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Bunnies don't like being disturbed on holiday

Over the past 40+ years, much energy has gone into understanding whether exposure to violent media (TV, movies, video games) makes people more accepting of violence – and possibly even more violent. The concern exploded with violent TV. Could watching violent movies/shows make people more aggressive? Would seeing violence as a response:

  • teach viewers new strategies?
  • make violence more common and familiar?
  • make it seem like an OK – or even desirable – way to react?

First-person shooter games (e.g., Doom, Quake, Half-life, Ravin' Rabbit), where players perform actions rather than watch them, has fueled this debate. Can making a decision once or executing a maneuver in a virtual environment make it easier to do so in real life?

In simplified form, the logic of "interaction-to-action" claims goes something like this:

  1. People engaged in a simulation game have experiences and adopt strategic responses they may have never considered without the game.
  2. Certain responses get rewarded with points or other rewards (e.g., promotion to the next level; special powers or resources and ultimately winning the game).
  3. Players repeat / practice / explore "winning" responses in an attempt to do even better.
  4. Responses that are reinforced – or even just experienced – will be easier to think of and execute the next time the player encounters a similar situation – in the game or otherwise.

The point is that actions and decisions that were unknown before (or at least unlikely), become easier to think of and do through of the "experience" of the games. (Anderson,, 2004, Anderson and Bushman, 2001).

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It's all a game...

Critics of interaction-to-action claims argue that games are games and players can distinguish games from reality.

The gamers?... Maybe. But their brains can't. (Webber, Ritterfeld and Mathiak, 2006)

fMRI studies reveal that brain activation in response to virtual violence parallels the brain response to actual aggressive thoughts and behaviors.*

In contrast with previous studies, here the researchers report a direct and directional connection between the game playing and the response: "There is a causal link between playing the first-person shooting game in our experiment and brain-activity patterns that are considered as characteristic for aggressive cognitions and affects."*

Deciding to do something in the game feels (neurologically speaking) just like the experience of doing something in (real) life.

*fMRI image & quote source:

Vroom, vroom

Even if you don't have kids who play violent video games (or don't play them yourself), this may apply to you.

A recent behavioral study of virtual road racing games shows a similar finding pattern. Experiences in the game influence experiences outside the game (Fischer, Kubitzki, Guter and Frey, 2007).

In this study, participants were assigned to play either a soccer game or a virtual racing game that involved committing "massive" traffic violations, crashing into other cars, and driving at very high speeds to win.

After playing their assigned game, participants took the Vienna Risk Taking Test (Schuhfried, 2006). The Vienna Risk Taking Test uses real road video simulations to measure risk taking behavior based on reaction time measures in critical situations.

Participants who played a racing game – particularly men – took greater risks in the Vienna Risk Taking Test than those who had played the soccer game. Critically, those who played the racing game reported it was easier to think about and take bigger risks in the real-world simulation. When they did, they "experienced a kick" from doing so.

So virtual experiences seem to influence thinking and behavior for aggression and risky driving. Can this same approach be applied to generate desirable behaviors as well?

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First-person scooper games

Organizations employing the Sesame Street Generation and beyond have begun to use video games to train employees on key, but perhaps not top-of-mind, profitability issues. The ice cream company Cold Stone Creamery uses a simulation video environment to help new employees learn and understand the cost of seemingly minor inaccuracies in portion size. OK, maybe this isn't as fun as some games, but it's not Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, either.

Persuasive interactives are not only for GenY... who hasn't been slowed down by one of these?

(The machine, not the man... though with the man it probably works better... but that's a topic for another newsletter.)

And the interactives don't need to be full fledged games, they just need to be persuasive by offering the user:

  • the situation
  • capture of the current decision
  • a path to vary "behavior" or "decisions" so that various options can be explored
  • interpretable feedback on the impact of their decision

For instance, Fogg (2003) outlines examples in which photocopiers influence behavior by alerting users how much paper they could save with 2-sided printing. (Have you seen those tree-shaped icons?)

If virtual simulation influences social decision-making, driving, ice cream scooping, and photo-copying, it should also work for financial planning, consumer goods product selection, health risk evaluation, career planning, and other serious topics? Why not?

Consider these questions as you start creating "serious games" for your reality.

  • What decisions or actions does your site or application try to help people execute?
  • Can/do you use or embed interactive, self-directed feedback to help users understand the impact of making various decisions?
  • Are the interactive task flows appropriate, available, and obvious at key decision points?
  • Are they "walk-up easy" to interact with and use?
  • Do the interactives invite you to fiddle with them? Or are they just scary?
  • Can users explore alternate strategies effectively?
  • Can users translate the feedback to "what-next" action?
  • Are the interactives engaging and persuasive... from the customer's perspective?

Something to think about on the beach...


Anderson, C. (2003). Violent Video Games, Myths, Facts and Unanswered Questions. Psychological Science Agenda, 16(5)

Anderson, C.A. and Bushman, B.J. (2001). Effects of violent games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, and prosocial behavior: A meta-analytical review of the scientific literature. Psychological Science, 12, 353-359.

Anderson, C.A. and Dill, K.E. (2000). Video games and aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the laboratory and in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 772-790.

Didion, J. and Gatzke, H. (2004). The Baby Think It Over™ Experience to Prevent Teen Pregnancy: A Postintervention Evaluation. Public Health Nursing, Volume 21, Number 4, July 2004 , pp. 331-337(7)

Bogost, I. (2007). Persuasive Games; The Expressive Power of Videogames, MIT Press.

Fogg, B.J. (2003). Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do, Morgan Kaufmann Publishers.

Fischer, P., Kubitzki, J., Guter, S., and Frey, D. (2007). Virtual Driving and Risk Taking: Do Racing games increase risk-taking congnitions, affect and behaviors? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 13(1), 22-31.

Weber, R., Ritterfeld, U., and Mathiak K. (2006). Does Playing Violent Video Games Induce Aggression? Empirical Evidence of a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study. Media Psychology, Vol. 8, No. 1, Pages 39-60.

Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

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Reader comments

Thanh Nguyen

I wonder how much of a time gap there were between when users played the virtual racing game and actually took the Vienna Risk Taking Test. I would speculate that if the users took the Vienna Risk Taking Test two weeks after playing the game (instead of right after), their risk-taking behavior would probably be equal to those who played the soccer game.

Eric Stark

Yes, I agree with the Author(s) findings. Especially in the paragragh discussing facing one's fears through graphical intervention or positive role playing. You know, just look up the word "playing" in the New Oxford American Dictionary.

Dimiter Simov

I am curious how people who play shooter games or strategic games in which players build their own worlds and fight other worlds would score in the Vienna Risk Taking Test.

That is, is there a correlation between aggression and risk-taking? It is also curious whether people's personal risk-affinity in games is correlated to the results in the test. Do people who take great risks when playing such games take similarly great risks in life.

John Moore
Human Experience Design

The neural pathways for simulated or imagined activities are very similar to those for the actual activities. using those pathways over and over builds efficiencies that makes those actions, attitudes, and emotions more natural. The Army has been very successfully using simulations for many years in order to overcome soldiers natural resistance to killing other human beings.

Watching violent media and playing violent video games has also been shown (via fMRI) to reduce impulse control and critical thinking.

This effect is far more pronounced in children who's mental processes are more flexible than adults. Of course many media producers, including the MPAA and video game manufacturers, deny that media affects behavior.

Glenna Schindler
Healthcare Services Group

How timely. I was just thinking about how "games" can be substituted for risk management in-service programs and what type of games could be developed to do this. Do you know of any that have already been developed connected to risk management?


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