick and button device) or a more natural controller (a PlayStation Move inserted into a gun casing designed to replicate a handheld firearm) in order to play a first-person shooting game.

Results supported the hypotheses that individuals who used the more realistic controller would report having a more natural experience, that they would find the game more realistic, and that they would be more immersed in the activity.

While the prediction that feelings of immersion would be a positive predictor of cognitive aggression fell slightly short of the anticipated value, the hypothesis that playing with a gun controller would significantly increase cognitive aggression was supported.

“This tells us,” says McGloin, “that there is significant reason to believe that the use of the gun controller led to the formation of aggressive thoughts in our study participants. While our research was experimental and it is not possible to infer how long the effects on cognitive aggression may last outside of a laboratory setting, this does add to the ongoing debate about the potential of realistic, violent video games to negatively influence people’s behavior.”

Farrar adds that preliminary analysis of data from a follow-up survey study of more than 700 undergraduates shows that playing violent video games with a gun controller is positively related to self-reported aggressive behaviors, such as fighting, over the month preceding the testing.

Although the findings of this research may be unsettling, McGloin says video games are undoubtedly here to stay and that the games, in and of themselves, are neither ‘bad’ nor ‘good’. Follow-up research as part of Fishlock’s dissertation is investigating individual differences in empathy and guilt that might explain increased aggression from violent game play in some players, but not in others.

“We need to acknowledge that we interact with video games, and with each other, in a variety of ways and in many different situations,” McGloin says. “Many games have incredible narratives and intricate story lines, and some of them have fostered entire communities of online players who derive a positive social benefit from the activity. Our research represents an interesting aspect of a total picture.”